Thursday, 22 June 2006

What is a miracle?

As part of his ongoing series on Hans Küng, Chris Tilling discusses Küng’s view of miracles. According to Küng, we should focus on what the miracles in the Bible “mean,” without worrying about whether they actually “happened” historically or scientifically. Chris himself disagrees with Küng here, and he promises to offer a friendly critique of Küng in his next post.

Personally, though, I think Küng is basically correct: it is the meaning of an event that gives rise to the designation of “miracle.” Or, in the language of the Fourth Gospel, a miracle is a “sign”—it’s an event that “signifies” the act of God in history within the narrative context of God’s way with his people. Whether or not the event has violated the “laws of nature,” or whether or not the same event can be understood historically and scientifically, is really beside the point. The same event that is purely “natural” from the perspective of historical research may be truly “miraculous” from the perspective of faith—since the miracle-character of the event has nothing to do with the kinds of interpretation that are available to modern historiography.

I think Friedrich Schleiermacher had profound biblical insight when he offered this definition of miracles: “‘Miracle’ is merely the religious name for ‘event,’ every one of which, even the most natural and usual, is a miracle as soon as it adapts itself to the fact that the religious view of it can be the dominant one” (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, p. 49).

The “religious view” of the event is the crucial thing; or, in other words, the interpretation of the event. The same event that can (and should!) be explained in secular terms by a historian is nevertheless a “miracle” when it is interpreted within the context of the narrative of God’s journey with his people in the Old and New Testaments.

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