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.


byron smith said...

Are all miracles alike?
Should the resurrection be explained in secular terms by a historian?

Anonymous said...

Here is an analogy.

A human being can be described in all sorts of ways - anatomically, physiologically, psychologically, sociologically and so on. And Christians need have no axe to grind against these descriptions. But they will insist that something - something essential - is missing, viz, a theological description, which will include "made in the image of God", "sinner", "saint", etc.

So with events Christians call "miracles". They may be described in all sorts of ways by natural and social scientists, but Christians will insist that the essential feature of the event is missing if its theological interpretation is omitted, viz. that it is an act of God, a sign of the kingdom, a demonstration of the Lordship of Christ, etc.

So Ben is basically right. But because miracles are, by any definition, "extraordinary" events, and because we live in a culture where science is the reigning plausibility paradigm, people will raise the question about "laws of nature", and there is no point fobbing them off, the question needs to be addressed.

I would say three things.

First, the laws of nature describe, they do not prescribe. The proverbial man in the street may think that a miracle is "contrary" to nature; Augustine was more savvy: a miracle, he said, is an event contra quam est nota natura, i.e. contrary not to nature as such but to what is known of nature. Many scientists themselves, humbled before the inexplicable thereness and counter-intuitive bizareness of the world, and the incomplete and provisional nature of their knowledge of it, are happy with this definition and no longer dismiss miracles tout court as "impossible", i.e. they are no longer Humeans.

Second, Augustine again, who said that "a miracle is not like a picture, something merely to look at and admire, and to be left at that. It is much more like a piece of writing that we must learn to read and understand." In other words (in contemporary parlance) miracles require a "hermeneutic" to be properly understood, and they cannot be properly understood by a purely naturalistic hermeneutic, even one allowing for amazement and wonder. Because while all miracles, by definition, are extraordinary, not all extraordinary events are miracles.

Third, Byron's question "Are all miracles alike?" is an important one: they are not, so each one needs to be explored in its own terms and context. And Ben is spot on to remind us of what the overarching context is: the history of God's covenental people. "This means," according to Jeffrey John, "that most often the key to unlocking the theological meaning of a miracle story will lie in the Old Testament, and it is partly lack of knowledge of the Old Testament that makes the procss less natural to us today."

In other words, to unlock the meaning of the miracles the question "What really happened?" is not irrelevant, just inadequate, because it can only be answered in conjunction with another question, viz. "Why is this story here, and why was it told in this way?"

Only faith can see what is going on in a miracle, indeed recognise it as a miracle. Miracle never "prove" anything, but they always probat fidem.

Is this helpful?

Ben Myers said...

"Are all miracles alike?" Yes, this is exactly the right question! And I think this question also highlights the importance of historical criticism: each miracle-story in the Bible has to be examined on its own terms.

Küng also emphasises this point in On Being a Christian:

"[T]here is no question here of all or nothing, of everything being legendary or nothing being legendary. There is no need at all either to accept all miracle stories in an uncritical, fundamentalist spirit as historical facts..., or, on the other hand in a spirit of narrow-minded rationalism to refuse to take any miracle stories seriously. The hasty conclusion is a result of putting all miracle stories on the same plane" (p. 229).

As for the resurrection of Jesus, though -- I'm not sure I'd be comfortable describing this as a "miracle", since the NT witnesses themselves don't think of it in those terms. It's not a "sign" that points to God, since it is itself God's own eschatological reality. In other words, the resurrection of Jesus differs from miracles the way God himself differs from miracles.

Neil said...

Dear Ben,

Thank you for this interesting explanation. To be completely honest, I really don't know very much about theology. But would you mind if I asked whether you - and perhaps your readers - agree with a longer account by Pannenberg ("The Concept of Miracle," Zygon 37 [2002], etc)? Thank you for your blog and your generosity.

Here, then, is Pannenberg:

"... In the biblical writings, the world miracle refes to extraordinary events that function as 'signs' of God's sovereign power. Therefore, the biblical language often speaks of 'signs and wonders' (Daniel 6:27; John 4:48). A wonder, or miracle, is basically an unusual - in fact, extraordinary - event. Augustine said, 'Whatever is unusual, is a miracle' (quae sunt rara, ipsa sunt mira; De civ. Dei 21,8,3). Explicitly he emphasized that events of that type do not occur contrary to the nature of things. To us they may appear contrary, because of our limited knowledge of the 'course of nature.' But God's point of view is different, because he is the Creator of the nature of things as well as of the events that appear unusual to us (De gen ad. litt. VI,13,24, PL 34, 349).

"In medieval theology the conception of miracles changed, because the nature of things was now conceived of objectively, not in relation to the limitations of our knowledge. Thomas Aquinas described a miraculous action of God as occurring praeter naturam, different from what would be expected from the nature of things, though not contra naturam, contrary to their nature. In some places, though, in his Questiones de potentia [sic!], Thomas could also admit that miracles may occur contra naturam, contrary to the usual course of nature (De pot. 6,a2 ad2). The description of a miracle as contra naturam applies, then, when an experiential concept of nature is used rather than the theological concept of nature as constituted by God's creative action.

"Later, the view of miracles as occurring contra naturam became more generally accepted, as did a concept of nature and the order of nature based on human experience. This development finally led to the idea that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. Before that idea could emerge, however, the concept of nature and of its order had to be reconceived in terms of the concept of laws that govern the course of events, laws that are unchangeable in principle. That the order of nature, once created, is unchangeable had been affirmed already by Rene Descartes as a consequence of God's immutability, and Baruch Spinoza concluded that miracles therefore cannot occur. Spinoza believed that the perfection of the Creator requires us to affirm that the order of creation is never in need of repair or of later improvement. The deists followed in that line. It was a small step, then, to conceive of the order of nature in terms of laws that permit no exceptions. The idea of miracles, then, is excluded by definition, as we have it in Hume.

"Considering this development, theology should avoid purely objective conceptions of miracles as occurring praeter naturam or contra naturam and return to Augustine's idea of miracle as related to the subjectivity of our human experience of nature, especially to the limitations of our knowledge. The Augustinian concept of miracle is subjective in that it is related to what we experience as unusual and exceptional in contrast to the accustomed patterns of events. The objective basis of this experience is the contingency of events. Unusual events really happen. Sometimes they are very unusual, including unusual effects produced by human persons. There are no clear indications of their divine authorization, however. The Egyptian 'sorcerers' of the pharaoh were able to produce some of the same 'miracles' as Moses did (Exodus 7:22), and the animal of Revelation 13 is said to produce many 'signs,' such as fire falling from heaven (13:13). Therefore, miracles are ambivalent, and that is one reason that the Bible warns against asking for signs as legitimation. It does not belong to the nature of a miracle that it is an action of God, although God works the greatest miracles. A miracle is just an unusual event or action, and religious interpretation identifies it as an act of God. It is at this point that faith enters the picture. To those who believe in God the Creator, our world is full of miracles. Friedrich Schleiermacher said (in his second speech on religion, 1799) that miracle is the religious name for event. The religious mind takes nothing as simply a matter of fact. It is aware of the contingency of every single event and experiences everything that happens as a manifestation of the contingency of the world of creation, especially the gift of each new day. Human beings are not always aware of the extent to which our life depends on contingencies, because in our everyday life we tend to take for granted that the world, the order of nature, is going on as usual. Once in a while, however, contingencies occur that make people aware of the basic contingency that permeates all reality. Such an unusual occurrence may be experienced as a 'miracle,' and religious persons will take it as an act of God, a 'sign' of the continuing activity of the Creator in creation and perhaps of new things to come."


Fred said...

Great post and discussion!

I would just quibble over whether faith allows us to interpret an event or if the meaning of the event is evident to one with faith. Sin obscures our ability to see everything as signs pointing to God. For those who are seeking and waiting for God, however, a miracle is something different - a more dramatic sign - better able to provoke our jaded senses.

The difference between reading and interpreting signs is analogous to the difference between reading poetry and paraphrasing it. The poetry itself is meaningful, but an interpretation can help you read the poem with understanding OR it can further obscure the meaning. In Matthew 11:2-11, Jesus knows that the miracles he had performed would be evident to John the Baptist. The Pharisees, on the other hand, obscure the meaning of the miracles with their interpretations (Mark 3:29).

I agree even more strongly with the comments posted by Kim and Neil, and pleased to see that our favorite (by poll) church father knows best (couldn't resist). I would just add two points:

1. Augustine's notion of the seminal reasons posits a nature that is permeated with God's creating and sustaining power and responsive to God's will;
2. For those interested in Augusine on reading and miracles, see Sermon 98 (XLVIII), especially #3; Online here, scroll to XLVII):
"So they who saw Christ's miracles, and understood not what they meant, and what they in
a manner conveyed to those who had understanding, wondered only at the miracles themselves; whereas others both wondered at the miracles, and attained to the meaning of them. Such ought we to be in the school of Christ."


Derek Jenkins said...

Didn't Balthasar and the Catholic Church put Kung in his place?

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Neil, for posting this excellent excerpt from Pannenberg. Yes, I definitely agree with what Pannenberg says here, and I think this statement sums it up nicely: "A miracle is just an unusual event or action, and religious interpretation [the key words!] identifies it as an act of God."

Isaac M. Alderman said...

I've started to understand miracles as the display of the way things are in the kingdom of God, which is why they look so odd here in the kingdom of the world. For example, in the kingdom of the world, there is not enough food for everyone; but, in the kingdom of God, there is more than enough. Therefore, in the presence of Christ, there is food to feed five thousand with baskets left over.

Mike L said...

Anonymous said...

I've recently been having an argument with someon who insists that the essence of a miracle is that it violates a law of nature. I pointed out to him that people spoke of 1989 as an "annus mirabilis", a year of miracles, and some would attribute the events of that year to God, but he said that was a secondary and derivative sense.

Did anyone speak in terms of violating laws of nature before 13th century scholasticism?

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