demarcating miracles

                                                     

Introduction

Definitions of words and the meanings of those definitions are essential for grounding oneself in sound theology. This is especially significant in dealing with the subject of miracles. Properly fixing the boundaries of what miracles are prevents basic misunderstandings when defending the Christian faith, particularly in the realm of astounding circumstances. In this paper, I will demarcate between miracles, “signs and wonders,” and in so doing, demonstrate how to defend the faith against a misunderstanding of the nature of miracles.

Definitions Matter

Getting the right definition for a precise subject has gone estranged in the modern age. When handing apologetical arguments, it is incumbent on the apologist to correctly define what it is he/she is arguing for, or against. Precision matters and differentiating between words could help skeptics better understand a worldview or theological doctrine. This focus will be threefold; a secularist definition of what a miracle is, a Christian miracle, and biblical “signs and wonders.” This paper will point out that each of these topics have it view miraculous in its own right but all three have different aspects of connotation.

Secular Miracles

Defining secular miracles is the easiest in definition but the most difficult in nuance. Most scientists would agree to the following definition of a miracle: “(from the Latin mirari, to wonder), at a first and very rough approximation, is an event that is not explicable by natural causes alone. A reported miracle excites wonder because it appears to require, as its cause, something beyond the reach of human action and natural causes.”[1] This description calls into question a certain worldview that is purely naturalistic. True secularists abhor the philosophical truth behind what miracles are. To even recognize a miracle, from the secularist perspective, one has to accept a naturalistic standardization in the world. William Adams wrote: “An experienced uniformity in the course of nature hath been always thought necessary to the belief and use of miracles. These are indeed relative ideas. There must be an ordinary regular course of nature before there can be anything extraordinary. A river must flow before its stream can be interrupted.”[2] Philosopher David Hume argued that miracles were a “violation” of this uniform natural law that science presupposes.[3] In short, miracles, from a purely secular perspective is an interrupted account(s) in the systematically reliable methods of the laws of nature that cannot be scientifically explained. 

Therefore, establishing a secular miracle is more complicated than one would think. This becomes a philosophical question of truth, what is true, and what do we know to be false. “Hume argued that anything we know that is not true by definition or logic alone, every ‘matter of fact’, we establish only by learning and testing through our senses, by using observation and employing induction and reasoning about probability.”[4] What is called into question is empirical facts and observations pitted against natural anomalies. In many circumstances, a violation of the natural law is merely an irregularity that has yet to be proved by scientific revelation. These glitches might be counted as miracles but so many in the secular world would just throw them into a category of “not yet explained by scientific method.” Therefore, one secularist could argue that secularism never admits to miracles at all, but mysterious incongruities are only incongruities because academia has yet to reach that threshold.

It is important to name a couple of caveats to this. A few large-scale miracles have yet to be explained by any scientific evidence and continue to plague the secular community. These include the Cambrian explosion, the primordial ooze theory, and the big bang theory. These three incidents are climactic in the annuls of scientific history but all three are miracles in the sense that they defy natural laws and have no consensus as to how they arrive to be. Yet, all three incidents (and many, many more exist in the scientific community) tend to point toward an intelligent being outside of the natural laws.[5]

Biblical Miracles

Biblical miracles and what are normally professed today as a miracle from the average evangelical are very different, in both nature and purpose. First of all, biblical miracles can best be described as “signs and wonders.” This term was coined from the Bible. The phrase signs and wonders hold the same pattern as in both testaments of the Bible.

 Much like the secular community, the Christian community is likewise embroiled in controversy over miracles. This is often categorized as cessationism and continuationism. For the sake of the topic, this paper will decline to expound on these issues, but Christians do debate over what miracles are. Suffice it to say, biblical miracles, as written in scripture, and miracles in the Christian community do have significant differences that need their own demarcation.   

Biblical miracles, simply stated, are signs and wonders performed by God that are unquestionable miraculous acts that have no natural explanation. Signs and wonders were explicit acts of God (sometimes through human beings) that suspend the natural laws (that God created) to demonstrate God’s divinity and authority. This is demonstrated throughout the Bible because God took the credit through revelation. The Bible describes not only the biblical miracles but why they were performed. In almost all cases, God had specific purposes for suspending the laws of nature.

Signs and wonders were “an object or act that points to a spiritual reality. Old Testament signs include natural phenomena, monuments, miracles, and prophetic acts. New Testament signs occur most often in reference to Jesus’ actions.”[6] These (Old Testament) include parting the red sea (Exodus 14:21), the plagues (Exodus 7-12), raising the dead (1 Kings 17), etc. The New Testament miracles include turning water into wine (John 2), the Resurrection event (Matthew 28), speaking in foreign tongues (Acts 2). All these have specific meanings, they were not capricious acts of divinity to just benefit the recipients. Biblical miracles had a design to them, a purpose. “Miraculous or supernatural confirmations of the existence and power of God or the miraculous demonstration of spiritual authority on the part of an individual.”[7]

The Bible, itself, gives a reason for “signs and wonders” to be granted: “So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3 ESV). Jesus, and the prophets before him, were granted signs and wonders to show the divinity of God, and His son, as the one true God and Lord overall. Later, after the resurrection, signs, and wonders were granted to the apostles to witness to this divinity and spread the gospel throughout the world. John MacArthur writes; “Miracles authenticated the messengers of revelation.”[8] This caused the Church to grow and spread and created what is now known as the New Testament. Since the apostolic age seized, with the martyrdom of the apostles and the writings of New Testament scripture, biblical signs and wonders went away.[9] Once the original copies of the biblical canon were written, the purpose of miraculous signs and wonders were no longer needed.

Christian Miracles

A Christian miracle has taken on all sorts of definitions in the modern age. A distinction must be made between modern Christian miracles and biblical signs and wonders. All signs and wonders are, in fact, miracles of God, but not all miracles are signs and wonders. Distinguishing between the two helps with apologetic arguments in the face of secularism. For this reason, the definition of modern Christian miracles looks very similar to that of secularists. Peter Kreft defines a miracle as “a striking and religiously significant intervention of God in the system of natural causes. Note two things here: (1) the concept of miracles presupposes, rather than sets aside, the idea that nature is a self-contained system of natural causes. Unless there are regularities, there can be no exceptions to them. (2) A miracle is not a contradiction.”[10] This finds common ground with the secularist definition of miracles and gets the conversation away from conflating modern anomalies with biblical miracles.

This is not to say that God is unable to perform signs and wonders in the modern age but that he does not reveal to modernity his agency in this matter, nor his purpose. The New Testament gives no directive to pursue miracles.[11] This is a hard reality for most Christians today to believe, but what they are misinterpreting is that God has given His revelation in the Bible, therefore no such miracles, as written in the Bible, are witnessed in society. There are anomalies of nature, but to ascribe them directly to God, for His purpose, is a misstep. This is for apologetic purposes only; daily devotional and personal testimony is a different issue.

Instead of quibbling over what a specific miracle is what and who saw who that was healed, it would serve the Christian community well to acknowledge the most important miracle of all, regeneration. This miracle happens daily and throughout the global community. A truly transformed person who has had their heart awaken to the truth of Jesus Christ, by the grace of God, is the greatest miracle in the modern age. Dallas Willard writes: “spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will (heart, spirit) alone.”[12] God working supernaturally throughout humanity by illuminating truth in scripture to transform a sinner into living a life unto Christ is an amazing event to behold. It is given far less credit under the guise of searching for the next miraculous wonder, or healing, that is seen in scripture. This is a mistake. The greatest Christian miracle is regeneration, a transformed life, not what is normally claimed in modernity. Many Christians have hijacked biblical signs and wonders to fit some sort of charismatic narrative.

In summation, spiritual rebirth is miraculous because of God’s revelation, as written in the Bible, describes in detail what occurs. Once again, God has a purpose for miraculous events. In the book of Titus, regeneration, and its purpose is spelled out:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).

Over and over, the Bible confirms how God worked and continues to work, His miracle of salvation. This should be the focus of all Christians around the world concerning modern miracles. This is the only miracle that matters today.

Synthesis

The subject of miracles is a controversial one. To be clear, it is incumbent on the apologist to clarify and reject the idea that all meanings of the word miracle are the same. It might be safer to use Michael Licona’s definition of the word miracle: “an event in history for which natural explanations are inadequate.”[13] Depending on the audience and the subject, establishing certain boundaries around what kind of miracle and what miracles are is very important to get to the truth of an argument. Definitions matter and cogent definitions provide clarity.

Secularists struggle with the concept of miracles, especially one that appears to have no explanation. In many instances, rational explanations need to undergird the apologist’s viewpoints and evidence. “To explain an event as brought about by a rational agent with intentions and purposes is to give an entirely different kind of explanation of its occurrence from an explanation by scientific laws acting on precedent causes.”[14] When dealing with secularism and miracles the faithful needs to have very evidential arguments with rational, reasonable circumstances. Pointing to Moses parting the red sea or water turning into wine may undermine a position. The apologist needs to bring the secularist to the place where he/she understands that “there are no logical difficulties in supposing that there could be strong historical evidence for the occurrence of miracles.”[15] Once common ground is accomplished, a meaning debate can commence.

Biblical miracles are excellent displays of God’s power. They help the narrative and are great teaching tools of the faith. They were excellent events in a time where God spoke to humanity in a very different manner to which He currently speaks to humanity today. Aside from the resurrection event (which there are massive amounts of evidence in favor of) most of the signs and wonders of both testaments now tend to undermine the Christian testimony. The war against science has done humanity no favor in going after miraculous events in today’s world. The ancient world and the modern world are two very different places and times where God worked in very different ways. Mankind now has the biblical text to guide them through God’s divine providential will.

Christians should seek regeneration over all other miracles. Spreading the gospel is the mandate, not performing healings. The Charismatic Movement in the twentieth century has gained in effort to undermine the respectable academic work that theologians have produced. Trained theologians have been arduously fighting, for centuries, to legitimize miracles, the resurrection, and the legacy of the biblical text. When good-hearted Christians claim “miracles” at every turn it subverts real miracles that God performs, for His purpose alone.

Conclusion

Like most other foci delineating the boundaries of the subject is crucial to positive outcomes. Miracles, both in the lab and in the pew, are difficult topics to explain, define, and accept. If God exists, He is the creator of natural laws, which science observes. If He creates natural laws then it is logical to conclude that He can suspend those natural laws at His prerogative. This means miracles are both possible and probable if God exists. Likewise, just because God performed certain miracles at specific points in time, it does not logically make sense that He would act in the manner throughout all time. Nowhere in the Bible is God compelled to do anything, much less a miracle. Therefore, miracles can and should be at the foundation of the faith, it is, after all, how one obtains faith through a miraculous event at conversion. But it should never be central in the process of continued sanctification.

 

Bibliography

Bersee, A. N. J. M. “Miracles in the Age of Science: a Philosophical Analysis and Evaluation of Arguments Used in the Debate between Science and Western Theology,” 2020.

Geivett, R. Douglas, and Gary R. Habermas, eds. In Defense of Miracles A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Harvey, Bryon D. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Edited by John D. Barry. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Westmount, IL: IVP Academic, 1994.

Licona, Mike R. The Resurrection of Jesus: a New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

MacArthur, John. Charismatic Chaos. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993.

Manser, Martin H. Dictionary of Bible Themes: the Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. Grand Rapids, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1999.

McGrew, Timothy. “Miracles.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, January 23, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/.

Meyer, Stephen C. Darwins Doubt. New York, NY: Harpercollins Publishers Inc, 2014.

Swinburne, R. G. “Miracles.” The Philosophical Quarterly 18, no. 73 (October 1968): 320–28. https://doi.org/10.2307/2217793.

Willard, Dallas. Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002.

Footnotes:

[1] Timothy McGrew, “Miracles,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, January 23, 2019), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, eds., In Defense of Miracles A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 33.

[4]A. N. J. M. Bersee, “Miracles in the Age of Science: a Philosophical Analysis and Evaluation of Arguments Used in the Debate between Science and Western Theology” (dissertation, 2020), 27.

[5] Stephen C. Meyer, Darwins Doubt (New York, NY: Harpercollins Publishers Inc, 2014), this is the general theme of this book’s thesis. See various chapters that cover the many incidents that the scientific community struggle to explain.

[6] Bryon D. Harvey, “Sign,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), page not available.

[7] Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: the Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1999), page not available.

[8] John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 115.

[9] Ibid, 171-193.

[10] Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 1994), 109.

[11] John MacArthur, Charismatic chaos, 117.

[12] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 41–42.

[13] Mike R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: a New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 134.

[14] R. G. Swinburne, “Miracles,” The Philosophical Quarterly 18, no. 73 (October 1968): pp. 320-328, https://doi.org/10.2307/2217793, 325.

[15] Ibid, 328.

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