How Can Miracles Be Possible?

 

 

The possibility of miracles represents a group of phenomena whose reality is often in doubt. 

Kwabena Donkor

The subject of miracles is tantalizing. On the one hand, it impinges upon some of the core issues of the Christian faith, yet it scandalizes the modern mind. The word miracle is from the Latin miraculum, which means “wonder.” Therefore, evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem is correct in defining a miracle as a “less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself.”1

But the Bible does not have a single word for the concept because, besides the idea of wonder (the primary notion), a miracle in the Bible suggests a mighty work (1 Kings 17:17–24; Luke 7:11–17) as well as a sign (Ex. 4:1–9; John 10:38). Of course, it is helpful to know these shades of meaning in the biblical concept of a miracle, but to answer the question how miracles can be possible, more needs to be said about the nature of miracles.

We ask the question about the possibility of miracles because these are of a group of phenomena whose reality is often in doubt. But to what class of reality do miracles belong? Or do they connect with reality at all? These questions must be clearly addressed first before determining if miracles are possible; and if so, under what conditions. This defense of the possibility of miracles endeavors to show that the bases on which they are denied are shaky, and that belief in theism removes most obstacles.

 

Christians on the Nature of Miracles

Christians reserve the term miracle for a particular class of God’s activities. Theologians usually categorize God’s acts into creation (the initial act of bringing the universe into being) and providence (His ongoing preservation of the creation). They go on further to distinguish the customary way in which God acts to preserve the creation from His special providential acts. The former are His providentia ordinaria (ordinary providence) and the latter, His providentia extraordinaria (extraordinary providence).2 Miracles are usually identified with the latter category. However, some will keep miracles out of the extraordinary category, restricting the latter to those events in which God appears to order natural causes to bring about His purposes (such as God causing an earthquake to secure the release of Paul and Silas from prison [Acts 16:25, 26]). It is possible to include miracles in the category of extraordinary providence, but taking them out of that category that emphasizes their lack of connection with any natural approach could be helpful in answering the question here.

 

Modernity on the Nature of Miracles

Since the rise of science and historical criticism during the age of the Enlightenment, the credibility of miracles has been attacked, based on the customary modern definition of a miracle as “a violation of a law of nature.”3 On this account, miracles are deemed contradictory (Voltaire, 1694–1778) or improbable (David Hume, 1711–1776). On the one hand, even if we assume that the modern definition is correct, it does not follow logically that miracles do not occur. On the other hand, the modern definition could be defective. When the concept of a violation of natural law is analyzed from the perspective of all three contemporary views or theories of natural law, it is shown to be intrinsically incoherent and flawed. The three theories are: (1) the regularity theory, (2) the nomic necessity theory, and (3) the causal disposition theory.4

The regularity theory of natural law says that the so-called laws of nature are not laws at all. They are just a description of the regularities we observe in nature. Therefore, in this view, a natural law should properly be a generalized account of whatever happens in nature. If this is the case, how can a miraculous event happening in the realm of nature be said to violate natural law?

The nomic necessity theory of natural law is not very different from the regularity theory. It simply goes beyond the merely descriptive regularity theory, to say that natural laws are what enable us to make judgments about what can or cannot happen in the natural world. In other words, based on experience, the nomic necessity theory facilitates universal generalization of an inductive sort about nature. Here again, it does not make sense to say, in the event of a miraculous event, that natural law has been violated. Consistency would require that when a miracle occurs, the existing universal generalization ought to be modified to accommodate the new phenomenon.

The causal disposition theory of natural law begins with the assumption that things have certain innate powers (propensities) that, unimpeded, will lead to certain results in nature. Natural laws, therefore, are the necessary truths about these causal dispositions in things. If something is not naturally disposed to cause some things to happen, they cannot happen. A miracle under this theory would be an interruption of the propensities a thing possesses. But why should such an interruption, if it should occur, be labeled a violation of the laws of nature? If, for example, through God’s interruption in a certain situation, salt failed to dissolve in water, that would not mean that salt as a substance no longer has the natural propensity to dissolve in water. What it would mean is that it is possible for salt to continue to have the disposition to dissolve in water and still be made, in a miraculous situation, to not dissolve.

The truth seems to be that contemporary natural-law theories overreach in stating the cases of what is possible in nature. Human beings set rules regarding what can happen in nature. And when things happen outside of the rules, they describe them as violations of the “laws of nature,” and therefore inadmissible. Ideally, when things happen that seem to be scientific anomalies, natural laws should be revised to accommodate them. Unfortunately, natural laws are rigidly conceived with a built-in all-things-being-equal assumption. Therefore, so-called scientific anomalies are not allowed to challenge the basic premise of natural causation built into natural laws. Since in all situations it is assumed that some natural factors must be causing the anomaly, natural-law theories are not allowed to be violated and revised. There is no logical reason that, in a so-called scientific anomaly, one may not assume that some supernatural factors may be at work. But as it is, natural-law theories have been construed to be valid only on the assumption that no supernatural factor can be at play. It is this arbitrary, naturalistic requirement that appears to give one credibility in talking about violations of the laws of nature. Once this condition is dropped, it will make no more sense to talk about violations of natural laws.

Nature’s dispositions or propensities may be more “accommodating” or broader than the rules human beings set for them. What those inclined to modern thinking should be saying is not that miracles are violations of the laws of nature, but rather that miracles are events that, given certain natural conditions at a time and place, cannot be produced by the relevant natural causes. The real question, then, is whether the very natural impossibility of a genuine miracle should force the conclusion that no event may be identified as a miracle. David Hume thought so.

 

Physical Impossibility and the Reality of Miracles

Hume is recognized as the most significant and influential voice in Western philosophy to provide a definition of miracles that denies the possibility of their happening in the ordinary course of nature. In his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume observed, “A miracle may be accurately defined [as] a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”5 The definition is part of the conclusion to his argument that one “may establish it as a maxim that, no human testimony can have such a force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.”6 Thus, although it seems that Hume’s definition could make room for miracles, in reality, his point was to deny them. His premise was always that it was more rational to believe that some mistake or deception was afoot than to believe in the genuine occurrence of a miracle. Following Hume’s lead, it has become commonplace to believe that the occurrence of a genuine miracle is by definition naturally impossible.

In view of the foregoing skepticism, how may the reality of miracles be defended? First, it should be noted again that the fact that miracles may be naturally impossible does not mean that they do not occur. Natural or physical impossibility does not mean logical impossibility. The argument that miracles are impossible because they transgress natural laws fails to give a complete account of the nature of law. George Mavrodes argues persuasively that in spite of the arguments suggesting that laws of nature are different from legal laws or codes, both display structural parallelisms: The term law is used for both, and they both intend to indicate universal generalizations.7 Logically, if the law that requires all U.S. taxpayers to file their returns before April 15 remains the law (a universal generalization) in spite of some actual violations of it, it is illogical to deny actual miracles because some humanly constructed law of nature has been violated.

The second main issue to address in defending the reality of miracles is the naturalistic bias in the modernist approach. Hume and similarly minded thinkers, committed as they are to the scientism of the Enlightenment, assume that miracles are inherently improbable. For such, any report of a miracle is bound to meet with skepticism because if anyone would care to investigate the truth of the report, contemporary thinking would require such historical inquiry to employ a naturalistic methodology, which precludes the supernatural. These naturalistic rules of studying history were put in place long ago by Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923). His principle of analogy requires past events to be of the same kind as the present, thereby calling for “the fundamental homogeneity of all historical events.”8 Supernatural events have no chance in such a scheme. But Wolfhart Pannenberg has argued strongly that it is not justifiable to discount all nonanalogous events from history.9 Following Pannenberg, Moreland and Craig’s critique of Troeltsch’s approach is accurate: “Properly defined, analogy means that in a situation that is unclear, the facts ought to be understood in terms of known experience; but Troeltsch has elevated the principle to constrict all past events to purely naturalistic events. But that an event bursts all analogies cannot be used to dispute its historicity.”10

One more area to explore is Hume’s views on testimony as they related to the reality of the miracles reported in the Bible and other possible reports of miracles. Hume’s view is based on probabilities. He notes, “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle. . . . When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life I immediately consider myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other . . . and always reject the greater miracle.”11 Notice, though, that Hume himself had a high opinion of the value of testimony, for he argued that “there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary in human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators.”12

In Hume’s view, it is always more probable that the testimony to a miracle is false than that the miracle occurred. Hume has attracted the attention of probability theorists by virtue of his approach, and several problems have been detected. First, it was realized that if we simply had to weigh the probabilities of an event occurring against that of the reliability of the witness to it, we would end up rejecting events that we know could reasonably happen. A frequently used illustration is that of a lottery pick: Say a winning series of numbers is reported in advance on the news by a reporter on a reliable news channel. Clearly, the improbability of this as a winning series of numbers overwhelms the probability of the witness’s or reporter’s credibility to a degree that, following Hume, such reports should never be believed. But this is absurd. Second, what is the probability, if the event had not occurred, that it would be reported as it was? In the case of the lottery pick, it would be quite small. Similarly, the probability, for example, that if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, the reports of His resurrection would be as we have them would have to be very small. More important is the increase in probability that results from multiple testimonies. It is noted that “the cumulative power of independent witnesses is such that individually they could be unreliable more than 50 percent of the time and yet their testimony combine to make an event of apparently enormous improbability quite probable in light of their testimony.”13 In Jesus’ case, the independence of Peter, James, and John as witnesses is quite well established.

 

Theism and the Reality of Miracles

Modern thinking sees miracles as naturally impossible and therefore denies them. Belief in a personal God (theism), however, argues that through God’s actions, an event that is naturally impossible can be transformed into a real historical event. From this perspective, a miracle is on the continuum of God’s creative and providential (conservation) acts. Only to the extent that one is committed to atheistic principles will miracles be denied. So, how can miracles be possible? First, by exposing the shaky bases on which miracles are denied. Second, by affirming the claims of theism: There is a personal God; He created the universe; He preserves its being; and He is capable of acting freely within it.

Of course, it must be pointed out that the Bible provides evidence of entities that perform miracles that are counterfeit to those of the Creator God (Ex. 7:10, 11). Especially in the last days, we are warned of an explosion of spiritualism in which demons, through the performance of counterfeit miracles, will rally the world toward a common rebellion against God and His people (Rev. 16:12–14).

 

Conclusion

The denial of miracles is a recent phenomenon based on how modernity has chosen to understand the workings of nature and what is possible in it. There are several reasons that this position is untenable. First, the denial is incoherent based on modernity’s own theories of natural law. Second, to deny miracles because they are violations of natural laws defies a common-sense understanding of the nature of laws. Third, the denial of miracles because they are inconsistent with other events in history is just the evidence of an unjustifiable naturalistic bias. Finally, based on the nature of biblical testimony of miracles, the improbability argument against miracles initiated by Hume has turned out to work in favor of an enhanced probability of biblical miracles. Eventually, however, belief in theism is the ultimate answer to how miracles can be possible.

 

Kwabena Donkor, Ph.D., is Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.

 

NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 355.
2. J. P. Moreland and William L. Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2003), 566.
3. Barnabas Lindars, “Miracle,” in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, Alan Richardson and John Bowden, eds. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 371.
4. Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations, 566–568.
5. Quoted in George Mavrodes, “Miracles,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion, William J. Wainwright, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 305.
6. Ibid., 310.
7. Mavrodes, “Miracles,” 309, 310.
8. Ernst Troeltsch, quoted in Gerhard Hasel, Biblical Interpretation Today (Lincoln, Neb.: College View Printers, 1985), 75.
9. Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Redemptive Event and History,” in Basic Questions in Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 1:40–50.
10. Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 571.
11. Quoted in Mavrodes, “Miracles,” 314.
12. Ibid.
13. Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 570.