There are a wealth of different views regarding miracles even within theist circles. This is largely because the term ‘miracle’ is multifaceted, as it means different things to different people. For example, St Augustine said that a miracle is, “An event we cannot forecast or expect with our present understanding of nature,” whereas Aquinas defines a miracle as, “things which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature.
” Swinburne offers an additional definition: “If he (God) has reason to interact with us, he has reason very occasionally to intervene and suspend those natural laws by which our life is controlled. ” These competing definitions have a common link: they all agree that miracles must break the laws of nature. This would be an anti-realist view of miracles, which is the most commonly held belief amongst theists. In examining this view of miracles a good place to start is looking more closely at the views of Aquinas.
Aquinas distinguishes 3 types of miracle, all of which have God as the cause. Firstly, there is that which nature can never do, such as the sun and moon staying still. Then there is that which nature can do, but not in that sequence or connection, such as a man blind from birth seeing. Parthenogenesis, for example, is the development of an ovum without any genetic contribution from a male. This has lead Sam Berry, professor of Genetics, University College, London to say that he has no difficulty with the Virgin Birth.
Finally, there is that which is usually done by nature, but not in this case, such as an instant healing of someone who otherwise may heal slowly. An event doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatic to be a miracle. Moving on, another notable anti-realist scholar is CS Lewis. In his aptly named book Miracles, Lewis carefully defines a miracle as “an interference with nature by supernatural power,” and quickly makes a distinction between two kinds of thinkers: the naturalist who believes that nothing exists except observable nature, and the supernaturalist, who believes that besides nature, there exists something else.
The naturalist tends to envision a universe of interlocking things and events that permit no independent action. With this view the universe can account for all circumstances that exist or ever will. As a rule, naturalism excludes the miraculous. In contrast, the supernaturalist believes in a hierarchy of order and being, an “open universe” which may allow for reality to encompass all manner of surprises, mysteries, and discontinuities–including the intervention of a Divine Being seeking to accomplish his purposes.
The supernaturalist believes in a Creator God, and a creation that reflects his image and is subject to his will – even if he wills to break the apparent laws of nature. To Lewis, the ultimate miracle was the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible records many miracles, namely in the gospel of John. Here we have seven miracles – or signs (semia), as they are referred to. Examples include the healing of the blind man or the feeding of the five thousand. In this instance the miracles have a deeper theological meaning and act as a signpost towards the true character of God.
It should be remembered that the Bible uses the word miracle in the sense of anything which reveals the God of surprises, whether it is in the star-spangled sky proclaiming the glory of God, or a simple blade of grass which speaks to the believer of God’s power. Because wonders can be misinterpreted, Jesus took care to offer his own interpretation – for him the healing accompanying his preaching were signs that God’s Supreme Rule was being established in a godless world: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God had come upon you.
” (Matthew 12:28) The wonders he worked were only signposts pointing to the meaning and he did not want people focussing only on the signposts. Miracles are a representation of divine providence. In Calvinist theology divine providence means that God wills all events to occur – including miracles – and his intentions can only be understood with faith. However, scholars would debate this. Lewis, for example, was critical of Calvin’s work.
Miracles are not the sole property of the Bible either; the primary miracle of the Quran is believed by Muslims to be the actual text of the Quran itself, and how it was delivered miraculously by God. Additionally, there are also many theists who take a more realist view of miracles. This sort of miracle is an event that is in accordance with the laws of nature which the believer sees as being due to the action of God. To an unbeliever it would simply be a normal occurrence.
One holder of this view is Bishop Spong, who believes that a literal interpretation of miracles will simply alienate the church in a scientific age. Instead he believes the miracles of the Bible are natural events, even Jesus’ death. Spong takes the position that Jesus’ earthly body died and stayed dead, but he lives on spiritually in his follower’s hearts. He never literally rose again. This is somewhat of a minority view among theists, but it is gradually becoming more accepted amongst liberal theologians such as Bultman.
Overall, it seems reasonable to suppose that if we believe in a God who is omnipotent, and all-loving, then we could attribute miracles to him. The occurrence of a miracle can at most strengthen the beliefs of those who already have specific beliefs in and about God. Indeed Christians continue to revere the stories of the miracles because they speak of the power of Christ, and because what they mean is far more important than what actually happened. To quote Thomas Carlyle, “We are the miracle of miracles, the great inscrutable mystery of God. ”