A Critique of Miracles

Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, is considered to be the most important figure in modern philosophy. He among many others have shaped and influenced what is the Enlightenment worldview that is part and parcel of Western thinking. One of his three major philosophical works is the Critique of Pure Reason. In this post I will attempt to critique our understanding of what a miracle is.

Language is an important part of any culture and worldview. The word miracle generally means something that is out of the ordinary or unusual, something that is supernatural. The interesting thing about these terms, ‘miracle’, ‘nature’ and ‘supernatural’, is that they are categories that the ancient biblical world did not think in. When you look at the pantheism of the ancient world, there was a deity for practically everything. The gods were a part of the natural order. The ancient Hebrews were strict monotheists but they believed God actively sustained the cosmos from moment to moment by his spirit.

To say something is supernatural is to presuppose there is such a thing as nature. According to modern Enlightenment thinking nature is reduced to physical reality, that is, the material only. The term supernatural therefore means there are things that are beyond physical reality, beyond the description of the laws of science. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, what we call scientific laws are only descriptions of a phenomenon but they are not the phenomenon itself. The law of gravity is not gravity. Apples were falling long before Newton came along. Science does not determine what is natural. In the ancient world of the Bible nature encompassed all of reality, material and immaterial. The word ‘nature’ implies there is a way things simply are. If we follow this understanding both the spiritual and the physical are both equally natural. Strictly speaking, in the Bible there is no word for physical. Physics comes from the Greek word for nature. We have redefined nature, reducing it to just matter and energy. Life is far more complex than even the most brilliant equations in quantum mechanics.

The redefinition of nature is an attempt to redefine reality. However, what gives us the right to say what is natural or unnatural? Humans certainly did not make the world so how can we make pronouncements about how it is supposed to work? When you have a young infant practically anything you do will excite it and fill it with wonder. I have seen some pretty extraordinary things. Things that I believe only God can do. I am filled at wonder by these events but before God it is hardly astounding. From God’s point of view, he does not work any miracles. Nothing he does as far as he is concerned is surprising. When God does his works we are like little children before him, enraptured by the wonder of his deeds. God asks his people through the prophet Jeremiah,

Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me? – Jeremiah 32:27 ESV

Paul also asked his accusers,

Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? – Acts 26:8 ESV

If everything is made according to the will and purpose of God, water flowing uphill by the will of God is as natural as water flowing downhill. We simply can’t restrict the Creator to what we usually experience. God is allowed to do new things. The message of the Gospel is that God has started a new thing, a new creation altogether. He did this by raising his son Jesus from the dead.

The vocabulary of the Bible reflects a worldview where we inhabit created space with myriad spiritual entities including the Creator himself. Dunamis, the Greek word that is usually translated miracle, means ability or power. It has little to do with how surprising the event was but the display of divine ability. Exorcism and the resurrection of Jesus are both displays of divine ability. Signs and wonders are another group of words that is associated with ‘works of power.’ A sign indicates there is a message that is being communicated. Displays of power were not just for the sake of it. Jesus expected people to believe in him, if not for the sake of what he said for at least what he did. The miraculous was an essential part of Jesus’ mission.

God is not depicted in the Bible as a show off who performs a few tricks here and there to indulge his vanity. God is not like a superhero who displays his power just because he has them. When Jesus calmed the storm I am sure his disciples were reminded of Psalm 107.

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters;

they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep.

For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight;

they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end.

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.

He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven – Psalm 107:23-30 ESV

When they wondered, “What manner of man is this?” it was because only YHWH had power over the storms and the sea. This would then remind them of what happened during the Exodus when God separated the waters. God in Jesus had come to redeem his people like he did in the days of old.

Without question the miraculous does happen. What these displays of power mean is the issue. Our discussion and experience of charismatic gifts needs to move beyond the phenomenon and start asking what it means for the individual and the church. There are many Christian leaders who in their ministry experience extraordinary displays of divine power. As people at the forefront they have the responsibility not only to teach people to believe but also to explain what God is actually accomplishing in the world through these events. We need a solid interpretative framework rooted in the scriptures to understand the purpose of signs and wonders. If we do not know what they mean how do we enjoy the full benefits of them let alone distinguish the genuine from the counterfeit?

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