Two sorts of miracles
Science, as well as tools from historical disciplines, can be brought to bear on biblical miracles. For example they can be split into those that are examples of providential timing (type i miracles) and those that can only be viewed as directly violating physical cause-effect relationships (type ii miracles).
An example of a possible type i miracle would be the crossing of the river Jordan by the people of Israel:
Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water's edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. (Joshua 3:15,16)
Colin Humphreys, Cambridge professor of material science, has studied this miracle in great detail and notes that the text supplies a number of unusual clues, including the fact that the water was blocked up a great distance away at a particular town. He has identified this with a location where the Jordan has been known to temporarily dam up when strong earthquakes cause mudslides (most recently in 1927). For many scientists, the fact that God is working through natural processes makes the miracle more palatable. Writes Reijer Hooykaas,
The scientist, even when he is a believer, is bound to try as far as possible to reduce miracles to regularities: the believer, even when he is a scientist, discovers miracles in the most familiar things.
Of course this doesn’t take away from the fact that there was remarkable timing involved. Perhaps the attraction of this description comes in part because there is a direct corollary with the very common experience of “providential timing” of events, which believers attribute to God’s working.
One could argue that God must nevertheless employ divine action to set up the conditions necessary for a type i miracle to occur at the right time. In that sense both kinds of miracles may involve violations of normal physical cause-effect relations, but in type i this is more hidden. Note that I am not arguing that miracles break ultimate cause-effect relationships. Within a divine economy, they may make perfect causal sense. Language like “violation of physical cause-effect” reflects our limited access to the mind of God.
The Resurrection: beyond science?
There are also miracles in the Bible that defy description in terms of current science. Perhaps the most significant of these is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If anything, science has strengthened the case for this not being a type i miracle. For example, in John 19:34 we read:
Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.
Modern medicine suggests that this is clear evidence that the pericardium, a membrane around the heart, was pierced, confirming that he was in fact dead. The more we know about the processes of decay that set in after death, the less likely it appears that Jesus could have risen from the dead by any natural means. Rather, science strengthens the case that if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, the event must have occurred through a direct injection of supernatural power into the web of cause and effect that undergirds our physical world – it was a type ii miracle. Of course the resurrection is central to Christian teaching:
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (I Corinthians 15:14)
Given that almost every great Christian thinker in history has emphasized the fact that miracles must be understood within the context of a theological purpose, perhaps one could invert this argument and say that it is not surprising that the central event in history would be miraculous.
So where has this argument brought us? I have argued that the precise relationship between miracles and science has been the subject of a long and unresolved debate with strands reaching back to the early Church fathers. Theologians wrestle with questions that concern the differences between God’s regular sustaining action and His special non-repeating actions, i.e. miracles, and how these fit in with redemptive purpose. There is a link to the question of demarcation in science, since within a robust biblical theism the regular working of God’s action, the “customs of the Creator” (or natural laws) are, almost by design, amenable to scientific analysis. Biblical miracles, in contrast, are always linked to special theological purpose and are therefore, almost by definition, non-repeatable and a-scientific.
The decisive significance of worldviews
If my colleague Martin and I would have time to get this far in conversation, I’m sure we would have swiftly passed the red herring of natural science being the touchstone upon which to examine biblical miracles. But Martin could point out that Hume made a number of other arguments against miracles, namely:
Witness testimony is often suspect.
Stories get exaggerated in the retelling.
Miracles are chiefly seen among ignorant and barbarous people.
Rival religions also have miracle stories, so they cancel each other out.
These arguments are substantial, and I refer to footnote 3 in my essay for an introduction to the voluminous literature they have inspired. However, we can take a little stab at the first two objections. It is true that witness testimony cannot always be trusted and that stories change with time. But these are the same problems that face legal systems and historians. Nonetheless, we can employ the tools of these professions to examine biblical miracles.
Take, for example, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is significant extra-biblical historical evidence that he indeed lived. Much has been written about the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. For example, there is much internal evidence, in both the style and content of the narratives, that the writers themselves were convinced that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Tradition holds that 11 of the 12 original apostles were martyred for this belief that turned a group of cowards into a people who “turned the world upside down.” Although it is well beyond the scope of this blog series, a very strong case for the plausibility of the resurrection can be made. Similar analysis can be brought to bear on other miracle claims, including those of other religions. After all, every meaningful system of thought must be open to careful scrutiny.
But I suspect that often, underneath the surface, it is really the third argument that carries the most persuasive force. In my next post, we will address this argument and draw some conclusions.