EDITOR'S NOTE: This post is part of a series adapted from a scholarly essay titled "Miracles and Science: The Long Shadow of David Hume," first published in 2010.
Miracles and the Bible
How can we then judge whether or not the miracles of the Bible are reliable? Since the word miracle has taken on so many different meanings, it is important to first examine the biblical language.
The New Testament predominantly uses three words for miracle:
- teras: a wonder
- dunamis: an act of power
- semeion: a sign
Sometimes it combines all three, as in Acts 2:22:
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles (dunamis), wonders (teras) and signs (semeion), which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.
The word teras (wonder) is almost always used together with one of the other words, emphasizing that the main point of biblical miracles is not to merely elicit amazement but rather to serve a higher theological purpose. For this reason, biblical miracles cannot be understood outside of the theological context within which they occur. They are not anomalous events. This principle provides a key to the proper assessment of their validity.
Nature is what God does
Miracles happen against a backdrop. In this context, it is illuminating to see how the Bible describes God’s action in the natural world. For example in Psalm 104, that great poem about nature, we read,
He makes springs pour water into the ravines, it flows between the mountains.
The first part of this verse refers to God’s direct action while the second part suggests that water flows through its own natural properties. Read the Psalm for yourself and notice how fluidly the point of view changes back and forth between what we might call the laws of nature and the direct action of God. Such dual descriptions can be found throughout the Bible. The New Testament is even more explicit:
The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:3).
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:17).
In other words, if God were to stop sustaining all things by his powerful word, the world would stop existing. That is why, when describing nature, the Bible so easily switches perspectives depending on whether it is emphasizing the regular behavior of natural phenomena, or their origin in God’s providential sustenance. So, as St. Augustine might say,
Nature is what [God] does.
Augustine doesn’t mean that nature is the same as God (pantheism), for, as he also argued, God operates outside of space and time. Nevertheless, and this is a very subtle point, a case can be made for ascribing some independent causal power to the laws of nature. On the other hand, there is no room within a robust biblical theism for the opposite deistic notion that God started the world and then left it to run on its own, completely independently, because descriptions of God’s continuous care for creation are found throughout Scripture:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Matthew 10:29, 30).
As Christian thinkers throughout the Middle Ages wrestled with the questions of miracles and God’s action in the world, the following ideas emerged: if the regularities of nature are a manifestation of the sustenance of God then one would expect them to be trustworthy and consistent, rather than capricious. The regular behavior of nature could be viewed as the “customs of the Creator” as it were. Christians glorify God by studying these “laws of nature.” A strong case can be made that such theological realizations helped pave the way for the rise of modern science.
By the time the Royal Society of London, the world’s first scientific society, was founded in 1660, Christian thinkers like the metaphysical poet John Donne, then dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, could write:
the ordinary things in Nature, would be greater miracles than the extraordinary, which we admire most, if they were done but once... only the daily doing takes off the admiration.
God of the Gaps
A similar sentiment lies behind a famous exchange between those old adversaries, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton. The latter noticed that the orbits of the planets did not appear to be stable when calculated over long periods, and postulated that the solar system needed occasional “reformation” by God. Leibniz objected that,
if God had to remedy the defects of His creation, this was surely to demean his craftsmanship.
In other words, the regular sustaining activity of God, as evidenced by natural laws, should be sufficient to explain the regular behaviour of the solar system, without the need for additional ad-hoc interventions. Making it right the first time is more glorious than having to fix it later.
In the same context, Leibniz also emphasised the theological nature of miracles:
And I hold, that when God works miracles, he does not do it in order to supply the wants of nature, but those of grace. Whoever thinks otherwise, must needs have a very mean notion of the wisdom and power of God.
A more modern version of Leibniz’s general objection can be found in a famous statement by Charles Coulson, the first Oxford professor of Theoretical Chemistry who wrote,
When we come to the scientifically unknown, our correct policy is not to rejoice because we have found God; it is to become better scientists.
He popularized the phrase “God of the gaps” for those who, perhaps like John and Ruth, think that God is found primarily in the lacunas of our scientific understanding.
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:
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.
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.