Modes of divine action – miracle

I want to unpack each of the three modes of God’s contingent action that I outlined in the last post. Perhaps the easiest to deal with in the context of a theology of nature (or perhaps not) is the category of “miracle.” This is because, as I suggested last time, miracles are intrinsically alien to nature’s normal modes of operation: they are intended as signs.

But of what are they signs? I said last time that they are indications of God’s sovereignty over creation, and that they usually have a teaching role. But I think we can be more specific, taking into account the whole meta-narrative of Scripture.

It’s a commonplace, theologically speaking, to regard the miracles of Jesus as signs of the age to come, the age which he has inaugurated through his death, resurrection and ascent to glory. And so a miracle like the wine at Cana is a metaphor for the new life of Christ, the new wine replacing the ritual washing with mere water to maintain ritual purity. And the multiplication of loaves and fishes teaches our participation in the Kingdom through the body and blood of Christ, as well as demonstrating the future end to hunger and want.

Healing miracles, particularly, signify the end of suffering in the age to come, as does the raising of the dead like Jairus’s daughter and Lazarus. In these miracles the new age was irrupting into the old through signs.

But if, as I have argued elsewhere, the whole Bible narrative, from Adam onwards, is about the struggle to bring in the new creation in which God’s glory fills all things, then Old Testament miracles too must have exactly the same function of pointing forwards to that time, even though the coming of Christ was still in the future. The hope was more dimly perceived, but it was perceived as the controlling factor of spiritual hope (see Hebrews 11).

As I said in the last post, Cessationism is a suspect teaching both on biblical grounds – for the New Testament treats signs and wonders as part of the means by which the Church of Christ will announce the coming Kingdom – and on the grounds of experience, for remarkable healings and other works of power have accompanied, and still accompany, the proclamation of the gospel. Even here in rationalistic England, I can point to half a dozen or more instances in my medical career of healings that could legitimately be classed as miraculous.

That fact establishes that our theology of nature cannot ignore miracles, because it is the most important fact of the present era that the new creation is slowly infiltrating the old, as a mustard seed growing into a tree, or leaven spreading through dough. More than 30% of the world’s population identifies as Christian: that means there are likely to be sufficient miracles in the world now to affect the working of nature.

Fortunately, although there are of course always evidential questions about miracles (people make mistakes, and people lie), the nature of miracles as signs of the Kingdom makes their identification relatively easy – they are associated with faith, with prayer, and invariably with humanity, even if they might include “nature miracles”. Because they are new-creation incursions into old creation nature (and not so much because they are “rare”), we need not worry that they will affect our understanding of the usual workings of nature, any more than we are likely to mis-attribute something to natural causes if we see men working at it.

But by the same token, let me raise that perennial question about the scientist committed to understanding nature, who (many scientists seem to say) must never as a scientist accept a miracle without fully investigating the possibility of natural causes. In practice that doesn’t often happen – more often the scientist will, if not a strict naturalist, remain agnostic (like the consultant who put my patient’s miraculous reversal of coronary artery obstruction in the box marked “rum occurrences,” and looked no further), or if committed to materialism, simply dismiss the miracle as fraud, or as non-existent, without investigation. Scientific validation programmes like that at Lourdes are the exception, not the rule.

But if our new theology regards miracles, though uncommon, as part of the world because the new creation is already an important part of the world, then we have to learn to live comfortably with them. It’s not that hard, once we are freed from materialist presuppositions.

We accept that many events in the world are caused by human choice, which are usually not practically regarded as “natural causes.” Because human choice is part of our understanding of nature, nobody is even interested in searching for natural causes for events that appear to be artificial. We simply learn to judge between the two, more or less reliably for normal purposes. Remember that concern to prove a miracle only really makes sense under a metaphysic that denies their possibility. And we’re doing theology here, not apologetics.

Of course, we may want to investigate human actions to detect fraud, illegality, and so on – just as there may be grounds (apologetic or otherwise) for investigating miracles to distinguish true from false. That’s nothing to do with needing to prove the existence of miracles, any more than repeating experiments is intended to prove the reality of natural causes.

In conclusion, miracles, although they are signs of the new creation cutting across the norms of the old creation, need to be taken into account as present realities in the world in our theology of nature. But because of those very facts, they are not to form part of our understanding of “nature”, when that means “the ways of the old creation.” We don’t look for miracles, for example, in the process of evolution, or continental drift, or the formation of the solar system.

But that does not mean we don’t expect direct divine action in those things – for there are two modes of action yet to consider: special providence and creation.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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