« Prev 1. Their Nature. Meaning and Usage of the Word. Next »

§ 1. Their Nature. Meaning and Usage of the Word.

The word miracle is derived from miror, to wonder, and the refore signifies that which excites wonder. In this etymological sense of the word it may be used to designate any extraordinary event adapted to excite surprise and rouse attention. The words used in the Bible in reference to miraculous events do not inform us of their nature. The most common of these are, (1.) פֶלֶא, something separated, or singular. (2.) אוֹת,signum, portentum, something designed to confirm. (3.) מוֹפֵת (of uncertain derivation), used in the sense of τύπος, of persons and things held up as a warning, and for remarkable events confirming the authority of prophets. (4.) גְבוּרָה, power, used for any extraordinary manifestation of divine power. (5.) “Works of the Lord.” In most cases these terms express the design, rather than the nature of the events to which they are applied.

Such being the indefinite meaning of these Scriptural terms, it is not surprising that the word miracle was used in the Church in a very loose sense. Anything wonderful, anything for which the proximate cause could not be discovered, and anything in which divine agency was specially indicated was called a miracle. Thus Luther says, “Conversion is the greatest of all miracles.” “Every day,” he says, “witnesses miracle after miracle; that any village adheres to the Gospel when a hundred thousand devils are arrayed against it, or that the truth is maintained in this wicked world, is a continued miracle to which healing the sick or raising the dead is a mere trifle.” As neither the etymology nor the usage of the word leads to a definite idea of the nature of a miracle, we can attain that idea only by the examination of some confessedly miraculous event.

Definition of a Miracle.

According to the “Westminster Confession,” “God, in ordinary providence making use of means, yet is free to work without, above, 618or against them at pleasure.” In the first place, there are events therefore due to the ordinary operations of second causes, as upheld and guided by God. To this class belong the common processes of nature; the growth of plants and animals, the orderly movements of the heavenly bodies; and the more unusual occurrences, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and violent agitations and revolutions in human societies. In the second place, there are events due to the influences of the Holy Spirit upon the hearts of men, such as regeneration, sanctification, spiritual illumination, etc. Thirdly, there are events which belong to neither of these classes, and whose distinguishing characteristics are, First, that they take place in the external world, i.e., in the sphere of the observation of the senses; and Secondly, that they are produced or caused by the simple volition of God, without the intervention of any subordinate cause. To this class belongs the original act of creation, in which all coöperation of second causes was impossible. To the same class belong all events truly miraculous. A miracle, therefore, may be defined to be an event, in the external world, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple volition of God.

An examination of any of the great miracles recorded in Scripture will establish the correctness of this definition. The raising of Lazarus from the dead may be taken as an example. This was an event which occurred in the outward world; one which could be seen and verified by the testimony of the senses. It was not brought about either in whole or in part by the efficiency of natural causes. It was due to the simple word, or volition, or immediate agency of God. The same may be said of the restoration to life of the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, on Christ’s pronouncing the words, Talitha cumi; and of his healing the lepers by a word. So when Christ walked upon the sea, when He multiplied the loaves and fishes, when He calmed the winds and the waves by a command; any coöperation of physical causes is not only ignored, but, by clearest intimation, denied.

Objections to this Definition of a Miracle.

It is objected to this definition of a miracle that it assumes that the laws of nature may be violated or set aside. To this many theologians and men of science object, and declare that it is impossible. If the law of nature be the will of God, that of course cannot be set aside, much less directly violated. This is Augustine’s objection, who asks, “Quomodo est contra naturam, quod Dei fit voluntate cum voluntas tanti utique conditoris conditæ rei cujusque 619natura sit? Portentum ergo fit, non contra naturam, sed contra quam est nota natura.579579De Civitate Dei, xxi. 8, edit. Benedictines, vol. vii. p. 1006, a. Baden Powell, in behalf of men of science, protests against being called upon to believe in anything “at variance with nature and law.” “The enlarged critical and inductive study of the natural world,” he says, “cannot but tend powerfully to evince the inconceivableness of imagined interruptions of natural order or supposed suspensions of the laws of matter, and of that vast series of dependent causation which constitutes the legitimate field for the investigation of science, whose constancy is the sole warrant for its generalizations, while it forms the substantial basis for the grand conclusions of natural theology.”580580Recent Inquiries in Theology, or Essays and Reviews. By Eminent English Clergy men, Boston, 1860, p. 124. The question of miracles, he says,581581Ibid. p. 150. is not one “which can be decided by a few trite and commonplace generalities as to the moral government of the world and the belief in the Divine Omnipotence, or as to the validity of human testimony or the limits of human experience. It involves, and is essentially built upon, those grander conceptions of the order of nature, those comprehensive primary elements of all physical knowledge, those ultimate ideas of universal causation, which can only be familiar to those versed in cosmical philosophy in its widest sense.” “It is for the most part hazardous ground for any general moral reasoner to take, to discuss subjects of evidence which essentially involve that higher appreciation of physical truth which can be attained only from an accurate and comprehensive acquaintance with the connected series of the physical and mathematical sciences. Thus, for example, the simple but grand truth of the law of conservation, and the stability of the heavenly motions, now well understood by all sound cosmical philosophers, is but a type of the universal self-sustaining and self-evolving powers which pervade all nature.”582582Ibid. p. 151. Professor Powell’s conclusion is, “if miracles were, in the estimation of a former age, among the chief supports of Christianity, they are at present among the main difficulties and hinderances to its acceptance.”583583Ibid. p. 158. His whole argument is this, miracles, as usually defined, involve a suspension, or alteration, or violation of the laws of nature; but those laws are absolutely immutable, therefore that definition must be incorrect, or, in other words, miracles in that sense must be impossible.


Answer to the above Objection.

The form in which the objection is presented by those who make nature the will of God, is answered by saying that nature is not the will of God in any other sense than that He ordained the sequence of natural events, and established the laws or physical causes by which that regular sequence is secured. This relation between God and the world, assumes that nature and its laws are subject to Him, and therefore liable at any time to be suspended or counteracted, at his good pleasure.

As to the other form of the objection, which assumes that the laws of nature are in themselves immutable, and therefore that they cannot be suspended, it is enough to say, (1.) That this absolute immutability of natural laws is a gratuitous assumption. That a thing has been is no proof that it must always be. There is no absolute certainty, because no necessity, that the sun will rise to-morrow. We assume with confidence that it will thus rise, but on what ground? What impossibility is there that this night the voice of the angel should be heard, swearing, “That time shall be no longer?” If time began, time may end. If nature began to be, it may cease to be, and all about it must be liable to change. Scientific men have no right to assume that because physical laws are, and, within the limits of our experience, ever have been, regular in their operation, that they are, as Professor Powell says, “self-sustaining and self-evolving.” It is a great mistake to suppose that uniformity is inconsistent with voluntary control; that because law reigns, God does not reign. The laws of nature are uniform only because He so wills, and their uniformity continues only so long as He wills.

(2.) It is utterly derogatory to the character of God to assume that He is subject to law, and especially to the laws of matter. If theism be once admitted, then it must be admitted that the whole universe, with all that it contains and all the laws by which it is controlled, must he subject to the will of God. Professor Powell indeed says, that many theists deny the possibility of the suspension or violation of the laws of nature, but then he says that there are many degrees of theism, and he includes under that term theories which others regard as inconsistent with the doctrine of a personal God. It is certain that the objection to the definition of a miracle given above, now under consideration, depends for its validity on the assumption, that God is subject to nature that He cannot control its laws. J. Müller well says, “Etiamsi 621nullus alius miraculorum esset usus, nisi ut absolutam illam divinæ voluntatis libertatem demonstrent, humanamque arrogantiam, immodicæ legis naturalis admirationi junctam, compescant, miracula haud temere essent edita.584584De Miracul. J. C. Nat. et Necess. Marburg, 1839, par. i. pp. 41, 42.

(3.) The authority of Scripture is for Christians decisive on this point. The Bible everywhere not only asserts the absolute independence of God of all his works, and his absolute control over them, but is also filled with examples of the actual exercise ef this control. Every miracle recorded in the Scriptures is such an example. When Christ called Lazarus from the grave, the chemical forces which were working the dissolution of his body ceased to operate. When He said to the winds, Be still, the physical causes which produced the storm were arrested in their operation; when He walked on the sea the law of gravitation was counteracted by a stronger force —even the divine will. In 2 Kings vi. 5, 6, we are told that an “axe head fell into the water,” and that the man of God cut a stick and cast it into the water, “and the iron did swim.” Here an effect was produced which all known physical laws would tend to prevent. The Scriptures, therefore, by word and deed, teach that God can act, not only with physical causes, but without and against them.

(4.) After all, the suspension or violation of the laws of nature involved in miracles is nothing more than is constantly taking place around us. One force counteracts another; vital force keeps the chemical laws of matter in abeyance; and muscular force can control the action of physical force. When a man raises a weight from the ground, the law of gravity is neither suspended nor violated, but counteracted by a stronger force. The same is true as to the walking of Christ on the water, and the swimming of the iron at the command of the prophet. The simple and grand truth that the universe is not under the exclusive control of physical forces, but that everywhere and always there is above, separate from, and superior to all else, an infinite personal will, not superseding, but directing and controlling all physical causes, acting with or without them. The truth on this subject was beautifully expressed by Sir Isaac Newton, when he said, “Deum esse ens summe perfectum concedunt omnes. Entis autem summe perfecti Idea est ut sit substantia una, simplex, indivisibilis, viva et vivifica, ubique semper necessario existens, summe intelligens omnia, libere volens bona, voluntate efficiens possibilia, effectibus nobilioribus similitudinem propriam quantum fieri potest, communicans, omnia 622in se continens, tanquam eorum principium et locus, omnia per præsentiam substantialem cernens et regens, et cum rebus omnibus, secundum leges accuratas ut naturæ totius fundamentum et causa constanter coöperans, nisi ubi aliter agere bonum est.585585Sir David Brewster’s Life of Newton, vol. ii, p. 154, edit. Edinburgh, 1855. God is the author of nature: He has ordained its laws: He is everywhere present in his works: He governs all things by coöperating and using the laws which He has ordained, NISI UBI ALITER AGERE BONUM EST. He has left Himself free.

Higher Laws.

A second objection to the usual definition of miracles, is that they should be referred to some higher, occult law of nature and not to the immediate agency of God. This objection is urged by two very different classes of writers. First, those who adopt the mechanical theory of the universe assume that God has given it up to the government of natural laws, and no more interferes with its natural operations than a ship-builder with the navigation of the ships he has constructed. This is the view presented by Babbage in his “Ninth Bridgewater Treatise.” He supposes a man placed before his calculating machine, which for millions and millions of times produces square numbers; then for once produces a cube number; and then only squares until the machine wears out. There are two ways of accounting for the extraordinary cube number. The one is that the maker of the machine directly interfered for its production. The other is that he provided for its appearance in the original construction of the machine. The latter explanation gives a far higher idea of the skill and wisdom of the mechanist; and so, Mr. Babbage argues, it is “more consistent with the attributes of the Deity to look upon miracles not as deviations from the laws assigned by the Almighty for the government of matter and of mind; but as the exact fulfilment of much more extensive laws than those we suppose to exist.”586586The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. By Charles Babbage, Esq. London, 1838, p. 92. In like manner Professor Baden Powell, contends that every physical effect must have a physical cause, and therefore that miracles, considered as physical events, must be “referred to physical causes, possibly to known causes; but, at all events, to some higher cause or law, if at present unknown.”587587Essays and Reviews; or Recent Inquiries in Theology, p. 160. Boston, 1860.

Secondly, this same ground is taken by many who do not thus banish God from his works. They admit that He is everywhere 623present, and everywhere acting, controlling physical laws so as to accomplish his purposes; but they insist that He never operates immediately, but always acts through the established laws of nature. Thus the Duke of Argyle, whose excellent work on the “Reign of Law” is thoroughly religious, says:588588Reign of Law. By the Duke of Argyle. Fifth edition, London, p. 22. “There is nothing in religion incompatible with the belief that all exercises of God’s power, whether ordinary or extraordinary, are effected through the instrumentality of means —that is to say, by the instrumentality of natural laws brought out, as it were, and used for a divine purpose.” He begins his book with quotations from M. Guizo’s work, “L’Eglise et la Société Chrétienne en 1861,” to the effect that belief in the supernatural is the special difficulty of our time; that the denial of it is the form taken by all modern assaults on Christian faith; and that acceptance of it lies at the root, not only of Christianity, but of all positive religion whatever. By the supernatural, he understood Guizot to mean, what the word does properly and commonly mean, namely, what transcends nature; and by nature is meant all things out of God. A supernatural event, therefore, in this sense, which is Guizot’s sense of the word, is an event which transcends the power of nature, and which is due to the immediate agency of God. M. Guizot is undoubtedly correct in saying that the belief in the supernatural, thus explained, is the great difficulty of the age. The tendency, not only of science, but of speculation in all departments, is, at least for the time being, to in merge every thing into nature and to admit of no other causes.

Although the Duke of Argyle is a theist, and admits of the constant operation of the Divine will in nature, he is still urgent in insisting that the power of God in nature is always exercised according to law, and in connection with physical causes. Miracles, therefore, differ from ordinary events only in so far as the law according to which they come to pass, or the physical forces acting in their production are unknown. He quotes with approbation from Locke, the following most unsatisfactory definition: “A miracle, then, I take to be a sensible operation, which, being above the comprehension of the spectator, and, in his opinion, contrary to the established course of nature, is taken by him to be divine.”589589Reign of Law, pp. 24, 25. This is the precise view held by Baden Powell, who in the essay repeatedly referred to above, makes a miracle a mere matter of opinion. It is not a matter of fact to be determined by testimony, 624but a matter of opinion as to the cause of that fact. The fact may be admitted, and one man may say it is due to natural law, known or unknown; and then it is no miracle. Another man says it is due to the immediate power of God. In that case it is a miracle. Which of the two is correct, cannot be decided by testimony. It must be decided by the general views of nature and of God’s relation to the world, which men entertain. The doctrine that God works in the external world only through physical force, and even that He can act only in that way, leads, of necessity, to the conclusion that miracles are events in the external world brought about by unknown physical causes. They prove only “the presence of superhuman knowledge and the working of superhuman power.”590590Reign of Law, p. 16, note.

Objections to the Doctrine of a Higher Law.

(1.) With regard to this theory, it may be remarked in the first place, that it is a perfectly gratuitous hypothesis. It assumes the existence of laws of nature without necessity and without evidence. By laws, in such connections, is usually meant either the ordered sequence of events, or the power by which that sequence is secured. In either case there is this ordered sequence. But where is the evidence that anywhere in the universe the living of the dead, the recovery of the sick, the stilling of the storm, and the swimming of iron, follow as matters of course on a command? The Church doctrine on miracles gives a simple, rational, and satisfactory account of their occurrence, which renders all assumption of unknown laws unnecessary and unjustifiable. It is utterly impossible to prove, as this theory assumes, that every physical effect must have a physical cause. Our own wills are causes in the sphere of nature; and the omnipotent will of God is not tied to any one mode of operation.

(2.) This hypothesis is not only unnecessary, but it is unsatisfactory. There are miracles which transcend not only all known, but all possible laws of nature. Nature cannot create. It cannot originate life; otherwise it would be God, and nothing beyond nature would be necessary to account for the universe and for all that it contains. As, therefore, there are miracles which cannot be accounted for by “a higher law of nature,” it is clear that they are to be referred to the immediate power of God, and not to some unknown physical force. All theists are obliged to acknowledge this 625immediate agency of God in the original act of creation. Then there were no laws or forces through which his efficiency could be exercised. The fact, therefore, on which the Church doctrine on this subject rests must be admitted.

(3.) The Scriptures not only are silent about any higher law as the cause of miraculous events, but they always refer them to the immediate power of God. Christ said He cast out devils by the finger of God. He never referred to anything but his own will as the efficient antecedent of the effect produced, “I will, be thou clean,” He healed by a touch —by a word. When he gave miraculous powers to the Apostles, He did not make them alchemists. They did not claim knowledge of occult laws. Peter, when called to account for the healing of the lame man in the temple, said that it was the name of Christ, faith in his name that had made the man every whit whole. It is moreover plain that, on this theory, miracles must lose their value as proofs of a divine commission. If the Apostles did the wonders which they performed by the knowledge of, or through the efficiency of natural laws, then they are on the level of the experimenter who makes water freeze in a red hot spoon. If God be not the author of the miracle, it does not prove a divine message.

(4.) There is force also in what the Rev. J. B. Mozley says: “To say that the material fact which takes place in a miracle admits of being referred to an unknown natural cause, is not to say that the miracle itself does. A miracle is the material fact as coinciding with an express announcement or with express supernatural pretensions in the agent. It is this correspondence of two facts which constitutes a miracle. If a person says to a blind man, ‘See,’ and he sees, it is not the sudden return of sight alone that we have to account for, but its return at that particular moment. For it is morally impossible that this exact agreement of an event with a command or notification could have been by mere chance, or, as we should say, been an extraordinary coincidence, especially if it is repeated in other cases.”591591Eight Lectures on Miracles; by J. B. Mozley, B. D. Bampton Lectures for 1865, London, 1865, p. 148. It is very certain that no one who saw Lazarus rise from the grave, when Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth,” ever thought of any physical law as the cause of that event.

Miracles and Extraordinary Providences.

A third objection urged against the definition above given is, that it is not sufficiently comprehensive. It does not cover a large 626class of miracles recorded in the Scriptures. In the sudden rising of a fog which conceals an army and thus saves it from destruction in a storm which disperses a hostile fleet and thus saves a nation, — any such providential intervention, it is said, we have all the elements included in many of the miracles recorded in the Bible. The events occur in the external world; they are not due to mere physical causes, but to such causes guided by the immediate agency of God, and directed to the accomplishment of a particular end. This is all that can be said of many of the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians; of the flight of quails to supply the wants of the Hebrews in the desert; and of the draught of fishes recorded in the Gospels.

It is true that the strict definition of a miracle does not include events of the kind just mentioned. Such events, therefore, are called by Trench “providential,” as distinguished from “absolute miracles.” This want of comprehensiveness, however, does not seem to be a sufficient reason for rejecting the common definition of a miracle. Because there certainly is a class of events to which that definition strictly applies; and it is important that those events on which such stress is laid in Scripture, should have a designation peculiar to themselves, and which expresses their true nature. The importance of what are called providential miracles, is not lessened by their being thrown into a class by themselves. They continue to be clear evidence of divine intervention. As Mr. Mozley says, it is not exclusively on the nature of the event that its value as evidence depends, but on the attending circumstances. The flocks of locusts, or of the quails, would not, of themselves, have been proof of any special divine intervention; but taken in connection with Moses’ threat in the one case, and promise in the other, those events proved as conclusively as the most absolute miracle could have done, that he was the messenger of Him who could control the laws of nature and constrain them to execute his will.

« Prev 1. Their Nature. Meaning and Usage of the Word. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection