Friday, April 06, 2007
What About New Testament Miracles?

In an earlier post I argued that we need a more "Hebraic" understanding of miracles that doesn't see a sharp dichotomy between the natural world and God's actions. Miracles can have natural causes and yet still be considered miracles.

However, over at the Friendly Atheist blog, a quick-witted conversation partner rightly pointed out that while Old Testament miracles (like in the Exodus story) often seem to have natural explanations, Jesus' miracles in the New Testament tend to have more of a supernatural, bending the laws of nature, character to them. How does that fit into a "Hebraic", "natural" definition of miracles?

Here's how I answered him:

You’re right to point out the contrast between these OT miracles and some of Jesus’ miracles. I’m not pushing for a hard and fast definition one way or the other. I think it can be a both/and. Sometimes a miracle is more of a manipulation of nature, and sometimes it’s a supernatural suspension (or acceleration) of nature (for instance, there’s nothing unusual about water turning into wine - grape vines do that all the time - Jesus simply sped up the process and did it without the help of the vines ;) ).

A New Testament understanding of miracles is complex - I can’t fully develop the theology of it here - but it’s important to realize the purpose behind Jesus’ miracles - i.e. the message they were intended to convey. They aren’t just magic tricks to “prove” that Jesus was divine. They are an integral part of communicating his message. And that message is essentially about new creation, about a coming and now present kingdom that reverses the worldly order of things (i.e. the systems of power, wealth, violence, death, destruction that rule human societies) and establishes a new order of peace, healing, freedom, love, generosity, etc.

That is why Jesus’ miracles are referred to as “Signs”. They signify the character of the kingdom. So when Jesus heals the sick and the blind, it’s a sign that the kingdom is about healing (both physical, emotional, and spiritual). When he turns water into wine or multiplies loaves and fishes, it’s a sign that the kingdom is about abundance and generosity. When he raises the dead, it’s a sign that the kingdom has broken the power of death and brings new life (both physically and spiritually). When he casts out demons, it’s a sign that the kingdom is about setting people free from whatever oppresses them (whether spiritual or political/systemic).

In other words, I think Jesus’ miracles tend to be more “beyond” the laws of nature because they are meant to illustrate the remaking and renewing of Creation that Christ’s kingdom is all about.

Again, I’m sure as atheists all this theology is probably moot to you guys. I guess the point to me is simply that it can be a both/and, and not every miracle has to be a suspension of natural law.

But on the hand, as a theist I have no problem believing that God can sometimes work in ways that are beyond natural law as well. If I believe that he created it all in the first place, and put the laws in place, then it’s not much more of a leap to believe that he could possibly bend the rules sometimes too.

That’s why I think it’s irrelevant to argue over miracles. If you believe in God, then there should be no problem with believing that miracles (whether natural or supernatural) are at least possible. And if you don’t believe in God then there’s no possibility they could exist anyway. Why bother arguing that miracles can’t exist when what you’re really arguing is that God doesn’t?

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posted by Mike Clawson at 12:17 AM | Permalink |


At 4/07/2007 08:30:00 AM, Blogger Macht

There is a book that came out earlier this year called Science and Grace by Morris and Petcher that has an excellent discussion of miracles. They look at our modern tendency to contrast miracles with the "laws of nature" and argue that it flows from a dualistic picture of God. They argue that both miracles and "laws of nature" have to be viewed as part of God's covenant and providence. Here is a paragraph from a brief review I did of their book:

"The book then argues for a view of science that is based on a Trinitarian and Covenantal theology. They discuss God's immanence/transcendence, determinism/freedom, and God's covenantal relationship to his creation. Based on these themes, they go on to discuss miracles and the "laws of nature." I found the discussion of various views of God's absolute power and God's ordained power to be very interesting. The authors essentially argue that originally God's absolute power referred the things God could do in principle while God's ordained power referred to those things God actually does. These weren't separate powers, originally, they were only meant to explain God's will - how can God be both free and faithful at the same time? With the rediscovery of ancient Greek writings, however, the questions that people were asking about God's will began to change. Because of this change of focus, ordained power began to be associated with the way God ordinarily works in nature and absolute power began to be associated with miraculous occurances. So what had originally been used to explain God's limitations began to be used to explain how God acts. Morris and Petcher then argue that this shift in meaning, combined with mechanistic views in science, lead to an unbiblical view of miracles, one where God acts in two different ways - an ordinary, lawful way and an extraordinary, miraculous way."


At 4/07/2007 10:51:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Very interesting... I like that distinction. It's helpful. I'm also wanting to suggest that our modern concept of miracles is too much based on Greek dualism.

Anyhow, thanks again for the book recommendation!


At 4/25/2007 01:23:00 AM, Blogger Sarah

Thanks for posting this. I really appreciate what you said about miracles being signs of what the kingdom of God is like. I also think they are signs of what God is like. He is the personification of healing, deliverance, generousity and love. It has amazed me that people can believe God is love, while not believe that He would want to heal people. Those two just don't mix in my mind!


At 4/25/2007 10:20:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks Sarah, glad you dropped by!