Reflections on miracles

Editor’s note: This semester, as last, I am taking a theology class, and to the extent that my written submissions are thought canonical, excerpts will appear here under the TH225 tag after submission and grading. For last semester, see the TH200 tag.

“To [the apostles] He showed himself alive after His passion by many infallible proofs.”
–Acts 1:3.

We consider the significance of Jesus’ miracles.

The words “miracle” and its cognate “miraculous” pose certain challenges; their familiarity and overuse tend to frustrate precision. The broader notion of a “miracle” runs from “[a]n event, whether natural or supernatural in which one sees an act or revelation of God” 1 all the way out to the truly vague, something like “an unexpected event that excites a sense of wonder, especially when its causes are not immediately clear.” This is the sense to which the word “miraculous” answers in common use: When we say that “the pilot made a miraculous landing,” we do not mean to suggest that God was his copilot, but merely that that experience would have anticipated a crash in those circumstances.

The narrower (and I think better) notion of a miracle is a supernatural intervention by God that interferes in the normal operation of the laws of nature. It “cannot be produced by any natural agency but only by the power of God. It is above the natural law, as when one dead is restored to life; contrary to this law, as when Moses caused water to gush from the rock; [and] independent of the law, as when something that might be done by natural causes … is effected without” its ordinary means. 2 It is in the narrower sense that we understand the purpose of the miracles worked by Christ and, by His authority, His apostles. Miracles, the truth of which can be seen immediately, authenticate supernatural revelation, the truth of which may not be seen or grasped immediately. 3

Christianity is irreducibly a supernatural religion. 4 Although we would certainly infer the existence of a god from the evidence available to our senses alone, that is, from natural revelation, a further and supernatural revelation was necessary for us to learn the truths and plans that God wished to communicate to us, which came through the mouths of prophets, inspired writers, and, eventually Christ Himself. 5 Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel, the very son of the living God. That was a serious claim. But Jesus worked many miracles—miracles in the narrow sense described above, and “[m]iracles impress people” because they “can only be worked by God, since they imply a supernatural intervention in the course of nature.” 6 Whatever He did that might cause his contemporary critics to doubt—that man eats with sinners and tax collectors! He ignores the ritual law! He’s super-judgmental about divorce! 7—He surely fulfilled any demand that He give them some kind of sign to authenticate His testimony. 8 What was the skeptical pharisee supposed to do, faced with His lengthy catalog of miracles? 9

Miracles demand faith. When we confront an event that stands in violation of the laws of nature, we must either deny it, or accept the supernatural and all that it implies. Thus, says the Baltimore Catechism, by His miracles, Jesus “proved that whatever He said was true, and that when He declared Himself to be the Son of God He really was what He claimed to be.” 10 His miracles force us to make our choice, to confront in the starkest terms that all-important question that He asks each of us: “Who do you say I am?” 11 Well: Could a lunatic have restored the sight of the man at Bethsaida? Could a liar have raised Lazarus—and, indeed, Himself? 12 By His miracles, i.e. supernatural acts, Jesus, and later the apostles, authenticated the supernatural revelation of the New Covenant. 13

The alternative is to simply deny the miraculous. “As a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws [of nature], the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can be.” 14 If one reaches such a conclusion, it might be better to abandon faith entirely than soldier on in search of an ersatz Christianity sine supernaturali, 15 because if one rejects the miraculous, questions naturally arise: If the miracles were fake, by what other means can one authenticate Jesus’ testimony? And: If the miracles were fake, does that not make our Savior a charlatan? 16) And: If God cannot intervene supernaturally, to what kind of debased, devalued “god” have we reduced him? So, as it turns out, denying the miraculous also forces us to make our choice: Do we, or do we not, believe in an almighty God, by the sweat of whose brow the very foundations of the Earth were forged? If so: “Granted the existence of Almighty God, since He could create the universe and establish its laws, there is no reason why He cannot alter its course and interfere with its laws” at his pleasure. 17 And granted that power, does it not stand to reason that He should do so when such testimony might seem useful to convince? 18

What I have said—that miracles are primarily means by which revelation was authenticated—accords with our modern experience in which genuine miracles are frequently-claimed and yet rarely-seen. The “miracle” of a football that seems to change its PSI from play to play in the favor of one’s preferred team does not require supernatural intervention, and concision of reasoning might attribute a more straightforward and prosaic cause. And there is something rather dangerous, it seems to me, in relying on such experiences; I am skeptical of the “charismatic” movement, which, it seems to me, places people at risk of disillusionment and loss of faith by placing excessive emphasis upon expectations of “miracles” that may either not happen or may prove to be false. This should not be taken to deny the possibility of miracles in everyday life, or to discourage praying for miracles. Miracles do happen. But placing excessive emphasis or expectation on routine miraculous intervention in modern life would seem to risk a fragile faith that constantly puts God to the test, 19 and which is lives under a sword of Damocles lest the seemingly-miraculous prove more to have a more prosaic explanation.

Notes:

  1. 3 The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 392 (Buttrick, ed. 1962).
  2. The New Catholic Dictionary 633 (Pallen & Wynne, eds. 1929); accord Charles Journet, The Meaning of Grace, ch. 4 (1957), available at http://www.ewtn.com/library/DOCTRINE/MNGGRACE.HTM (all web resources herein cited as last visited Jan . 23, 2015).
  3. See, e.g., Catechetical Instructions of St. Thomas Aquinas 6 (Collins, trns. 1939); St. Augustine, Civ. D. lib. 22 c.5; Encyc. Satis cognitum, no. 8, 28 Acta Sanctae Sedis 708, 717-17 (Leo XIII, 1896); J.P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology ch. 3 (1887) (“But as God usually acts through means, so he has revealed himself to a few, and through them to mankind in general. The only question then is, how can he give evidence to the race at large that the men he has inspired are indeed his messengers? This also might be done in various ways, but he has chosen to do it by attesting their mission by miracles wrought through them”), available at http://founders.org/library/boyce1/ch3; Edgar Young Mullins, Freedom and Authority in Religion 18 (1913)
  4. See, e.g., James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World  (9th ed. 1908).
  5. See Charles Coppens, A Systematic Study of the Catholic Religion 2-3 (1907). The First Vatican Council teaches “that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason: ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” But God has nevertheless “reveal[ed] Himself and the eternal laws of his will to the human race by another, and that a supernatural, way. This is how the Apostle puts it : In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. It is indeed thanks to this divine revelation, that those matters concerning God which are not of themselves beyond the scope of human reason, can, even in the present state of the human race, be known by everyone without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error.” Dei Filius (Dogmatic constitution on the Catholic faith), ch. 2 (1st Vat. Co., 1870), available at http://www.ewtn.com/library/councils/v1.htm.
  6. Matthias Premm, Dogmatic Theology for the Laity 139 (Heimann, trns. 1977).
  7. Mt 9:11; Lk 11:38; Mt 19:8.
  8. See, e.g., Jn 3:2; but see Mk 8:11.
  9. See, e.g., John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary 352-353 (1966) (cataloguing and classifying Jesus’ miracles).
  10. Balt. Cat. q.325.
  11. Mt 16:15.
  12. See C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity 54-56 (1952).
  13. See, e.g., Jason Jackson, Miracles in the Book of Acts, Christian Courier, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1197-miracles-in-the-book-of-acts. In his masterwork L’Eglise du Verbe Incarné, Charles Card. Journet develops a persuasive account that distinguishes the extraordinary and truly apostolic charisms, such as the working of miracles, which did not transfer to the successors of the apostles, from the ordinary episcopal charisms, at first submerged in the former, which did. See 1 Charles Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate 127-148(Downes, trns. 1955).
  14. 3 Interpreter’s Bible, supra note 1, at 395.
  15. Cf. Heinrich Fries, Fundamental Theology § 36 (Daly, trns. 1996); Richard McBrien, Catholicism 339 ff. (3d ed. 1994).
  16. The aphorism attributed to Arthur C. Clarke is that any advanced technology may appear as magic—or miracle—to those unfamiliar with it; strip Jesus of the capacity to work miracles and yet leave him the miraculous claims and you transform him from messiah into the proverbial Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
  17. New Catholic Dictionary, supra note 2, at 633.
  18. The alternative, it seems to me, amounts to simple capitulation to “that doctrine of rationalism or naturalism—utterly opposed to the Christian religion, since this is of supernatural origin … [which] has plunged the minds of many into the abyss of pantheism, materialism and atheism.” Dei filius, supra note 5, c.7.
  19. Cf. Mk 4:12.