Miracles are unavoidable for a Christian, the stories of Jesus’ healings are woven into the Gospel accounts in a way which does not allow them to be removed and ignored. Is it possible for a scientifically consistent Christian to believe in Jesus’ miracles? The problem here is often that miracles are ostensibly inconsistent with a creation that is naturally ordered.
One problem is how miracles are defined. The most common definition comes from David Hume as ‘a transgression of a law of nature brought about by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent’. In such a view a miracle is Divine intervention or even violation.
Hume rejects these for many reasons, one of which is that the laws of nature are uniform. Kenneth Miller states that miracles are “beyond explanation, beyond our understanding, beyond science” and that they need not make scientific sense. On the surface this seems like an evasion, but he does go on to state that “they reflect a greater reality, a spiritual reality”, a point which needs expanding on.
Christ’s miracles as interventions make little sense to someone who views God’s creative acts as in line with the natural laws He put in place. Maurice Wiles speaks of the world as a whole as a single act of God, to speak of miracles as God intervening in the world by individual acts would not work.
Another possible definition which then arises is ‘an event that is in accordance with the laws of nature but which the believer sees as being due to the action of God’. This view is plausible with many claimed miracles, but appears insufficient when explaining Christ’s miracles.
It helps to look at the reasons behind Jesus’ miracles. Jesus lived in a world which saw things very differently, where the boundaries between ‘normal’ and ‘miraculous’ were not as well defined as in our scientific age. Healers and miracles workers were common and accepted, though Jesus’ miracles appear different.
John’s Gospel refers to them as ‘signs’ (semeion), these are material events which point beyond themselves to the underlying spiritual realm. Most of the miracles were unsurprisingly acts of healing. They were signs of the coming of God’s Kingdom (an important point to remember), to awaken faith. Further insight is gained by looking at when Jesus refused to use his abilities. Jesus’ miracles often reinforced or awakened faith, as a sign of his identity; not as unequivocal proof to unbelievers, which is exactly what he refused to do when tempted in the wilderness. In Luke 9.55 James and John offered to command fire on a Samaritan village which rejected him, Jesus rebuked them, he came to save not to destroy.
When approaching miracles, God is often seen as external and the spiritual almost as ‘somewhere else’. God’s creative acts are often best seen as an expression of God’s love from within, so miracles should be no different. For many theists the material has a spiritual basis. The spiritual is as much a reality as the material. The two overlap in mysterious ways. The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright stated that “Heaven is not a place up in the sky – it is God’s dimension of what we think of as ordinary reality.” Such world views must always be remembered when addressing what is going on with miracles, for they reveal aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven and the spiritual reality.
Jesus’ miracles should be viewed from two perspectives; that of God and that of nature. If a miracle is from God it must be consistent with creation as a whole being an act of God and God’s act of creatio continua. Donald McKay summed this up by commenting that “miracles are not so much an intervention as a change in mode of divine agency”. God did not suddenly intervene; His interaction took on new form, which is further made sense of when viewed from the perspective of nature.
Miracles are often seen as a transgression of natural laws. Christians often look forward to the day when creation is made anew and infused with divine life; glimpses of which we get in Jesus’ signs. Archbishop Rowan Williams said of miracles that “There are certain moments when there is an opening in the world and divine action comes through in a fresh way.” In this sense a miracle is effectively ‘right’ and in line with natural laws, allowing God’s mode of agency to change. It takes no stretch to see how this would be achieved so effectively in Christ.
Williams further said, “A miracle is not a suspension of the laws of nature, but nature opening up to its own depths.” What bursts out is spiritual, when the material is receptive of it, as we see in Mary the mother of Jesus for example. In Mark 6.5 Jesus was unable to do anything but heal when people rejected him – they were unreceptive.
A scientifically minded Christian can and should be open to Christ’s miracles (even if they are sceptical of others). It is fitting that the love of God shone through the receptiveness of Christ in fresh and exciting ways. I shall end with a definition of miracle which Keith Ward has used:
“Miracle is a transformation of the material by the spiritual, a disclosure of the real (the spiritual) that reveals the true function of the material to manifest its spiritual basis.”