Philosophy of Miracles – Definition & the Identification of a Miracle [Part 1]

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Image Credit: CBS News, 2013.

This is part 1 of a series that will be examining the philosophical, epistemological, and ontological questions pertaining to miracles. Though I will attempt to be objective in this series, it should be said that I do come from the vantage point of a supernaturalist. As a supernaturalist I believe that miracles have not only occurred in history but that they still occur today, a view that I confidently hold the more I’ve engaged the topic.

Defining Terms: What’s a Miracle?

A first point we need to make is that a miracle is dependent on the uniformity of nature. Perhaps William Adams, in his 1767 essay response to the anti-supernaturalist skeptic David Hume, is helpful here, “An experienced uniformity in the course of nature hath been always thought necessary to the belief and use of miracles. These are indeed relative ideas. There must be an ordinary regular course of nature, before there can be any thing extraordinary. A river must flow, before its stream can be interrupted” (1).

A miracle, then, is by definition a rare event. If it weren’t then we wouldn’t consider such an event to be a miracle in the first place. We know that, for example, dead people don’t get up from the dead, and because we know this from experience, if it did happen then we’d have a miracle. Moreover, scholars have identified a miracle in numerous ways, namely as being an interruption of the order or course of nature (2), an event that exceeds the productive power of nature (3), as well as something that would happen only as a result of the intervention of an agent not wholly bound by nature (4). For a theist, a miracle is usually considered to be something personal on behalf of God; perhaps defined as a “direct intervention” on God’s behalf in the life of a human being (5).

What a miracle is then, is “a work effected in a manner unusual, or different from the common and regular Method of Providence, by the interposition either of God himself, or of some Intelligent Agent superior to Man, for the Proof or Evidence of some particular Doctrine, or in attestation to the Authority of some particular Person” (6). Even Hume would somewhat agree saying that a miracle is an event “by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent” (7) that is beyond the reach of human action and natural causes.

If a Miracle Really Occurred, Could We Even Notice it in the First Place?

Benedict Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch philosopher, made what one might deem to be an objection to the identification of a miracle (8). Even if we granted that a miracle had occurred or that it is at least possible, how could we know that one has actually occurred in the first place? How could we know so over and above it just being the result of some unknown natural cause?

The answer, observes philosopher William Lane Craig, has to do with the context of the miracle (9). Let’s just use one gospel miracle as an example. Consider, for example, Jesus’ alleged miracle healing of a man with leprosy as described in the gospel accounts (Mat. 8:3; Luke 5:13). Such a healing, in response to the mere words Jesus’ command for the sick man to “Be clean,” obviously does not occur regularly in history; if it did then we wouldn’t consider Jesus’ healing of the man to be a miracle. It is precisely the religio-historical context that the miracle takes place within; this being that of Jesus’ ministry in that he was an itinerant preacher claiming to bring God’s good news and salvation to human beings, of which he allegedly proved this through his miracle works, exorcisms, and his eventual resurrection from the dead, all of which assisted in him amassing an enormous following and reputation. This is not to mention his obvious genuineness and conviction that eventually got him pinned to a Roman cross as a rebel which, itself, was a volitional act that he believed would save human beings from God’s eternal condemnation.

This wider context is crucial when it boils down to identifying a miracle. On the assumption that this miracle of the healing of the leper occurred, it is incredibly unlikely that it is explainable by some unknown natural cause that just happened to take place at that very specific point in time and at the exact moment in which Jesus commanded the man to be clean. Perhaps consider a more contemporary case. In a discussion with documentary film maker, Stephen Elijah, we each shared one of our most incredible miracle cases in terms of evidence. I shared the incredible story of the healing of a well-known local sports player. Stephen shared one case in which a boy by the name of Chris Gunderson was cured from an incurable syndrome. The story is that Gunderson suffered from a chronic pseudo obstruction syndrome which had left his intestines paralyzed. The only way he could take in nutrients was through tubes planted into his belly. He suffered from this since a baby until one day a pastor prayed for him in church. In response to the prayer the tubes, shaking, came tumbling out of his belly to the surprise of his parents and to the pastor himself. Gunderson then went on to do something that was a sheer impossibility for him previously: he ate a full meal all by himself, an act that would have resulted in him experiencing intense stomach aches and vomiting; he would also have had to drain the fluid from his intestines via the tubes in his belly. Since then, Gunderson has been fully and totally healed from the illness.

One naturalist skeptic, learning of this remarkable case, accused me of committing the “god-of-the-gaps” fallacy by attributing the healing to a supernatural miracle. Basically I was attributing to God, namely the miracle, what could be explained by nature, or some natural cause. Not only might one marvel at the fantastical notion that the healing was a fluke of nature, but one might too retort that this naturalist was committing his version of the god-of-the-gaps, namely “naturalism-of-the-gaps.” Given his entire philosophical worldview is at stake dependent on the truth of a miracle, it is not very surprising that he would feel threatened, hence the need to place faith in a natural explanation no matter how incredible the odds of such an explanation are. To the detriment of that argument, however, the context simply says otherwise. The healing occurred within a church in response to a prayer to God, that was prayed by a pastor; a devout man who had dedicated his life to serving God and his church. In response, the boy was cured from an incurable illness. Thus, historian Michael Licona is particularly helpful given that he lists two criteria that can be used to not only identify when a miracle occurs, but also that an event is far more likely to be a miracle than some unknown natural event (10):

1. the event was extremely unlikely to have occurred given the circumstances and/or laws of nature and,

2. it occurs within an environment or context charged with religious significance.

If an event passes both criteria, argues Licona, then it can reasonably be deduced to be a miracle; as philosopher Tim McGrew explains, “A miracle is an event that exceeds the productive power of nature, and a religiously significant miracle is a detectable miracle that has a supernatural cause. For practical purposes, we need nothing further. The paradigmatic claims under discussion – that a man who has died was raised to life again several days after his death, for example, or that water was changed instantaneously into wine – satisfy not only this definition but also most of the alternative proposals that have been seriously advanced” (11).

Identifying Jesus’ Resurrection as a Miracle.

This ties in with what we’ve mentioned above, except we want to focus on the specific miracle of the resurrection. Now, assume that Jesus really was raised from the dead, is it possible that a supernatural explanation could be defended? Note that we are not looking to defend the historical facts surrounding the resurrection (the empty tomb, Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the origin of the early church etc.); rather, the question we want to ask ourselves is “if Jesus actually was raised from the dead, are we then justified in inferring a supernatural cause for that event?”

Now, if Jesus really rose from the dead then most would answer yes, and in attempt to avoid this answer, skeptics of the resurrection will try to explain it away by challenging the facts. No skeptic, as far as I can tell, would argue that if Jesus was really raised from the dead then the best explanation was not a miracle as opposed to a natural one. Most people, skeptics included, concede that if Jesus was raised from the dead then it is nothing less than an actual miracle.

But how do we know this? Well, for two primary reasons. Firstly, a resurrection from the dead exceeds what we know of natural causes to such an extent that it is considered reasonable to attribute it to a supernatural cause. This is especially so given the miracle’s uniqueness, and other factors such as the length of time Jesus had been dead for, how he had died, and the nature of his alleged resurrection body. According to the early Christians, Jesus’ resurrection was not a resuscitation of a corpse, and neither was it a return to an earthly body. Rather, it is alleged to be a bodily resurrection, suggesting a full transformation of the body to a new mode of existence. Given the resurrection and the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body, it is thus simply too unlikely that it was a result of natural causes. But even if we granted that Jesus’ resurrection was the result of natural causes, then why has it been isolated only to Jesus? And why hasn’t it occurred again? For two millennia no natural causes have been discovered that could explain it; in fact, the advances in science seems to suggest just how naturally impossible a bodily resurrection from the dead is.

Secondly, as we’ve argued above, context is important. The supernatural explanation for the resurrection is grounded in the religio-historical context. For example, as the late German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg observed, a supernatural explanation is best simply because it is Jesus at the centre of it (12). It is the context of Jesus’ ministry, such as him putting himself in God’s place, that suggests a supernatural explanation. Thus, it is quite clear that the resurrection doesn’t exist in some vacuum as some just-so story. No, it is the fulfillment and climax of Jesus’ own ministry and teachings, all of which lead to the conclusion that should Jesus have been raised from the dead then the only explanation would be a supernatural explanation.

References.

1. Adams, W. 1767. An Essay in Answer to Mr. Hume’s Essay on Miracles. p. 15.

2. Sherlock, T. 1729. The Trial of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, n.d. [1843]. p. 57.

3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles 3.103

4. Larmer, R. 1988. Water Into Wine? An Investigation of the Concept of Miracle. p. 9.

5. Bible.org. Definition of Miracles. Available.

6. Clarke, S. 1719. A Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God. p. 311-12.

7. Hume, D. 1748. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

8. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith. p. 583 (Scribd ebook format).

9. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 577 (Scribd ebook format).

10. Licona, M. 2010. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. p. 163.

11. McGrew, T. 2014. Miracles. Available.

12. Pannenberg, W. 1968. Jesus – God and Man. p. 67.

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