Miracle is a slippery concept. The popular conception of a miracle is threefold: it is a violation of a natural law, it is a divine intervention and it is a supernatural event. All are inadequate.
Many philosophers of religion define a miracle as a violation or transgression of a law of nature. This notion is a left-over from the 18th century when deism was at its peak. Walther Eichrodt (1890-1978) points out that it certainly would not
occur to the devout Old Testament believer to make a breach of the Laws of Nature a condicio sine qua non of the miraculous character of an event. (Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 2,
: SCM, p.163) London
God does not violate his own laws, but works with and through them; he is faithful to the creation order, which had its origin in him. This is not to say that God is subject to his laws. Perhaps Augustine (354- 430) was near to the truth when he described a portent (miracle) as an event that ‘happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature’ (De Civitate Dei XII.8). Many scientists would objects to such a definition because it may mean, scientific advances permitting, that we will know so much about nature that there will be no place for miracle. The objection is ill-founded.
It is likewise a mistake to describe miracles as divine interventions. An intervention implies that the intervener is absent prior to the intervention. God is present in all of creation, it therefore illogical to describe his action in the creation as an intervention.
Can we describe miracles as a supernatural phenomenon? The idea that miracles are supernatural events has its origin in rationalism, not in the scriptures. God is the God of the laws of nature: he does not violate his own principles to work a miracle Miracles are natural events. Eichrodt, again, points out that ‘ever the course of Nature itself counts as a miracle’ (p. 162). Nature is not autonomous: all things are held together by Christ. He is both the source and sustainer of all things. Fallen nature is not normal, as rationalism assumes, and supernaturalism, with its nature/ supernature dualism, need not be invoked to explain that which rationalism cannot. As J. H. Diemer puts it:
The fundamental fault of supernaturalism is that it begins with a rationalistic and deistic theory of nature in which only a nature torn loose from its moorings and impoverished is reckoned with... . As long as rationalism exists, supernaturalism will not disappear. Supernaturalism fills the vacuum that rationalism creates. (‘Miracles happen: toward a biblical view of nature’,
: ICS (mimeo) nd, p. 17.) Toronto
How then are we to explain miracles? John Polkinghorne suggests that the fundamental problem of miracles is
how these strange events can be set within a consistent overall pattern of God’s reliable activity; how can we accept them without subscribing to a capricious interventionist God, who is a concept of paganism rather than Christianity. (Science and Providence, London: SPCK, 1989 p. 51.)
To this we might add: ‘and without subscribing to an unbiblical supernaturalism’.
Miracles are part of the created order. In performing miraculous events Jesus was restoring the creation to its original order. They are glimpses of the consummated
Aspects of the fall are temporarily halted: sickness and death are robbed of their dominion. The ultimate example, of course, is of Jesus’ resurrection: he is the firstfruits of what it will be to have a transformed resurrection body; we like him will be raised to immortality.
This means that scientific descriptions of miracles are permissible but they are not the whole truth. They may be able to explain them in certain cases, but as has often been said, ‘explanation is not explaining away’. Hence, scientific explanations will not mean that there will be no place for miracles.