Ordinary Miracles

According to Bill Gates, we need a miracle to fight global warming. Specifically, we need an energy miracle.  Gates quickly explains: “When I use the term ‘miracle,’ I don’t mean something impossible. The microprocessor is a miracle. The personal computer is a miracle.”[1]

Like any good speaker, Gates knows what his audience is thinking when he uses the term ‘miracle.’ They will naturally think that the Nerd-in-Charge has thrown up his hands in defeat. A technological solution would require a miracle and, as everyone knows, miracles are impossible. But not to fear: if we think of “miracles” as solutions to difficult problems then, all of a sudden, the impossible becomes possible.

Clean energy is a long way from Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus turning water into wine. Apparently, if we want to borrow quaint religious words from the Bible then we have to lower our sights, a lot. We have to start thinking in terms of perfectly ordinary miracles.

The modern attack on miracles can be traced to an obscure Jewish philosopher by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1688). According to Spinoza, all of nature is God, and so the laws of nature are as fixed and unchangeable as God himself. As Spinoza put it, “nature cannot be contravened.”[2] If anything, claims of miracles distract us from our faith because they point beyond nature, and hence, beyond God.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish skeptic, gave us the version that most college students are forced to read and adopt today: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”[3] Hume had no time for Spinoza’s pantheism, but the line of reasoning was the same: the laws of nature cannot be broken; miracles, if they happen, would have to break the laws of nature; therefore, miracles cannot happen.

We know we are in trouble when apologists buy into the same underlying premise. Sure, an unbreakable law of nature cannot be broken, these guys will concede, but God is the great lawgiver. He “can make or break it” as He sees fit.[4]

This takes us into a dangerous rhetorical minefield. Do we really want to insist that the great lawmaker is also the great law breaker?

And then there is the whole problem of God decreeing the laws of nature. Unlike Spinoza and Hume, we no longer view the laws of science as fixed and unchangeable, and we no longer view the universe as a mechanical clock. Newtonian gravity and other laws have been replaced or modified over the years. With some humility we have come to realize that the laws of science are our best attempts at describing the observed regularities of God’s amazingly complex and often surprising creation.[5] Miracles are exceptions to these regularities, not violations of immutable natural laws. Every law of nature includes the possibility of God’s intervention, but intervention is not the same as contravention.

Besides all of that, the Spinoza-Hume approach begs the question. One way to beg the question is to restate in your conclusion what you already stated in your premises. In this case, by claiming that miracles break the unbreakable the skeptics already have their conclusion, namely, that miracles are impossible.

Before the skeptics came along and told us what our own words should mean, theists had a pretty good understanding of miracles. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) offered the following definition: “Those things must properly be called miraculous which are done by divine power apart from the order generally followed in things.”[6] The keyword is ‘generally.’  A law of nature is a generality, and no more.

So let us not speak of the miraculous when we really mean to speak of the pleasantly wonderful: of spontaneous cancer remissions, of lone survivors and, of all things, microprocessors. The miracles of the Bible were neither ordinary nor quaint. They communicated a clear message, were consistent with God’s character, and always had a sound theological footing.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, November 2012, p. 7.]


[1] “Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!,” TED video, February 2010, 7:10-7:28. [Online]  http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

[2] Baruch Spinoza, “Of Miracles,” Theological-Political Treatise, 6:5.

[3] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10:1:90.

[4] Paul Little, Know Why You Believe, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, p. 139.

[5] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008, p. 262.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, “Of Miracles,” Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.101.

© 2012, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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