Up until the Enlightenment, the idea that the miracles recorded in the pages of the Bible happened as the biblical writers described them was widely accepted. With the rationalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an alternative theory emerged: that miracles were not possible in naturalistic metaphysics.
Academic research has made this view a fundamental premise, often assumed a priori. This article aims to test the anti-supernaturalist plea on new grounds, inspired by modern studies of the phenomenology of miracles in relation to those reported in the New Testament. But first…
What is a miracle and how did it come to be regarded as impossible?
The simple definition of a miracle is “an act or event that occurs outside the bounds of the normal or natural order.” The idea of higher forces intervening in our world was considered plausible for many centuries. However, with the development of modern science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the world began to be seen as a closed system subject to the laws of nature alone.
In the following, I will mention three important figures whose voices helped to shape the view against miracles. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Sephardic Jew who fled to Holland in the seventeenth century, wrote a theological and political treatise, the sixth chapter of which deals with miracles. Spinoza was a pantheist, that is, a member of the current that confuses God with nature. The philosopher was therefore opposed to the idea that when something unusual happens in the world, it has an external, divine cause. The ancient Jews, he said, told miraculous stories to prove to the pagans that their gods (often related to the elements of nature) were subject to the God of the Jews.
Spinoza postulated that since everything that happens in nature obeys the laws of nature, what people call a “miracle” is in fact the impression of ignorant people who cannot explain a phenomenon that, although unusual to them, is a normal manifestation of nature. One of the biblical examples would be God’s promise at the time of Noah that He would place the rainbow in the clouds (as a sign that the world would not be destroyed by another flood), when in fact the rainbow is the result of the refraction and reflection of sunlight by the water droplets of rain. Although Spinoza’s observations are correct in some detail, the premise on which he builds is fundamentally flawed.
God is not equal to nature, but is its Creator.
There is nothing that obliges God not to intervene, as the case may be, in the order and course He has set for nature, as John Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and a well-known contemporary Christian apologist, asserts (“God is not a prisoner of the laws of nature”).
French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote a pamphlet, Of Miracles, from the perspective of classical deism, the view that God created our world but does not interfere with it in any way. In the Dictionnaire Philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary), published in 1764, Voltaire reserves a place under the letter M for an article entitled “Miracle.” The French philosopher suggests that supernatural intervention by God, contrary to the laws He has established, would negate His power and wisdom to create a perfect design from the beginning. Nonetheless, Voltaire argues in this manner without taking into account the fact that, in the biblical conception, the world as we know it underwent serious mutations after humanity’s fall into sin.
Thus, although nature functions according to God’s laws, it has been corrupted by sin, with results that no longer reflect the original design of a perfect world. Voltaire was troubled by the fact that the philosopher-theologians of his time believed that the miracles of Jesus and the apostles were real but were sceptical about later miraculous accounts in Church history. Contrary to its author’s intention, Voltaire’s objection offers a new way of responding to today’s anti-supernaturalism.
David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher of the Enlightenment, addressed the problem of miracles from the perspective of the rationalist scepticism of his time. In his book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume discusses the subject of miracles in Section X. A critical view of miracles, the philosopher continues, requires the use of evidence to verify supernatural claims, with experience being the only guide to belief. As an empiricist and sceptic, Hume urges caution and almost always arrives at a probable conclusion. For him, eyewitness testimony carries the most weight, but only if that testimony is consistent with ordinary facts as we know them. Of course, he continues, the veracity of eyewitness accounts depends on their number and credibility, and on whether or not they contradict each other.
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. Death, for example, is a uniform experience. Resurrection, on the other hand, is a miracle. If someone were to tell Hume that they had seen a resurrected person, the philosopher would only believe them if the falsity of their testimony was more miraculous than the supposed resurrection. Hume always rejects the greater miracle (in the example given, the resurrection). He expects the witnesses to an alleged miracle to be sufficiently numerous, reasonable, educated, honest, and to have much to lose (in reputation) if they are found to be lying.
He also expects miracles to have occurred in public and in a known and civilised place, which favours awareness of alleged supernatural events. Hume concludes that even miracles performed by God Almighty would be equally (im)probable for us humans, because we cannot know God except through experience. Regarding Christianity, Hume suggests that it cannot be embraced by reason alone, but only by faith.
In my opinion, Hume has locked himself into a system of interpretation that leaves no room for revelation (God’s Word), but only for experience. Yes, it leaves room for faith, but it is blind faith in a text (the Bible) that is not sacred, but a document written by authors with a primitive view of the world and of life, says Hume. Still, if I were to apply Hume’s criteria (numbers, education, integrity, risk of witnesses, etc.) to the resurrection of Jesus, I think almost all of them are met.
The contemporary test of anti-supernaturalism
One of the contemporary authors best able to talk about miracles in an academic way is the American theologian Craig Keener, professor of biblical studies at Asbury Seminary, USA. Keener argues that anti-supernaturalism has become an inflexible premise in Western thought, but that we now have a significant body of evidence to challenge its claims. In 2011, in an impressive tome of over 1,200 pages, Keener published a study in which he sought to demonstrate two things—one historical, the other theological.
The first was that the claim of miraculous events as recorded by witnesses in the pages of Scripture should not be dismissed simply because there is no supernatural. The biographies (Gospels) and historiographies (Acts) contain much historically credible information. According to Keener, it is not normal for miracles to be discredited, considering the fact that they are embedded in historically credible documents. Nor should they be dismissed on the grounds that they are ancient, unverifiable sources.
Most of the hundreds of pages that the American theologian has written on miracles document a multitude of contemporary accounts of healings in extremis. Not only are these numerous, but they are corroborated by several eyewitnesses and, above all, by the observations of medical specialists who confirm the “extra-normal” element, as Keener puts it, in the events in question. In view of the reasonable credibility of these reports, the fact that things happen which cannot be explained by natural means seems to be undeniable.
The second point that Keener is eager to demonstrate is that divine intervention cannot be ruled out as a plausible explanation for the causes of abnormal healings, even if it is not the only explanation. The author acknowledges that there are unusual occurrences in the present day which do not have to be immediately attributed to God. However, New Testament accounts of miracles are generally attributed to the power of God manifested through Jesus or the apostles.
To say that science is the only way to certainty is wrong. In fact, “the sentence, ‘Science is the only way to know if something is true’, is itself not a claim that can be proven by science.” Indeed, science measures facts and phenomena, but their interpretation takes the scientific endeavour into the realm of hermeneutics and philosophy. In Keener’s words, in a 2021 paper, again on miracles, “Those who refuse to believe in miracles unless God acts predictably in a scientific experiment are looking for God in the wrong place, ignoring signs that God more normally provides. The god they are seeking is not the one revealed in the Bible.”
Christians who believe that the miracles of the Bible are real interventions of God need not fear to be objective in dialogue with those who hold a different view of the world and of life.
Biblical miracles cannot be proven empirically. At the same time, Christians must be convinced that the testimonies of the biblical writers do not lose their credibility because they relate extraordinary events which they interpret in a providential way.
In conclusion, I believe that what is required of us in the process of an honest search for truth is to recognise that extraordinary biblical events are plausible in the light of the multitude of similar accounts in our own time, and that interpreting them as supernatural or divine intervention is a solution that cannot be discredited.
Laurenţiu Moţ analyses the place of miracles in a world more attached than ever to the anti-supernaturalist assumption, and offers the reader arguments in favour of a rational and balanced position.