Dr Stephen Loxton, Sherborne School for Girls
With the concept of miracle we come upon a most problematic term. On the one hand, we have the everyday sense of using the term “miracle” to describe something that was unexpected and surprising – and positive. Driving to work I might round a corner and find five deer in the middle of the road. Later I describe it as “a miracle” that they all leapt out of the way and none were killed! I might come in in August to get the A level results and find that so-and-so has an A grade – I say it is “a miracle”. But we then have the “religious” sense of miracle, particularly as some claim, in biblical literature where, on some understandings, divine power is directly perceived to have intervened to some good effect.
Here are some things that happen as a matter of course, or occasionally:
- If I want to make wine I need a lot of water; the process involves a lot of work and several stages and time – it can’t be done in an instant.
- Someone is ill and they have tried several treatments and therapies for several years with no real improvement. Then they hear of a new doctor who people speak well of. They visit the doctor and at once they feel sure that things are going to improve – and they do.
- Someone might be very ill and be thought beyond recovery – but in fact they do pull through.
- Someone is certified dead but hours later in the morgue they recover consciousness and give the morgue attendant a severe shock.
In the New Testament writings we have numerous examples of events similar to the above:
- John 2 1-11 – Jesus changes water into wine at the Wedding in Cana-in-Galilee.
- Mark 5 24/5 -34 – The healing of the woman with haemorrhages.
- Mark 5 21-24 & 35-43 – The healing of Jairus’ daughter.
- John 11:1-16 & 38-44 – The death and raising of Lazarus.
All of these things are “signs” (in John) or “miracles” in Mark – and the view that we have been explaining says that the miraculous aspect here is not really what happens, but that it is said to have happened in a particular way and via the agency of an individual or by the power of some divine intervention. One matter to raise here and to explore more later is that the philosophical discussion of miracles almost always works on the basis of assuming that the New Testament writings must be taken as factual and descriptive. Many religious people think this too! For many such stories are evidence of supernatural power breaking through into the natural or created order, and so evidence of God’s reality and God’s care. A feature of this view is that what has happened cannot be explained in naturalistic terms – it is a supernatural event.Thus we have a common-sensical and a religious view that is variously literalistic in its reading of the biblical material and orthodox if not fundamentalist in its theology.
There is at least one other way of looking at miracles that we will consider later, but for now we need to note that the main philosophical discussion of miracles given by David Hume is directed against the religious view as set out so far.
David Hume: Of Miracles
Hume’s view on miracles is easily summed up: The Christian religion, he says, was at the first “attended with miracles” and even today “cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one”. Any thoughts on Hume’s writing here? Belief requires faith and this is in effect a “continued miracle” in the person of the believer, “which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience”.
It is well known that Hume is an empiricist. All “objects of human reason or enquiry” can be divided into one of two kinds:
- Relations of ideas – by which Hume means logic, mathematics and the like – matters than can be known intuitively or through deduction. “That four times five is equally to half of forty” is the sort of thing Hume means. A feature of a true proposition expressing a relation of ideas is that it will be certain. Thus we are certain that “3 x 3 = 9” is right (or true) and as certain that “7 + 3 = 12” is wrong.
- Matters of fact – by which Hume means all matters that we infer through the senses about the world we take be outside ourselves. A feature of such knowledge is that is not certain. The contrary of every matter of fact is possible; for example, “the sun will rise tomorrow” and “the sun will not rise tomorrow” are both intelligible propositions; neither are contradictory.
- Hume assumes we will see that the knowledge that we need for most of our dealings with life is knowledge of matters of fact. So far as we can tell, knowledge of matters of fact “seems to be founded on the relation of Cause and Effect”. “Seems” is a key term here – Hume does not think that we observe a phenomenon directly called “cause and effect”; “cause and effect” is simply our habitual convention for what we do observe. Thus, if we ask of anyone why they believe any matter of fact, they will explain via a description of other facts that are seen as causes of the fact in questions which viewed as an effect. Thus “A man finding a watch or any other machine in a desert island, would conclude that there had once been men on that island”.
Our thinking on matters of fact is via a principle of habit, which Hume calls constant conjunction. It is, Hume says, “a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction”. To adapt Hume’s example, a child does not know a priori that water of a certain depth would drown her. Reason, “unassisted by experience” cannot “draw inferences concerning real existence and matters of fact”. It is only via a series of events where one thing is observed regularly following another – so choking after going beneath the surface of the bath or a pond or a pool – gives rise to the view that drowning follows as an effect from immersion in water (the cause) – though not the only one, as many murder enquiries discover. Hume thus feels that wisdom involves proportioning “belief to the evidence”.
All knowledge of matters of fact is uncertain to some degree, so contrary views can be envisaged to some degree to every possible belief. For any belief that we are considering we should consider opposite views and the weight of experimental evidence on each side of the case, so that we can judge the probability of a view being proportionally assured. If we have one hundred experimental confirmations of a view and no contrary cases we can have strong assurance. Exceptions, however, prove the rule – that is Hume’s view!
Hume thinks that the principle of understanding here should be applied equally to human testimonies and eyewitness accounts of personal experience. He is thinking of accounts of miracles or testimonies of having had a miraculous experience. All such accounts are “founded on past experience” and so are “varied with the experience” and should be examined either as proof or as probability relative to the conjunction or otherwise with other reports and evidence. Hume considers that, in the case of an Indian Prince who refused to believe the accounts he heard of the effects frost, he did so justly, since the accounts invited him to assent to a state of nature that he had not encountered; he had no experience conformable with what was being described. Here Hume is recommending scepticism as a reasonable outlook in the face of the unexpected – and by implication suggesting that the use of the term “miracle” to explain the unexpected is unwarranted.
Hume’s definition of miracle
Hume defines a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature”. By “laws of nature” Hume means that regular experiences have given rise to firm beliefs about certain regularities we term “laws”: that all men die, that objects are subject to gravity, that fire burns wood and is extinguished by water. Nothing in conformity with the laws could count as a miracle – by default a miracle is something that appears to be an event that is a violation of the “common course of nature”.
Hume, mindful of the Christian belief in the miracle of resurrection, says that it is no kind of miracle that a man should die suddenly. This is of course unusual, but it has been observed to happen. But it would be a miracle if a dead man came to life. Hume then reasons that the conformity of observed experience gives direct and full proof, “from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle”. Such a proof can only be overcome (and a claimed miracle made probable) by evidence that is superior to what is in fact regularly observed to be the case. Whatever else Hume achieves, he manages, with this reasoning, to define miracles into the domain of irrational fantasy!
Hume has thus far shown that we would never have good reason to prefer a miracle as an explanation for an event to an explanation that conforms to regular experiences of natural events. But Hume then produces a series of further arguments against miracles: Hume reasons that “… there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond any suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a good deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection avoidable”.
Hume next suggests that the passions of “surprise” and “wonder” arising from miracles, “being agreeable” give “a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately cannot believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the imagination of others … A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what is has no reality; he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere with it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause.” Hume states that “strong presumption against” the supernatural and miraculous being viable that they originate mostly amongst what he terms “ignorant and barbarous nations”.
Hume’s last argument is that each religion has its own testimony to miracles that are supposed to support it as an exclusive system of belief. He thus reasons that these are “contrary facts” that in effect cancel each other out.
Hume’s arguments have been subjected to a great deal of comment and criticism: Hume suggests that we must base conclusions on a balance of evidence; thus we proportion our views to the evidence, and this implies that evidence for a miracle would have to outweigh the counter evidence for the miracle to be deemed credible. This contradicts the idea that a miracle is an exception in some kind; Hume suggests that a miracle is in fact a “violation” of natural laws. Theological insight might suggests that miracles are in some sense a revelatory disclosure of something of the true nature of reality, and that the miracle is not a challenge to a natural law in the way that Hume suggests. The principle in Hume’s view would appear to be that anything that challenges the accepted view, the established view, is to be ruled out on the grounds that the weight of prior evidence will be against it. This would cause all scientific innovations to be deemed miracles and thus illegitimate!
Richard Swinburne has a number of objections to Hume’s reasoning. First of all, he questions the Humean assumption that is most reasonable to base conclusions on the evidence of scientific investigation, based on the view that the laws of nature, discovered via science, are the most compelling explanatory theories that we have. Against this Swinburne points out that science and our sense of the laws of nature are based on three forms of knowledge that are equally those upon which we would rely if we were to say that certain matters were explicable only as miracles. These are:
- Our apparent memories.
- The testimony of others.
- The physical traces left by the event or phenomenon. ￼
Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of Oxford.
Swinburne’s conclusion is that in principle we cannot use the same forms of knowledge to rule the laws of science in and the possibility of miracles out; if the evidence for one is good then it should be good for the other too. So if we reason that we can trust the evidence of those who can explain phenomena via natural science, then we should also be prepared to trust explanations of phenomena via the category of miracle. Swinburne suggests that in principle no good reason against miracles can be given. If we suppose that miracles occur what could be conclude from this? Swinburne thinks that we can argue by analogy; if events of type A are the result of intentional human action, then we deduce that humans intentionally caused them. Thus if a person’s fever disappears overnight and the disappearance is traced to the agency of doctors who prescribed a certain regime of therapy, we explain matters via their human agency. If events of type B are analogous to type A insofar as effects are observed, but no human agency is observed as the cause, then it is reasonable to infer the existence of non-material agency as the cause. Thus if a person’s illness disappears as a result of an intervention, but no physical human agency appears to be involved, then a non-physical, spiritual and miraculous cause becomes plausible.
“Miracle revisited”: a third sense of miracle
However, a further sense of “miracle” needs to be brought into the review.
Since the later 18th C, the New Testament has been subjected to a great deal of careful and critical scholarship. Textual, literary, source form, redaction and narrative styles of criticism have all had an influence on the way in which we can now read and analyse the literature of the New (and Old) Testament. We can’t detail the history of this development here, but some key conclusions shared in New Testament theology should be set out:
- The NT writers tend – some more than others – to live in a mindset infused by certain historically conditioned givens.
- They assume that “this world” is a created reality that stands between a divine power and hope on the one hand, and an underworld where evil spirits and forces reside and where some kind of eternal punishment is being made ready of those who do not make it through what is to come.
- It is assumed that evil spirits can percolate up from the underworld to tempt or afflict people, and that God can raise up for himself prophets and true sons of God to proclaim the message of God’s faith, mercy and love – which is, as a rule, offered to those who, variously, fear the Lord, repent, have faith and/or live so that they “Welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry”.
- What is to come, if it hasn’t in some sense already come, is drawn from traditions of Jewish apocalyptic and doubtless from the teaching of Jesus, the kingdom of God.
- The early Christian writers seem to be broadly agreed that the kingdom has been revealed through the teaching and ministry of Jesus who they proclaim as Messiah/Christ, but the inaugurated kingdom – which is viewed as a spiritual rule of God’s will in the hearts and mind of his people – will be, it is hoped, confirmed though an eschatological “Second Coming” of the Lord.
- The New Testament writings are historic but not histories; the Gospels are not biographies, nor are they chronologies. They are kerygmatic documents of faith, proclaiming the “good news” – the Greek term Euangelion – et. “gospel” – of the kingdom and of salvation won via Jesus the Messiah/Christ.
- Jesus of Nazareth died about 32 CE; Paul’s letters (written for contemporary church communities, not for posterity) come from the later 40s to the early 60s. Paul, Peter and other prominent church leaders die in the persecutions mounted by Nero (60-70 CE) and the Gospels (Mk 70, Mtt & Lk 8-85, Jn 90-110) are written on the basis of oral traditions and earlier written traditions within and for particular early Christian communities, most of whom would not, as it happens, recognise or answer to the term “Christian”.
- In the context of these ideas miracle stories have a generally specific range of functions. They link to notions of faith – we must not think of miracles as tricks or events that “just happen”. Some show a sacramental view of reality as being essentially God-given. Some deal with these themes within the setting of the mind-set that envisages a cosmic battle between love and death, good and evil, God and the evil spirits.
- In many healing miracles, the true miracle is expressed through the radical surprise of a man’s actions in overcoming the ritual inhibitions of a religious tradition within Judaism that puts ritual law observance way above compassion. The real, if very socially relative, miracle about a lot of Jesus’ healings as reported in the Gospel traditions is found in the following narrative:
“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.” Mark 1:40-45
Here we need to know the following:
- In the 1st C all skin diseases, rashes or allergies could be called “leprosy”.
- According to ritual law, a leper was unclean and could not be touched. To touch a leper was to break the law and become unclean – a grievous sin for a ritually-orientated follower of Judaism.
- Faith, reciprocal faith, lies deep in the “healing” as a “making clean”. The affliction is believed to be a consequence of sin; the implicit cure is a making whole again in terms of a right relation to God. In later stories in Mark – he develops the explanations very deliberately in his narrative – faith is a key to healings.
How does this help us in Philosophy of Religion?
- We can be better informed than Hume over what a miracle is.
- We can suggest more constructive arguments and interpretations.
- We can show more philosophical insight in how to interpret and read traditions and debates.
The moral problem of miracles
One major line of criticism against miracles as often understood within Christianity – as supernatural interventions by God – comes from the liberal theologian Maurice Wiles (1929-2005).
Wiles sets out his ideas in a number of works but we can follow his reasoning from his book The Remaking of Christian Doctrine.
In this book Wiles takes the view that God must be regarded as the sole creator of the world that we make sense of through the laws of nature. So God must be seen as acting in a fashion that is consistent with his creation. This means that God would not act to intervene in the world in a fashion that would suspend or run counter to the laws of nature. Miracles as defined as supernatural acts that transcend the laws of nature are not, Wiles argues, a part of Christian thought or faith.
Wiles rejects the notion of a God who acts so as to intervene in the world via a miraculous transgression of the normal and created laws for the following reasons:
- God is sole creator of the world as whole and so his action will be consistent with the creation and not be counter to it.
- If God is wholly good – or omnibenevolent – then he would not act in a select number of cases to save or heal some and leave so many others to their fate. If God did act arbitrarily to save some but not most, then this would not be what we mean by “God” and such a God would not be worthy of worship.
- For example, if God acts to save one person here or then, why does he not act to save the millions who died in the Gulags, the Holocaust, or in the various other major genocides that have occurred throughout history?
- It is, Wiles thinks, more coherent and theologically more consistent to say that God does not perform or act “miraculously” in the manner defined by some religious believes and of course, by Hume!
Wiles thinks that the importance of miracle stories is that they show what happens if people have faith in and act in accordance with God’s will or intention; miracles understood in this sense then testify to God’s saving and transforming power and this is wholly consistent with his creative and sustaining power.
We can summarise Wiles’ as follows:
- Christians do not need to agree with miracles and they have good reasons to not affirm them.
- Intervention via miracle would show an arbitrary will of God – a problem for Wiles and, he thinks, for Christians.
- Wiles thinks God can act in relation to his creation as a whole, so this implies he is denying God the freedom to act without causal restraint.
- This does not limit or depersonalise God because creation as a whole is the act of God.
- Why would he intervene with his own creation?
- Wiles thinks that the idea of an interventionist God is “both implausible and full of difficulty for a reasoned faith”.
Wiles and incarnation
For Orthodox Christians the key miracles are those of incarnation and resurrection. “The word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1)
Wiles was a contributor to the contentious volume The Myth of God Incarnate edited by John Hick in 1977, and before and after this he wrote extensively on the issues of faith, the mystery of God and the problems and challenges of theological language – including incarnational language.
Wiles – in short – argues that there must be a way to explain the doctrine of the incarnation and resurrection which does not involve a breach of nature in general or of human nature in particular.
Thus incarnation is not a special or unique act of God; it is the “perfection” of the “human response to God”. The full humanity of Jesus is central to Wiles’ Christology. Jesus freely and fully responded totally to God’s grace and in doing so, incarnated or revealed God’s will and purpose in the world.
Wiles refers to Hans Kung for support:
“… the raising of Jesus is not a miracle violating the law of nature … Not a supernatural intervention which can be located in space and time.” (On Being a Christian)
“It seems to me no clearer theologically than historically that this final coping stone, faith in the vindication of Jesus and the conviction that Jesus lives in the presence of God, could only have derived from some special action of God in the form of supernaturally given appearances of Jesus.”
- The idea of miracles as direct actions of God must be abandoned.
- Belief in petitionary prayer causing God to act would be rejected.
- Status of Christ – no longer God – fully human who responds perfectly to God.
- The options are thus that Christians must either accept Wiles’ views or accept the selective/arbitrary acts of a God who is this morally responsible for not stopping evil by direct action and so not worthy of worship.