Miracles Happen

“Believe one miracle story and you have to believe all miracle stories.”

Yeah, that’s a non sequitur if there ever was one.

But what is a miracle?

Webster’s defines it as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.”

The definition has 3 key assumptions: first, there is something “divine”, second, that this “divine” thing has the ability and desire to exercise power in our realm of existence, and, third, that there is more than one realm of existence. Any denial of any of the three assumptions makes the existence of such acts not only inconceivable but impossible.

Ronald Roberts’, in his article on the subject in the Lexham Bible Dictionary, defines the term as

An event that defies common expectations of behavior and subsequently is attributed to a superhuman agent; an occurrence that demonstrates God’s involvement in the course of human affairs.

He goes so far as to establish 4 characteristics of a miracle, saying that the definitional aspects of a “miracle” are,

1. form of the miracle;

2. identity of the direct agent (actor ultimately responsible for the miracle);

3. presence or absence of an intermediate agent;

4. observers’ responses.

This would seem to indicate, if not substantiate, the Christian assertion that there are multiple sources, we could even say powers, that are capable of performing the miraculous. Roberts, summarizing another source, affirms this by noting,

Ancient Near Eastern and Greek societies understood miraculous occurrences as evidence of divine and spiritual beings’ participation in earthly affairs.

So, what differentiates a “miracle” from “magic”? Roberts answers the question by saying,

The distinction between “miracle” and “magic” derives from the observer’s perspective, which can involve numerous factors…(emphasis added)

Roberts further notes that the distinction tends to shift as a culture shifts,

In the fifth—fourth centuries BC, many Greeks and Romans came to suspect traditional healers, diviners, prophets, and wonder-workers of being “magicians”.

Indeed, how one determines the difference comes down to ones presuppositions. But what is magic? Roberts, in an article in the same source, defines it thusly,

Ritual manipulation of objects. The use of verbal formulas for the purpose of causing observable change by means of superhuman power.

Roberts notes that,

Ancient Near Eastern cultures made no clear distinctions between magic and religion, or magic and medicine. The idea of magic as a practice distinct from religion is a modern, Western category.

The cultural backgrounds and interpretive presuppositions ultimately determines the understanding of the distinction. Our modernistic interpretation of magic is often to confuse it with science. The classical science fiction authors, such as Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov, moved the culture to such an understanding, because magic was often attached to medicine or technology. Indeed, as our understanding of the world and its operations have increased, the magical and the miraculous are often glossed over with a sheen of amazement in those things.

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Our manipulation of the atomic level of existence, which enables this message to, quite literally, travel through the air is only possible because of our grasp of electromagnetism and the development of technology that makes it possible. This has become so integrated into our modern lives that our society would be rendered inoperable upon its disruption or loss. The magicians of old have become those who are able to take the available knowledge of the world and use it to give us wonder-working technologies. But I must digress before I get too far away from the purpose of this post, namely a response to J.H. McKenna’s post at his blog, titled, “Believe One Miracle And You’ve No Excuse For Disbelieving All Other Miracles”.

Of course, McKenna fails to define his terms. What does he mean by the words “believe” and “miracle”?

His post, like so many of the pop-culture atheists, presents some seriously over-generalized claims by presenting a list that contains such things as,

  • Healing miracles performed by adult religious heroes

  • Nature miracles performed by adult religious heroes or a God

  • Celestial miracles

He notes,

Many religions have rationalistic members who reinterpret the miracle stories of their tradition, and they do so in ways they should deem as incredible as the miracles themselves.

This statement seems to serve as a subtle ad hominem towards those who attempt to understand exactly what is going on. Undoubtedly he’s referring to certain Christians who look carefully at the text and attempt to make careful distinctions between those things which are truly miraculous (ie the resurrection of Christ) and those instances where there was a divine hand of intervention (ie the conception of John the Baptist to elderly parents). However, as I said, once we get into the original sources, McKenna’s statements are too broad to be considered meaningful, especially when he doesn’t list sources that can be compared to one another. This “trust me, I’m an authority” of many atheists should bother those who claim to be skeptics and rationalists who insist upon the examination of empirical evidence. To delve into that  would move us outside of the scope of this post, but that means that we need to look into the purposes that miracles serve.

Roberts, in his discussion of the subject, remarks that miracles served a number of them in the biblical context, including,

  • instrumental (ie manna to sustain the Israelites in their wandering)

  • communicative (ie the “writing on the wall” in Daniel)

  • punitive (ie the affliction of the Philistines with tumors)

  • socio-political (ie Elijah’s confirmation as a prophet)

  • theological (ie confirmations of God’s presence or attentiveness)

There’s no doubt that, given the fact that there are multiple spiritual powers, that they are somehow forbidden from interacting with the physical world in similar attempts to make themselves known in order to achieve similar ends however, God’s sovereign exertion of power and authority would naturally overrule such positions (see this post on the worldview of the ANE). Such testimony is seen in chapter 48 of the church patriarch Athanasius’ treatise On the Incarnation, where he states,

And let him who wishes to have experience of what we have just said come, and in the midst of the pretence of the dæmons and of the deceit of the oracles and of the wonders of magic, let him use the sign of the cross—that cross which is the subject of derision amongst them—and merely name Christ, and he will see how by it dæmons flee, soothsaying ceases, and all magic and witchcraft is brought to naught.

Miracles are, to borrow an expression, “rare as hen’s teeth”. They have to be for a number of reasons, but two primarily stand out: sovereignty and gratitude.

God is sovereign, and he will display that sovereignty as he deems fit. God cannot be manipulated or cajoled into action. He will not be bargained with in any expression of his power over the world. His displays serve his purposes. It is easy to be dismissive and skeptical because of these facts, but that is also why miracles are rare, so that they will foster gratitude.

Gratitude begets loyalty and loyalty cannot be passed on to the next generation. A true miracle stirs something within a person that cannot be explained away. Every believer experiences one miracle in their life: the miracle of faith that brings them into a right relationship with God through the redeeming work of Christ. That should ultimately inspire definite loyalty. However, every believer then becomes a potential outlet for another miracle.

Miracles happen. Displays of power and authority happen. The fact that there are multiple powers that can do a multitude of different works does not obligate anyone to believe every single claim that is supposedly substantiated by every act of power. It should cause us to move carefully and to think clearly.

Image source.

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