By. Justin Holcomb
The pages of the Bible are filled with miraculous acts of God, and those who believe in thetrustworthiness of Scripture surely believe in miracles. Yet today, when someone claims to have witnessed a miracle, even evangelical Christians tend to chuckle inside, perhaps attributing the “miracle” to an overactive imagination or the advancements of modern science. We are faced with a difficult paradox: on the one hand, we long for miraculous signs and wonders like those in Scripture, but often when we see or hear of events worthy of being called “miraculous” we struggle to overcome our modern skepticism. Has God ceased to work in the world the way he did in biblical times?
In order to answer this question, we need to develop a theology of miracles that will help us rightly understand the way God works in the world today so that we avoid the extremes of making everything a miracle, on the one hand, or allowing nothing to be a miracle, on the other. We need to determine what a miracle is and is not.
Wrong Views of Miracles
Many false views of miracles persist today. For example, some people believe God created the world like a watch that just needed to be wound up, only to be left alone, operating according to a set of natural laws. In this view, God isn’t usually involved in the world, and miracles are those times when he chooses to interrupt the laws of nature. But this view squeezes God out of any ordinary, providential sustainment of the created order. That is, it assumes God doesn’t normally act in creation, which, as we’ll see, is not biblical.
A second wrong view of miracles also tries to squeeze any divine action out of the world, but in a different way. This view suggests that there are really no such things as miracles because, by definition, miracles violate the laws of nature. However, because we don’t have an exhaustive understanding of the laws of nature, how can we be sure any given miracle did in fact violate some such law? Ironically, this position happily admits some things that happen in the world surpass our comprehension—it just attributes those mysteries to science rather than to God.
The opposite of the second perspective is the “God of the gaps” view, which basically attributes anything we don’t presently understand to the miraculous power of God. Rather than explaining an extraordinary event by “mere science,” the “God of the gaps” view explains any gap in scientific knowledge by divine existence or action. But as scientific knowledge grows, and the gaps in our knowledge shrink, so does the God who supposedly filled them.
Yet another wrong view of miracles turns every mundane action of God in the world into an extraordinary miracle. Michael Horton describes this view well in The Christian Faith:
In reaction against naturalism, it is often asserted by Christians that God is in fact involved regularly in the course of their lives in the form ofmiracles. Starved for some practical sense of God’s concern for their daily lives, many Christians flock to groups and individuals promising them a daily encounter with miracles. What is lost in the bargain is a sense of God’s ordinary providence in and through creaturely means and natural processes that he has created and sustains. (368)1
That is, some Christians are so worried that modern secularism has no place for God that they overcompensate, calling everything extraordinary that happens a miracle. But when everything is a miracle, nothing is a miracle.
Miracles vs. Providence
One of the most basic Christian beliefs is that God—as the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all life in the universe—acts in, on, and through that which he has created. In one sense, the entire Bible is an account of miracle after miracle—of God’s continual special working in creation to redeem and restore a covenant people for himself. The Westminster Confession states this point succinctly: “God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”
So what is a miracle, and how is a miracle distinguishable from regular divine action? How can we maintain both a robust understanding of general divine providence and special divine intervention in miracles? In order to understand miracles rightly, Christians must account for God’s everyday sustaining providence.
According to Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology, “A miracle is a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself” (355). Or, as Horton puts it, “Unlike God’s ordinary providence, his miraculous intervention involves a suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes in particular circumstances” (368). Notice both of these definitions of miracles presuppose that God is already involved in creation continually.
God is involved in the world through more than just miracles; even natural processes can be attributed to divine agency. As Horton observes, “When a burn heals, it is God who heals it through the natural processes with which he has richly endowed and so carefully attends it” (369).
When we understand that God providentially guides and sustains our everyday lives, the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” fades. Horton explains:
We frequently distinguish natural and supernatural causes, but this too may reflect the false choice of attributing circumstances either to God or to nature. The Scriptures know nothing of a creation or a history that is at a single moment independent of God’s agency. The question is notwhether God is involved in every aspect of our lives but how God is involved. Therefore, with respect to providence, the question is never whether causes are exclusively natural or supernatural, but whether God’s involvement in every moment is providential or miraculous. (369, italics original)
“Interventionist” views of divine action see any activity of God as miraculous, diminish God’s providential guidance, and create too strong a dichotomy between God’s agency and creaturely agency. In contrast, a view that sees miracles as a special instance of God’s activity acknowledges that “even in his miraculous activity God usually works through creaturely means, but he sanctifies them for extraordinary service” (368).
To be disappointed at not seeing “Bible-like” miracles in our own lives is to misunderstand the significance of God’s providential care over creation. “Not only when God intervenes extraordinarily, suspending his natural order, but in his design and faithfulness to that order, we have reason to give thanks,” Horton writes. “Not only when one’s cancer mysteriously disappears, but when it is conquered through the countless layers of creaturely mediation, ultimately God is the healer” (369).
Whether we experience God’s power in an obviously miraculous way, such as a healing, or simply through his providential guiding of a surgeon’s hands, God is equally near to us, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).
1 Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011). All Horton quotes in this article can be found in The Christian Faith.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.