Miracle (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
In order to differentiate between the customary way in which God acts and his special miraculous action, theologians have traditionally distinguished his providentia ordinaria from the providentia extraordinaria, the latter being identified with miracles. Since the dawning of modernity, miracles have been widely understood to be "violations of the laws of nature." But so long as laws of nature are taken to be universal inductive generalizations, the notion of a violation of a law of nature is incoherent, since such statements must take account of everything that happens, so that exceptions to them are impossible. Although this fact led some Enlightenment philosophers to think that miracles can thus be defined out of existence, it ought rather to alert one to the defectiveness of the modern definition. Natural laws have implicit ceteris paribus conditions, so that a law states what is the case under the assumption of certain ideal conditions. If God brings about some event that a law of nature fails to predict or describe, such an event cannot be characterized as a violation of that law, since the law is valid only on the assumption that no supernatural factors come into play.
Miracles, then, are better defined as naturally impossible events, that is to say, events that cannot be produced by the natural causes (i.e., those described by physics) operative at a certain time and place. Whether an event is a miracle is thus relative to a time and place. Of course, some events may be absolutely miraculous in that they are at every time and place beyond the productive capacity of natural causes.
Possibility of miracles
What could conceivably transform an event that is naturally impossible into a real historical event? Clearly, the answer is the personal God of theism. For if a transcendent, personal creator exists, then this God could cause events in the universe that could not be produced by causes within the universe. Given a God who created the universe, who conserves the world in being, and who is capable of acting freely, miracles are evidently possible.
A widespread assumption persists that if historical inquiry is to be feasible, then one must adopt a sort of methodological naturalism as a fundamental historiographical principle. This viewpoint is a restatement of Ernst Troeltsch's principle of analogy, which states that the past does not differ essentially from the present. Though events of the past are, of course, not the same events as those of the present, they must be the same in kind if historical investigation is to be possible. Troeltsch realized that any history written on this principle will be skeptical with regard to the historicity of miracles.
Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, however, has persuasively argued that Troeltsch's principle of analogy cannot be legitimately employed to banish from the realm of history all non-analogous events. Properly defined, analogy means that in a situation that is unclear, the facts ought to be understood in terms of known experience; but Troeltsch has elevated the principle to constrict all past events to purely natural events. But that an event bursts all analogies cannot be used to dispute its historicity. Troeltsch's formulation of the principle of analogy destroys genuine historical reasoning, since the historian must be open to the uniqueness of the events of the past and cannot exclude events a priori simply because they do not conform to present experience. When myths, legends, illusions, and the like are dismissed as unhistorical, it is not because they are non-analogous, but because they are analogous to present forms of consciousness having no objective referent. When an event is said to have occurred for which no analogy exists, its reality cannot be automatically dismissed; to do this one would require an analogy to some known form of consciousness lacking an objective referent that would suffice to explain the situation. Pannenberg has thus upended Troeltsch's principle of analogy such that it is not the want of an analogy that shows an event to be unhistorical, but the presence of a positive analogy to known thought forms that shows a purportedly miraculous event to be unhistorical. In this way, the lack of an analogy to present experience says nothing for or against the historicity of an event. Pannenberg's formulation of the principle preserves the analogous nature of the past to the present or to the known, thus making the investigation of history possible, without thereby sacrificing the integrity of the past or distorting it.
Identification of miracles
The question remains whether the identification of any event as a miracle is possible. On the one hand, it might be argued that a convincing demonstration that a purportedly miraculous event has occurred would only succeed in forcing the revision of natural law so as to accommodate the event in question. But a natural law is not abolished because of one exception; the anomaly must occur repeatedly whenever the conditions for it are present. If an event occurs that is anomalous and there are reasons to believe that this event would not occur again under similar circumstances, then the law in question will not be abandoned.
On the other hand, it might be urged that if a purportedly miraculous event were demonstrated to have occurred, one should conclude that the event occurred in accordance with unknown natural laws. What serves to distinguish a genuine miracle from a mere scientific anomaly? Here the religio-historical context of the event becomes crucial. A miracle without a context is inherently ambiguous. But if a purported miracle occurs in a significant religio-historical context, then the chances of its being a genuine miracle are increased. For example, if the miracles occur at a momentous time and do not recur regularly in history, and if the miracles are numerous and various, then the chances of their being the result of some unknown natural causes are reduced. Moreover, some miracles (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus) so exceed what is known of the productive capacity of natural causes that they could only be reasonably attributed to a supernatural cause. Thus, while it is difficult to know in many cases whether a genuine miracle has occurred, that does not imply pessimism with respect to all cases.
See also DIVINE ACTION; GOD; NATURALISM; LAWS OF NATURE; PROVIDENCE; SPECIAL DIVINE ACTION; SPECIAL PROVIDENCE; SPIRITUALITY AND FAITH HEALING;
Earman, John. "Bayes, Hume, and Miracles." Faith and Philosophy 10 (1993): 29310.
Freddoso, Alfred J. "The Necessity of Nature." Midwest Studies in Philosophy 11 (1986): 21542.
Geivett, R. Douglas, and, Habermas, Gary R. In Defense of Miracles. Downer's Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Hume, David. "Of Miracles." In Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777), 3rd edition, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Midditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. "Redemptive Event and History." In Wolfhart Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology, 2 vols., trans. G. H. Kehm. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970.
Swinburne, Richard. The Concept of Miracle. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Swinburne, Richard, ed. Miracles: Philosophical Topics. New York: Macmillan, 1989.
Troeltsch, Ernst. "er historische und dogmatische Methode in der Theologie." In Gesammelte Schriften. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr, 1913.
WILLIAM LANE CRAIG