Thinking about Miracles and Faith

When it comes to miracles, Karl Barth insists that we have one of two options: Either we believe them, or reject them; just don’t try to explain them. In his discussion of the Virgin Birth in the Göttingen Dogmatics, he says:

Concerning the miracle of the conception of the Spirit and the virgin birth, we must also say above all that no matter what stance we adopt we must accept it as a miracle. One can, of course, reject it, as one can reject miracles in general. This is in order. A miracle is an event that one can only reject, only declare to be impossible and absurd, or only believe. Anything that softens or removes this either/or disrupts the concept of miracle. Thus to make the conception by the Spirit plausible by referring to instances of parthogenesis in the lower plant and animal kingdoms makes no more sense than to defend the resurrection with the help of occultism and spiritism. These are nonclassical, second-rate, impure enterprises, as we should see even if we are resolved on rejection instead of belief. Why not come out plainly with rejection instead of engaging in apologetics? An explained miracle is obviously a miracle no longer. It is no longer exposed to rejection. It no longer has to be believed. Those who explain a miracle, even if they do so in a more sophisticated way than we usually find among rationalists, are simply showing thereby that they do not want to have to decide between rejection and belief.
-Karl Barth, Göttingen Dogmatics, 161. (Underline mine)

Is Barth right about this? Are miracles simply believed or rejected? Or let me ask the question in a slightly different way: Is a “rejected” miracle still a miracle? In other words, does a “divine event” which we have traditionally called a “miracle” have an independent ontology–an existence of sorts–regardless of whether or not there is belief?

Let me suggest that it might be good to think about this question similarly to how we might think about the nature of a “sacrament”: Just as the giving of the elements of the sacrament must be coupled with faith in order for it to be properly “sacramental,” so a divine event to be classified as a “miracle” must have “faith” as a co-requisite. It is only a “miracle” when a divine event is recognized as such by faith. Here I want to explore whether this might be a fruitful way to think of miracles in such a way that we get away from two equally inadequate views of the relationship between miracle and faith.

One inadequate view of the relation of faith and miracle  sets up a “cause/effect” relationship between faith and miracles, especially in some of the “word of faith” movement’s teachings on miracles, which practically makes faith the cause of a miracle. I’m dubious about this whole movement’s emphasis, but to its credit, this view at the very least recognizes how regularly faith is associated with the miraculous in the Bible, especially in the Gospels. However, the connection between the two in this view is too close, such that the “miracle” becomes so tied to faith that the miracle actually becomes  an “anthropological event” where the faith of the human individual is a more significant factor than God’s own sovereign free act.

On the other hand, another inadequate view so disconnects faith from the miraculous that miracles are viewed as events which can be independently verified apart the exercise of faith. The “evidence that demands a verdict” kind of apologetic might fit here. “Miracles are miracles are miracles!” these proponents might argue, whether or not one has faith. E.g., Jesus’ resurrection can be so proven to have taken place that one must, in the face of empirical evidence, accept it as a “miracle.”

But perhaps there is a third way–a way signalled (but perhaps not yet understood?) by Barth in the passage above. That signal comes in the underlined statement: “An explained miracle is obviously a miracle no longer. It is no longer exposed to rejection. It no longer has to be believed.” I might paraphrase and expand it as follows:  

An event that is explained as coming from any source other than the divine is obviously by definition no miracle. While the event may be explained through other means, it ceases to be a miracle precisely because it is not accompanied by faith. Just as the reception of bread and wine may stand as an event, it is not by definition a sacrament if there is no faith (either of the one giving, or of the one receiving, or both) present.

Thus, in order to find a third way between the alternatives as presented, we need to add a “third term” to the discussion. Rather than simply speaking of the relationship of “miracle” to “faith,” I want to suggest 1) a divinely enacted event, along with 2) human faith, results in 3) a miracle.  So the equation becomes: Divine Act + Faith = Miracle. Let me expand a bit on this. 

You will recall the story of Jesus being at his home town of Nazareth (Mark 6:1ff). There we read that the people there took offense at Jesus (Mk 6:3) and consequently, the Evangelist says, “[Jesus] could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them” (Mk 6:5). It is noteworthy that here the emphasis is the reverse of what we might expect. It is not that 1) a miracle occurs, and then 2) the people have subsequently to decide to reject or accept the miracle as such. Rather, it is that the people of Nazareth have already taken offense at Jesus–have disbelieved him–and so he is constrained not to do any miracles (except a few) on account of the people’s lack of faith.

So how might Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ “constraint of miracles” be understood? Why does Mark say that Jesus “could not do [ουκ εδυνατο] any miracles”? One could (as some do) say that Jesus was literally unable to do miracles because there was no faith, that he was bound not to do miracles in the absence of faith. That is a possible reading, though Matthew’s account (cf. Matt 13:58) gives a bit of different rendition when he simply says that Jesus “did not do [ουκ εποιησεν] miracles,” giving the picture that this was Jesus’ own choice. At any rate, this reading places far too much weight upon human faith as the main factor behind a miracle, and Jesus becomes captive to human whim and belief.

So rather than thinking of faith and miracles in this “cause/effect” relationship (i.e., “If faith, then miracle”), I wonder if we might understand Mark’s way of putting it this way: Where there is no faith in the divine act, there can be, by definition, no miracle. For in order for there to be truly a miracle, divine act AND faith must be both present. Mark is not saying that Jesus can’t display some divine power or work: if that were true, his authority would be called entirely into question and the lack of the faith of the people would be the mitigating factor that prevents Jesus from acting. On the contrary, the lack of faith in Jesus by the occupants of Nazareth  meant that any divine action Jesus could or might do would fail to be recognized as a miracle. And miracles, in the biblical frame, are always enacted by God as a witness to his own glory. So in this passage, Mark is wanting to say that Jesus knew that the exercise of that spiritual power in Nazareth would take place in a faith vacuum. Consequently, even if Jesus did a divine act, without faith there would be no “miracle” per se–there would be no recognition by the people of Nazareth that THIS divine act is a sign and witness to God’s glory through Jesus.  Another way of putting it is that if “miracle” is understood as an divinely enacted “Word of God,” “Jesus could not do miracles” in Nazareth, not because he lacked ability, but because he knew that such acts would return return to him void–as an unheard, unbelieved word, rather than the  Word of God which does not return void and empty (cf. Isa 55:11).

So I think we should neither set up a cause/effect relationship between faith and miracle, nor so disconnect faith from miracle so as to make the miracle having an independent ontology unrelated to faith. Rather, we need clearly to acknowledge that biblically there is a clear correlation between faith and the miracles everywhere evident in the Gospels (and, indeed, throughout the Bible). Faith is not the cause of a miracle; yet there is, in very real sense, no “miracle without faith.” For to disbelieve a divine act as a sign of God’s glory is to receive it as something other than God’s Word. It reduces the understanding of the “divine act” to a “secular event.” A divine act with no faith means no miracle. There is no miracle without faith–no sign of God’s glory with the believing eyes to see it as such. Whereas for those with faith a divine act is seen as a miracle, for unbelieving others, the divine event is perceived as nothing more than a secular event with some other explanation. This differentiation between a divine act being recognized as a miracle vs. a phenomenon begging another explanation corresponds to what Barth later (in the Church Dogmatics) called the problem of the “the wall of secularity” in his discussion of mystery:

Mystery is the concealment of God in which He meets us precisely when He unveils Himself to us, because He will not and cannot unveil Himself except by veiling Himself. …

The speech of God is and remains the mystery of God supremely in its secularity. When God speaks to man, this event never demarcates itself from other events in such a way that it might not be interpreted at once as part of these other events….

Even the biblical miracles do not break through this wall of secularity. From the moment they took place they were interpreted otherwise than as proofs of God’s Word, and obviously they can always be interpreted in a very different way. The veil is thick. We do not have the Word of God otherwise than in the mystery of its secularity.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, 165.

So I wonder whether it would be good to think of a miracle not as something caused by faith (i.e., “miracles happen when you have faith”), nor even something that causes faith (i.e., “miracles help to build faith.”) Rather, a biblical miracle is a divine act of God which is recognized as such only in and through faith. This does not negate the real occurence or “ontology” of an act of God apart from faith, but it does indicate that faith is the only sufficient instrument by which the divine occurence can be recognized as a “miracle” per se. In sacramental terms:  a miracle is the recognition of a divine act as a divine act in conjunction with human faith.  The implication is that even a divine act like the resurrection of Jesus is not an event that can be spoken of as a “miracle” independently of faith, but only as an event which, when recognized by faith as the ultimate act of God and the Spirit in raising Jesus from the dead, becomes a miracle–a sign of God’s glory–that enlivens and illumines the person with eyes to see it.

An analogy that might help to illustrate what I mean has to do with the composition of water. A water molecule, you will recall, is the combination of two hydrogen atoms together with one oxygen atom. Now as a long as we are thinking only in two terms (hydrogen and oxygen), it is difficult to define the “before” and “after” relationship of the H atoms and the O atoms. It is clearly not the case that the hydrogen causes the oxygen, nor vice versa. Nor can we said that hydrogen or oxygen are independent causes of water. Rather, water (H20) is the conjunction of H and O.  Water (analogous here to “miracle”) is the conjunction of Hydrogen (divine act) and Oxygen (faith). There is no need to deny that divine acts (cf. hydrogen) are able to “exist” independently of faith (cf. oxygen) or even vice versa. But it is only in the conjunction of divine act and faith  that a “miracle” has its reality. The equation is not: Faith causes Miracles, nor is is, Miracles cause Faith. Rather, Divine Act +  Faith = Miracle.

Of course, there is one more important qualifier that is needed, a qualifier I think the Barth of the Church Dogmatics saw more clearly than the Barth of the Göttingen Dogmatics. This is that Jesus Christ is himself the “object” of faith who gives himself as “subject” to us. It is not that the people of Nazareth lacked an abstract faith–some kind of “faith in faith.” Rather, it was Jesus himself who appeared in their midst who was cause for their stumbling. It was their failure to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the prophet come from God which meant that the co-requisite faith needed to become witnesses of the miraculous was absent. In other words, Jesus could not do miracles in Nazareth not only because they lacked some inward compulsion to believe in something, but because they refused to believe the Someone who stood in their midst.

He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.

20 thoughts on “Thinking about Miracles and Faith

  1. Boss, when Barth talks about God revealing himself in concealing himself–that every revelation also intrinsically involves a concealing–is Heidegger an influence? Heidegger will talk in exactly the same way about the discolosedness of Being.

    Also, there’s a strain of OT thought in which God’s reign in Israel is not fully realized until praise comes back to God (God is “enthroned in the praises of Israel”). Your discussion made me think of this.

  2. Interestingly, very few scholars have noted any kind of connection between Barth and Heidegger. I checked both McCormack and Busch’s indexes and didn’t even find Heidegger listed. However, Barth does make references to Heidegger throughout the Church Dogmatics, especially in his discussion on “Time” throughout. However, in his discussion on “Nothingness” (Das Nichtige), he has this to say:

    “Whoever is ignorant of the shock experienced and attested by Heidegger and Sartre is surely incapable of thinking and speaking as a modern man and unable to make himself understood by his contemporaries.” CD III/3, 345.

    We have to remember that Barth was a theologian who was quite comfortable in plundering the philosophers for his use. Was Heidegger an influence? Possibly–though I have heard arguments also that Heidegger was an admirer of Barth’s work as well, and there may have been influence also in the other direction! (I haven’t seen the line myself, but apparently Rudiger Safranski’s biography of Heidegger mentions the affinity that Barth and Heidegger had.

    On God’s reign in the praises of Israel, I remember O’Donovan making mention of this as well. He says, “The kingly rule of Yhwh takes effect in the praises of his people, so that,…praise is the final cause of the kingdom. . . In giving himself as king, God sought acknowledgement from mankind. We can say that much without derogation from divine sovereignty, since it is the implication of the covenant by which sovereign and subject are bound to together.” (Desire of the Nations, 48).

    I like that last line which somewhat parallel what I’m saying about miracles: A “miracle” is the binding together of the sovereign Creator and the faith of the created.

  3. David – Yes, I think the same relation exists (or mostly so) between belief and miracles and God and praise; God doesn’t need anything from us, but they aren’t “complete” until responded to by his saints.

    Nothinginess is obviously really important in Heidegger: I understand him to think that there is something essential about our condition and constitution so that nothingness infects and attends everything we are and do. Essentially, I find H’s talk of nothingness as a complicated way of saying that we aren’t God: we are attended by all kinds of limitations and weaknesses and fallibity. But H resolutely stays away from any kind of theological discussion of it, which makes any connection between the two even more interesting.

  4. If miracles are divine acts recognized in faith, are (sorry to quote Watchmen here) “thermodynamic miracles” miracles? If a geneticist were to recognize the unlikelihood of human life without divine interference, and responds with faith, is the creation of Man (or the particular characteristics of a particular Man) a miracle, and otherwise not? Do miracles become entirely personal, depending on how or whether people respond? If a miracle exists outside human faith as a divine act, but only becomes a miracle when people respond in faith, then is a miracle “a successful inspiration of faith?” It always seemed to me that the act itself carries sufficient weight for the name, and human recognition was a happy side effect.

    But, as you say, there’s a connection between faith and miracles. I’m drifting Lutherward in my view of the interaction between God and Man, so my instinct is to assume that Man is mostly a receptor and responder. Maybe that’s colouring my view of the human reaction in this case.

  5. I’m happy that you are pushing me on this, Tyler.

    What got me thinking in this direction was Barth’s insistence that a “miracle” is either believed or rejected, and that an explained miracle is no miracle at all. This is because an “explained miracle” ceases to be a “sign” to the divine. (The usual biblical word for miracle is semeion [σημειον] = “sign”.) This speaks of the importance of the “human side” of the equation. A failure by the human receptor to see a “miracle/divine act” as such effectively makes the “miracle” into something less than a “sign.” It is a sign said to be a “non-sign.”

    I guess I’m struggling to know how to designate a miracle that has been rejected, especially since a “miracle” is meant, at the very least (though it may be more than this), to be a “sign.”

    Interestingly, in Acts 4:16, we find that the Sanhedrin sees the crippled man that Peter and John healed and they say, “Everybody living in Jerusalem knows they [Peter and John] have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it.” So I guess this somewhat blows my own theory, since it is apparent that these men, though they did not believe, nevertheless saw the healed crippled man as evidence that a miracle had taken place. They just did not want to attribute it to God. Here, at least, the “miracle” did not “succeed” as you say, in inspiring faith in at least some of these men.

    Also, I came to realize that Jesus himself says that there will be times when miracles will occur that will obviously not be from God, Cf. Matt 24:24. “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect– if that were possible.”

    I guess my theory is still half-baked!

    So here’s the question that still nags: I can accept Barth’s premise that a miracle is either accepted or rejected. That is clear from Acts 4:16. But even then, those who reject the miracle, fail to see it as it is designed to be: a sign, i.e., it is not accepted in faith. But it was accepted in faith by the crippled man, at least. So the connection to faith is not broken. I guess I’m still trying to find a way to speak of that connection without resorting to some kind of cause/effect relationship.

  6. It is a little late and my brain is fuzzy but…

    I think I can work with the idea of divine act + faith = miracle, particularly as Eric directed the conversation toward the return of praise.

    I do, however think that the “explain-ability” of a miracle is of no real consequence. How we respond to the explanation is the issue. For instance, if you are out on the golf course when an errant golf ball is on an intercept course with your head and a bird just happens to “intercept” the ball (causing grievous injury to itself), is it a miracle? Looking around you see that the bird was about to land in its nest (yes it is foolish for a bird to build a nest on any golf course I visit…terrible slice). There is of course a simple explanation, bad timing on the birds part, good timing for you. If we leave it at that God is not praised. On the other hand, if we praise God for birds with bad timing we affirm God’s miraculous protection.

    To “explain” a miracle is to describe the process. Certainly, the more explainable it is the less likely we are to acknowledge God’s hand in it. In some ways, it takes more faith to accept the explainable as miraculous than it does the unexplainable.

    Perhaps we ought to think of faith as the prelude to praise. If by faith we see God’s hand in the explainable ordinary and respond with praise, how much more will we lift our voices in praise when faith is untempered by our rationalizations at the sight of the unexplainable.

    I like what Peter says about this in 1 Peter 1:6-7 “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

    Is that not the purpose of “miracles” too, to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ?

    Is a miracle with out praise a miracle in vain? I wonder if the command to not take God’s name in vain enters in here.

    …but like I said, its late and I don’t even know if this made sense to me. Time for bed. I have to finish a sermon tomorrow…I think I leave Barth out of it 😉

  7. My pleasure! And I’m not pushing _you_, just sort of gnawing at the _idea_ out loud, looking for a grip. 😀

    “those who reject the miracle, fail to see it as it is designed to be: a sign”

    Well, if we take it as communication, which a sign certainly is, between God and Man, then can we think of it as a smaller version of Christ being the Word sent to us? Christ came and died, and those who believe are saved; God sends a sign, and those who see and believe are blessed. A miracle remains a miracle whether or not there is a faith response or a material explanation, but it only becomes two-way communication when Man responds to it correctly? As salvation is offered to all but accepted by some without reducing the efficacy of the salvation, so a sign can be offered to all but accepted by some without reducing its miracle-ness. Maybe?

    I’m talking out of my sleeve here, throwing out ideas. Feel free to poke holes.

  8. I just discovered your blog and was intrigued with this discussion.

    I think the idea of miracle as a ‘sign’ or an incident of communication is right on. I would propose that rather than Act + Faith, a miracle is Act + Intent. Whether a miracle is accepted or rejected, there is an intent to convince, or an intent to build faith. This also applies in the case of false miracle-workers. There is an intent to deceive behind their acts. Your use of words like ‘purpose’ and ‘design’ point to the same.

    If a miracle is divine act + divine intent, it is preserved as an entirely divine event that is grounded exclusively in God’s actions, yet at the same time it is relational in nature – between God and man. This is the way revelation works, of which miracles are a class.

    Christ has provided salvation, and that salvation is real, regardless of whether it is accepted or rejected. But salvation is intended ‘for us’. (Incidentally, I’m currently working on a paper on the image of God, for which I think divine intent is also the key.)

  9. 1.) So, in this train of thought, are all divine acts then both potential miracles and potential non-miracles?

    2.) The pragmatist in me pushes you to answer the question–so what? What would be the life application of one or another perspective on this train of thought?

    Blessings, RogueMonk

    1. I’m not sure whether you are replying to my comment, but here goes…

      1) I’m of the old school that retains as one of the criteria for miracles that they must not be explicable from a naturalistic/materialistic perspective. (I’m not sure whether to include events that were inexplicable, but no longer, given our scientific advancements.) A similar event that is explicable I would refer to as ‘providence’. God does work in our world through ‘natural’ or ‘secondary’ causes. We ought to recognize his hand at work in our lives and in our world and give him praise. We can do this without reference to ‘miracle’. In my opinion, if we redefine miracle, we take a great deal of mystery and awe away from divine acts. The Israelites crossed the sea at low tide…Jesus walked on reefs just under the surface of the water…etc.

      If a divine act is both potentially miraculous and potentially non-miraculous, it would be because there is some contingency that lies outside of God – i.e. based on human response. This is the very thing I am trying to avoid. I would argue that divine acts are not “potentially both…” because a miracle is such regardless of human response.

      2) As for the ‘so what’ question, I think the issue is closely related to postmodern relativism. What makes something true? Is the gospel true if one does not believe it? When God parted the Red Sea to deliver the children of Israel, was that ‘their truth’, ‘a miracle in their eyes’, or was it a mighty act of God regardless of what one believes? (Perhaps the resurrection of Christ would be an even better example.) If a miracle is not a miracle unless one believes it, it seems only a short step away from saying that Jesus Christ is not the truth (or not Lord, take your pick) unless one believes in him.

  10. I like the original post and Tyler’s push as well.

    I’m not sure I sit well with the split between supernatural and natural which pervades so much of our miracle talk. Is not the creation event itself a miracle? If so, are not the scientific discoveries of the healing properties of certain created materials a ramification of the original miracle; a “prevenient miracle” of sorts? I wonder this because do we not respond in faith to God even when we see him active in the “natural” events around us, not just the “supernatural”?

    I like Bill’s golf illustration. I think of our prayers for healing in the church, sometimes answered, it would seem, but a medically unexplainable healing event, sometimes a medically explainable and even “doctored” healing event, and sometimes not answered with an immediate physical healing event at all. Is the only miracle the first one?

    Now, certainly, there are miracles of different sorts. There are those “sign” miracles that intertwine with faith, aiming to elicit praise. But are they any less “miracles” if people reject them? Based on Barth’s doctrine of election wouldn’t he say that Christ is testified to in some way by both the elect (gratefully, with praise) and the reject (ungratefully)? The sign is still a sign. The miracle is still a miracle. No?

    I realize that the intent of the post is to explore the interconnectivity between miracles and faith, and it has given me much to chew on. I apologize if my questions and comments are incredibly tangential.

    1. Hm. Miracles as the witness of nature to Man of God? Comes back around to the question of folks who haven’t had missionaries on their doorsteps to reject the gospel explicitly, and offers an interesting twist. It’s not just nature that witnesses, but God places miracles in nature which are signs that point to Him; not just the “it’s a beautiful ordered world” watchmaker kind of argument, but an assertion that God places miracles in nature specifically speak to the elect and reject of Him.

      I have to say, that supplies a more convincing apologetic answer (compared to the watchmaker argument) to the damnation of those who “haven’t heard,” without reducing the value of missionary work.

    2. I can understand the discomfort with the natural/supernatural split. I think the concern is that we acknowledge God for his acts even when they are not “supernatural.” Again, I think the concept of providence is key here. God is at work providentially within nature. We can speak of supernatural miracles and providential acts within nature, and do so without denying God’s involvement in nature.

      My concern is twofold. First, we should leave room for God to act in ways that are not only natural, but also supernatural. Once we redefine ‘miracle’, the tendency is to want to explain away all divine acts in those terms. When the time comes when we need a supernatural work of God, will our faith and our theology be sufficient to accommodate that? My second concern has to do with biblical theology. When we read of miracle accounts in the Bible, the term ‘miracle’ generally refers to what appears to be supernatural events. (There may be exceptions, and I would welcome some references here.) The people and writers of the Bible make a distinction between the miraculous and the natural. We do not read of sunrise and rain as miracles, but they are certainly attributed to God’s providential workings.

      As for the miracle of creation, I don’t see why ramifications of the original miracle need also to be called miracles.

      I suppose this is just an issue of terminology…biblical language vs. edifying language. The pragmatic side of me thinks the same kind of ‘edification’ can be achieved by speaking of divine providence within nature. The philosophical side says, let’s not be so quick to erase distinctions that may be useful in articulating our thoughts.

  11. Thanks for the reply. I was, however, meaning it as a generic response to David’s thread.

    Blessings, RogueMonk

  12. I would like to retract my point 2) above. I think it was unfair and inaccurate to associate this definition of miracle with relativism…My apologies!

  13. Wow. I’m gratified at the conversation this has elicited. I’m not sure how to summarize or respond to all the good points that have been made.

    I think that Elmer is on to something with Act + Intent, mainly, that a “miracle” (as differentiated from a providential act) is intended (by God, presumably) to be outside of the expected course of events. So to add “faith” to the mix, a miracle is “a divine act intended by God to witness to himself in an unusual manner and which is to be received in faith.” The real question that leads to is, “How does one assess divine intent?”

    With Jon, I don’t like the supernatural/natural divide. The term “supernatural” is not biblical per se, and “natural,” when used (usually translating φυσις, e.g. Rom 1:26, 11:21) pertains to “that which is normally expected vs. that which is abnormal”. But in this regard, I don’t like speaking of everyday events in the world (“nature”) to be interpreted as miracles, mainly, because they are not unusual or unexpected. We do expect the sun to rise and the plants to grow, and while it would be good for us to acknowledge God’s providence in this, we need not see it as miracle. For once we see plants growing and the sun rising as a miracle, then everything is miracle and “miracle” as a category becomes meaningless. Miracle, I think, in order to be a meaningful term, refers only to unexpected, unusual, beyond the normal happening. But of course, we are back to explanation: The person who sees the unexpected thing happen (e.g., the cancer is gone, even though yesterday the CATSCAN said it was there) can either ACCEPT it or REJECT it AS a miracle. That a person rejects it doesn’t change the fact that something unusual has happened (i.e., it has some kind of ontological, independent status relative to belief), but an unacknowledged miracle is no miracle at all to the one not believing it as such.

    On Bill’s golf-ball illustration, I would suggest that we could see this as a miracle, but I don’t know that I would. I would rather go with “providential care” of God. The fact is, the timing could very well have been entirely “natural.” In fact, I had a friend in high school who, during track and field day, threw a javelin as part of a competition and it hit and killed a seagull which just happened to fly into the trajectory. No, there was no one at the other end being “saved” from a hurtling javelin. But even though the timing was astounding, no one, I think, was tempted to think of it as a “miracle.”

    I guess in the end, I’m still wondering how faith is related to the divine act/miracle. If Barth is right (and maybe he isn’t??) that miracles are either accepted or rejected, then it seems to me that a rejected miracle simply means that a person has not accepted it as such. But then it is true that with the lack of faith, there is no miracle from the subjective perspective of the onlooker. But where there is faith, there is a miracle from the subjective perspective of the believer. Faith (which I take as a gift of the Holy Spirit) is therefore the “completion” of a miracle, at least from the noetic perspective, if not from the ontic.

    On RogueMonk’s question of the “so what” side of the question, I guess I’m particularly seeking to find ways to respond appropriately to the two sides which I spoke of early on. On the one side, there are those who make faith a cause of miracles, and on the other, there are those who so dissociate faith from miracles that they seem to be unrelated. Biblically, faith IS closely related to miracles, it seems, but not as a cause. So the question is very practical in terms of how we ought to exercise faith when “waiting for a miracle.” (Cf. Cockburn!)

    Struggle for a dollar, scuffle for a dime
    Step out from the past and try to hold the line
    So how come history takes such a long, long time
    When you’re waiting for a miracle?
    (Bruce Cockburn, “Waiting for a Miracle” from Waiting for a Miracle, Singles 1970-1987)

    1. David, seconded or thirded on thanks for starting the discussion. It’s given me some new things to think about with faith responses, divine intent, etc. I think I like the idea of a “completed” miracle, much like salvation is offered to all (and fully realized, from God’s end) but completed (as relationship between God and Man) only in those who believe.

  14. David, I find this a very helpful clarification.

    [You said: “an unacknowledged miracle is no miracle at all to the one not believing it as such.” and “it is true that with the lack of faith, there is no miracle from the subjective perspective of the onlooker. But where there is faith, there is a miracle from the subjective perspective of the believer. Faith (which I take as a gift of the Holy Spirit) is therefore the “completion” of a miracle, at least from the noetic perspective, if not from the ontic.”]

    I like this talk about a “completed” miracle, as not just including the base action of God but the full response it elicits.

    Maybe this thread is over, but I want to reply to Elmer a little.

    He said: “When we read of miracle accounts in the Bible, the term ‘miracle’ generally refers to what appears to be supernatural events. (There may be exceptions, and I would welcome some references here.) The people and writers of the Bible make a distinction between the miraculous and the natural. We do not read of sunrise and rain as miracles, but they are certainly attributed to God’s providential workings.”

    A few biblical incidents (and their description come to mind that push me to think there must be more nuancing needed here.

    1) At the Red Sea parting “the LORD swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night” at the stretching of Moses’ hand over it (Exod 14:21 NASB). Why have the wind blow all night? Certainly not the scene from the Ten Commandments! Why wind at all? Why Moses hand? Could it be the same answer, that it is about nature obeying God, not so much about GOd doing something “supernatural”?

    2) When Jesus calms the storm, the disciples marvel that “the wind and the waves obey him.”

    3) There is an incident where Jesus uses spit and dirt to make mud and then heals the man’s sight. Why does he do this?

    Elmer asked: “When the time comes when we need a supernatural work of God, will our faith and our theology be sufficient to accommodate that?”

    If I believe the wind and waves obey him, that nature bows before the Creator’s will, what difference does it make to me if he uses a doctor to heal me? What do I care about whether it is “natural” or “supernatural”? I don’t need faith in miracles. I need faith in God.

    Let’s put the question this way: If my faith is in miracles as “supernatural” unexplainable acts, will my “faith and theology be sufficient to accomodate” the day when some scientist explains one or two of them “naturally”?

  15. David, thank you for stimulating this dialogue, and for your responses. I am, for now, content with your definition of miracle. I think the inclusion of faith as an intended response is important. The story comes to mind of the healing of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). All ten had faith to call on Jesus for healing, but only one returned to give praise to God, and he was commended for his faith (the intended response). Even in the case of ‘offensive’ miracles, as in the Exodus, they were primarily to function as faith-building signs for Israel, and readers of later generations, and only secondarily to disrupt Pharaoh in his arrogant self-idolatry.

    “How does one assess divine intent?” I assume your question is in regards to contemporary ‘miracles’. It is sometimes difficult to assess cases of alleged miracles. Biblically, miracles function as witness to God, to elicit faith, and I would add the obvious – to meet human need. I think these are good guidelines. I suggest we may also pay attention to the kind of ‘pull’ an event has upon our hearts: Does it move us to increased faith and worship?

    Jon, thanks for bringing my attention to these biblical incidents. I think it would be useful to reflect on these and refine our thoughts. I think they clearly witness to God’s absolute command over the forces of nature. (I think the wind and the sea also speak of such mythical forces as Baal, Rahab, or Leviathan). It seems God does use nature. But was he not using nature in apparently supernatural ways? Consider Exod 14:21-22, “dry land…waters were divided…a wall of water on their right and on their left.” This was not only inexplicable to the ancient Israelites, even modern scientists would struggle to explain this. As I stated above, I’m uncertain whether to include events that were once inexplicable, but are no longer. Perhaps I should grant that these are still miracles. In any case, I would affirm that they are acts of God.

    My intent, hopefully stated clearly enough, is not to restrict divine acts to the supernatural, but to expand them to include both the natural and the supernatural. If scientists one day explain how, by speaking the words, “be healed” in a particular way, we can tap in to the previously unknown laws of nature in order to heal blindness, it would not shake my faith in God. (Although I would then have to write letters of apology to several ‘Word of Faith’ preachers!) Our faith must be in God alone, who works in providential as well as apparently supernatural ways.
    And yes, I do believe God uses doctors! When a doctor heals me, do I have to call it a ‘miracle’ in order to praise God for it?


  16. David, I do appreciate the differentiation between the expected and unexpected. What I push against is a miracle being dependent in any way on our ability to explain it, or for that matter, our expectation.

    With regard to the first point, today’s “miracle” maybe explained by tomorrows scientific discovery thus it is no longer a miracle. With regard to the second point, if it is a matter of our perception, than miracles are truly a figment of our imaginations/reasoning. On the other hand, if a miracle contravenes God’s own design for the daily functioning of creation, that is different. To go back to the golf story, what if the golf ball was intercepted by a flying elephant…not a normal event in God’s design of creation despite the Disney stories. Of course if we were to later discover a species of elephants that did fly…so much for the miracle.

    The substance of the miracles in the Gospels and Acts are of particular interest to me. A physical healing is a miracle, but so is the casting out of a demon. When Jesus sent out the 12 and then the 72, He gave them authority to heal and cast out demons. The substance of the miracles was expected and it happened.

    Perhaps that is were faith comes in, when the unexpected becomes the expected. Let me restate that this way, the miracles in the NT are events that humans (including Jesus acting in His humanness) cannot do of their own intrinsic authority/power, but with the authority given from God are effected. The miracle then has every thing to do with the authority to make it happen. I can not make the sun “stand still” but God can. I can not make the lame to walk by simply telling them to get up and walk, but God can. Like Ananias going to Saul to restore his sight, it’s all about Jesus, not us.

    I hear a sermon in the works…oops, I preached on that last Sunday 😉

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