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.