Thursday, March 8, 2012

For the initial posts on miracles in this discussion, please see my first post here and David Jenkins’ response here.


Thank you for your response to my comments earlier, which did indeed help me to clarify my position. We decided to take a little break from commenting on each other’s posts to let the ideas ruminate and sink in for a while, and perhaps to get on to other things, but I am ready to jump back into the fray, whether my rumination is complete or whether anything has sunk in.

It seems like the basic question, or disagreement, which we have is how God acts in nature or God’s relationship to his creation. At the end of your last post you defined miracle in this way, referring to earlier comments: “an event in the external world brought about by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God.”  This is a straightforward definition, which is helpful. For me it is helpful, because the clarity allows me to think seriously about what I would want to add or detract from such simplicity, or even why I would want to add to it. I did take a long time thinking about the ways in which I agreed with you, but could not shake the sense that disagreements still remained for me.

Let me start with common ground that we share. A strict naturalism would state that there is no God and that everything can be explained by natural forces and laws: there are no supernatural forces present or active in the world; there is no God. Another form of naturalism, a form of Deism perhaps, would say that there is a God, but that natural chains of causality are never broken and that God transcends nature and does not impinge upon its lonely integrity. Both of us reject these views of the natural world, that much is clear from our comments.

The question, then, is how does God act in the natural world and in conjunction with his creation? One way, is through the creation itself and through the laws embedded in creation which people perceive on a daily and regular basis and which, in some cases, scientists perceive only through advanced and specialized study. Nevertheless, most of the time nature adheres to a regular pattern of observation. When events happen which seem to go beyond or break down nature’s regular patterns, how are these explained?

This is where, I believe, I have some disagreement with your definition of miracles: I do think that God is active in miraculous occurrences, but I want to maintain this claim in the context of God’s immanence in, not just transcendence over, nature; and I want to claim a role for human agency, not just divine agency, in miraculous events.  In terms of God’s immanence, “theologically, and even logically, God cannot be completely separate from the created order. If God were “wholly other,” God could not influence the world, nor could the world influence God” (Terry Nichols, The Sacred Cosmos,  194).  I am not suggesting, however, that we are all little bits of God, or that God is nature, a position that could be described as pantheism. God is discontinuous with, greater than, more than, humanity and nature, just not “wholly other.”

The focus on human agency, not simply divine agency, is where there is also a break with your definition of an event brought about “by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God.” At some level your definition is correct and I am not suggesting that we understand completely, I certainly do not, the means by or the reasons why God acts in a miraculous manner, but it seems human beings play some role in this process. I think of the interesting passage in Mark 6:5-6a, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief” (NRSV).  I would translate “unbelief,” apistia in Greek, as a “lack of faith,” which indicates “faith” as an essential component of Jesus’ miraculous deeds.  This is often a stated necessity for healings. See Mark 2:5: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."; Mark 5: 34: "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  So, I do see miracles as supernatural causality working within the context of nature, but “it is not the case that God arbitrarily decides to intervene here and not there, now and then” (Nichols, 195-96). That is what I meant by saying that God does not act capriciously or arbitrarily and that human beings, in relationship with God, have some role to play in miraculous actions.

Miracles are signs of God’s grace perfecting the natural order and our openness to that grace of God. They are also signs of the perfection which is intended for the natural order and for us, as Paul says in Romans 8:22-23:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
I do not think that God’s action through miracles violates the laws of nature because it is a perfecting of natural processes and a sign of the transcendence for which human beings long as their true destiny.  Does this fit with your definition? “An event in the external world brought about by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God.”  Yes and no. I disagree with your definition in these ways: if “external world” is meant to indicate God’s general absence from the world into which God now and then deigns to act – I want to stress that God is always present and active; if “immediate agency or the simple volition of God” are meant to indicate that God acts without reference to faith or the relational quality of creation in which human beings also play a part – I want to insist that God is a personal God and even if we cannot understand all of the means or processes by which or for which God acts, God could not act in ways which do not account for the integrity of human relationships with God. That is certainly not cheating, just defining the nature of a miracle. Is that what Archbishop Williams holds? At this point, I must admit, I could not say! It is, however, what I think and if he held this position, he would be right to do so.

John W. Martens

 Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


  1. John, thanks for the response. I think that at least some of our apparent disagreement might be rooted in our understanding of the meaning of the terminology.

    I will ponder what you have written.

  2. Hi John,
    I have posted a response to your article here.