A Common Interpretation of the Significance of Miracles

Discussing the miracle as revealed to us in holy writ, we concluded our preceding article by calling attention to the wide and varied character of the mir­acles of holy writ. This varied character of the mir­acles need not surprise us. Sin is characterized by this same widely divergent characteristic. Hence, the widely divergent character of these miracles simply emphasizes the total and complete dominion of sin over us and, of course, the marvelous character and scope of the grace of the living God. Before proceed­ing to the true significance of the miracle we would first call attention to the common interpretation of this Scriptural phenomenon.


We quote the following from his “Reformed Dog­matics,” pages 176-178, under the heading: “Extra­ordinary Providences or Miracles.”

  1. The Nature of Miracles. A distinction is us­ually made between providentia ordinaria and providentia extraordinaria. In the former God works through second causes in strict accordance with the laws of nature, though He may vary the results by different combinations. But in the latter He works immediately or without the mediation of second causes in their ordinary operation. Says McPherson: “A miracle is something done without recourse to the or­dinary means of production, a result called forth di­rectly by the first cause without the mediation, at least in the usual way, of second causes.” The distinctive thing in the miraculous deed is that it results from the exercise of the supernatural power of God. And this means, of course, that it is not brought about by sec­ondary causes that operate according to the laws of nature. If it were, it would not be supernatural (a­bove nature), that is, it would not be a miracle. If God in the performance of a miracle did sometimes u­tilize forces that were present in nature, He used them in a way that was out of the ordinary, to produce un­expected results, and it was exactly this that consti­tuted the miracle. Every miracle is above the estab­lished order of nature, but we may distinguish differ­ent kinds, though not degrees, of miracles. There are miracles which are altogether above nature, so that they are in no way connected with any means. But there are also miracles which are contra media, in which means are employed, but in such a way that something results which is quite different from the usual result of those means.
  2. The Possibility of Miracles. Miracles are ob­jected to especially on the ground that they imply a violation of the laws of nature. Some seek to escape the difficulty by assuming with Augustine that they are merely exception to nature as we know it, imply­ing that, if we had a fuller knowledge of nature, we would be able to account for them in a perfectly nat­ural way. But this is an untenable position, since it assumes two orders of nature, which are contrary to each other. According to the one the oil in the cruse would decrease, but according to the other it did not diminish; according to the one the loaves would grad­ually be consumed, but according to the other they multiplied. It must further suppose that the one sys­tem is superior to the other, for if it were not, there would merely be a collision and nothing would result; but if it were, it would seem that the inferior order would gradually be overcome and disappear. More­over, it robs the miracle of its exceptional character, while yet miracles stand out as exceptional events on the pages of Scripture.

There is undoubtedly a certain uniformity in na­ture; there are laws controlling the operation of se­cond causes in the physical world. But let us remem­ber that these merely represent God’s usual method of working in nature. It is His good pleasure to work in an orderly way, and through secondary causes. But this does not mean that He cannot depart from the established order, and cannot produce an extra­ordinary effect, which does not result from natural causes, by a single volition, if He deems it desirable for the end in view. When God works miracles, He produces extraordinary effects in a supernatural way. This means that miracles are above nature. Shall we also say that they are contrary to nature? Older Re­formed theologians did not hesitate to speak of them as a breach or a violation of the laws of nature. Some­times they said that in the case of a miracle the order of nature was temporarily suspended. Dr. Bruin maintains that this view is correct in his Het Christelijke Geloof en de Beoefening der Natuurwetenschap, and takes exception to the views of Woljer, Dennert, and Bavinck. But the correctness of that ol­der terminology may well be doubted. When a mira­cle is performed the laws of nature are not violated, but superseded at a particular point by a higher man­ifestation of the will of God. The forces of nature are not annihilated or suspended, but are only coun­teracted at a particular point by a force superior to the powers of nature.

  1. The Purpose of the Miracles of Scripture. It be assumed that the miracles of Scripture were not performed arbitrarily, but with a definite purpose. They are not mere wonders, exhibitions of power, des­tined to excite amazement, but have revelational sig­nificance. The entrance of sin into the world makes the supernatural intervention of God in the course of events necessary for the destruction of sin and for the renewal of creation. It was by a miracle that God gave us both, His special verbal revelation in Scrip­ture, and His supreme factual revelation in Jesus Christ. The miracles are connected with the economy of redemption, a redemption which they often prefig­ure and symbolize. They do not aim at a violation, but rather at a restoration of God’s creative work. Hence we find cycles of miracles during the time of Christ’s public ministry and of the founding of the Church. These miracles did not yet result in the res­toration of the physical universe. But at the end of time another series of miracles will follow, which will result in the renewal of nature to the glory of God,—the final establishment of the Kingdom of God in a new heaven and on a new earth.”—end of quote.

We would note the following in connection with the above quotation of Prof. L. Berkhof. It is plain from this quotation that Prof. Berkhof identifies the miracle with something supernatural, i.e., something above nature. Some miracles are altogether above nature whereas other occur contra media, but that which constitutes a miracle is its supernatural char­acter. It is true that the professor, when discussing the purpose of the miracle, declares that they “are connected with the economy of redemption, a redemp­tion which they often prefigure and symbolize,” but it must be granted that this hardly receives the em­phasis in his discussion of the miracle in Holy Writ. He seeks the essence of the miracle in its supernatur­al character.

Another thing to which we would call attention in connection with this quotation from Prof. Berkhof is the following, and we quote again: “Miracles are ob­jected to especially on the ground that they imply a violation of the laws of nature. Some seek to escape the difficulty by assuming with Augustine that they were merely exceptions to nature as we know it, im­plying that, if we had a fuller knowledge of nature, we would be able to account for them in a perfectly natural way. But this is an untenable position, since it assumes two orders of nature, which are contrary to each other.”—end of quote. Here the professor declares that the position of Augustine is untenable because it assumes two orders of nature which are con­trary to each other. Augustine had taught that mira­cles merely imply a violation of the laws of nature, as we know nature, but not in the real, actual sense of the word. And now Prof. Berkhof asserts that this position of the renowned Church Father is unten­able because it assumes two orders of nature which are contrary to each other. Does not the professor recall his teaching in regard to the gospel as an offer of salvation, and the love of God to all sinners? Does he not recall that we object to this presentation be­cause it would maintain two lines of thought contrary to each other? And does he not recall that when we complain that it is impossible to teach that God loves and hates the same sinner at the same time, etc., we received the answer that this contradiction is only apparent, appears merely as such to us? May he, then, reject Augustine’s conception of the miracle sim­ply because the Church Father assumed two orders of nature which are contrary to each other? Did not Augustine speak of “nature as we know it”?

Be this as it may, Prof. Berkhof’s definition of the miracle is clear. Although it is true that he also calls attention to their symbolic significance, nevertheless the essence of the miracle lies in its supernatural character.

H. Bavinck

The late Prof. H. Bavinck also speaks of the mir­acles as we might expect. In his book, “Magnalia Dei” (Great Works of God) he writes the following (pages 65-69), and we quote and translate: “If we agree with the Holy Scriptures in these fundamental thoughts and therefore stand upon the basis of Theism, every ground disappears to militate against or doubt the possibility of miracles. For whatever occurs in na­ture or in history is then an act, a work of God, and in that sense a wonder. And that so-called miracles are nothing but a special manifestation of the same Godly power which works in all things. It works in those things in various ways, through various means (second causes), according to various laws and there­fore also with various results. It has not been said unjustly that it is a wonder for the stone that the plant grows, for the plant a wonder that the animal moves about, for the animal a wonder that man thinks, and that it is therefore for man a wonder that God raises the dead. If God works with His omnipresent and almighty power through all creatures as His means, why should He not be able to work with the same power in a different way and through other means than those which we know from the ordinary course of nature and of history? Miracles are there­fore no violation of the laws of nature. For these are fully acknowledged by holy writ although not sum­med up and formulated therein; fact is, the regula­tions of all of nature are established, according to Scripture, in the nature covenant of God with Noah, Gen. 8:22. But, even as man subjects the earth and governs nature through his culture with his mind and will, thus God has the power to render this created world subordinate to the realization of His counsel. The miracles prove that the Lord, and not the world, is God.

This argumentation, now, would not be necessary for man if he had not fallen. Then he would have known and acknowledged God out of all the works of His hands . . . .

In the Old Testament the miracles go hand in hand with judgment and redemption. The flood is a means to destroy the godless generation of that day and to save Noah and his own in the ark. The miracles which are grouped about the persons of Moses and Joshua: the plagues in Egypt, the passage through the Red Sea, the law giving on Sinai, the entering in­to and conquest of Canaan, purpose to judge the en­emies of God and His people and to provide for His own people a safe dwelling place of promise . . . .

All the miracles of the Old Testament have this in common that, negatively, they accomplish a judgment over the peoples and, positively, they create and pre­serve among the people of Israel a sphere for the continuous revelation of God . . . . And when this pur­pose has been reached, then the full revelation is a­bout to break forth in the person of Christ.

This person of Christ is itself a miracle, in His origin, in His essence, in His words and works, the wonder of world history. Hence, the miracles which He performs are miracles of a peculiar nature. First, He performs many miracles during His earthly life, namely: miracles whereby He demonstrates His power over nature (the change of water into wine, wonder­ful feeding, stilling of the storm, walking upon the sea etc.); thereupon miracles whereby He demon- His power over the results of sin, the sicknesses and illnesses, the miseries of life and, finally, miracles whereby He proves His power over sin itself, its guilt and pollution and the dominion of Satan (forgiveness of sins, dispelling of Satan and the evil spirits). These three kinds of miracles reveal the peculiarity of the person of Christ . . . .

The person of Christ approaches us more clearly in the miracles which were performed not by Him but in Him and with Him. These miracles especially reveal to us who and what He is. His supernatural conception, His wonderful living and dying, His res­urrection, ascension, and sitting at the right hand of God are miracles of redemption preeminently. They demonstrate, much more than the works which were performed by Jesus, His complete power over sin and its results, over Satan and his entire dominion. And they likewise reveal more clearly than those works that this power is a redeeming, a saving power, which will not gain a complete victory until the new heaven and the new earth.

The miracles, which were performed in the apostol­ic age by the first witnesses, are to be viewed as works of the exalted Christ, Acts 3:6, Acts 4:10. They were nec­essary to demonstrate that Jesus, who had been rejected by the world, nailed to the cross and now re­garded as dead, lived and had all power not only in heaven but also upon the earth. The miracles in the Old Testament reveal that Jehovah is God and there is none beside Him. The miracles of the New Testa­ment show that Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, who was crucified by the Jews, was raised from the dead by God and exalted at His right hand to be a prince and Savior, Acts 4:10, Acts 5:30, 31. When this purpose has been reached, a congregation having been planted in the world which believes and confesses this revelation of the Father in the Son through the communion of the Holy Spirit, then the externally visible miracles cease, but the spiritual miracles of regeneration and conversion continue in the church until the fullness of the Gentiles have entered and all Israel have been sav­ed. At the end of time the miracles of the future will appear, according to the testimony of holy writ, the appearing of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the judgment and the new heaven and earth.

All of revelation and, in that revelation, all the miracles also will reach their objective and culmin­ate in the restoration of the fallen human race, the recreation of the world, the acknowledging of God as God. They are therefore not a strange element, not an arbitrary addition to the revelation of God. But they constitute a necessary, an indispensable part of it. They are themselves revelation. In word and in deed God makes Himself known in all His virtues and perfections.”—end of quote.

It appears from this lengthy quotation that the late Prof. Bavinck sees more in the miracle than a supernatural work of God. And although the late professor emphasizes the thought that in the miracle the Lord gives an undeniable testimony unto man that He alone is God and that He alone rules, yet he dis­cusses the miracle in connection with God’s plan of salvation, though we would have preferred that he had sought exactly in this plan of salvation the es­sential significance of the miracle.

G. Wielenga.

Our quotation from this author’s book, “The Mir­acles of the Savior,” will be brief. It is as follows: “The miracles are, generally speaking, instruments of Divine revelation. God would transfer His thoughts to the consciousness of man. Unto that end He does not merely speak immediately to man, through the inspiration of the heart or with audible voice, but He also uses many different means. Thus the Lord re­vealed Himself in the Old Dispensation through dreams and visions, through which He even presented Himself to heathens as Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar . . . . But God also reveals Himself through and in His works, through all His works. The heavens de­clare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth His handiwork. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard . . . . But we must distinguish between the order which God ordinarily follows also in the preservation and governing of all things, and the extraordinary deeds of might whereby God sov­ereignly departs from this ordinary order. This we call then the miracles in the narrow sense: the read­ily discernible manifestations of His power and maj­esty. We therefore would define the miracles as those phenomena whose connection and inner operation man cannot fathom, and which are called into existence only by God’s omnipotence, outside the common or­der of nature.”—end of quote.

It is true that this author later makes the observa­tion that miracles are also signs of His work of a­tonement and the Godly blessings which He bestows upon His people, remarking in this connection that it was not merely the purpose of the Lord to heal a few people or to raise from the dead. It is evident, however, from this quotation that this author also views the miracle as a supernatural work of God through which the Lord reveals that He alone is God and that He alone works and rules.

H. Veldman