Miracles and the Laws of Nature

To the person who is at all acquainted with doctrinal controversies that have arisen in the past, the above subject is familiar. He will recognize it as being the topic of much discussion and deliberation in the sphere of Reformed circles especially during the years 1919-1920. At that time, it will be remembered, the well-known Dr. Janssen was accused, among other things, of exposing heretical views concerning the miracles which took place at the time of the Old Testament dispensation. He maintained, for instance, that the fall of the walls of Jericho was to be ascribed, not chiefly to a special demonstration of divine power, but to a divinely sent earthquake at the occasion of the sound of the trumpets and shouts of the people of Israel who encircled the city.

It is, of course, understood, that it is not our intention at all to treat the controversy of the years mentioned above. However, although much has been both said and written concerning the subject of miracles and their relation to the so-called “laws of nature”, it is certainly not superfluous to once again acquaint ourselves with the subject. Important issues such as these are easily neglected as the years pass by. Hence, it is well that we guard against such neglect, and freshen our minds in respect to the issue implied in our subject.

Turning to the Word of God which frequently employs the word miracle, we find that in the Old Testament there are especially four Hebrew words which have reference to miracles. Two of the words are usually found together, such as, for instance, in Deuteronomy 13:1, 2 and Jeremiah 32:20. Another word is used in the book of Job  37:16; while Daniel exclusively employs still another word denoting the miracle in Daniel 3:31, 32 (Daniel 4:2, 3, King James Version) and in Daniel 6:28 (Daniel 6:27).

The New Testament employs three words denoting the miracle. The chief of these is the one denoting the word: “sign”. Another word is also used only in conjunction with the above mentioned word, and never without it, which word means practically the same. Consequently we often read of: “signs and wonders”, cf. John 4:48. We also notice that even the very common Greek word of which we have spoken, is sometimes translated by the word: “wonder”, (cf. Rev. 12:1, King James Version). Attention must be called also to the less common word employed by the New Testament in respect to the idea of the miracle, namely to the word: “dunamis” meaning: power. Reference to this use are to be found in Acts 2:22, where Luke expresses the fact that by miracles (powers) and wonders and signs Jesus was a man approved of God among the Jews. Acts 8:13 and II Cor. 12:12 are other passages employing the less common word “dunamis” to denote the miracle or wonder.

From all these Scriptural passages it becomes very evident that all the words which are used to denote the miracle imply that the miracle is a divine power, and too, that it is a power that is to be considered worth special attention and consideration.

From the pages of Holy Writ we also gather that the miracle is exclusively divine in origin: cf. Joshua 3:5. Also Deut. 4:34, 35 refers to the fact that signs and wonders, and other demonstrations of power were used by God to show that Jehovah is God and that there is none else besides Him. Does not Nicodemus testify in John 3:2 that no man can do these signs (miracles) except God be with Him? In John 9:16 the Jews even admit that no man who is a sinner can do miracles.

We notice, too, that at times God employs human individuals to perform miracles. This does not mean to imply that men perform miracles and in doing so give the power of God the glory. Such is the contention of some, and this contention goes so far as to say that: “the miracles of Jesus are not evidences of His divine nature but of His human nature. He did not heal the sick, nor cast out demons as the Son of God, but as the Son of man. He performed miracles by virtue of His kingly office.” (Rev. Van Baalen in “The Banner” March 3, 1933.)

The truth of the matter is, however, that God alone has the power and the ability, and the dynamic to perform the miracle, and even though He may use the agency of men to carry their performance out, they are His doings, and His only.

What strikes us too, when we make a study of the word miracle in the Word of God, is the fact that we read of the wicked also that they at times perform signs and wonders. Matt. 24:24 is, for instance, a passage which speaks to that effect. II Thess. 2:9 speaks of: “lying wonders”. This latter passage immediately gives us the clue to what is implied when the wicked performs wonders, for the passage informs us that they are wonders of falsehood. They are wonders covered up by the cloak of apparent genuineness and truth.

Finally, another thing which must not confuse us in respect to the miracle is the fact that in John 6:2 we read that the people followed Jesus because they beheld the signs which He did on them that were sick. In John 6:26 we read, however, that Jesus tells the multitude they follow Him not because they had seen signs, (miracles) but because they had eaten of the loaves and were filled. This apparent contradiction of terms is clarified when we take into consideration that as long as Jesus was healing the sick by means of miracles, the things did not concern them personally, and thus their desire to see more such miracles was aroused. However; when Jesus multiplies the bread, the miracle in its outward manifestation and effect, touches them personally, and their personal interest for bread covers up the value of the miracle as such for them. Hence they seek Jesus the next day for the sake of bread.

Since our attention has now been called to the fact that the term miracle, or wonder, or sign, is clearly to be found in the Word of God, it is necessary for us to understand secondly, that the term: “laws of nature” is not a Scriptural term whatever. Rather is the term: “laws of nature” one coined, perhaps by a scientist, who denies the power and work of God by using the term; or by the believing theologian, who, considering the ordinances and laws by which it pleases God to work continually, classifies those deeds of God’s continual activity in the sphere of the universe: “laws of nature”.

We must then, not hesitate to employ the term: “laws of nature”, provided we mean to express thereby that they are God’s laws for His creature according to which the creature always functions in its God- ordained manner and place. To put it in the words of the late Dr. Bavinck: “A law of nature expresses only that definite powers, under like circumstances, work according to the same manner always”. (Dog. 1).

It is always the law of the fish to live in the water. It is always the God-ordained law for the air-plane that it shall soar through the air, as well as for the stars to travel through the firmament. It is the law of the sun that it rise every morning in the East and set every evening in the West. More need not be mentioned. The examples of God’s “laws of nature” are abundant as well as extremely clear.

Now it is the question: what is the difference between the miracle and the “laws of nature”? which, to my mind, must be answered in this writing. To this question many an answer has been given in an attempt to arrive at a clear expression of the truth.

Dr. Chas. Hodge affirms: “A miracle is an event in the external world brought about by the immediate efficiency or simple volition of God. Physical causes are not simply ignored, but by intimation denied. In the miracle God contradicts the laws of nature. It w something new.”

Somewhat the same is the contention of Dr. A. Kuiper who too affirms that in the sphere of the natural God works mediately, while in that of the miracle He works immediately, (cf. Diet. Dogm. Locus de Creatione B, p. 23, 24)

Taking the above into careful consideration we find that both these men do not clearly state the difference between the miracle and the “laws of nature” to the fullest extent. They speak of mediate and immediate activities of God; the former coming to the foreground in the laws of nature and the latter in the miracle. The truth of the matter is, however, that even God’s activity in the realm of the natural is immediate since He speaks and it comes to pass, He commands and it stands fast. This is true not only of God’s activity of creation but also of His work of providence.

The same Dr. A. Kuiper states in his “Gemeene Gratie” III, p. 106, that (I translate from the Dutch) “Wonder is exactly the name of the series of manifestations, which reveal powers in nature, which are not out of nature, but are above nature and are being added to it.” Here too, we must differ with Dr. Kuiper, for on the contrary, it is certainly not Scriptural language to speak of natural and super-natural works of God. The mere fact that we become so accustomed to the way God always providentially upholds His creature is not a reason for us to claim those are natural activities of God and that the miracle is super-natural in as far as we don’t often experience such an activity. The Lord our God does all things, and His work may not be called common or natural in any sense whatever!

There is still another prevalent idea, namely, that a miracle is something unusual and something which we cannot understand. Also here we must contend that this is also not the chief element of distinction in the miracle and the laws of nature. There is nothing in the whole sphere of the natural which is even not unusual, because it is the manifestation of the work of God the Creator to His creatures. Neither is it true that we cannot understand the miracle that it is a miracle. Can we understand the most simple work of God in nature? By no means.

According to our opinion, the chief difference between the miracle and the “laws of nature” is that the former serves the purpose of grace exclusively, while the latter does not exclusively serve the purpose of grace. This is especially clear when we read in Matt. 13:58: “And He did not many mighty works (dunameis) (powers) there because of their unbelief.”

However, let us hasten to add that the “laws of nature” certainly have something to do with the miracles. And this function is that the “laws of nature” serve the miracles, so the miracles may serve the purpose of grace. Then surely we rid ourselves of the possibility of being accused of dualism. If the miracle served the laws of nature, then it would seem as though the miracle was some kind of after-thought on God’s part after His attempt to use the laws of nature to attain His purpose, failed. Then the miracle would serve as the only way out of the curse and the lie.

But now we have this idea. God always, even from eternity had prepared something new for His people. It never was God’s intention to have man remain as His covenant friend in Paradise I, but in order to bring out the marvel of His work, He brings out this work in bold relief. Just as the artist paints a beautiful scene against a dark background to bring out the details of the picture, so too, the “laws of nature” serve the beauty of the work of Him who does all things well and for His own name’s sake.

Then it is God’s “law of nature” that man is born from a woman as the result of the union of husband and wife, that he lives here in this sin-cursed world, and presently returns to the dust from whence he was taken. But now the miracles come, and it brings out the marvel and beauty of grace against the. dark background of sin and the curse. Therefore Christ Jesus is THE Wonder. He through the wonder was born of a virgin. He was raised from the dead the third day. Over against all the curse of the law He stands as the victorious One Who giveth us the victory.

Our viewpoint does not undergo a change when we consider the wonders of the Old Testament dispensation. The natural flowing of the Jordan and the Dead Sea served as a background upon which was brought out the power of the miracle by which Israel was led through on dry ground. The natural course of the sun through the heavens serves the beauty of the work of God in His deliverance of His people at the time of Joshua when He caused the sun and moon to stand still for the salvation of Israel. So, too, it is with the walls of Jericho. The natural laws of the standing of the walls served the purpose of bringing out the beauty of the power of the wonder of God’s grace by which He delivers the city into the hand of Israel by the wonder.

God opens the eyes of the blind signifying redemption from spiritual blindness, as well as the opening of the ears of the deaf signifies relief from spiritual deafness. And so one could go on. Sin and grace, life and death, light and darkness are always the contrasts which must serve to bring out the glory of grace and life and light. The natural always serves the spiritual. The earthly must always serve the heavenly. The chaff must serve the wheat. So, too, the “laws of nature” serve the miracle. God manifests thereby that it eternally was His good pleasure to do a new thing for His people, in order that the old and the natural might be shown to be inferior. Understand me well, not as though the natural is not fit, to serve God’s purpose. The natural is His work as well as the miracle. But the former serves as the scaffolding to build the manifestation of the work of the Lord Who alone does wondrous things.