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Miracles

Hodge, we noted in our preceding article, defines the miracle as an event, in the external world, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple volition of God. This is a rather common definition of the miracles of Scripture. We also called attention to the objections lodged against this definition. And Hodge answers these objections rather decisively, as follows:

As to the other form of the objection, which assumes that the laws of nature are in themselves immutable, and therefore that they cannot be suspended, it is enough to say, (1) That this absolute immutability of natural laws is a gratuitous assumption. That a thing has been is no proof that it must always be. There is no absolute certainty, because no necessity, that the sun will rise tomorrow. We assume with confidence that it will thus rise, but on what ground? What impossibility is there that this night the voice of the angel should be heard, swearing, “That time shall be no longer?” If time began, time may end. If nature began to be, it may cease to be, and all about it must be liable to change. Scientific men have no right to assume that because physical laws are, and, within the limits of our experience, ever have been, regular in their operation, that they are, as Professor Powell says, “self-sustaining and self-evolving.” It is a great mistake to suppose that uniformity is inconsistent with voluntary control; that because law reigns, God does not reign. The laws of nature are uniform only because He so wills, and their uniformity continues only so long as He wills. (Hodge’s reasoning here is plain. God controls only as long as the Lord wills them to be such. To say that something has always been is no guarantee that it will ever continue thus. Incidentally, the assertion of Hodge in this quotation that “this night the voice of the angel may be heard, swearing that time shall be no longer,” must not be construed as if he teaches the premillenarian teaching that Christ may come at any moment in history. We realize that this night of sin cannot come to an end until all things have been fulfilled and the counsel of God has been realized.-H.V.) 

(2) It is utterly derogatory to the character of God to assume that He is subject to law, and especially to the laws of matter. If theism (that God is God -H.V.) be once admitted, then it must be admitted that the whole universe, with all that it contains and all the laws by which it is controlled, must be subject to the will of God. Professor Powell indeed says, that many theists deny the possibility of the suspension or violation of the laws of nature, but then he says that there are many degrees of theism, and he included under that term theories which others regard as inconsistent with the doctrine of a personal God. It is certain that the objection to the definition of a miracle given above, now under consideration, depends for its validity on the assumption that God is subject to nature so that he cannot control its laws. (to this we need not add much. How true it is that there are many degrees of theism, even as today there are many degrees of Protestantism! Imagine what sails today under the flag of Protestantism! How many “protestants” are there not today who care nothing for the principles of protestantism, who are interested in the modern movement of ecumenism and this at the cost of the truths of the Word of God! – H.V.) 

(3). The authority of Scripture is for Christians decisive on this point. The Bible everywhere not only asserts the absolute independence of God of all his works, and his absolute control over them, but is also filled with examples of the actual exercise of this control. Every miracle recorded in the Scriptures is such an example. When Christ called Lazarus from the grave, the chemical forces which were working the dissolution of his body ceased to operate. When He said to the winds, Be still, the physical causes which produced the storm were arrested in their operation; when He walked on the sea the law of gravitation was counteracted by a stronger force — even the divine will. In

II Kings 6:5-6

, we are told that an “axe head fell into the water,” and that the man of God cut a stick and cast it into the water, “and the iron did swim.” Here an effect was produced which all known physical laws would tend to prevent. The Scriptures, therefore, by word and deed, teach that God can act, not only with physical causes, but without and against them. 

(4) After all, the suspension or violation of the laws of nature involved in miracles is nothing more than is constantly taking place around us. One force counteracts another; vital force keeps the chemical laws of matter in abeyance; and muscular force can control the action of physical force. When a man raises a weight from the ground, the law of gravity is neither suspended nor violated, but counteracted by a stronger force. The same is true as to the walking of Christ on the water, and the swimming of the iron at the command of the prophet. The simple and grand truth that the universe is not under the exclusive control of physical forces, but that everywhere and always there is above, separate from, and superior to all else, an infinite personal will, not superseding, but directing and controlling all physical causes, acting with or without them. God is the author of nature: He has ordained its laws; He is everywhere present in his works: He governs all things by cooperating and using the laws which He has ordained. He has left Himself free.

Also of interest, according to Hodge, is a second objection lodged against the usual definition of miracles ( a miracle, then, the reader may possibly remember, may be defined as an event, in the external world, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple volition of God), that they should be referred to some higher, occult (mysterious) law of nature and not to the immediate agency of God. What Hodge writes about this objection (page 622) is, I am sure, very interesting:

This objection (that miracles should be referred to some higher, occult law of nature – H.V.) is urged by two very different classes of writers. First, those who adopt the mechanical theory of the universe assume that God has given it up to the government of natural laws, and no more interfered with its natural operations than a ship-builder with the navigation of the ships he has constructed (Deism – H.V.) This is the view presented by Babbage in his “Ninth Bridgewater Treatise.” He supposes a man placed before his calculating machine, which for millions and millions of times produced square numbers; then for once produces a cube number; and then only squares until the machine wears out. There are two ways of accounting for the extraordinary cube number (incidentally, whoever heard of such a phenomenon? – H.V.). The one is that the maker of the machine directly interfered for its production. The other is that he provided for its appearance in the original construction of the machine. The latter explanation gives a far higher idea of the skill and wisdom of the mechanist; and so, Mr. Babbage argues, it is “more consistent with the attributes of the Deity to look upon miracles not as deviations from the laws assigned by the Almighty for the government of matter and of mind; but as the exact fulfilment of much more extensive laws than those we suppose to exist.” (so, the deist even would claim that his God-dishonoring theory adds to the glory of the Lord. – H.V.) In like manner Professor Baden Powell contends that every physical effect must have a physical cause, and therefore that miracles, considered as physical events, must be “referred to physical causes, possibly to known causes; but, at all events, to some higher cause or law, if at present unknown. Secondly, this same ground is taken by many who do not thus banish God from his works. They admit that He is everywhere present, and everywhere acting, controlling physical laws so as to accomplish his purposes; but they insist that He never operates immediately, but always acts through the established laws of nature. Thus the Duke of Argyle, whose excellent work on the “Reign of Law” is thoroughly religious, says: “There is nothing in religion incompatible with the belief that all exercises of God’s power, whether ordinary or extraordinary, are effected through the instrumentality of means — that is to say, by the instrumentality of natural laws brought out, as it were, and used for a divine purpose.” 

Although the Duke of Argyle is a theist, and admits of the constant operation of the Divine will in nature, he is still urgent in insisting that the power of God in nature is always exercised according to law, and in connection with physical causes. Miracles, therefore, differ from ordinary events only in so far as the law according to which they come to pass, or the physical forces acting in their production are unknown. He quotes with approbation from Locke, the following most unsatisfactory definition: “A miracle, then, I take to be sensible operation, which, being above the comprehension of the spectator, and, in his opinion, contrary to the established course of nature, is taken by him to be divine. (that this is a most unsatisfactory definition is established by the following – H.V.) This is the precise view held by Baden Powell, who in the essay repeatedly referred to above, makes a miracle a mere matter of opinion. It is not a matter of fact to be determined by testimony, but a matter of opinion as to the cause of that fact. The fact may be admitted, and one man may say it is due to natural law, known or unknown; and then it is no miracle. Another man says it is due to the immediate power of God. In that case it is a miracle. Which of the two is correct, cannot be decided by testimony. It must be decided by the general views of nature and of God’s relation to the world, which men entertain. The doctrine that God works in the external world only through physical forces, and even that He can act only in that way, leads, of necessity, to the conclusion that miracles are events in the external world brought about by unknown physical causes. They prove only “the presence of superhuman knowledge and the working of superhuman power.

It is certainly true what one writer wrote, namely: “Belief in the supernatural is the special difficulty of our time; that the denial of it is the form taken by all modern assaults on Christian faith, and that acceptance of it lies at the root, not only of Christianity, but of all positive religion whatever.” We do and will object to the definition of a miracle, that it must be viewed as an immediate, supernatural work of God. We believe that the essence of the miracle in Scripture must be sought elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that Christianity believes in the immediate works and workings of the living God. And it is also emphatically true that this belief in the almighty power of God is becoming more and more “the special difficulty of our time.” And this does not apply to the world, but to that which calls itself Church. Questions which relate to the origin of the world, that this world is millions and millions of years old, and also whether Adam was the first man, certainly do not speak of and breathe respect for the infallible Scriptures and for the truth of the Word of God that He is God alone, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, by Whose word and the breath of His mouth were made the heavens and the earth and all the host of them.