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Miracles

Speaking of miracles in connection with the providence of God, the subject is surely of sufficient importance to merit special attention and consideration. On the one hand, the miracles of Holy Writ are usually treated in connection with the providence of the Lord. And, on the other hand, the subject itself is surely of sufficient significance. The Scriptures record many miracles, especially in the New Testament. Miracles are recorded, of course, also in the Old Testament, especially during the ministry of Elisha. But they abound in the New Testament. And this is easily understandable and exactly what we would expect. The New Dispensation marks the appearance of Immanuel, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the midst of the world. He Himself is centrally the Wonder of the Lord, the Wonder of Grace. And it lies in the very nature of the case that His appearance should be accompanied by a tremendous display of miracles. Calling attention to the nature of miracles, Prof. L. Berkhof, in his Reformed. Dogmatics, writes on page 176 as follows:

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 Pherson: “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.

It is evident from this quotation of the late professor that he views the nature of a miracle as a supernatural work or operation of the Lord. And I believe that we may say that miracles are generally regarded as such supernatural works of God, which are therefore not brought about by secondary causes that operate according to the laws of nature. 

Then, after writing on the possibility of miracles, the same author, writing on the purpose of the miracles of Scripture, writes as follows, page 177:

It may 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 Cod’s creative work. Hence we find cycles of miracles connected with special periods in the history of redemption, and especially 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.

From this quotation it appears that the late professor certainly realized that the miracles of Scripture are not mere wonders, exhibitions of power, but that they have revelational significance. In this quotation he connects the wonders of the Word of God with the economy of redemption, connects them with the redemptive grace of God. However, this does not remove the fact that he views the essence and nature of the miracle as a supernatural work of the Lord. As stated above, Prof. L. Berkhof also speaks of the possibility of miracles. In this connection, however, we. wish to call attention to what Hodge writes concerning miracles in his Systematic Theology, Vol. I, beginning on page 617. Writing on “Definition of a Miracle,” he expresses himself as follows:

According to the Westminster Confession, “God, in ordinary providence making use of means, yet is free to work without, above, or against them at pleasure.” In the first place, there are events therefore due to the ordinary operations of second causes, as upheld and guided by God. To this class belong the common processes of nature; the growth of plants and animals, the orderly movements of the heavenly bodies; and the more unusual occurrences, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and violent agitations and revolutions in human societies. In the second place, there are events due to the influence of the Holy Spirit upon the hearts of men, such as regeneration, sanctification, spiritual illumination, etc. Thirdly, there are events which belong to neither of these classes, and whose distinguishing characteristics are, First, that they take place in the external world, i.e., in the sphere of the observation of the senses; and Secondly, that they are produced or caused by the simple volition of God, without the intervention of any subordinate cause. To this class belongs the original act of creation, in which all cooperation class belong all events truly miraculous. A miracle, therefore, may be defined to be an event, in the external world, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple volition of God. 

An examination of any of the great miracles recorded in Scripture will establish the correctness of this definition. The raising of Lazarus from the dead may be taken as an example. This was an event which occurred in the outward world; one which could be seen and verified by the testimony of the senses. It was not brought about either in whole or in part by the efficiency of natural causes. It was due to the simple word, or volition, or immediate agency of God. The same may be said of the restoration to life of the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, on Christ’s pronouncing the words, Talitha cumi; and of his healing of the lepers by a word. So when Christ walked upon the sea, when He multiplied the loaves and fishes, when He calmed the winds and the waves by a command; any cooperation of physical causes is not only ignored, but by clearest intimation, denied.

So, according to Hodge, a miracle is an event, in the external world, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple will of God. 

Objections, so Hodge continues, have been raised against this definition of the miracle. Hodge sets forth this objection in the following words:

It is objected to this definition of a miracle that it assumed that the laws of nature may be violated or set aside. To this many theologians and men of science object, and declare that it is impossible. If the law of nature be the will of God, that of course cannot be set aside, much less directly violated. This is Augustine’s objection. Baden Powell, in behalf of men of science, protests against being called upon to believe in anything “at variance with nature and law.” “The enlarged critical and inductive study of the natural world,” he says, “cannot but tend powerfully to evince the inconceivableness of imagined interruptions of natural order or supposed suspensions of the laws of matter, and of that vast series of dependent causation which constitutes the legitimate field for the investigation of science, whose constancy is the sole warrant for its generalizations, while it forms the substantial basis for the grand conclusions of natural theology.” The question of miracles, he says, is not one “which can be decided by a few trite and commonplace generalities as to the moral government of the world and the belief in the Divine Omnipotence, or as to the validity of human testimony or the limits of human experience. It involves, and is essentially built upon, those grander conceptions of the order of nature, those comprehensive primary elements of all physical knowledge, those ultimate ideas of universal causation, which can only be familiar to those versed in cosmical philosophy in its widest sense.” “It is for the most part hazardous ground for any general moral reasoner to take, to discuss subjects of evidence which essentially involve that higher appreciation of Physical truth which can be attained only from an accurate and comprehensive acquaintance with the connected series of the physical and mathematical sciences. Thus, for example, the simple but grand truth of the law of conservation, and the stability of the heavenly motions, now well understood by all sound cosmical philosophers, is but a type of the universal self-sustaining and self-evolving powers which pervade all nature.” Professor Powell’s conclusion is, “if miracles were, in the estimation of a former age, among the chief supports of Christianity, they are at present among the main difficulties and hindrances to its acceptance. 

His whole argument is this, miracles, as usually defined, involve a suspension, or alteration, or violation of the laws of nature; but those laws are absolutely immutable, therefore that definition must be incorrect, or, in other words, miracles in that sense must be impossible.

The above objection to miracles is, therefore, twofold. First, it is objected, that if the law of nature be the will of God, that of course cannot be set aside, much less directly violated.” This was Augustine’s objection. This objection is answered by Hodge by saying “that nature is not the will of God in any other sense than that He ordained the sequence of natural events, and established the laws or physical causes by which that regular sequence is secured. This relation between God and the world, assumed that nature and its laws are subject to Him, and therefore liable at any time to be suspended or counteracted, at his good pleasure. The other form of the objection against miracles, assuming that miracles are events, in the external world, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple volition of God, is that the laws of nature are in themselves immutable, and that therefore they cannot be suspended. To this, the Lord willing, we will call attention in our following article.