As a result of some of my recent “going on” about the nature of nature, I have been in conversation with some friends about miracles. One of them recommended the chapter on miracles in Vern Poythress’s book Symphonic Theology, (chapter 9), which I had read before (and enjoyed well enough). So I went back and read that chapter again, and am reminded of Wodehouse’s comment about some minds being like a soup in a bad restaurant, better left unstirred.
At the heart of all this is the question what is a miracle exactly? As Poythress notes, this can be a difficult question to answer. I accept his discussion of the difficulty, along with his insistence upon cosmic personalism, but I think that we can actually break the question down more precisely than he has done. Scripture talks about miracles, signs, and wonders, and I think it is incumbent upon us to work out the categories theologically—while granting that the biblical words might map onto to one or more of these categories in different ways. And, since we are talking about the mighty acts of God, perhaps we should just go ahead and call them what they are. We are defining the categlories.
I have been able to figure out five categories, and am cheerfully willing to add some more if necessary.
The first great miracle was the creation of heaven and earth ex nihilo. The creation of nature could not have had, by definition, any natural causal antecedents. Nothing natural brought about the existence of nature, which means—get ready—the existence of nature is supernatural. And because Scripture teaches that the created order was brought into being by the Word of God, and continues to be sustained by that same Word, the continued existence of the natural order is just one long cascading miracle.
“Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:2–3).
But it is a miracle we have grown accustomed to, as God intended it should, and so it communicates nothing particular about whether this prophet or that one is from God. It does communicate the majesty and goodness of God and, as an ongoing immediate action of God, it is fully miraculous. Nature is therefore supernatural.
God’s hand is constant in all things, but there are times when He reveals His hand, there are times when He shows His hand. He does this, not by introducing something new into nature “from the side,” so to speak, but rather by orchestrating the ordinary course of providence in such a way as to make an answer to prayer, say, undeniable. To invent an example (but I could use real life examples, just as remarkable), suppose a poor widow receives a bill in the mail on Monday for $62.17, and she is flat broke. She prays about it on Tuesday, in desperation, and later that morning she receives a check in the mail for $62.17. Only a spiritual clod would deny that this was an answer to prayer.
But while it was clearly an answer to prayer, it was an answer to prayer that arose from within the natural course of events, through the use of ordinary providential events carefully choreographed. People get bills mailed to them like that all the time, and people get checks sent to them all the time. The hand of God need not come in from a “side window” in order to be visible.
Undiscovered Property of Nature Miracle:
The fact that we have discovered the predictable properties of created nature in many respects (sun rising in the east, objects falling at 9.8 meters per second squared, water quenching thirst, etc.) does not mean that we have exhausted our investigation of the properties of nature. Some such odd properties may have been noticed from time to time, but not really explained, while other properties of nature may have been entirely overlooked—until they weren’t.
An example of the former could be information gathered through no known mechanism—say you are in a crowded room and you suddenly have a profound sense that somebody is staring at you. You turn quickly around and, sure enough, there that person is, looking at you from across the room. Your eyes meet, and you ask yourself (reasonably enough), “how did I know that? Because I did know that.” I don’t have to tell myself that I have the gift of discernment to explain it. Non-Christians have this kind of thing happen to them too. But there are plainly aspects to our created being—hidden features of nature around us—that we have not isolated, identified, or figured out yet.
For an example of the latter, try to imagine yourself seeking to explain the basic operations of your smart phone to someone like Jonathan Edwards. He understands the nature of tools well enough (hammer and nail), and a microchip is simply a tool, but it is a tool that is utilizing properties of nature that were not ever imagined in the eighteenth century.
Created Supernature Miracle:
When Gabriel showed up to announce to Mary that she was going to be the mother of the Messiah, he was doing so as a created messenger. Jews of the first century did not see archangels often, but they did not see them for the same reason they did not see Chinese mandarins often. They lived in different places. But Gabriel was a creature, part of this universe, just as Mary was, and he was delivering a message to her from the realm of the created supernatural. That means, ultimately, that what he was doing was not supernatural, except in the sense outlined in our first definition. Created supernature is actually just a different location within the realm of created nature. The delivery of his message was this kind of miracle. The content of the message itself referred to the next kind.
New Creation Miracle:
A new creation miracle occurs when God acts without any intermediates, and does so in order to bring a new reality into existence in the world. He did this, most notably, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and He continues to do this in an ongoing way through the miracle of the new birth.
“For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will” (John 5:21).
The resurrection of Christ from the dead was performed by God without the use of intermediate natural causes. He spoke from outside the world, and something new came into being inside the world.
“But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you” (Rom. 8:11).
And we see here the connection between the miracle of Christ’s resurrection and the miracle of the new birth. That second kind of miracle is explicitly stated elsewhere.
“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:6–7).
So the new birth is compared to the original ex nihilo act of creation, but it happened in a world already created.
We have no reason to believe that He has done so, but a miracle of this kind could also happen if God created a boulder weighing one hundred pounds, doing so ex nihilo, and placing it on the dark side of the moon, where we wouldn’t notice. This would be the insertion of something new into an already created cosmos. Like I said, there is no reason to think He is doing this with boulders, but every reason to think He is doing this by replacing the small boulders of our hearts, and giving us hearts of flesh.
So then, all is of God, all the time, whichever of the five kinds of God’s signs and wonders we are talking about. His steady performance of the first kind of miracle is what we call nature. It is so steady that we can bank on it, and we do. It is what God usually does, and in many aspects of this He binds Himself to it. He speaks and the mountains stand fast. We are commanded not to transgress what is against nature (Rom. 1:26). At the same time, He invites us to exercise dominion—which learns how to increase fruitfulness by going against nature (Rom. 11:24 ). And He gives us His Word so that we might learn how to distinguish the two.