Saturday, July 12, 2008

"Miracles violate the laws of nature" -- or do they?

It is fairly common to hear atheists say that miracles violate the laws of nature. It is more irksome when Christians actually repeat that claim as if it were the right and valid definition of a miracle rather than an opponent's slur.

Nature and the Miracles of Healing
Most miracles recorded in the New Testament are miracles of healing. Such a miracle is not remotely about "violating" the laws of nature. Instead of being anti-nature, the healing miracles are restorative, putting nature right again. The healing miracles and resurrections are also, without exception, a benefit to those who receive them. They are not random or capricious acts, but acts of blessing. The power at work here is not opposed to the natural order but a source of renewal for it, returning it to its originally right state or healthy pattern.

The most common type of a miracle recorded, then, is a restoration of nature. In a healing miracle, God acts to bless people by restoring their natural human bodies to full natural health. That is hardly the transgression of the law of nature proclaimed by Hume and company.

16 comments:

ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

I hadn't thought of this view of nature and miracles. What I have heard, that is sort of related, is that sometimes we try to violate the laws of nature and thereby have problems, even death. For example, if you speed around a curve in the road, you may fly off the road, resulting in an "accident." But in reality, your vehicle will follow the laws of nature. Our engineers have to work with the laws of nature when building roads and vehicles to try to keep people on the road.

SeekWisdom said...

I can't say this was a "miracle." But I am a volunteer communion minister at a local Medical Center. And recently after praying the Our Father with someone and administering communion, the person asked what I do for a living? I answered and then wondered why he'd asked. "You have healing hands," he responded. He went on to say, "When you held my hands, I felt something." Then he needed to explain himself further: "I don't even believe in this kind of thing! But I felt it.

(He seemed pretty dumbfounded!)

He was a cancer patient. I don't believe he was "healed" of cancer, but I do think he was healed.

Was it a miracle? It certainly wasn't my doing.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

PS - Yes, I've heard of God's laws along those lines. For example, have you ever seen those joke T-shirts that say "Obey Gravity. It's the Law!" Well, along those lines, what happens when we cross lines about truthfulness or love etc.

Seeker - Wow, you surprised me. I never would have pegged you for Roman Catholic. I'd have figured you for non-institutional of some sort. I guess internet impressions can be wrong. But that's neither here nor there. God bless those hands!

Anne / WF

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

In Orthodox teaching, there are no laws of nature. That's because we believe God directs everything directly, in Person, Himself. So for example, if the sun comes up tomorrow and every day, it's because God wills it to and causes it to (i.e., keeps our planet rotating around it).

The fact that things are orderly is because God Himself is.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Anastasia

I expect we agree that nature behaves in an orderly way because God is orderly. But some passages of the Bible read to me as if God had fixed certain ways things behave at the beginning, that the order was part of creation.

Wouldn't the physical sciences (e.g. airplanes) and medical sciences (e.g. antibiotics, vaccinations) be hard to develop with that sort of worldview?

How does that look from the other side of the fence?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Wouldn't the physical sciences (e.g. airplanes) and medical sciences (e.g. antibiotics, vaccinations) be hard to develop with that sort of worldview?

Only if God is capricious.

Things are what they are and we can all observe that and deal with it accordingly. The ball hits the ground every single time I drop it. We're only talking about how to interpret what we see.

How does that look from the other side of the fence?

I'd sorta like to see what Scriptures you have in mind before I quite know what to say.

Take care & God bless

Same to you!

SeekWisdom said...

Dear Weekend Fisher:

Uh, oh! I've tipped my hand!

Well, to be honest, I don't "represent" the RC party line. (though I could give a pretty good "rendition" if it became necessary... and I've got all the required "qualifications" - just not your "card-carrying" exemplar)

Call me "irreverent" about the "party line" while totally dedicated to the Truth/Holy Mystery, God as Really Present. I know the institutional "lingo" but find it stultifying. So I'm more at home with the mystics actually - and they were often branded as heretics in their day. (you've probably pegged me correctly... I don't really fit a mold)

I always did aim to be an eccentric old lady.

SeekWisdom said...

Can't help but chime in related to the topic at hand here and the ongoing discussion.

Seems to me the world is a very orderly place in terms of science. Yet revelation is like a miracle. How can science really explain it? How explain that God breaks into human history? Not just long ago, but on an everyday basis? And not just in Christianity. Because all over the planet people feel "called" to become rabbis and imams and monks or priests or ministers of every spiritual path.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Anastasia

I think I'd mention 3 things in regards to that:

1) The Genesis account of creation has an overall direction of bringing order out of chaos.

2) When God commands certain things as perpetual (things reproducing after its kind, sun and stars to bear light for all time), I get the impression it was a done deal at that point, that their continuing to work that way was part of their being created.

3) Job 38:33 ("Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?") seems to be a poetic reference (as that whole section is poetic about creation) to natural law.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

P.S. seeker: I have like 3 minutes before I have to clock in at work. "I'll be back." ;)

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Seeker

I think science doesn't account for revelation at all. Science is about things that happen as a force of nature. That nature itself might have a context -- that is beyond the scope of science. Beings which act for a purpose -- even within nature, such as humans -- can be a little trickier for science to predict.

I think God calls everyone without exception to some task or other. The question is whether we understand him right. I have no doubt in my mind that the 9/11 hijackers (who were probably sure they heard God's call) were actually hearing something else. Tricky stuff. Much like Mark's recent question on discernment ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

SeekWisdom said...

Discernment. Amen!

Yes, whose net are we tangled in?

jennifer said...

Thank you for this great post! This is included in the Christian Carnival, up later today at Diary of 1.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I wonder if some of the disagreement can be partially defused by looking at terminology. (Some will probably remain.)

Some people think of the laws of nature as just basically the laws of physics, and then anything God does that seems to conflict with the laws of physics is a miracle. This is along the lines of the view you're trying to criticize here. The theological problem I see with that view is that the laws of physics are divine acts and thus miracles.

Other people see everything God does as a miracle, and I think that's what you have in mind. My resistance to this as the only thing you say is that I think we can distinguish between different kinds of miracles. I think it does make sense to speak of how God sets things up to work ordinarily and how God does something particularly unusual at a particular time. There's certainly a difference between God promoting health in someone from vitamins and modern medicine and God healing someone in a way that seems to go against the ordinary way God works through the body's natural systems.

But I think the disagreement can partially be defused as long as we recognize both truths. Everything God does is a miracle, but some miracles are of different sorts than other miracles. Some miracles are God's work through lawlike, orderly behavior in creation. Other miracles are God's work through special dispensations that, as far as we can tell, are different from the ordinary.

I think one of the problems here is that we can talk of nature but mean different things. Some people mean the ordinary course of things, where an outstanding and unusual work of God is contrary to nature. But I don't think you mean that. You mean something more along the lines of being whole, wholesome, and within God's order of shalom, which is greater than the orderly rules of fallen nature that God might sometimes suspend or contradict in order to do something different.

If that's right, then this sort of miracle is both natural in one sense and unnatural in another, and that means some of this debate might just be talking past each other. (As I said, some differences remain. Which view of nature you take, and your reasons for that, might reveal your views on some deeper matters.)

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Jeremy

:)

I knew somebody would end up asking about the half of the post I *didnt'* post 'cause I was getting too technical. I just didn't know it would be you.

You were saying, "this sort of miracle is both natural in one sense and unnatural in another ..."

I would make an analogy like this: a mechanic who likes to build things in his garage builds a truck from the ground up. When the truck is working just by driving along and refueling like a well-behaved truck, that's "the laws of nature" -- on a real-world level that would include genetics and medicine and physics, etc. If the truck breaks down and goes back to the mechanic, I would contest whether it is right to say it's "unnatural" for the mechanic to put it back right. Granted one is "original design" and the other is "restoration"; it's not "laws of nature" in the sense that it took intentional corrective action; but neither is quite accurate to call it "unnatural".

Or to put it another way: the way God acts creating the natural order and the way God acts restoring the natural order are not at odds with each other.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Jeremy Pierce said...

Do you think every miracle is putting things back to health in every sense? For instance, God judges Israel with an earthquake. The kind of health God is ultimately aiming at is the restoration of his people to himself. But the means is definitely not health-promoting in any physical sense.

This is true whether you think of laws of nature that are being broken or suspended or whether you think of the laws of nature as just whatever governs what happens.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Jeremy

No, I certainly don't think all miracles are restorations -- but it is the most common type of miracle presented to us in the New Testament. The point of this entry was simply to answer the charge that miracles are unnatural and violations of nature by definition; the most common type portrayed in the life of Jesus is just the opposite.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF