Responding to Miracle Questions
My friend Ryan Patrick McLaughlin sent a series of questions and criticisms. I’ve responded to several in previous blog essays. This is the final essay in my series of responses.
Ryan wonders about my view of miracles. He gives voice to questions I’ve heard from others, so I suspect my response will interest many.
What are Miracles?
Before addressing Ryan’s questions/criticisms, I should offer a brief overview of my view. I’ve written about this in various books, but here’s a blog essay on the matter.
I define miracles as actual events that are 1) unusual, 2) good, and 3) involve causal actions by God and creatures/creation.
In some miracles, complex or simple creatures cooperate well with God’s intentions. Good and unusual events subsequently occur. These may include people choosing to follow God’s leading when we would not have expected them to do so (e.g., repentance from sin). But it may also involve other animals, organs, and cells cooperating with God. God loves all creation through persuasive love, and God calls every creature, great and small, to the greatest flourishing possible in each moment.
In other miracles — often called “nature miracles” by biblical scholars — inanimate entities and conditions of creation are aligned for the good and unusual events God wants. These miracles don’t involve intentional creaturely responses; it’s not as if rocks (for example) are consciously choosing to cooperate or not.
Other miracles occur because creatures cooperate with God and use their bodies to exert impact upon inanimate entities. The Berlin Wall coming down was a miracle that involved free creatures (humans) cooperating with the Spirit to push over inanimate objects (concrete walls).
Views of Miracles that I Reject
My definition of a miracle rejects the following ideas:
1. I reject the idea that miracles are entirely in the mind of the observer. (Rejecting a view attributed to Friedrich Schleiermacher.)
2. I reject the idea that everything that happens is miraculous. (Rejecting Albert Einstein’s proposal that “everything is a miracle.”)
3. I reject the idea God ever singlehandedly brings about good and unusual events. (Rejecting omnipotence when understood as God acting as a sufficient cause.)
4. I reject the idea that creatures or creation ever bring about good and unusual events without God’s action. (Rejecting deism, strong Pelagianism, etc.)
5. I reject the idea miracles only happened in “biblical times.” (Rejecting cessationism.)
Given this quick review, let’s look at Ryan’s question/criticism.
Ryan Patrick McLaughlin writes…
“Your position on miracles maintains that God can bring about every biblical miracle without coercion (i.e., without unilaterally causing the outcome). You also maintain that this view holds given the biblical data. I agree with John and others here. There seems to be an unacknowledged hermeneutic at work. It’s difficult to imagine that the biblical authors thought this way (i.e., that God only works by noncoercive luring). There are certainly passages that suggest God’s desires require human cooperation (e.g., Isaiah 10:5-7, where God sends the king of Assyria to level judgment against Israel, but the king goes further than what God desires). But there are also passages where divine activity is presented—at least by any reasonable interpretation I can see—as the sufficient cause of the outcome.”
“I think the resurrection is actually a case in point. There is no place in the Bible, so far as I can tell, where it suggests that Jesus was an active participant in the resurrection (or that the resurrection happened by any means other than unilateral divine activity). What you find are concepts like, “Christ *was raised* from the dead by the glory of the Father” (Romans 6:4); “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11); “this Jesus God raised up” (Acts 2:24). The language here appears to be that of an active agent (God) and a passive subject (Jesus/Jesus’s body).
Now, you *could* argue for an interpretation of such passages that is amenable to your view, but I think you should at least acknowledge that you’re arguing against what appears to be plain language of the text (and what is likely the authorial intent). That is, the argument would be, I think, an imposition of a theological assumption onto the texts, not a drawing out of a theological principle from the texts.”
Responding to Ryan
Ryan argues that the biblical authors likely did not have my theory of miracles in mind, at least in some cases. And he thinks my view doesn’t fit the plain language of the biblical text. These are important concerns and have a measure of plausibility.
I indirectly address Ryan’s concerns at the conclusion of The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence. In that work, I claim that no biblical passage explicitly opposes my view of miracles. And no biblical passage explicitly supports omnipotence. Ryan seems to grant me this, but he thinks the authors were unlikely to have my alternative view in mind. And he thinks my theory doesn’t fit the plain language of some miracles, including God’s raising Jesus from the dead.
I suspect Ryan would admit that appealing to what the authors originally thought is always a shaky endeavor. We can’t know well what contemporary people think, let alone what those think who wrote 2,000+ years ago. We aren’t mind readers.
I also suspect Ryan would admit that appeals to the “plain language” of the Bible are also shaky. What is plain to one is not to others. The complicated and variegated history of biblical interpretation belies claims about a “plain reading” of scripture.
I don’t claim that biblical writers have my view of divine and creaturely actions in mind when describing miracles. But I don’t think they thought God is omnipotent, in the main meanings of this word in Christian history.
My Main Response
Ryan is certainly right that many people today think God’s raising Jesus from the dead was an act of omnipotence. Most are so accustomed to thinking God is omnipotent that they have never considered a resurrection involving creaturely actors and factors. So while there is no explicit evidence in the biblical text for omnipotence, I grant that most people today come to the Bible thinking God alone resurrected Jesus.
Notice, however, that the verbs we use for God’s action carry assumptions we don’t have for the verbs of creaturely action. When we say “God creates,” for instance, many people think God did so without creaturely materials or actors. But if we say “Tom creates,” few think I do so ex nihilo. This assumption of divine omnipotence affects how we think about miracles, even the raising of Jesus.
In The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence, I used two illustrations for how we talk about creatures doing things and assume there were cooperative agents or conducive factors. LeBron winning a basketball game, for instance, requires cooperative agents and conducive factors. We know this, despite saying “LeBron won the game.”
When it comes to God, by contrast, many people assume that “God raised Jesus” must describe divine sufficient causation. But when we read of other resurrections in the Bible or hear reports of resurrections today, we don’t bracket out creaturely factors, actors, and conditions.
For instance, read the resurrection of the widow’s son in Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17–22), the resurrection of the Shunammite’s son (2 Kgs 4:18–37), or the resurrection of the man thrown into Elisha’s grave (2 Kgs 13:20). Biblical authors refer to many other resurrections. All biblical accounts point to creaturely factors and actors, but we don’t think of creatures as omnipotent.
Three Models for Miraculous Causation
We have three major models for understanding miracles as objective (not merely subjective) events.
1) they occur because of natural causes alone and have no divine influence.
2) they occur because of both divine and creaturely causes.
3) they occur because of divine action alone.
I think option two makes the best sense for reasons I’ve laid out in various books, not the least of which is the problem of evil. No biblical text excludes option two, and many fit it nicely. It also fits the world we live in.
I admit that some biblical miracle stories do not explicitly mention creaturely causes, however. But other biblical miracle stories don’t explicitly mention divine causes, and yet we assume divine action was involved. See, for example, Peter’s shadow healing people (Acts 5:15-16).
In sum, many bring to the Bible their theological assumptions about omnipotence, and those assumptions prevent them from imagining creaturely causation alongside divine causation.