Thomas Aquinas defined miracles as “Those things done by divine power apart from the order usually followed in things”. He identified three types of miracles under this definition.
- Those things that God does that nature cannot do.
This can be considered the most traditional approach to defining a miracle- it is effectively a breaking of a law of nature, which contradicts our regular experience about how the world works. An example used by Aquinas was that of Joshua who made the sun to stand still. Similarly, we could add walking on water, the raising of the dead and so on.
- Those things that God does but also that nature could do.
This could be things such as recovering from a terminal illness or from paralysis. It is not logically impossible for these things to happen, but they are not usually expected. Nature can bring about a spontaneous remission or recovery, but we would not expect this to happen and so if it does, it may be attributed to the direct intervention of God.
- Those things that God does that nature could also do but without using the forces of nature.
An example could be recovering from an illness; this would be expected naturally but happened perhaps more quickly than usual. This might be following someone’s prayer and we would call it a miraculous intervention by God.
David Hume also attempted to define a miracle. “A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”.
Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him… While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing* what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat (Mark 5:22-24, 35-43).
Consider why could the raising of Jairus’ daughter be considered a miracle by Aquinas but not necessarily by Hume?
Paul Tillich uses the New Testament as a basis when he tries to define a miracle. He argues that Hume’s definition introduces ‘irrationalist rationalism” which means that “the degree of absurdity in a miracle story becomes the measure of its religious value. The more impossible, the more revelatory!”
Tillich prefers the term sign. Miracles are given only to those for whom they are sign events, to those who will receive them ecstatically.
A genuine miracle is first of all an event which is astonishing, unusual shaking, without contradicting the rational structure of reality. In the second place, it is an event which points to the mystery of being, expressing in relation to us in a definite way. In the third place, it is an occurrence which is received as a sign event in an ecstatic experience.
It seems that a miraculous event for Tillich becomes a miracle as that interpretation is placed on the events by the “miracled” person. If no verification is needed “how can Tillich avoid the conclusion that miracles are simply relative to the psychological disposition of the believer, and that, for all we know, nothing was revealed at all?”(Palmer). A miracle or sign is therefore subjective.
To illustrate how some ‘miracles’ can be subjective below are some examples of miracles. Alternative explanations could be offered.
On August 21, 1879, Margaret Beirne, a resident of Cnoc Mhuine, was sent by her brother to lock up the church for the evening. When she was ready to leave, she noticed a strange brightness hovering over the church. Margaret had other things on her mind, and didn’t tell anyone what she saw. Around the same time, another member of the Beirne family, Mary, was leaving from a visit to the church’s housekeeper, and stopped with the housekeeper at the gables, where they could see the church. Mary replied: ” Oh look at the statues! Why didn’t you tell me the priest got new statues for the chapel?” The housekeeper responded that she knew nothing of the priest getting new statues. So, they both went for a closer look, and Mary Beirne said: “But they are not statues, they’re moving. It’s the Blessed Virgin!” Thirteen others also came and saw the beautiful woman, clothed in white garments, wearing a brilliant crown. Her hands were raised as if in prayer. All knew that it was Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Queen of Angels. On the right of Our Lady stood St. Joseph, his head inclined toward her. On her left stood St. John the Evangelist, dressed as a bishop. To the left of St. John stood an altar which had a lamb and a cross surrouned by angels on it. The vision lasted about two hours. People who were not at the apparition site reported that they saw a bright light illuminating the area where the church was. Many of the sick were healed upon visitng the church at Knock.
A photo, was taken by a woman from New Jersey while on holiday in Arizona. She had asked her husband to stop their car when, driving through the desert, she saw a distinctive bush covered with white flowers. Her husband did not see the flowers. On the picture they cannot be seen either, but in their place is the unmistakable image of the Madonna.
Let me take you back to one of the most significant scenes of World War II. Hitler’s bombers were pounding the Allied positions. His tank divisions were moving across Europe. The Allied forces had their backs to the wall at the English Channel. Retreat seemed impossible. Winston Churchill came on the radio and coined that famous phrase, “The lights across Europe have gone out tonight.” He was right indeed. Most of Europe had fallen to the advancing Nazi armies. But at this moment of crisis, something remarkable happened. Even today, historians have a difficult time explaining what occurred. It began to rain on the continent side of Europe. It was uncharacteristic for this time of year. The intensity of the storm slowed Hitler’s tanks to a crawl. The blanket of fog hanging over the English Channel lifted. Winston Churchill took advantage of this slight opportunity, and thousands of Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk were evacuated. Now the untold story is this: in the weeks previous, the lights in country churches were on—all up and down the English Channel. Pastors called their church members to pray. They came by the hundreds, and men, women and children continually sought God. They interceded that God would work a miracle to change the tide of human history. British pubs closed for prayer meetings at noon. The British Parliament became a place of prayer. Teachers interrupted their classes for prayer sessions. Through a mighty movement of intercession, all of history was changed.
In discussing this and Aquinas’ second and third types of miracle it important to note the contingency definition of the miraculous. These are rare occurrences, but can have natural explanations, but are give miraculous interpretations. This is illustrated in a story told by R.F. Holland.
A child riding his toy motor car strays onto an unguarded railway crossing near his house and a wheel of his car gets stuck down the side of one of the rails. An express train is due to pass with the signals in its favour and a curve in the track makes it impossible for the driver to stop his train in time to avoid any obstruction he might encounter on the crossing. The mother coming out of the house to look for her child sees him on the crossing and hears the train approaching. She runs forward shouting and waving. The little boy remains seated in his car looking downward, engrossed in the task of pedalling it free. The brakes of the train are applied and it comes to rest a few feet from the child. The mother thanks God for the miracle; which she never ceases to think of as such although, as she in due course learns, there was nothing supernatural about the manner in which the brakes of the train came to be applied. The driver had fainted, for a reason that had nothing to do with the presence of the child on the line, and the brakes were applied automatically as his hand ceased to exert pressure on the control lever. He fainted on this particular afternoon because his blood pressure had risen after an exceptionally heavy lunch during which he had quarrelled with a colleague, and the change in blood pressure caused a clot of blood to be dislodged and circulate. He fainted at the time when he did on the afternoon in question because this was the time at which the coagulation in his bloodstream reached the brain.
Why does the mother describe this as a miracle? What might an atheist say? Who is right? Why?