The way we approach the miraculous is important. Many Christians do not realize that they have adopted an impersonal worldview that makes the miraculous an intrusion into the affairs of our life. They sound often more like David Hume than the Bible. Hume, for example, believed that miracles were a “violation of the laws of nature.” The way many Christians talk about the miraculous acts of God follows this same line of thought, but this perspective does not align with the Bible’s picture and presentation of the miraculous. Christians must define miracles Biblically or we will risk misrepresenting God’s relationship to the world.
What is a “miracle”? We use the term in a variety of ways. We use it sarcastically to indicate something utterly unbelievable (ex. “My kids cleaned their room without me asking, it’s a miracle!”). We also use the term to speak of something extraordinary. We may speak of a person whose cancer was “miraculously” healed, or say of a man who should have died in a car crash that he was “saved by a miracle”. We apply it to the amazing act of childbirth – the “miracle of childbirth”. And we use it too to describe the supernatural acts of Jesus in walking on water and raising the dead. These uses do not, of course, all describe the same thing. We must properly define our term if we’re going to safeguard ourselves from poor theology.
To define the term we must begin with what we know. We have outlined some of the uses of the term above, but why do we apply this term so broadly? In each instance above we may conclude that there is an element of the extraordinary. The event being described is not what we expect or what we can conceive. Even with the “miracle of childbirth” we note that something amazing is happening. We may be able to explain the process of conception and growth and development, but the very act of creating human life inside the womb is still astounding and, at some level, beyond comprehension. But if we want to safeguard our theology we need a more thorough definition and we need that definition to be grounded in the revealed Word of God. John Frame has helped me more than any other theologian in unpacking the true nature of the miraculous according to Scripture. I will borrow from him heavily in this article. But, as with all Biblical concepts, we must start with precisely what Scripture says.
In the Scriptures the term “miracle” (and its equivalents: wonders and signs) is applied generally speaking to describe events caused by God that are so extraordinary that we would usually consider them to be impossible. We could look to a number of different events in Scripture commonly called miracles: the flood, the birth of Isaac, the turning of Moses’ staff into a serpent, the parting of the Red Sea, the crumbling of the walls of Jericho, etc. But how do these events differ from “natural events”. After all the “miracle of birth” is quite different from the miracle of resurrection. One is a “natural” event the other is most assuredly not. So, more must be said of this definition in order to clarify it. Most theologians point to two key ideas to help clarify a definition of miracles. Frame writes:
Theological definitions of miracles tend to focus on “nature” and/or “immediacy”: a miracle is supernatural as opposed to natural, and/or it is accomplished by the “immediate” power of God.[i]
These two ideas are key parts to most theological definition of miracles. These two ideas, however, are actually often part of the reason our definitions turn out to be unbiblical.
In order to faithfully represent what Scriptures says, then, about miracles, we will need to seek to understand the relationship of the miraculous to both nature and mediation. This will set the stage, then, for further clarification on a definition of miracles that fits with the Bible’s picture and accurately represents God’s relationship to the world.
Miracles and Nature
“The mark of a miracle, in a word,” wrote B.B. Warfield, “is not that it is contra-natural, but that it is extra-natural and more specifically that it is super-natural” (The Question of Miracles). The great Princeton theologian is exemplary of a whole model of thinking about the relationship between miracles and nature. Miracles, many Christians say, are intrusions into the world. This explanation, however, does not quite fit with the Biblical worldview. Miracles are not best defined as “extra-natural”.
We must begin by clarifying what we mean by “nature”. Frame states that there are at least four different ways of thinking about “natural law”. In each case, considering miracles as a violation fails to do appropriate justice to the relationship between nature and miracle.
The first perspective says that natural law is the “ultimate principle that governs the world.” In the Bible, however, the ultimate principle governing the world is the decree of God. Hebrews 1:3 states that Christ upholds the universe by the power of His word. In this sense, then, to consider miracles as an exception to “natural law” is simply false. Miracles, like natural law in this definition, are nothing less than the decrees of God.
The second perspective states that natural law is the “regular process by which God usually governs creation.” We note here that God has patterns of regularity by which He governs the world. So he says to Noah that he will keep the seasons regular (Gen. 8:22), and he has kept His word. Yet, we should not be too quick to observe miracles as a contrast with this perspective of natural law. After all, God sometimes uses very natural things to accomplish amazing miracles. Exodus 14:21 states that God used a “strong east wind” to dry up the land of the Red Sea to make way for the Israelites to cross. So, sometimes God “suspends natural law” in a miraculous work, and sometimes He doesn’t. Therefore this idea should not be part of our definition of a miracle. We continue to need further clarification then on the relationship between the natural and miraculous.
The third perspective calls natural law the “human expectation concerning the works of nature.” The trouble with this perspective is fairly obvious. It reduces “natural law” to something essentially subjective. After all “expectations” vary from person to person, generation to generation, age to age. The expectations of those in the ancient world were far less “sophisticated” and scientific than those of modernists. All individuals differ and their expectations cannot be simply reduced to a single expectation. This offers us, then, no better distinction between miracle and nature.
Fourthly, Frame says that some use natural law to mean “the basic created structure of the universe.” This view, however, tends to suggest that natural laws are a kind of mechanistic structure that operates within the universe apart from God’s hands-on governance. In this view, then, miracles occur when God suspends these laws. Such a view, however, is definitely at odds with the Biblical view of nature. The Bible ascribes to God all the events of nature. He brings rain and sun, storm and locust. He governs the changing of seasons and the placement of seas. Furthermore, as we saw with Exodus 14:21, sometimes God uses the nature to accomplish what we would clearly qualify as a “miracle”—the parting of the Red Sea. So again the distinction that Christians try to make between nature and miracle in this way simply doesn’t work.
While there is no doubt that miracles are extraordinary acts, trying to clarify that definition requires care. Some definitions do harm to the Bible’s presentation of God’s relationship to the world. Miracles are not an intrusion into “nature”.
Miracles and Immediacy
The second tool of refinement which theologians often use to define our term is the category of “immediacy”. Immediacy also, however, fails to clarify the term in accordance with Scripture. What do we mean by “immediacy”? Some theologians describe a miracle as an act that God does directly, immediately, by his own power. So J. Gresham Machen distinguished miracles from general providence by stating:
In the case of other events, God uses means…whereas in the case of a miracle He puts forth His creative power just as truly as in that mighty act of creation which underlies the whole process of the world. (“Is the Bible Right About Jesus?”)
In his view, a miracle is “an event in the external world that is wrought by the immediate power of God” (What is Christianity? and Other Addresses, 55). This is a helpful distinction in theory. The failure of it, however, is that it doesn’t quite hold up in light of Scripture.
The Scriptures do not make this distinction themselves, and as we do theology we ought to be careful that our clarifications do not go beyond what Scripture states. B.B. Warfield noted the absences of Scriptural witness to this distinction, but insisted that in light of the “unusual” nature of miracles they can only logically be attributed to the immediate act of God. Exodus 14:21 tells us, in contrast to these Princeton theologians, that God parted the sea by using the mediation of a “strong east wind”. In John 9 Jesus heals the blind man with the application of mud mixed with spit, a gross mediation, but a miracle by mediation nonetheless. Scripture, then, does not deny miracles by means of mediation.
Louis Berkhof tried to further clarify this distinction by saying that miracles may be mediated, but the mediation is not natural. So mud and spit do not usually bring about the return of sight. If doctors are spitting on blind patients we generally think that poor practice. So mediation may happen, but it is not mediation “of second causes in their ordinary operation” (Systematic Theology, 176). The point remains, however, that God does still perform miraculous deeds by means of mediation. Mediation, therefore, is not a clarifying category for our definition. A proper definition of miracles needs to be more precise, and certainly needs to be grounded better in Scripture.
In the big picture it seems that as we approach a definition of “miracles” we generally have trouble understanding the ways in which God relates to the world. Our definitions can either affirm an active, involved, and sovereign God, or they can undermine Him. The Scriptures don’t paint a picture of the world as following a natural process isolated from divine providence, and miracles as those moments when God suddenly and dramatically shows up in the world. God is always already there and already involved. Sometimes He uses secondary causes to accomplish His will and sometimes he doesn’t, but that in and of itself does not define a miracle.
Miracles and Covenant Lordship
How should we think of miracles? That is the significant question at hand, and while many theologians seek to answer that question by looking to the clarifying tools of “nature” and “immediacy” these tools do not seem to help us build a Biblical definition. An alternate approach, then, needs to be developed and John Frame has something to offer in that regard. Miracles are extraordinary manifestations of God’s Covenant Lordship.
Frame is most well-known as a theologian for his development of the concept of Covenant Lordship. He unpacks this idea beautifully in his book The Doctrine of God. There he argues that the three common features of God’s Covenant Lordship are control, authority, and presence. In each miraculous act we see some aspect of God’s covenant lordship manifested. So Frame writes:
As mighty acts, miracles display the great power of the Lord to control His creation. As signs, they authoritatively reveal him. As wonders, they created in the hearts of people a religious awe, as they bring people into the presence of the living God. (258)
The various words used in the Scriptures for the term “miracle” are easily seen to represent these three aspects of God’s covenant lordship. So the term translated as “power” or “mighty act” communicates God’s control. The term translated “sign” communicates his authority, and the term translated “wonder” communicates his presence. There is, then, perhaps some better Scriptural support for Frame’s definition.
In Luke 6:19 we read that “the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.” His miracles testify to his power. The woman who touched Jesus’ garment was instantly healed of a sickness she had suffered from for years. When she touched the hem of his robe Jesus felt that “power had gone out from him” (Mark 5:30). Even in the Old Testament we see that God leads the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt by His “right hand” which was “majestic in power” (Ex 15:6). Miracles manifest God’s power. Signs are revelations of God’s authority. Frame states it this way:
Miracles not only accomplish great things, but they also display God to us. They teach us about him. So God feeds his people in the wilderness “to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3). (259)
Jesus regularly reveals his authority by means of the miraculous signs. He heals the paralytic in order to reveal that he has authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-11). He turns water into wine in order to reveal his glory (John 2:11). John tells us that Jesus did many miracles to persuade us that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:30-31). His miracles reveal His identity, they tell us of his authority.
Finally, we can see that his miracles manifest his presence. The miracles in Scripture often draw a response of awe (though sometimes they draw a response of a hard-heart too). It’s the kind of awe given by those who encounter the presence of the living God. So we see in Luke 5:1-10 that upon the miraculous catch of fish Peter says to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (v. 8). His response is right because he suddenly sees before whom he is standing, and particularly who he is in relation to this Jesus. Exodus 15 too is a response to encountering the presence of God. After the exodus event Israel rejoices in praise. Often God’s mighty acts prompt the psalmists to compose their praises. The Covenant Lord is present in his miraculous deeds.
All of this points to a greater and more Biblical way of understanding miracles. They are manifestations of the Covenant Lord. They reveal God’s authority, control, and presence to us. Thinking about miracles rightly means thinking of them in this sort of way. God may sometimes use natural or supernatural means to manifest himself. He may sometimes communicate his deeds immediately or mediate them through other means. But however He does it, He is revealing Himself to us in such acts. The Covenant Lord is present, powerful, and authoritative. Thinking about miracles in this way can help us avoid some of the unbiblical presuppositions behind other definitions, and can help us to stay grounded in the Scriptures. Miracles are extraordinary manifestations of our Covenant Lord. Such a definition helps us to preserve God’s right relationship to the world.
[i] The Doctrine of God, 246
This article first appeared in Theology for Life Winter Issue. To download the rest of the issue click here.