Miracles, Mary, and Modern Belief

Is it reasonable to believe in miracles and if so, how might they provide evidence for faith?

Any contemporary Christian worth her salt needs some sort of account of miracle claims, especially at this time in Australian public life. In part this is because it turns out the Australian public has some pretty strong feelings about miracles – as the canonization of Mary MacKillop has revealed. The aftermath has witnessed calls in the opinion pages of my local broadsheet for us to repent of “suspending all critical faculties” in our “mindless and distasteful fawning over the evidence-free claims of miracles.” Similarly we have been encouraged to abandon “hocus pocus” surrounding the “patron saint of the naive”, in favour of celebrating the truly inspiring efforts of scientists exhibiting “reason and logical thinking.”

These accusations are not simply an issue for devout Catholics; they challenge a central tenet of the Christian faith. Historical Christianity has claimed at least Jesus’ miracles – whatever they are – to be profoundly public events, wrought for the purposes of providing reasons for faith. Such events in the gospel accounts as Jesus healing, feeding and raising people from the dead lead him to appeal that his hearers: “At least believe (in Him) on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” (John 14:11) This claim provides a challenge for Christians who don’t want to naively suspend their critical minds in order to accept the miraculous. Thoughtful believers need to address two key questions. 1. Is it reasonable to accept the possibility of miracles? 2. If miracles are possible, how might they provide publicly credible evidence for faith?

1. The possibility of miracles

Ever since the Scottish philosopher Hume (1711 – 1776) wrote the influential “Of Miracles” there has been a popular Western understanding of a miracle as an event that “violates the laws of nature”. Using this definition has allowed those of a scientific mindset to argue for the impossibility of miracles. The simple argument goes that it is a logical contradiction for anything to break an immutable law. Or again more broadly if nature is all of reality, then how can God go against the reality he created? This argument against miracles being events that break the natural order of things seems strong, and does go some way to explaining the enthusiasm for the public view that miracles are for the irrational. But is this a problem for Christianity?

I don’t believe so. This is because the Bible does not understand a miracle as an event that violates the laws of nature. Actually it would be very surprising if that were the case because the whole concept of the existence of immutable laws of nature is very recent. Moreover the different words translated as “miracle” in our English Bible doesn’t carry any sense of the events Jesus is referring to being violations of the natural order.

Instead, a Biblical definition of what we call a miracle would be something more like “amazing works of power that act as signposts to God”. This means that miracles are not acts that are impossible in our reality, but rather they are acts within our reality that only God has the power to do. Perhaps a good way to illustrate this is to recognise that by this understanding the universe, too, is a miracle. For the theist, the universe is obviously real and natural and can be described scientifically to some degree, but only a creator would have the power to work such an amazing act. Philosophers throughout history, including Aquinas and Augustine, have thus defined miracles as works that exceed, rather than contradict, the productive powers of nature.

Now it might be surprising to some, but this Biblical definition of miracle is generally acknowledged as not being philosophically objectionable.1 This is not to say that there are no objections – as in all scholarship there are debates.2 But I do want to say that you do not need to suspend your critical faculties to accept this understanding of miracles. It is not irrational, naïve, or dabbling in hocus pocus, to at least accept the possibility of miracles. But that is only part of the issue. It is one thing for miracles to be logically unobjectionable. It is another altogether for them to be real, and to be unambiguous evidence for God.

2. Miracles as evidence for faith

The evidential potential of any amazing event comes down to two issues. The first is whether the event is such that only God could have done it. At first glance at least some of Jesus miracles seem to tick this box. It is, of course, possible that some of Jesus’ healings may have been coincidental or an example of the placebo effect (this is the problem with the miracle claims attached to Mary MacKillop), but raising people from the dead after a number of days clearly appears to “exceed the productive powers of nature” in general, and certainly goes beyond human capacity in particular.

Still we need to be careful not to claim too much too soon. Miracles, even of the sort Jesus performed, might be ambiguous. They may simply be evidence that he is a powerful spiritual being, perhaps an angel or a demon. Or maybe they point to him being a superhuman with extraordinary faculties. For power that exceeds the productive power of nature to be attributed to God it requires a broader theological or philosophical framework to evaluate it.

The difficulty of establishing with certainty the reality of the miraculous events of Jesus’ life is the rather obvious observation that none of us were around to see them

It is here that considerations such as the moral character of Jesus’ miracles, the fulfilment of prophetic promise or the consistency with an overall metaphysic must be evaluated. As it happens, the nature and variety of miracle claims attributed to Jesus, ranging from transfiguring into a heavenly state accompanied by earlier prophets, to exhibiting ex nihilo creative power, to repeating miracles from Israel’s early history to rising from the dead in accordance with the scriptures, suggest him as a serious candidate for divinity. But do they constitute convincing evidence?

Such miracles would provide genuine evidence with a second proviso: that the events actually happened. The difficulty of establishing with certainty the reality of the miraculous events of Jesus’ life is the rather obvious observation that none of us were around to see them. None of us saw them first hand and so we are relying on the testimony of the eyewitnesses to be a credible testimony to incredible things. Opponents of miracles go to lengths to argue against the reliability of testimonies to the miraculous. Some of the arguments appeal to probabilities of miracles verses probabilities of mistaken observations. Some doubt the mind’s ability to view astonishing events objectively. No doubt factors like this need to be taken into account, but none necessarily defeat the credibility of testimony to miracles.

In fact philosophers who specialize in testimony recognize that, when appropriate reliability criteria are applied, testimony is a highly reliable form of knowledge, even when considering astonishing events. Indeed the vast majority of our public knowledge is derived from testimony. So it is not irrational, per se, to accept the testimony of others to incredible events – including the eyewitness testimony we read in the Bible. Instead, if found to be reliable, Biblical testimony points to the reality of miracles, and thus their validity as evidence for God.

Where this leaves us is that Christians cannot simply repeat Jesus’ appeal to at least believe because of his miracles. Because we are not eyewitnesses Jesus’ miracles by themselves are not sufficient “public” evidence for his divinity to us in the same sense they were to Jesus’ audience.3 We need more. What we can say, though, is that it does not require anyone to suspend their critical faculties to accept that a) miracles are possible, b) if real, Jesus’ miracles point to his divinity, c) the testimonies we have to the reality of Jesus’ miracles cannot be dismissed out of hand. When evaluated by appropriate reliability criteria, they can be fairly considered as one of a variety of valid types of public evidence for Christian faith.

Richard Shumack is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, and is completing a PhD at Melbourne University, connected with the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies

1. For a more in depth overview of the philosophical issues and arguments involved see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/
2. E.g. Opponents of theism (e.g. Flew) have argued that this is just a God of the gaps theology: amazing things don’t prove anything because all we need to do is to understand better what is going on from a scientific point of view. This however confuses understanding with agency – see Lennox’s response to Hawking.
3. Although even Jesus’ eyewitnesses viewed his actions with a prior theological framework including messianic expectations.