by frankbeswick

Christians differ in their opinion of miracles, but a belief that God can and does act is central to the faith.

Your view of miracles is determined by whether you believe in God and whether he can act in the world. There is also the problem of adequately defining a miracle, but many Christians are of the belief that miracles happened in Jesus' life and that they still can occur now. The question is how to do the phenomenon of miracles justice, for simplistic accounts have no credibility.

Image courtesy of start441

Defining Miracles

It may surprise people to know that the New Testament hardly ever uses the word  miracle, instead it uses three words, dynamis, which mean a powerful act; semeion, which means a sign; and terata, which means wonders. Terata, which is closest in meaning to  miracle, is hardly used at all. John's Gospel, which contains only seven  miracles,  uses the word semeion,for it regards Jesus' miracles as signs of his divine nature. The other gospels use dynamis, powerful act. This seems to be consistent with the events of Mark 5, the healing of the woman with a haemorrage, for Jesus speaks of feeling power going out of him, suggesting that his miracles arose from a source of power within him. 

Yet there have been other, non-religious, definitions. David Hume, writing in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, defined a miracle as a transgression of a law of nature by the particular volition of a deity or the interposition of an invisible agent. This has been widely accepted by non-religious people as the most apt definition. It also contains a serious flaw, which is that in using the word transgression it suggests that the laws of nature are normative, like civil laws, whereas they have no normative content at all. I am not legally or morally bound by the law of gravity, but I still fall. Laws of nature simply say how matter behaves under certain conditions, and they do so by strict mathematical rules. Given a and b, c will happen, but introduce d, which for the sake of discssion we will call a deity,there will be a different result. This is not  a matter of laws being transgressed, but of different rules coming into play.

An objection to miracles came at the so-called Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, which promoted the idea that reality was only made of matter, so there was no God to work the miracle anyway. At least this idea makes sense, though we can disagree  with its main premise. A variant on this enlightenment position was deism, the view that there was a God who could not interfere with the world that He had created, for the world was a machine that would be thrown out of order by divine interference. This is a dubious claim, as those who propounded it may have been unaware that machines need operatives. However, the machine on which they modelled the world was the clock, which does not admit much action by controllers other than to be wound up every now and again. But the weakness of this deist view is that the clock model is now considered antiquated in the light of modern Physics. Moreover, to suggest that the creator is somehow  bound not to interfere inhis creation makes vast asumptions about God and his relationship to the world, assumptions that cannot be justified or well supported. Deism is almost dead now, its one exponent as far as I know, is the recently converted non-believer, Anthony Flew, and even he knows that he is on a journey in matters of belief. 


Miracles of Guidance

Beings have some impact on the world around them, which means that they act, and in some ways their action will be felt by other beings. Christianity believes that God exists and that therefore God can act, powerfully. His action was felt in the creation of the world and in his sustaining it in being, but it is an important Christian teaching that God impacts within the lives of his people, that he influences them directly through the inspiring power of his Spirit. Many Christians will testify that they feel guided by God, often to take a course of action in life. 

The rationale behind this is that God must act consistently. If he has created a world that runs by itself, which seems to be the case,consistency demands that he respect the world's autonomy, but his action is to help is people steer a course through it. This is not to totally exclude acts of divine power, but to say that much of what God does consists of steering the course of the world, working in lives by guiding people to the goal that He seeks. 

Let us look at the miracles of the Exodus, when Moses led the Hebrews from Egypt. There has been much discussion of the link between these events and the massive Santorini eruption, which sent a tsunami racing around the Mediterranean. It is now suggested that Moses did not cross the Red Sea, but the Reed Sea, which is on the Mediterranean coast of Sinai, and that the Hebrews crossed dryfoot because ahead of a tsunami the water recedes. Obeying God's orders promptly led them to safety, but the chasing force was annihilated. Look also at St Patrick, a slave in Ireland sleeping in a field. He told of being awakened by an angel who told him to go quickly. Obeying instantly Patrick escaped. This is a case of divine guidance, of God's not zooming in to override and and zap, but to steer events in the world.   

But Christianity is based on two miraculous acts. According to Benedict the Sixteenth, writing in Jesus of Nazareth, God intervened twice, firstly to incarnate his Son into Mary's womb and secondly to raise Jesus from the dead. These events in salvation history cannot be merely classed as miracles of guidance, but they have implications, for in the presence of Jesus, both in his life and in his post resurrection state, present in the world, an ongoing miracle is happening. God now cannot be simply classed as outide the world, but in Jesus he has established an ongoing link with it. Catholics celebrate the ongoing miracle of the divine presence in the world through the Eucharist, which is celebrated every day of the year except Good Friday.

Without an acceptance of divine action in the world you cannot hold to the main beliefs of the Christian faith. But as I have pointed out, there are different kinds of miracles. Besides the action of God in guiding events, in the New Testament we find healing miracles, which rely on someone's faith, and nature miracles, such as the calming of the storm, which do not. This distinction implies that we cannot speak of miracles in simplistic terms, we must have regard for the different types of them. 

Some Possibilities

The Gospel of Mark was the earliest of the four canonical gospels, and it therefore contains the earliest accounts of Jesus' miracles. One of them gives us an interesting insight into what was happening.Jesus was on the way to heal Jairus' daughter [Mark 5] when a woman who had suffered a haemorrhage for twelve years and was therefore ritually unclean pushed her way through the crowd. Her condition would have rendered her totally devoid of confidence and fearful that a rabbi would turn her away in disgust, but she desparately needed healing. [I suggest that the condition could have occurred because of a piece of placenta being left in her womb, easily cured nowadays, but not then.]  She touched the hem of Jesus' cloak, hoping that he would not notice, but he did. Stopping his walk he asked who had touched him, as he had felt power go out of him. When the woman fearfully came forward, now healed, she would have been terrified, only for Jesus to say that her faith had saved her and that she could go in peace. 

The significance of this miracle is great, for it indicates that there was in Jesus' possession/body some kind of power that could be accessed through faith. This is a far  cry from the supernatural intervention described by Hume [though in  his discussion of miracles he never troubled to analyse a single miracle or to pay anything other than casual attention to the analysis of differing views.] What may be happening in healing miracles is not some kind of divine intervention, but an individual's accessing the latent powers of the mind, powers that are already present, but not easily accessed. 

Here is where faith, which Jesus said was essential to his healings, comes in. It may be that faith enables us to access these powers latent within us. But faith exists in degrees,  from what in Mark 9 is called oligopistia,small faith, to faith of much greater degree, which Jesus says can move mountains. But faith is not merely intellectual assent to doctrines, or even understanding them, but engagement with God in love and trust in which God's presence is allowed to grow in the soul and transform the person into what God wants them to be.

But there are limits. No amount of faith will avail against a timely death, for we all must die,sometime, and this is God's will for us. Faith cannot change that fact, and it will not change the basic facts of nature, which are God's creation. Moreover, increase in faith is not in human power, we can ask God for it, but we cannot effect the improvement of our own accord. I at times ask God to increase my faith.I don't pray in the expectation of miracles, but just in hope that my prayer will be the vehicle for divine action in the world, whatever that may be. I have not unscrambled the mystery of faith, but hope to have shed a little light on the matter.

Updated: 03/17/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/22/2020

Terata is used in Acts occasionally.There are no specific miracles associated with the word terata.

John differs because its author, the beloved disciple, almost certainly not John the Apostle, was a more deeply educated intellectual than the other evangelists were, so he wrote a highly literary piece that mixes the story with theology.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/22/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practicalities and products.
It appears that terata (wonders) is the rarest of the trio made up by dynamis (powerful act) and semeion (sign). Do you know where it is used and what the associated miracles are?
It's also interesting that John uses semeion (sign) whereas the other gospels use dynamis (powerful act). Isn't it thought that Luke's and Matthew's gospels drew upon Mark's? Why would John -- because of his special interactions with Jesus and Our Lady Mary? -- be so different from the others?

frankbeswick on 03/19/2018

We have to ask ourselves how the saintly intercession works. The model in which people plead with God until he gives them what they ask or seems dubious to me. I suggest that a more convincing model is that God works through holy people, such as saints.

blackspanielgallery on 03/19/2018

Indeed there are multiple definitions in use. The religious definition is the basis for canonization, for there must be evidence of more than one miracle associated with the intervention of the candidate. So, with so many canonized saints, there have been quite a few miracles in even recent times.

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