Science in Christian Perspective



Science, Theology and the Miraculous

Professor at Large
Melodyland Christian Center
Anaheim, California

An invitation presentation of the Lee College Symposium on
the Theological Implications of Science (Cleveland, Tennessee)
on March 18, 1977.

From the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 30 (December 1978): 145-153.

The Dilemma

From earliest Christian history—indeed, from the pages of the Bible itself—miracles have been the mainstay of Christian apologetics. Taking their cue from Jesus' own assertion that the "one sign" to his generation of the truth of His claims would be the "sign of Jonah" (Jesus' Resurrection)1 and from Paul's catalog of witnesses to that Great Miracle apart from which Christians would be "of all men most miserable,"2 patristic apologists such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea confidently argued from the historical facticity of our Lord's miracles to the veracity of His claims and the consequent moral obligation to accept them.3 Every major apologist in Christian history from that day to the mid-18th century did likewise, whatever the particular philosophical or theological commitment he espoused. The list includes Augustine the Neo-Platonist, Aquinas the Aristotelian, Grotius the Arminian Protestant , Pascal the Catholic Jansenist, and Butler the high Church Anglican.4

But with the onset of modern rationalism in the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century came David Hume's attack on miracle evidence for religious truth-claims. Coupled with Immanuel Kant's critique of the Aristotelian-Thomist theistic proofs for God's existence and Gotthold Lessing's argument that historical data are never certain enough to establish eternal verities, Hume's refutation of the miraculous altered the entire course of Christian apologetics. Indeed Hume's Enquiry can be said without exaggeration to mark the end of the era of classical Christian apologetics.

Hume's criticism was of course itself immediately subjected to retort and rejoinder. It was only slowly that its devastating character became clear. The end result is to be detected in … significant changes in apologetic emphasis and strategy. There is a movement away from presenting prophecy and miracle as external proofs, like flying buttresses, sufficient in themselves to prop up the Christian edifice.5

A cruel dilemma thus arises for the modern Christian; far more than his predecessors living in ages of faith he needs to be able to give a reason for his Christian hope, but the chief apologetic support available from miracle evidence seems to be denied him.

Christian Response to the Dilemma and Rebuttals to the Response

The overall Christian response to Home has been terror and flight. Apologists have generally taken their cue from 19th century Soren Kierkegaard's willingness to substitute for objective proofs of faith the believer's personal, existential experience and to claim that, in the final analysis, "truth is subjectivity." Thus miracles in the heart have replaced miracles in history in the weaponry not only of theological radicals such as Rudolph Bultmann and Neo-Orthodox advocates of the "theology of crisis," but also of evangelical pietists who sing with A. H. Ackley, "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart." Unhappily for these positions, however, the analytical philosophy of the 20th century has devastated attempts to "validate God-talk" by subjective faith experience—on the ground that all pure subjectivities are in principle untestable: their inner truth-claims, being compatible with any and every state of affairs in the external world, are epistemologically meaningless.6 Miracles in the heart, as I have noted elsewhere, are philosophically indistinguishable from heartburn, and thus offer little in the way of a substantial apologetic to modern secularists who (by definition) have not yet experienced Jesus Christ personally.7

A few modern Christian apologists, recognizing the defeat inherent in a capitulation to subjectivity, have attempted to persevere along the lines of the classic appeal to prophecy and miracle. John Henry Newman in the 19th century and C. S. Lewis in the 20th are prime examples, and their positive impact should encourage the faint of heart. Lewis—and a respectable number of contemporary philosophers—have not yielded to Hume; they have offered trenchant direct attacks on the logic of his argument against the miraculous.8 My approach has followed this same line: I have maintained (1) that when Hume assumes that there is an "unalterable experience" against miracles and concludes that miracles do not occur,9 he is engaged in completely circular reasoning, and that only a truly inductive approach (examining without prejudice the firsthand evidence for alleged miracles) can ever answer the question as to whether they in fact occur;10 and (2) that miracles cannot be ruled out a priori in our contemporary Einsteinian universe where, in the words of philosopher Max Black, the concept of cause is "a peculiar, unsystematic, and erratic notion," so that "any attempt to state a 'universal law of causation' must prove futile."11 Indeed, the central thrust of my apologetic has been to argue for the compelling nature of Jesus' religious claims on the basis of His deity, and His deity on the basis of the miracle of His Resurrection from the dead.12

To this rehabilitation of the classical miracle-focused apologetic a number of objections have been raised both within and without the Christian community, and the present essay offers an opportunity to reply to them—thereby hopefully removing some misconceptions as well as strengthening a case which, I remain convinced, ultimately takes its mandate from biblical revelation itself. We shall not spend any time on the recurrent objection of theological liberals and mediating evangelicals that our case for the biblical miracles involves a naive acceptance of the historicity of the scriptural texts and a neglect of the "assured results of modern criticism." I have pointed out again and again that such "assured results" are nonexistent, that redaction criticism, documentary criticism, and historical-critical method have been weighed in the balance of secular scholarship and found wanting, and that the burden of proof remains on those who want to justify these subjectivistic methods, not on those who take historical documents at face value when their primary source character can be established by objective determination of authorship and date.13 We leave this historical issue—which does not really constitute an issue except for those in a modern theological backwater14—and proceed to those philosophical criticisms of the miracle-apologetic which seem to have the greatest force. Five such criticisms will be dealt with in the succeeding sections of this paper: (1) Miracles require law but law negates miracles; (2) the defender of miracles holds to uniform law while denying it; (3) miracles even if provable don't prove deity; (4) miracles can always be reduced to natural events; and (5) science requires us to reduce miracles to natural events.

"Miracles Require Law but Law Negates Miracles"

We are told that we cannot simply proceed to demonstrate a miraculous occurrence by marshalling historical evidence for it and then make special claims for its significance. For such an event to be significant, it must contravene natural law, so the apologist must first agree to the existence of uniform law to keep his miracle from becoming trivial; but the moment be commits himself to absolute natural law he has perforce ruled out the miracle he wants to prove! His choice (so the argument goes) is between no miracle at all or a "miracle" which contravenes no law and is therefore trivial!

In reply, we must first emphasize the point made earlier: no one (believer or unbeliever) who lives in today's Einsteinian universe can benefit from the luxury of an absolute natural law. By this we do not mean to present the naive argument that the Heisenberg mdeterminacy principle has "negated" Newtonian physics (quantum physics has, rather, introduced a statistical formulation of the same problems);15 what we are saying is that "abandonment of the deterministic world-view in physics has made it more difficult to regard the existing state of science as finally legislative of what is and what is not possible in nature. "16 Though even in the days of Newton formulations of natural laws were as subject to the finite limitations of the observer as they are today, the successes of 18th century science bred overconfidence, and Hume, drinking deeply at the founts of Newton ,17 transmuted general experience of cosmic regularity (which did and does exist) into "unalterable experience" against miracles (which could not be established even in principle). Today, in the wake of the general and special theories of relativity, there is much less likelihood of scientific or philosophical claims to the "unalterability" of any physical laws.

To be sure, the absence of any meaningful concept of absolute universal law (from the human observer's standpoint) requires the redefinition of what is meant by "miracle." A miracle can no longer be understood as a "violation of natural law," for we are unable to assert that physical laws, being but the generalized product of our observations, are indeed "natural"—i.e., absolute and unalterable. R. F. Holland effectively redefines miracle as an event which is (1) empirically certain (i.e., actually having occurred), (2) conceptually impossible (i.e., inexplicable without appealing beyond our experience), and (3) religious (i.e., calling for a religious explanation).18 Margaret Boden simplifies the definition by regarding a miracle as an event (1) inexplicable in scientific terms but (2) explicable in religious terms.19 A miracle cannot be viewed today as a violation of cosmic or physical law; it is best regarded phenomenally as a unique, non-analogous occurrence. All historical events are unique, and (to paraphrase George Orwell) some events—such as Napoleon's career—are more unique than others; but all non-miraculous historical events, even the most surprising ones, are analogous to other events. The miracle is both unique and without anology (except, of course, insofar as it is analogous to a similar unexplained miraculous event, as in the case of the obvious parallel between Jesus' resurrection and Lazarus resurrection—brought about, not so incidentally, by Jesus). When compared with non-miraculous events, the miracle offers a unique, non-analogous resistance to successful explanation by all the techniques which would readily account for it if it were other than miraculous.

A cruel dilemma arises for the modern
Christian; he needs to be able to give a
reason for his Christian hope, but the
chief apologetic support available from
miracle evidence seems to be denied him.

To return, however, to our objector's argument. Have we not fallen into the very trap he set for us? By refusing to go along with an absolute notion of natural law, have we not rendered alleged miracles trivial, since they no longer stand out as a stark violation of cosmic regularity? Hardly, as the immediately preceding mention of historical uniqueness clearly shows. An historical event does not even need to be miraculous to be significant: significance is a function of its actual or potential impact on other events and persons (including tile observer and student of the event). Thus the battle of Waterloo, though notespecially dissimilar to other military engagements in certain respects, is nonetheless of great significance, at least to Englishmen and Frenchmen, because of the effect of it on their national pride and history. Napoleon's life, with the added dimension of particular historical uniqueness, has even more potential significance—not only for Frenchmen, but also for all those who are fascinated by the wonders of greatness. Ian Ramsey perceptively observed that scientific regularity tends to reduce rather than heighten significance, whereas history, with its stress on the particular and the concrete, is the stuff out of which significance is made:

Scientific language may detail uniformities more and more comprehensively, but its very success in so doing means that its pictures are more and more outline sketches of concrete, given fact . . . . In history we are not concerned with abstract uniformities but with a concrete level of personal transactions.20

Whether a historical miracle will be "significant," then, will depend not on its relation to supposed natural law, but to its inherent, concrete character. If it should be an event of such a sort as to touch the well-springs of universal human need, its significance could hardly be doubted. And even on the most minimal level, the non-analogous nature of any miracle would serve to attract attention—to raise questions and perhaps to remind the indifferent of the Socratic truth that the unexamined life is not worth living. Thus does the Scripture refer to even the least redemptive of Jesus' miracles as semeia ("signs")—pointers to Him and to the truth of His divine claims.

"The Defender of Miracles holds to Uniform Law While Denying It"

Recent opposition to the kind of miracle apologetic I espouse has taken the following sophisticated form in the work of philosopher Antony Flew:

The basic propositions are: first, that the present relics of the past cannot he interpreted as historical evidence at all, unless we presume that the same fundamental regularities obtained then as still obtain today; second, that in trying as best he may to determine what actually happened the historian must employ as criteria all his present knowledge, or presumed knowledge, of what is probable or improbable, possible or impossible; and, third, that, since miracle has to be defined in terms of practical impossibility the application of these criteria inevitably precludes proof of a miracle.21

Flew's argument is really two arguments in disguise, and we shall take up each in turn. On the one hand, he seems to be saying that the proponent of miracles has no right to argue for them on the basis of a consistent underlying method of investigation (empirical method), since one cannot assume its absolute regularity and applicability and then use it to prove deviations from regularity. Once a miracle is granted, there would be no reason to consider empirical method as necessarily applicable without exception, so it could perfectly well be inapplicable to the investigation of the miracle claim in the first place!

But here a lamentable confusion is introduced between what may be termed formal or heuristic regularity and substantive regularity. To investigate anything of a factual nature, empirical method must be employed, and it involves such formal or heuristic assumptions as the law of non-contradiction, the inferential operations of deduction and induction, and necessary commitments to the existence of the investigator and the external world.22 Empirical method is not "provable"; its justification is necessity—the fact that we cannot avoid it when we investigate the world. (To prove it we would have to collect and analyze data in its behalf, but we would then already be using it!) One cannot emphasize too strongly that this necessary methodology does not in any way commit one to a substantively regular universe: to a universe where events must always follow given patterns. Empirical method always investigates the world in the same way—by collecting and analyzing data—but there is no prior commitment to what the data must turn out to be.

Thus a team of researchers could conceivably go down the rabbit hole with Alice and empirically study even Wonderland, where Alice cried, "Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've been changed in the night?"23 Even a world of maximal miracle—where predictability approached zero—could be investigated by empirical method, for the consistent collection and analysis of data can occur even when the data are not themselves consistent and regular. In short, whereas irregularity in basic empirical methodology would eliminate the investigation of anything, the discovery of unique, non-analogous events by empirical method in no way vitiates its operation or renders the investigator liable to the charge of irrationality.

Flew has elsewhere expressed a more potent variation on this same argument in the following terms: the defender of the miraculous is acting arbitrarily when he claims that "it is (psychologically) impossible that these particular witnesses were lying or misinformed and hence that we must accept the fact that on this occasion the (biologically) impossible occurred."24 The criticism here is that the advocate of miracle must commit himself to certain aspects of substantive regularity in order to analyze the evidence for a historical miracle. He must, for example, assume that human motivations remain the same in order to argue (as I have) that neither the Romans, the Jewish religious leaders, nor the disciples would have stolen Jesus' body in order to claim that Jesus was miraculously resurrected. But, we are told, such argumentation inconsistently uses regularity of experience where it serves a purpose and discards it at the point of the desired miracle, instead of there also insisting on a natural, ordinary explanation.

In reply we might begin by noting that this argument seems somewhat inappropriate for the rationalist to marshal. Since by definition he himself is committed to employ only "ordinary" explanations of phenomena—explanations arising from "common experience"—he is in a particularly poor position to suggest any abnormal explanations for any aspect of a miracle account, including the psychological motivations or responses of the persons involved. Presumably the rationalist would be the last one to appeal to a "miraculous" suspension of ordinary psychology so as to permit the Jewish religious leaders (for example) to have stolen the body of Christ when they knew it to be against their own best interests.

However, to be sure, the issue lies at a deeper level than this, and we may he able to arrive there by posing the question in the starkest terms: If we interpret or explain historical events along ordinary lines—in accord with ordinary experience—where this does not contradict the events to be interpreted, are we therefore required to conclude that unique, non-analogous events do not occur even when ordinary observational evidence exists in their behalf? Flew demands that we answer this question in the affirmative: to use common experience of regularities at all in historical interpretation, says he, precludes all possibility of discovering a miracle, even if the use of such common experience provides the very convergence of independent probabilities (as Newman would put it) for asserting that the event in question is a miracle.

Curiouser and curiouser, if we may again appeal to Alice! The fallacy in this reasoning arises from a lack of clear perception as to the proper interrelation of the general and the particular in historical investigation. In interpreting events, one's proper goal is to find the interpretation that best fits the facts. Ideally, then, one will set alternative explanations of an event against the facts themselves to make an intelligent choice. But which "facts" will our explanations be tested against—the immediate facts to be interpreted, or the entire, general range of human experience? Where particular experience and general experience are in accord, there is no problem; but where they conflict, the particular must he chosen over the general—for otherwise our "investigations" of historical particulars will be investigations in name only since the results will always reflect already accepted general experience. Unless we are willing to suspend "regular" explanations at the particular points where these explanations are inappropriate to the particular data, we in principle eliminate even the possibility of discovering anything new. In effect, we then limit all new (particular) knowledge to the sphere of already accepted (general) knowledge. The proper approach is just the opposite: the particular must triumph over the general, even when the general has given us immense help in understanding time particular.

In linguistics, for example, our general knowledge of how words function in cognate languages can help its immensely when we want to discover the meaning and function of a word in a new language. In the final analysis, however, only the particular usage of time word in that language will be decisive on the question, and where general semantics or general lexicography is in tension with particular usage, the latter must triumph over the former. But who would say that the linguist therefore has no right to use general linguistics since he ultimately is willing to subordinate it and revise it on the basis of isolated, particular usage? He would in fact be abrogating his role as linguist if lie did allow the general to swallow up the particular at the point of tension between them. Likewise in the investigation of unique, non-analogous events (miracles); one has every right to employ regular experience in testing out such claims, but no right to destroy the uniqueness of the event by forcing it to conform to general regularities.

How does an historian properly determine what has occurred and interpret it? Admittedly, he takes to a study of any particular event his fund of general, "usual" experience; and he relies upon it—pragmatically, not because he has any eternal, metaphysical justification for doing so—wherever it serves a useful function. But the. moment the general runs into tension with the particular, tile general must yield, since (1) the historian's knowledge of the general is never complete, so he can never be sure he ought to rule out an event or an interpretation simply because it is new to him, and (2) he must always guard against obliterating the uniqueness of individual historical events by forcing them into a Procrustean bed of regular, general patterns. Only the primary-source evidence for an event can ultimately determine whether it occurred or not, and only that same evidence will establish the proper interpretation of the event.

Thus in the concrete instance of the argument for Christ's Resurrection, nothing in the primary documents forces the historian to miraculous explanations of motives or actions of the Romans, the Jewish religious leaders, or the disciples (indeed, the documents show them to have acted with exemplary normality—as typically sinful and insensitive members of a fallen race). But these same primary documents at the same time do force us to a miraculous understanding of the Resurrection, since any alternative explanation runs directly counter to all of the primary-source facts at our disposal. The documents, in short, force us to go against biological generalizations as to corpses remaining dead but do not require us to deviate from psychological generalizations as to individual and crowd behavior. Contrary to what Flew imagines, we do not arbitrarily prefer biological miracles over psychological miracles; we accept no miracles unless the primary evidence compels us to it, and if that evidence requires psychological miracles rather than biological ones, we would go that route.25

French judge Jacques Batigne describes a l)izzare case in which a corrupt magistrate's clerk, in the face of overwhelming scientific proof of his guilt, stubbornly maintained his innocence for almost a year, even when it was unquestionably in his best interest to come clean and he knew it. Those involved in the case were so impressed by the clerk's fine past record and sincerity that they did everything possible to believe that a "physical miracle" accounted for the evidence against him, but the facts finally brought them to the conclusion that the "miracle" was psychological: the clerk inexplicably preferred to act against his own interests.26 The Gospel narratives give us no such situation. There a biological miracle is forced upon us, like it not. Tile primary facts, and those facts alone, can arbitrate such questions—and generalizations of whatever sort must, however helpful they have been to us in reaching the point of primary investigation, bow to the facts there revealed.

"Miracles Even If Provable Don't Prove Deity"

Opponents of a miracle apologetic argue that a proven miracle—even the miracle of Christ's Resurrection—would be vacuous, for it still would not require introducing God into the picture. This viewpoint is taken not only by those opposing miracles; even a philosopher who is at pains to show their epistemological meaningfulness call assert that

the fact that theological underpinnings are necessary to the very identification of a miracle in the first place is, of course, one reason why miracles could never be regarded as a proof of the existence of some god or God to an unbeliever who was aware of the various different supernatural powers which could in principle he invoked as explanations of scientifically anomalous events.27

Often the claim that "miracles can't prove God" is little more than a variation on Lessing's theme that "the accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason." Insofar as the argument proceeds in this fashion, it can easily he disposed of, for Lessing confused what contemporary analytical philosophers term the "synthetic" (factual) and the "analytic" (purely formal) areas of assertion. Only in the analytic realm are "necessary truths" possible—truths about which one can be 100% certain; synthetic evidence, involving probabilities and plausibilities, can never rise to such a level of proof. God-statements do not fall into the analytic realm, unless by "God" we mean only a formal assertion of deductive logic or pure mathematics! If by "God" is meant an existent, factual being, then any proof of his existence or statement about Him must lie in the realm of the synthetic, i.e., it must be factual in character. In reality, then, only "the accidental truths" of historical experience are ever capable of becoming the proof of God's existence! Granted, the proof will never reach 100% (faith will have to jump the gap from plausibility to certainty), but such proof is the basis of all our factual decisions in life and cannot be summarily dismissed just because a vital religious question is at issue. Thus Jesus was quite willing to use His miraculous healing of the paralytic to demonstrate (not to analytic certainty but with synthetic persuasiveness) that he could forgive sins and was therefore truly divine.28

But how persuasive is such a miraculous demonstration, after all? If I were miraculously to grow hair on a billiard ball, would this warrant a claim on my part to deity? Hardly, and such an illustration brings us back to the point made earlier in this paper that the significance of a miracle depends in the final analysis not on the degree to which it "violates natural law" (whatever such a notion can mean, and I doubt that it can mean much in an Einsteinian age), but on the character of the miracle—specifically whether or not it speaks to universal human need.

Even an event which allows for the full range of secondary causes to explain it can have significant miraculous impact if it operates at the point of man's existential need. Holland offers the example of an express train's sudden stop just ahead of a child on the railroad track, owing to a sudden heart attack experienced by the engineer as a result of an earlier argument with a colleague. Holland perceptively comments on this "coincidence" or "contingency" miracle:

Unlike the coincidence between the rise of the Ming dynasty and the arrival of the dynasty of Lancaster, the coincidence of the child's presence on the line with the arrival and then the stopping of the train is impressive, significant; not because it is very unusual for trains to be halted in the way this one was, but because the life of a child was imperiled and then, against expectation, preserved. The significance of some coincidences as opposed to others arises from their relation to human needs and hopes and fears, their effects for good or ill upon our lives. So we speak of our luck (fortune, fate, etc.). And the kind of thing that, outside religion, we call luck is in religious parlance the grace of God or a miracle of God, But while the reference here is the same, the meaning is different. The meaning is different in that whatever happens by God's grace or by a miracle is something for which God is thanked or thankable, something which has been or could have been prayed for, something which can be regarded with awe and be taken as a sign or made the subject of a vow (e.g., to go on a pilgrimage). 29

When we turn to the paramount miraculous event used by Jesus and by classical Christian apologists to attest the claim that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himsclf"—the unique, non-analogous event of His Resurrection—we find a maximally compelling reason to bring God into the picture, namely that this miracle deals effectively with the most fundamental area of man's universal need, the conquest of death.30 Not just a single child is saved from a railway accident; the entire race is freed from death by Jesus' act and consequent promise that "because I live you shall live also" and "whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die."31

Philosopher Paul Dietl correctly observes that "to prove the existence of a being who deserves some of the predicates 'God' normally gets would be to go some ways toward proving the existence of God" and "when and for whom he did miracles would be evidence as to his character."32 This is precisely why the Resurrection has led so many to affirm Jesus' deity and why His deity is the proper inferential conclusion from His Resurrection: the conquest of death for all men is the very predicate of deity that a race dead in trespasses and sins can most clearly recognize, for it meets man's most basic existential need to transcend the meaninglessness of finite existence. Not to worship One who gives you the gift of eternal life is hopelessly to misread what the gift tells you about the Giver. No more worthy candidate for deity is in principle imaginable than the One who conquers death in mankind's behalf. And it should go without saving that the Giver of such a gift has to be regarded as metaphysically positive ("God'), not negative (an archdemon) because of the positive character of His gift in relation to human need. In sum, the Resurrection does point unequivocally to the truth of Jesus' claim to Godhead, and cannot be left on the plane of an inexplicable anomaly requiring no inferential judgment.

If someone were to acknowledge that Jesus performed all the actions attributed to him in the Gospels, but still asserted that "miracles" had not occurred since every action was explicable in terms of coincidence at the microphysical level, the implied conception of miracle would be so different from the one traditionally at issue that there would be no reason for any believer to take his objection seriously.33

The Gospel events, if they can in fact be shown to have occurred, require an answer to Jesus' straightforward question, "Who do you say that I am?"34 Now, as then, only one answer will fit the facts.

And it should be noted with care that once the facticitv of Christ's Resurrection has been granted, all explanations for it reduce to two: Christ's own (he rose because He was God) and any and every interpretation of the event in contradiction to this explanation. Surely it is not difficult to make a choice here, for Jesus (unlike any one else offering an explanation of the Resurrection) actually arose from the dead! His explanation has prima facie value as opposed to those in contradiction to it, presented as they are by persons who have not managed resurrections themselves. The very fact that a miracle is a non-analogous event offers even greater reason than ordinarily to let it interpret itself, to seek its interpretation within itself. What other event or interpreter, after all, could help us understand it? But when we do go to the One who personally experienced the Resurrection, all gratuituous interpretations of the chariot-of-the-gods, creature-from-outer-space variety evaporate in the light of His own clear affirmation of his divine character, to which the sign of Jonah unequivocally points.

"Miracles Can Always Be Reduced to Natural Events"

What of the argument that one is never required to appeal to the miraculous as a category of interpretation—that all events, however strange, can be considered as falling within natural boundaries? We have already provided a partial answer to this objection in the immediately preceding discussion, is, showing (1) that even some "coincidental" events, to say nothing of unique, non-analogous events of overwhelming existential import (in particular Christ's Resurrection), cry out for interpretation as genuine miracles, and (2) that the most satisfactory interpretation of an event such as the Resurrection will be the construction placed on it by the person who himself brings the event about, even if that construction involves the category of miracle.

To be sure, we are not advocating a metaphysical program of maximum miraculization; those events lacking the credentials of miracle must rigorously be subjected to natural explanation. We agree with the Rev. Charles Kingsley who said of Newman's endorsement of the miracle story of St. Sturme and his donkey (they both fainted at "the intolerable scent" arising from the "vices and uncleansed hearts" of a band of unconverted Germans bathing in a river) that the story proved only that "St. Sturme had a nose"!35

The question before us is really not whether it is theoretically possible to reduce all alleged miracles to natural events (anything is possible, it has been said, with the conceivable exception of squeezing toothpaste back into the tube!), but what one loses by forcing unique, non-analogous events into established patterns. Any apparent gain in achieving trouble-free regularity in one's universe may he more than counterbalanced by the loss of' rationality in one's interpretive technique ("coincidence" enters as a magic formula to explain all). The point can perhaps be seen best by example, and several effective illustrations have been offered by recent philosophical defenders of the epistemological meaningfulness of the miracle-idea. Holland writes:

Suppose that a horse, which has been normally born and reared, and is now deprived of all nourishment (we could be completely certain of this)—suppose that, instead of dying, this horse goes on thriving (which again is something we could be completely certain about). A series of thorough examinations reveals no abnormality in the horse's condition: its digestive system is always found to he working and to be at every moment in more or less the state it would have been in if the horse had eaten a meal an hour or two before. This is utterly inconsistent with, our whole conception of the needs and capacities of horses; and because it is an impossibility in the light of our prevailing conception, my objector, in the event of its happening, would expect us to abandon the conception—as though we had to have consistency at any price. Whereas the position I advocate is that the price is too high and it would be better to be left with the inconsistency.36

Turning from this purely hypothetical example, Holland cites the wedding miracle at Cana37 as another instance of an event which, if established by firsthand empirical observation, could not be reduced to a natural phenomenon without paying "too high a price" for consistency.

A number of people could have been quite sure, could have had the fullest empirical certainty, that a vessel contained water at one moment and wine a moment later—good wine, as St. John says—without any device having been applied to it in the intervening time. Not that this last really needs to be added; for that any device should have existed then at least is inconceivable, even if it might just be argued to be a conceptual possibility now. I have in mind the very remote possibility of a liquid chemically indistinguishable from say mature claret being produced by means of atomic and molecular transformations. The device would have to be conceived as something enormously complicated, requiring a large supply of power. Anything less thorough-going would hardly meet the case, for those who are alleged to have drunk the wine were practiced wine-bibbers, capable of detecting at once the difference between a true wine and a concocted variety in the "British Wine, Ruby Type" category. However, that water could conceivably have been turned into wine in the first century A.D. by means of a device is ruled out of court at once by common understanding; and though the verdict is supported by scientific knowledge, common understanding has no need of this support…. At one moment, let us suppose, there was water and at another moment wine, in the same vessel, although nobody had emptied out the water and poured in the wine. This is something that could conceivably have been established with certainty. What is not conceivable is that it could have been done by a device. Nor is it conceivable that there could have been a natural cause of it. For this would have had to be the natural cause of the water's becoming wine.38

Boden employs the parallel illustration of a genuine healing of lepers—"not merely that a man is reported to have had an ulcerous rash which disappeared virtually overnight, but to have lost all his fingers in the gradual onset of the disease over the past years and to have them fully restored."

Could we reasonably suggest, with all our knowledge—imperfect though it may be—of the nature of tissue-growth and cell-differentiation, and of the ravages of the leprosy bacillus within the human body, that such an "anomalous" event might one day be scientifically explained? I think not: such a suggestion would be at least as blatant an act of faith as the wildest claim ever made in the name of religion . It is the biochemical facts, which might have been different (in particular in their temporal parameters), which exclude such a phenomenon from the class of unexplained events which we may hope to explain one day. To regard such a phenomenon as in principle scientifically explicable on the basis of general r marks about falsifiability and revolution in scientific knowledge would be as perverse as to insist that we should seriously regard the circulation of the blood as a matter of mere hypotheses, one which not only could logically be falsified, but which might as a matter of fact be falsified in the future.39

After a dose analysis of miraculous healings, Jean Lhermitte of the French Academy of Medicine declared in a similar vein "To suppose that all extraordinary, inexplicable, or apparently supernatural healings can he adequately explained by the chance operation of psychosomatic factors is to attempt to cross an unbridgeable chasm."40

The more willing we are as Christians
to employ the biblical and classic miracle
apologetic, the more effectively we can
give a reason to our dark age of secularism
for the hope that is within us.

Speaking generally of the miraculous aspects of Jesus' ministry, philosopher Tan Tai Wei of Singapore argues:

Assume, say, that Jesus had really predicted his own death and resurrection, claimed his miraculous feats to be deliberate so as to demonstrate his 'Sonship' to the 'Father', and that we have empirical certainty that there were a few occasions at least where such exceptional phenomena occurred in strict coincidence with such demonstrations of his divinity. Now, one such occurrence, although enough to generate wonder, might be reasonably presumed after deliberation to he an accidentally coinciding natural phenomenon. Such a conclusion, though, would already seem unduly sceptical if, say, the raising of Lazarus was the only miracle of Jesus. For Jesus had confidently ordered the removal of the grave stone, prayed aloud that God should there prove his power, and then cried 'Lazarus, come forth!' And he did. And if such feats had indeed been so frequent as to be common in the life of such a person, then even if it be conceded that the exceptions, though unrepeatable or rarely repeatable, are nevertheless merely natural phenoniena, the question still left unanswerd is why the repeated coincidence of such rarity within the intentions and performances of this one man obtains…. At some point, abandoning scepticism would he more rational, because here some of our ordinary criteria (which are independent of religious considerations), governing the rational acceptability of purported coincidences as merely ordinary natural ones, would not be met.41

What the several thinkers we have just quoted are maintaining is that there is a point of diminishing returns when one insists oil regarding all events, however empirically established as unique and non-analogous, as ordinary events. Eventually one acquires so flexible and all-inclusive a notion of "coincidence" that the concept loses all significance and functions as a kind of asylum of ignorance. At such a juncture, a new kind of faith is introduced to avoid the pressing claims of religious faith, namely the blind faith (credulity would be a better word for it) that maintains against all the evidence that a unique, non-analogous event is somehow really a regular, ordinary event after all. But when this naturalistic faith is set against supernatural faith (and they must be so opposed, since both cannot be true), former must rationally yield to the latter, since naturalistic faith flies iii the face of the data, while supernatural faith is willing to go wherever the empirical evidence leads.

"Science Requires Us to Reduce Miracles to Natural Events"

Finally, we shall speak to a stronger statement of the objection just discussed, here the critic does not merely claim that one can always regard alleged miracles as part of a "natural" context, but that the very character of the scientific operation demands that we do so. Alastair McKinnon well expresses this viewpoint in his philosophical defense of "the scientist's resolve to treat all events as subject to natural law":

This does not mean that lie insists that events should conform to some conception he already has. Nor does it mean that he disregards those which he has not yet been able to fit within such a conception. Rather, it means that he has resolved to view all events in this light. For him, law is a slogan; it is the way in which he proposes to look at the world. His acceptance of all events as expressions of natural law is the way in which he guides himself in his attempt to discover the real content of this conception. It is therefore essential that he refuse to treat any event as discrepant. This is not to say that certain scientists have not so treated events upon convenient occasion. It is only to say that when they have done so they have ceased to be scientists.42

McKinnon is here describing a philosophy of science which reminds one strongly of the theological presupositiona1ism of such thinkers as Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til; science (or theology) begins with its a priori as to the nature of things and no factual data can ultimately upset it because the presuppositional starting point becomes the criterion for the evaluation of all the data. Elsewhere43 I have argued that such an approach is self-defeating for theology, since it goes against the inductive character of Christian faith which must always begin with the facts purporting to constitute revelation, not with a presupposition as to their existence or as to the nature of theology. Such aprioristic "invincible ignorance" leaves Christian faith with no positive means of establishing its truth-claim over against competing religious options that contradict it and vie for men's souls.

Scientifically, even less (if possible) can be said for this viewpoint, for the object of science, is after all, to comprehend facts of the world, not to create—much less presuppose—a system into which all facts must fit willy-nilly. To look for regularities in the behavior of data is entirely legitimate, and pragmatically to expect such regularities is the quintessence of wisdom; but to insist that all data conform to ordinary expectations and fit a non-miraculous model is the antithesis of the scientific spirit. Models must arise as constructs to fit data, not serve as beds of Procrustes to force data into alien categories.

I have illustrated this truth in another context with reference to modern studies of the nature of light: today's physicist, finding empirically that light tests out in a contradictory fashion as both undulatory and corpuscular (wave-like and particle-like), is even willing at that point of necessity to shelve his standard of rational consistency for the sake of the facts and conceptualize the unit of light as a "wave-particle" (the photon).44 If the true scientist is willing—as he should—to subordinate interpretation/explanation to the facts even if rational consistency suffers in the process, surely he cannot insist on forcing facts into the mold of substantive regularity! Regularity (like consistency) is properly employed up to the point where the data are no longer hospitable to its operation as an interpretive category: in the face of recalcitrant non-analogous uniqueness, regularity—not the facts—must yield.

We conclude with another, and no less striking illustration. One of the great scientific advances in the 19th century occurred with the development of the so-called Periodic Table of the Elements through the efforts of Mendeleev and others. The Table successfully arranged the known chemical elements by their properties—first according to atomic weights, later by atomic numbers—and its general utility was confirmed by the successful prediction that unknown elements would be found to fill in the gaps remaining in the Table. The modern Periodic Table elegantly arranges the elements in columns according to valences (combining properties based on the hypothesized structure of the element's outer electron shell). One of the Table's column's turns out to represent zero valence, or zero combining power, embracing the so-called "inert gases": helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. These elements offer no combining opportunities, since their outer electron rings are already complete (comprising stable electronic octets).

Early in the 1960's, however, against the force of this powerful conceptualization, inert gases were in fact combined chemically with other elements! At the Argonne National Laboratory, chemists (including representation from evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois) successfully produced xenon tetrafluoride,45 and since that time other chemical combinations of "inert" gases have followed.46 How was this achieved? By sophisticated atomic techniques unavailable until the 1960's? Not at all. "The tetrafluoride, which was the first to he reported, is made by heating five parts, by volume, of fluorine with one part xenon, to 400°, followed by quenching in cold water"; the resulting compound is a "while solid at room temperature."47

But why, then, was this insight not arrived at a half century earlier?48

Since the discovery of the noble gases, at the turn of the century, the majority of chemists accepted the view that these elements were incapable of forming normal chemical compoounds. Undoubtedly the early electronic theories of valence strengthened this attitude by emphasizing the significance of the stable electronic octet. Although first ionization potentials of the heavier noble gases, xenon, 12.2 e.v., and radon, 10.8 e.v., are lower than for oxidizable elements such as chlorine, 13.0 e.v., and nitrogen, 14.1 e.v., and despite the apparent small influence of the electronic octet on the valence of the heavier elements, few serious attempts to prepare true compounds of the inert gases were made.49

In point of fact, the neatness of the Periodic Table—the elegance of a generalization—so mesmerized investigators that they did not attempt with any real seriousness to combine the "inert" elements, Generalized explanation and regular pattern, as represented by the Periodic Table, were so comfortable that the empirical investigation of factual particulars was neglected. The particular was subordinated to the general, the irregular to the regular, the fact to the theory—and truth suffered. I should like to think (though it may not be the case) that the evangelical Christian who was a member of the team responsible for the xenon tetrafluoride breakthrough was motivated, at least in part, by his conviction that the general must always yield to the particular, even as the graves of humanity had to open up in the face of the sheer non-analogous uniqueness of Good Friday and Easter morning.


The conclusion of the whole matter is, then, that the more willing we are to allow empirical evidence of the unique and non-analogous to stand, modifying our general conceptions of regularity accordingly, the better scientists and philosophers we become. And the more willing we are as Christians to employ the biblical and classic miracle apologetic, the more effectively we can give a reason to our dark age of secularism for the hope that is within us. In this matter as in all others, clear thinking does not reduce the value of Gospel proclamation; it serves rather as its handmaid.


1Mt 12:39-40; 16:4; Luke 11:29.

21 Col. 15.

3Joseph H. Crehan, "Apologetics," in A Catholic Dictionary of Theology, I (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), 113-15; Rene Aigrain, "Histoire do l'apologétiquo," in Brilliant and Nédoncelle (eds. ), Apologétique (Paris: Blond and Gay, 1937), pp. 950 ff.; G. W. H. Lampe, "Miracles and Early Christian Apologetic," in C. F. D. Monle (ed.) Miracles: Cambridge Studies in Their Philosophy and History (London: Mowbray, 1965), pp. 203-18 (Lampe is one of the group known as "Cambridge radicals" and a contributor to Vidler's Soundings; his essay must be read in this light).

4Cf. Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics (New York: Corpus; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), and Bernard Ramm, Varieties of Christian Apologetics (rev. ed., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1961).

5J. K. S. Reid, Christian Apologetics (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969), p. 156.

6See especially Kai Nielsen, "Can Faith Validate God-Talk?" in Marty and Peerman (eds.), New Theology No. 1 (New York: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1964); Frederick Ferré, Language, Logic and God (New York: Harper, 1961), chap. viii ("The Logic of Encounter"), pp. 94-104; and C. B. Martin, "A Religious Way of Knowing," in Flew and Macintyre (eds. ), New Essays in Philosophical Theology (London: SCM Press, 1955).

7Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1970), pp. 99, 149, 325 ff.

8C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1947); Bruce Langtry, "Home on Testimony to the Miraculous," Sophia [Australia), XI/I (April, 1972), 20-25; Paul Dietl, "On Miracles," American Philosophical Quarterly, V/2 (April, 1968), 130.34; etc.

9David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Sect. X, Pt. 1.

10Montgomery, The Shape of the Past (2nd ed., Minneapolis: Bethany, 1975), pp. 288-93.

11Max Black, Models and Metaphors (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962), p. 169. See Montgomery, Where Is History Going? (reprint ed.; Minneapolis: Bethany, 1972), p. 70-73.

12Ibid., pp. 35ff.; The Shape of the Past, pp. 138.45; Christianity for the Toughminded (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1973), pp. 29-32.

13Montgomery, Crisis in Lutheran Theology (2nd ed.; Minneapolis: Bethany, 1973), 2 vols.; God's Inerrant Word (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1974).

14Contrast Gerhard Maier, The End of the Historical-Critical Method, trans. Leverenz and Norden (St. Louis: Concordia, 1977); C. S. Lewis, "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," in his Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1967); A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), especially p. 187.

15Cf. Ernst and Marie-Luise Keller, Miracles in Dispute, trans. Kohl (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), pp. 163-76.

16Mary Hesse, "Miracles and the Laws of Nature," in Moule (ed.), Miracles, p. 38. See also Weiner Schaaffs, Theology, Physics, and Miracles, trans. Renfield (Washington, D.C.: Canon Press, 1974).

17See R. H. Hurlbott III, "David Hume and Scientific Theism," Journal of the History of Ideas, XVII/4 (October, 1956), 486-97.

18R. F. Holland, "The Miraculous," American Philosophical Quarterly, Il/1 (January, 1965), 49.

19Margaret A. Boden, "Miracles and Scientific Explanation," Ratio, XI/2 (December, 1969), 138.

20Ian Ramsey, "Miracles: An Exercise in Logical Mapwork," in Ian Ramsey, et al., The Miracles and the Resurrection ("Theological Collections," 3; London: S. P, C. K., 1964), pp. 7, 13. For my (many) agreements and (some) disagreements with Ramsey's apologetic approach, see Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology, pp. 258-60, 278-313.

21Antony Flew, God & Philosophy (London: Hutchinson, 1966), sec. 7.10, p. 146.

22See my Shape of the Past, pp. 141, 265-67, and my essay, "Clark's Philosophy of History," in Ronald H. Nash (ed. The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark: A Festschrift (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Cu., 1968), p. 388.

23Cf. Peter Heath (ed. ), The Philosopher's Alice (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974).

24Antony Flew, "Miracles," in Paul Edwards (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, V (New York: Macmillan & The Free Press, 1967), 352.

25See Montgomery, Principalities and Powers: The World of The Occult (2d ed.; Minneapolis: Bethany, 1975).

26Jacques Batigne, Assignment in Marseilles (New York: Hart,1974), pp. 56-70.

27Boden, Ratio, XI, 143-44.

28Mark 2:1-12 and parallels.

29Holland, American Philosophical Quarterly, II, 44.

30For an outline of the relevant evidence in support of this contention, see Montgomery, Christianity for the Toughminded, p. 32. Note that in appealing to man's personal need of a conquest of death we are not falling into the error of the existentialists who claim that ''truth is subjectivity": we do not base our argument for the Resurrection on man's subjective need of it or on all interior experience with Christ (the facticity of the Resurrection is established solely by the historical evidence for it); rather we argue that given the fact of the Resurrection, man's fundamental existential need of it goes far toward establishing its significance and the necessity of attributing it to no less than divine action.

31John 14:19; 11:26.

32Dietl, American Philosophical Quarterly, V, 133-34.

33Hugo Meynell, God and the World: The Coherence of Christian Theism ( London: S. P. C. K., 1971), p. 97.

34Matthew 16:15.

35See John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita qua (Garden City, NY.: Doubleday Image Books, 1956), pp. 75-77.

36Holland, American Philosophical Quarterly, II, 48.

37John 2:1.11.

38Holland, American Philosophical Quarterly, II, 49-50.

39Boden, Ratio, XI, 140-41.

40Jean Lhermitte, Le probleme des miracles (2d ed., Paris: Gallimard, 1956), p. 120.

41Tan Tai Wei, "Recent Discussions on Miracles," Sophia [Australia], XI/3 (October, 1972), 24. Some of the author's views in the realm of comparative religions are not satisfactory, but the general philosophical thrust of his article is most helpful.

42Alastair McKinnon, '''Miracle' and 'Paradox,''' American Philosophical Quarterly, IV/4 (October, 1967), 314. Cf. also Richard Swinburne's statement (and refutation) of this viewpoint in his monograph, The Concept of Miracle (London: Macmillan, 1970), especially pp, 19-20.

43See for example, Montgomery, "Once upon an A Priori," in E. R. Geehan (ed.), Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1971), pp. 380-92.

44Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology, pp. 297-99. The entire essay of which this illustration forms a part ("The Theologian's Craft: A Discussion of Theory Formation and Theory Testing in Theology,'' pp. 267-313) is directly relevant to our present discussion.

45See H. H. Claassen, H. Selig, and J. G. Malm, Journal of the American Chemical Society, LXXXIV (1962), 3593.

46E.g., xenon hexafluoroplatinate Neil Bartlett, Proceedings of the Chemical Society (1962), p. 218.

47Neil Bartlett, ''New Compounds of Noble Gases: The Fluorides of Xenon and Radon," American Scientist (1963), p. 115.

48Xenon was isolated as early as 1898 (by Sir William Ramsay and Morris William Travers).

49Bartlett, American Scientist (1963), p. 114.