It is the opinion of the contributors to this volume that a number of new authorities threaten modern evangelicalism directly. These authorities are often grounded in what the above confession calls “custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments . . . or visions, or miracles,” and they must be challenged when they stand against the authority of the Word and Gospel of Christ.”
John Armstrong, The Coming Evangelical Crisis1
“Miracle” could be the most over-used word in Christian language. Sometimes one feels like G.K. Chesterton, a nineteenth century Catholic (in a religion strewn with factitious miracles), who wrote, “A man in Voltaire’s time did not know what miracle he would next have to throw up. A man in our time does not know what miracle he will next have to swallow.”2 It was one thing to see the liberal thinkers of his day define everything as a miracle, but quite another to see Christians using the same terminology. Generally, when Christians are able to create their own “in-house” language without ever mixing it with the real world of language, everything is easier and no one has to work too hard. But this has rarely, if ever, been prudent, nor the way things really work.
It becomes too easy for us to adopt common language that is used by nearly every part of Christendom. To object to terminology has always been a difficult thing to do, even in a private conversation, much less in a more public forum. I think there is a reason why we let this kind of error pass: We have not fought the wars against liberalism and do not still have the sting of virulent unbelief in our memories. This was the tragic downfall of the post-conquest days in Judges 2:10-15. Those who had not fought with Joshua were quick to join in the worship act of the groves. Capitulation was easier than war.
As To Definition
It has not been the obvious definition of a miracle that has troubled many believers. J. Gresham Machen, in 1923, defined a miracle as, “A supernatural event that takes place by the immediate, as distinguished from the mediate, power of God.”3 Most agree that a miracle is an intervention of God into the normal process of the world. But notice how Machen carefully distinguishes between what he calls “mediate” and “immediate.” “Mediate” things are “natural” things i.e. the normal process of nature that God has established and sustains. “Immediate” things are interventions that, though not disrupting the normal process, slice through the normal world with rules of their own (or should I say God’s own).
Men like Machen were still fighting the liberals over whether or not God ever intervened into the world. The liberal could not believe that the Red Sea ever parted, or that a virgin birth ever took place, or that anyone ever came back from the dead bodily. Ironically, one method of attack for the liberal was to insist that everything God did in relation to the world ought to be called miraculous or natural (but not both) because God was responsible for it. But once they placed all of God’s working on a singular level, they did not have to distinguish one kind of event from another. All could either be called “miracle” or “natural” but not intervention, they are merely “God’s working.” Noted liberal Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) for example, works to eliminate miracles by arguing that “there is nothing more constant with God’s infinite greatness than His maintenance of the law of nature—which He Himself has established. There could be nothing more unworthy than to conceive of Him as interfering with their regular operation.”4
Unwittingly, this is what many believers today are doing by adopting the word “miracle” to describe anything God does in the world. To them a flower blooming, a baby being born, a body ridding itself of disease, or any number of “natural” things, are all called miracles. But if everything God is responsible for is a miracle, then everything in the world is a miracle, and then nothing is a miracle. Everything is one kind of thing. Call it what you will, but it will be very difficult to say miracles (walking on water, raising the dead, etc.), distinguished from other events, happened in any other way than what is “normal.”
Why can’t we be satisfied to believe God is responsible for nature, whether a flower or a live birth or a recovered body? Why do we need to give it a superlative title like “miracle?” In a day of growing skepticism we ought to be more careful with our logic and our vocabulary. For even the young liberal knows that if everything is a miracle, then nothing is a miracle. We have (like liberal “demythologizing” of old) “demiracle-ized” the Bible. As Henry Morris wrote, “The miraculous can only have significant testimonial value if it is extremely rare—so rare, in fact, as to be beyond reach of the types of rationalizations noted previously. Miracles which can be repeated at the whim of a practitioner . . . are not true miracles at all.”5
Miracles In This Age
Many older Christians stated plainly their belief that miracles have ceased in this age of grace. I, for one, can agree. Ernest Pickering writes, “This age of grace is not the age of miracles. No Bible-believing Christian doubts the ability of God to perform miracles; however, it is not part of His program today to do so. God authenticated the ministry of the apostles with ‘signs and wonders, and with divers miracles’ (Heb. 2:4), but when the apostolic age concluded, the accompanying signs ceased.”6 Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote, “There are people today who see something unusual happening and they say, ‘Oh, a miracle!’ It is not a miracle. It was either a ‘wonder’ or a ‘sign’ but it wasn’t a miracle, for a miracle is the work that is done by a man in order to demonstrate that he is God’s messenger and God does not approve men today by miracles. He approves men today by their faithfulness to the Word of God. That’s the only criterion or standard that we have to judge any individual.”7
In his classic book Miracles, C.S. Lewis distinguishes the natural from the miraculous by noting that many of Christ’s miracles were miracles of the “old creation” (chapter 15) and many were miracles of the “new creation” (chapter 16). Lewis saw that Jesus turning water into wine was a speeding up of the process of nature where the vine takes in water and produces grapes, hence a miracle of the “old creation.” Multiplying bread is the acceleration of the process that is always going on in the wheat field as seeds produce stalks which in turn produce grain which is made into bread. Walking on water is a miracle of the “new creation,” something we will be able to do in heaven, but which is uncharacteristic of anything within nature. Lewis, however, makes this distinction between nature and miracle because he realizes that such a distinction is vital. He doesn’t doubt God’s hand in a grape vine or a wheat field, but neither does he call it a miracle. If we call the wonder of nature a miracle because of its similarity, we allow no definitive way of designating biblical miracles.
Miracles And Prayer
Perhaps the most difficult area for believers to discern a miracle from God’s work in the natural realm, is the matter of prayer. Christian writers have made this distinction by noticing two or, at times, three categories of God’s sovereign control over His creation. Jack Cottrell, for example, makes three distinctions. The first is general providence, by which God governs the world by his permissive will. The second is special providence which is nonmiraculous intervention by answers to prayers and free-will acts of men. The third is the “most intense and least used” form: a miraculous intervention, or miracles which are outside the realm of natural events.8
C.S. Lewis makes only two categories of God’s actions: miraculous and providential (or natural). In defense of eliminating the middle category he writes, “Many pious people, however, speak of certain events as being ‘providential’ or ‘special providences’ without meaning that they are miraculous. This generally implies a belief that, quite apart from miracles, some events are providential in a sense that some others are not. . . . Unless we are to abandon the conception of Providence altogether, and with it the belief in efficacious prayer, it follows that all events are equally providential.”9 But whether we make two categories or three, miracles are always separated from prayer as to their nature and purpose.
As to prayer, I believe God gave every human being the “dignity of causality” (Lewis’ term) by granting us two powers to use as we live in His natural world. The first is the power of free-will decision making. We can choose to do something or not and the world will be different as we affect it with our actions. The second is the power of prayer. We can ask God to so construct the world that situations will turn out differently because of our request. Even a denial of our request is an answered prayer. We can be thankful always for all things because we know God has heard us and done what was best and right. (I like the old concept of “middle knowledge” but space does not permit further explanation.) In either case, our actions or our requests do not produce miraculous results, though they do produce results.
Miracles And The New Birth
An additional problem area is the new birth. Since man cannot produce his own salvation, is the regeneration of the Holy Spirit a miracle? Though I would not quibble over whether this is the exception to the rule, I do not see the need to call it a miracle. For one, salvation is a result of my prayer request—a result that God always answers in the affirmative. In addition we have a small note in the book of John that Jesus began his ministry of miracles in Cana when He turned the water into wine (John 2:11). Yet Jesus had called six of his disciples by that time and it seems that at least Andrew, if not Peter and John as well, had truly believed on Him. Also, Jesus had displayed His omniscience to Nathaniel but John doesn’t seem to recognize that as a category of miracle (it is simply a divine attribute).
The Cessation Of Miracles
I believe we can agree with our spiritual forefathers that the New Testament teaches that miracles (those “signs” given for a specific reason at a specific time) have ceased. Surely we believe that apostleship has ceased and we know that, as Paul wrote, “the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (2 Cor 12:12). The Bible tells us that sign gifts have “ceased” and revelatory gifts have “vanished away” (1 Cor 13:8-13). We no longer need either (unless we walk by sight and not by faith.)
The writer of Hebrews, writing late in the first century, notes that salvation “first began to be spoken by the Lord (first generation), and was confirmed unto us (third generation) by them (apostles: second generation) that heard him; God also bearing them (second generation) witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Heb 2:3-4). The miracle working ministry of Jesus was passed on from Him to the apostles but was not passed beyond that except by apostolic presence.
And Finally . . .
I started this article by quoting G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic who was tired of the constant claim to miracles in his Church. The problem in the Roman Church ought to teach us something about a lax use of the term “miracle.” Chesterton said in another book, “Indeed the educated Englishman of today may be said to have passed from an old fashion, in which he would not believe in any miracles unless they were ancient, and adopted a new fashion in which he will not believe in any miracles unless they are modern.”10 But as we see today, acquiescing to current usage solves nothing.
I have always lived with disagreement among brethren in this area. But disagreement within a doctrinal framework is one thing, and disagreement for the purpose of conciliation is another altogether. We stand to gain almost nothing by adopting the terminology of the miraculous. We stand to lose much more.Footnotes: 1. John Armstrong, The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 20. 2. G.K. Chresterton, St. Francis Of Assisi (New York: Image Books, 1990), 135. 3. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 99. 4. Quoted by James Thrower, Western Atheism (New York: Prometheus Books, 2000), 82. 5. Henry Morris, “Biblical Naturalism and Modern Science,” Vital Apologetic Issues (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994), 55. 6. Ernest Pickering, The Tragedy of Compromise (Greenville: BJU Press, 1994), 102. 7. Donald Grey Barnhouse, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 30. 8. Jack Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” The Grace of God and the Free Will of Man, Clark Pinnock, ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1989), 112-113. 9. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 174. 10. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 189.John Armstrong, The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 20.