Demonstrating Knowledge and Understanding of Different Definitions of Miracle

It is worth remembering if there is a miracles question, that Hume’s argument has already come up a few years ago. Someone asked me on Twitter why I thought Hume would come up again.

When I thought about my predictions I had in mind the first point on the spec, which asks for knowledge and understanding of different definitions of miracle, including that of Hume.

I am not sure that we have seen a question in recent years on the different definitions of miracle (directly, anyway, as you could argue that Wiles has a lot to say on this), and I am not sure how such a question would be phrased. However, it would be worthwhile being familiar with the five or six different definitions of miracle in this topic.

Here are some philosopher’s definitions:

1. David Hume
2. Thomas Aquinas
3. C. S. Lewis
4. Richard Swinburne
5. Paul Tillich
6. R. F. Holland

1. Hume’s definition: ” a transgression of the law of nature by the particular volition of the deity, or the interposition of an invisible agent.” We have already discussed Hume’s definition in earlier posts. Notice that it assumes the fixed unchanging essence of laws of nature. It also means that anything that could conceivably have happened without breaking a law of nature, but that was still an extraordinary event would not be a miracle. So healing miracles would very rarely count for Hume, as they could conceivably come about without breaking a law of nature.

2. Aquinas says miracles are “those things done by divine power apart from the order ordinarily followed in things”, and divides miracles into three types:
a. Events which nature could not perform
b. Events which nature could perform, but not in that order
c. Events which nature could perform, but God does them
An example of a. could be the Joshua miracle of the sun standing still in the sky. b. could be something like the healing of the man born blind, in which the normal order of events (eg. People who can see may go blind) is reversed. c. the miracle of the water turning into wine – the water in a grape will eventually turn to wine through the process of fermentation- but that would take a lot longer ( and involve other elements!). Aquinas gives a lot more scope for extraordinary events than Hume.

3. C. S. Lewis defines miracles similarly to Aquinas as “an interference with nature by a supernatural power”. Neither Lewis nor Aquinas draw such a sharp distinction between natural and supernatural as does Hume, and their definitions allow more things to count as miracles. Lewis claimed that a miracle, once it enters into the natural course of things, is entirely taken over by the laws of nature, which challenges the ‘violation’ definition. He gives the example of the Incarnation when the God created a miraculous spermatozoon in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The instant it was created, things proceeded as they always do, with gestation and birth.

4. Swinburne says that a miracle is an “event of an extraordinary kind, brought about by a God, and of religious significance”. This is a broad definition which brings out the neglected aspect of miracles as pointing to something. This is important. Swinburne says that God could choose to make a feather fall slightly differently than where it was going to by altering the laws of nature, but that this could hardly be termed miraculous. A miracle like the feeding of the five thousand points to the nature of the Messiah as one who feeds all at a great banquet, with miraculous bread, just like Moses in the desert. Here is a network of significance, outside of which the miracle of the loaves doesn’t make much sense.

5. Paul Tillich also focuses on the significance of miracles as what he calls ‘sign-events’. Tillich wants to emphasise the experiential aspect of miracles as pointing to a greater reality, and their impact on the believer. He does not think they should ‘contradict the rational structure of reality’, as their importance is symbolic and not historical.

6. R. F. Holland takes this view through to its logical conclusion. A miracle can be a coincidence which is viewed as miraculous. The classic example of the child’s trike stuck at the level crossing with the train driver fainting is given by Holland.

Hopefully this short overview will help you get a picture of the range of definitions and see how they can be very narrowly or very broadly defined.

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