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Miracle worker

The primary cause of ordinary events sometimes causes the extraordinary

Issue: "Marathon man," Feb. 17, 2007

A miracle is something only God can do." Dayle blurted that out as a definition when I told her my little tale, and what Heidi had said about it.

Dayle is a teacher of 4-year-olds and appreciates profundity at the far side of simplicity.

The story I had shared with her goes like this: A close relationship in my life came to an end without acrimony. For three years I had imagined every conceivable future scenario for this whirlwind but the one God brought to pass. The smoke cleared, the heat subsided, and left in its wake a residue of warm mutual affection. "It is not flesh and blood" that accomplished this. There is nothing in either of our histories to account for it. Heidi, who knows as much of the story as anyone, and who always chooses words with care, looked thoughtfully to the ground and said, "It's a miracle."

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What is a miracle? Like other words we use daily and have never looked up (define frustration or coy), we all have some hazy concept of miracle honed by a thousand informal encounters with the lexical item. Good place to start.

We now dust off Merriam-Webster's and compare its offerings to our anecdotal preconception. Miracle: (1) "an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs"; (2) "an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment."

Not bad, I think (definition No. 2 shows the movement away from a divine source, as well as the natural expanding boundaries of terms to include analogous phenomena). But you and I are people of the Book, and I don't mean the Collegiate Dictionary 10th edition. To the Law and the Prophets, then.

Where Webster's is a systematic text, the Bible is a book of vignettes about nomads, war, and real estate disputes. It is very low on definitions (try finding Trinity). We discover a few Hebrew and Greek words translated "miracle," "sign," "wonder," etc. The cumulative force of these in context suggests a homely definition of miracle as an unusual event that God brings about. Dayle's definition.

Now philosophers and theologians don't get paid for simple definitions. They get paid to multiply distinctions. A few that have been suggested over the years are as follows:

David Hume (1711-1776) called miracles "a violation of natural law." But as theologian John Frame says, "violation is inappropriate, since this world belongs to God. It is no violation for him to do as he wishes in his own creation" (Frame, The Doctrine of God). A less egregious variation on the "violation" idea (but liable to the same objection) is that of miracle as exception to or suspension of natural law.

Theologian B.B. Warfield tried to help by offering the distinction "extra-natural" rather than "contra-natural." Unfortunately, this is not radically different from Hume's supernatural agency acting contrary to "natural law."

The breakthrough comes when you realize that there is no such thing as "natural law" in the traditional sense. There are only the decrees of God. "In this sense," says Frame, "natural laws are never broken, and miracle should not be seen as any sort of exception to natural law." There exists no demigod-like mechanism between God and us that He winds up and lets loose. All God's actions are direct.

Theologian Vern Poythress puts it this way: "God as the primary cause is active in bringing about all the events in the world, both ordinary events and extraordinary ones. But in the case of ordinary events he works in conjunction with secondary causes" (Poythress, Redeeming Science). He cites Psalm 104:14 as an example, "You make the grass to grow for the livestock." The line between miracle and general providence is a blurry one, not a sharp one.

End of story. Two people who couldn't love their way out of a paper bag yet had this one thing going for them: They prayed through the whole nine yards of the relationship, surrendering their will to God's. And because "the Lord preserves the simple" (Psalm 116:6), He preserved them from harm and even brought about a surprising denouement-whether through psychological secondary causes or otherwise-that left them blessed and His grace glorified.

What is a miracle, then? I'm with Dayle: "A miracle is something only God can do."

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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