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The Question of Miracle

We take up this central question in the Christian theology of God’s action by extending our comparison of the two British scientist-theologians Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne (see Peacocke and Polkinghorne compared and Peacocke and Polkinghorne: comparison of models of divine action.

Despite the similarities between their views on divine action, Polkinghorne still sticks to his emphasis on the possibility of particular, revelatory divine acts in a way which Peacocke strives to avoid.

The first point to make about miracle is that definition is all-important. The 18th-Century philosopher David Hume’s famous attack on miracle can be summarised as follows:

  1. A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
  2. We have uniform experience that the laws of nature are never violated.
  3. Therefore, miracles cannot occur.Purtill, Richard L. (1997) ‘Defining Miracles’ in In Defence of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History ed. by R Douglas Geivett and Gary R Habermas (Leicester: Apollos)...

But this approach is based on a premise which the new science no longer has on offer. As Antony Flew says, (Christians) ‘have to presuppose the existence of a strong natural order.’Flew, 1997, 54But even granted a strong natural order, it is very clear from the science of unpredictability in non-linear dynamic systemsSee God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp130-35.(including the human brain) that it is inconceivable that the behaviour of a real-life system involving human beings could be the subject of a totally comprehensive scientific explanation. If we do not know - precisely - what the laws of nature prescribe in a particular situation we cannot be sure what would constitute a ‘violation’. We have therefore to define miracle in theological terms rather than in terms of scientific regularities.An alternative is simply to avoid the term altogether and speak as Murphy does of ‘special’ and ‘extraordinary’ divine acts (Murphy, 1995, 330-32).

A possible definition would be: an extremely unusual event, unfamiliar in terms of naturalistic explanation, which a worshipping community takes to be specially revelatory, by dint of the blessing or healing it conveys, of the divine grace.As Clayton emphasises, such a theological definition does not mean ‘This event could not have occurred, that is without divine assistance, given what we know about the natural world’ (Clayton,...

Polkinghorne has an extensive discussion of miracle in his Science and Providence (1989),London: SPCK, 1989and takes a very positive view of the possibility of such events. Again this is a reflection of his sense of the openness and flexibility of physical processes. God does not violate the regularities God has put into placePolkinghorne, J, ‘Chaos theory and divine action’ in Religion and Science: History, Method and Dialogue ed. by WM Richardson and WJ Wildman (London: Routledge, 1996) p248fbut God still has scope for working within the natural processes to generate remarkable results.

Peacocke takes a much more cautious view, questioning ‘whether such direct “intervention” is compatible with and coherent with other well-founded affirmations concerning the nature of God and of God’s relation to the world.’Peacocke, A, Theology for a Scientific Age (London: SCM Press, expanded edn) p183

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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