We have been studying the doctrine of God. To this point we have considered God’s attributes, the Trinity, and God as creator. Now we want to take up the subject of God and miracles. I am going to approach the matter from the perspective of C. S. Lewis in his little book, Miracles.
The Lewis approach suggests that a miracle is an interference by God with natural law. Some scholars have a problem with this approach, because they say it leads to a situation where one cannot tell if and when a miracle takes place. It may even lead to persons denying that miracles happen. That is possible, but it generally is not the case.
The opposite view is that miracles are not an interference with natural laws. Rather miracles only seem to be going against natural laws, as we perceive them. If we could see things as they really are, we would realize that what God is doing is perfectly natural from his point of view. Lewis agrees that this is true. From God’s point of view, miracles are natural. But the flaw in this view is that we perceive miracles from a human point of view, not God’s. And from our point of view, miracles interfere with natural law.
Ray Dunning is one of the scholars who takes the position that miracles are not an interference with natural law. When one defines a miracle his way, there is a major problem. Defined that way, miracles become, as Dunning himself says, “virtually synonymous with revelation. All genuine miracles from the biblical perspective are revelatory, and all revelation is miraculous (in contrast to human discovery),”
Under this definition, the common understanding of miracles is not addressed. Revelation and miracles are not the same thing. Revelation is when God chooses to reveal something to humans; a miracle is when he does something that interferes with natural law as we perceive it.
That is why I favor the view of miracles presented by C.S. Lewis, in his classic little book, Miracles. The structure of Lewis’ theory is based on affirmative answers to three questions. The three questions are: Are miracles possible? Are miracles proper? And are miracles probable?
Now there are some presuppositions and definitions of Lewis’s that I want to place before you prior to our taking up his arguments.
First, Lewis assumes the existence of God. Second, he assumes that God is the creator of everything, including nature. Third, Lewis defines a miracle as an exception. That is, for Lewis, a miracle is an exception to, or an interference with, natural law by God. Fourth, and this is quite important, a miracle does not “”break” any natural laws. As we saw in Lewis’ definition of a miracle, it interferes with natural laws; but it does not “break” them. And fifth, Lewis would describe what happens when a miracle occurs to be a feeding of new events into the established pattern, as opposed to suspending, or breaking, the established pattern.
Now then, with these assumptions and definitions in mind, let’s look at Lewis’s answers to his three questions. In answer to his first question, Lewis seeks to show that miracles are possible. He goes about this in an interesting way. Instead of trying to prove that miracles are possible, he takes a negative approach. That is, he demonstrates that they are not impossible. And if they are not impossible, then they must be possible.
Lewis begins answering this first question by discussing whether or not there is anything in the character of physical nature which makes miracles impossible. In this section of the book Lewis deals with certain objections that have been raised against miracles. For example, some people object to miracles because, they say, scientific advancement has shown that many phenomena that at one time were called miracles, were not miracles at all, but can be explained otherwise in our enlightened day.
Lewis says that this objection is invalid, because it is irrelevant. A miracle is bydefinition an exception; and you cannot identify an exception unless you know the rule. In other words, the fact that people have mistakenly identified natural phenomena as miracles doesn’t mean that real miracles do not occur.
Another objection that Lewis examines is the idea that people in olden times believed in miracles because of a false conception of the universe. They believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and that was why God focused his attention upon the earth. But today we know they were mistaken. Not only is the earth not at the center of the universe, it is an extremely insignificant part of it. Therefore the critics say that we are foolish to think that God would pay special attention to us.
This argument also is invalid, says Lewis, for we still know very little about the universe, and we still can fit it to any attitude or belief that we have. It is true that the earth is an extremely insignificant part of the universe. But we Christians never have maintained that we are deserving of salvation. Neither have we claimed that we are important and worthy creatures apart from the role we play here on earth.
A third, more important objection with which Lewis deals is the objection that miracles break natural laws. It is at this point that Lewis makes his assertion that miracles do not break natural laws; they merely interfere with it.
His prime example is the game of billiards. Natural law will predict precisely where one billiard ball will go when it is hit by another. However, says Lewis, it is possible to interfere with the progress of the ball.
If I am playing billiards with someone, I easily can reach down on to the table and grab a rolling ball off the table. If I do that, I have successfully interfered with the law of physics that would determine where the ball would go, and where it would end up. But that does not mean that I have changed, suspended, or broken that law. What I have done is interfere with the cause and effect relationship of the laws, not the laws themselves.
Lewis concludes that it is inaccurate to define a miracle as something which breaks the laws of nature. Rather miracles are the feeding into nature of new events.
Now how does this work? That is, how does God feed new events into nature in order to work miracles? We already have seen the illustration of the billiard table. But what about the miracles of Jesus?
Lewis explains this by a principle that he describes in these words: “I contend that in all these miracles alike the incarnate God [Jesus] does suddenly and locally something that God had done or will do in general. Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written or will write in letters … across the whole canvas of nature.” (p. 140).
Lewis means by this that God works a miracle by directly interfering with natural processes. Sometimes he feeds something new into the natural situation, as we already have noted. But on other occasions he speeds up the natural process. Examples of this type of miracle are the changing of the water to wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11), the feeding of the 5000, the withering of the fig tree, healings, etc.
Sometimes God’s creation of something new within the natural process is more evident than in others. An example of a less evident miracle would be the conception of Jesus in the womb of a virgin, though obviously non-believers would see a natural, rather than a miraculous cause.
Lewis classifies all of these miracles as “miracles of the Old Creation.” They all are recognizable as a localized working of a general, natural, work of God in nature.
Certain other miracles Lewis calls “miracles of the New Creation,” because they involve a relationship to nature that belongs to God’s future creation. Examples would be Jesus’ walking on the water, the miracles of reversal (where people are raised from the dead), and the miracles of Jesus’ glory, such as his transfiguration, resurrection and ascension.
The resurrection appearances of Jesus provide our best example of what the new creation nature may be like. Jesus’ resurrection body functions entirely differently from the body he had before he was killed. Thus the new creation may have an entirely different set of natural laws from those we now know. This approach by Lewis may or may not satisfy you; but for Lewis, it demonstrates, at least, that miracles are not impossible insofar as nature is concerned.
Next Lewis discusses whether or not there is anything in the character or nature of God that makes miracles impossible. Under this heading, he discusses language and the difficulties of using human language to talk about God. We do not have space to deal with that, but his conclusion is that there is nothing in the character or nature of God that makes miracles impossible. Thus Lewis concludes that miracles are possible.
Now Lewis is ready to take up his second question; namely, are miracles proper in relation to what we know about God? The bottom line of Lewis’s analysis is that the Creator has a right to make exceptions in his creation. However, Lewis goes on to make the same point that Dunning makes; namely, that the exceptions, which from our point of view are called miracles, are not necessarily exceptions at all when seen from God’s point of view. What may appear as exceptions to our limited knowledge may be perfectly consistent with the overall picture of creation from God’s point of view.
Dr. Joe Davis, retired United Methodist minister, once told a story that illustrates this. A man came to the bank of the Mississippi River and was amazed to note that the current was flowing North instead of South. He saw a path up the nearby bluff to a farm house. So he climbed the path to the house and asked the farmer about it. “What you saw,” the farmer said, “was a side-eddy. Come to the bluff and let me show you the whole river.” And so they moved to the edge of the bluff and looked out upon the mighty Mississippi as a whole. And the powerful current from North to South was easily seen.
When we think about God, we frequently find ourselves thinking in “side-eddies,” and we miss the mainstream of what the Bible is saying about God. Or we fail to see the whole picture, as God sees it. Lewis’ conclusion is that miracles are proper.
Finally, having shown that miracles are both possible and proper, Lewis takes up the matter of whether or not they are probable. Under this question he discusses the position of British philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776). Hume claimed that miracles are not possible because of the law of historical probability.
Historical probability is a simple concept. It is based on the principle of uniform experience. For example, Hume said that the resurrection of Jesus was impossible, because historical probability (that is, the uniform experience of mankind) says that when humans die, they stay dead.
Lewis refutes Hume’s argument on the basis of faith. He says it depends on who is being resurrected. If Jesus really was God Incarnate, then it is plausible that he arose. Therefore, on the presupposition of faith, it is probable that Christ arose. Thus according to C. S. Lewis, miracles are possible, proper and probable.