The Nature of Miracles (RJS)

John Polkinghorne has written an excellent little book Quarks, Chaos & Christianity ruminating on questions related to science and religion. Polkinghorne is a theoretical physicist and an Anglican priest – and his thoughts are always worth considering. Today I would like to look at the chapter in this book on miracles. This discussion, I think, has bearing on the issues related to evolution, creation, and and the age of earth.

Should we expect the effects of God’s intelligent design of creation to be empirically discernible? Did God use natural or miraculous means?

First we must consider what is meant by “miracle.” Polkinghorne considers three kinds of miracles in scripture.

1. Miracles arising from normal human abilities possessed to an extraordinary degree.

2. Miracles involving the timing or occurrence of natural events.

3. Miracles involving events contrary to nature.

Polkinghorne suggests that some of the miracles of Jesus – some of his healings for example – may reflect the fact that Jesus possessed a human power to the highest degree. Thus some of these events may provoke astonishment and gratitude – but do not require an action contrary to nature.

Some miracles of Jesus center on the possibility of meaningful coincidences. This could include some healings and some of the nature miracles.

Two things happen together, each perfectly ordinary in the way it comes about, but carrying significance and causing amazement because of their simultaneity. Some of the nature miracles in the Gospel are open to this sort of interpretation. An example could be the stilling of the storm. … It is perfectly possible for faith to discover the hand of God in the event, because it could well be that divine providence brings about the end of the storm … I believe we are right to take them seriously, but they do not necessarily imply that the course of nature has been violently interrupted to bring them about. (p.98-99)

Some miracles, however, appear to be contrary to nature. Examples include changing water to wine at the wedding at Cana. There is no natural way to turn water (relatively pure H2O) into a a mixture of ethanol, water and various other chemical compounds that make wine – and the best wine at that. Another key example is, of course, the resurrection. Resurrection is intrinsically contrary to nature.

The significance of a miracle is not scientific but theological. Miracles contrary to nature are not simply capricious events demonstrating the power of God. Miracles have theological significance. This is true of all miracles – but most importantly it is true of those contrary to God’s divine laws of nature.

Science cannot exclude the possibility that, on particular occasions, God does particular unprecedented things. After all, God is the ordainer of the laws of nature, not someone who is subjected to them. However, precisely because they are divine laws, simply to overturn them would be for God to act against God, which is absurd. The theological question is, does it make sense to suppose that God has acted in a new way? … God can’t be capricious, but must be utterly consistent. However, consistency is not the same as dreary uniformity. In unprecedented circumstances, God can do unexpected things. Yet there will always have to be a deep underlying consistency which makes it intelligible, … The search for this consistency is the theological challenge of miracle. (p. 100)

The resurrection is the prototypical test case here. First, as NT Wright has argued at great length, the case for the historicity of the resurrection is strong (an excellent lecture where Wright summarizes his arguments can be found here, search on “Wright”). Paul tells us on the basis of eyewitness reports that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1. Cor. 15:3-4). But in the normal course of events dead men stay dead – resurrection involves a change in natural law. We must ask if it make sense that God has acted in this fashion, outside of his natural law. Is there a theological reason to believe that God acted in this unprecedented and extraordinary way? Polkinghorne asks Can we see a deep consistency beneath the surface of this surprise event? The answer is yes – this is not a capricious act, but an act with deep theological meaning that inaugurates a new regime.

Now what about creation? Many try to connect belief in miracles, especially belief in the resurrection, to belief in miraculous creation. But is creation a miracle of the second type or the third type? It is perfectly possible for faith to discover the hand of God in the creation of the universe and even in the evolution of the human species. It could well be that divine providence brought about the appropriate modifications and mutations required for the evolution of mankind – in fact I believe this to be true. But all of the evidence we have suggests that God used natural means to reach a desired end – not supernatural means to inaugurate a new regime (after the big bang anyway). If God used natural means in creation, the search for empirical demonstration of design will not find evidence capable of convincing the skeptic. Coincidences and probabilities are capable of natural explanation.

This leads to a question I think we would do well to consider.

Why should we expect to see the Hand of God in creation in a manner capable of empirical scientific demonstration?

For what theological reason would God step outside of his divinely ordained and instituted laws of nature in the process of creation?

Does the interpretation of Genesis 1-2 require creation to be a supernatural process? If so, when, where, and how?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

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Note: I’ve been on vacation – and dealing with work backlogs, so this is a repost from several years ago (some may realize this).  It remains, however, focused on questions that resurface with regularity in the discussion of science and Christian faith.

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  • Dan

    “Why should we expect to see the Hand of God in creation in a manner capable of empirical scientific demonstration?”

    I don’t think we should. God created by his word, things which are visible came from that which was invisible. The question I would ask is at what stage of the process of creation did “natural law” become fixed? Can anyone say?

    “For what theological reason would God step outside of his divinely ordained and instituted laws of nature in the process of creation?”

    Why does God need a theological reason to act? Huge assumption about God in that one.

    “Does the interpretation of Genesis 1-2 require creation to be a supernatural process? If so, when, where, and how?”

    Given the text of Genesis alone, obviously most here would say no. Given the genealogies in Genesis and Luke, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 and other passages, I think it is a stretch to say the apostles would want to confine God’s acts in Genesis 1-2 to “natural processes” even in a 1st century culture.

  • RJS4DQ


    Doesn’t God have a “theological” reason for everything he does? Simply because he is God?

    I assume that God has a reason for his divinely ordained natural process, and for stepping outside of it. How is that a huge assumption about God?

  • jhurshman

    An analogy that helps me is that of authors to their novels. Should Frodo be able to prove the existence and action of J.R.R. Tolkien, or Jayber Crow that of Wendell Berry? Not if the author has done his work well.

    Like all analogies, it is imperfect. In particular, it fails to take the Incarnation into account, as most novel authors don’t write themselves into the story as a character.

    But I do find the analogy helpful.

  • Dan

    “Theology” is our knowledge of God. God does not need us to understand all of His actions. He graciously allows us much, but He can act without our permission. Isn’t that the gist of Job?

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t really think that’s the gist of Job, but that’s kind of another discussion.

    I don’t believe anyone is saying that “God needs our permission to act”. The question is whether or not God’s character is discernible to us at all or whether He is simply capricious and beyond our understanding altogether. Certainly all Christians would agree that no one can completely conceive of God – He dwells in ineffable light, and the riches of His glory are unfathomable. But there also ways in which He reveals Himself to us. And one of the ways that He does is through nature, or through His Creation. To understand something about the laws of nature is to understand something about God.

    There will always be some tension – He’s not a tame lion, after all. But it seems to me that you’re erring on the side of saying that we can learn nothing of God from nature, or that God is utterly unpredictable.

  • While I think we can learn a great deal from all of God’s actions, and that scientific work is a great part of that learning, I’m not sure if the phrasing and even the logical steps of several parts of the post, including the quotes, really push this discussion forward. Every act of God, through nature or otherwise, has “theological significance” because actions tell us something about the actor. But, especially for the reasons below, I’m not sure that God thinks of the so called “divinely ordained and instituted laws of nature” in quite such a lofty way. To me, the features of our universe are, at best, like the proverbs: they often reflect wonderful, general truths and wisdom. They are “laws” only in the sense that, as part of the creation, we have little power if any to change them and they generally prove true. But I don’t think God reveres them as seems to be suggested here. I think he looks at the features he designed and calls them “good” and that he calls us “very good.” But we must remember that there is also a very real sense in which the curse on this creation is also now mixed in among the code of these so called “natural laws.” Therefore, we cannot simply talk about all the natural ways in which the universe now operates and think that God views some norms of our world (e.g., cancer cells reproduce and can overtake organ function) with as much joy or appreciation or permanence or “wisdom” as others. Do we allow that some features of our world are part of the curse? Do we think that he, with us, patiently endures some of the pain we and the creation experiences under the curse before enacting total redemption? I don’t think the agenda of God’s kingdom among us views all the norms of our world, whether in people or the rest of nature, in the same way, for the past, present or future. Therefore, the structure of the arguments of this post are hard to interact with. They lump together too much under “the divinely ordained laws of nature” and with too little discrimination. For example, what does it tell us that the vast bulk of Christ’s miracles were healings? At a minimum it tells me that some “laws” of nature are more ripe for repeal by God’s authority than others.

    Finally, I think it is a fairly unique feature of our time, as children of the “enlightenment,” that we care so much whether a given action of God was within or outside of we call the so called “laws of nature.” I just don’t know if this is especially helpful.

  • Shane Blackshear

    FYI, I think the link to the NT Wright video is wrong.

  • RJS4DQ


    It works for me, but you have to search on Wright. I couldn’t get a direct link to his lecture, only to the multimedia page.

  • Shane Blackshear

    You’re right. Sorry, lazy reader here. I scanned the sentence and didn’t see the “search for Wright” part.

  • Dan

    At the climax of Job, God asks “where were you when I laid the foundation of the world?”. He gives no answer to deep questions about suffering. Not all things are for us to know. But I fail to see how allowing God to act outside of natural law without us knowing how or why (such as Jesuscursing a fig tree) unravels natural law or makes God capricious or deceptive. No one denies the lass of nature. Modern science simply connot allow aanything beyond it.

  • Phil Miller

    He gives no answer to deep questions about suffering.

    I wouldn’t say He gives no answer. He does seem to say that there isn’t always a cause and effect relationship between suffering and our behavior. That in an of itself is a pretty revolutionary statement as far as ancient religions go. Heck, even a lot of us today don’t really want to believe that.

    But, anyway, that’s another discussion. I’m not saying God can’t act outside of the laws of nature. I’m Pentecostal. I believe in the miraculous. I’ve experienced the miraculous. But I don’t understand what good it does insisting on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Does it make a difference to me whether Noah’s flood global or not? Not particularly. It’s not that I don’t believe it couldn’t happen, it’s just that I suppose I believe that the way God interacts with the world is relatively consistent throughout history. Sure He does intervene, and there are events that I’d describe as supernatural. But I think if there’s a natural explanation for something, it makes more sense to suspect that rather than point to the supernatural.

  • Comments removed by author — too lengthy for Disqus.

  • I don’t think there’s a known natural means for creation (not progress, mind you, creation).

  • RJS4DQ


    I think you are right here. There is a great deal of speculation – but no known means or evidence other than the existence of creation.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Your statement “If God used natural means in creation, the search for empirical demonstration of design will not find evidence capable of convincing the skeptic” is key. It’s faith we need to see God’s hand. It therefore makes sense to expect that God would use natural means whenever appropriate (perhaps the vast majority of the time). He does not need to use magical light shows or smoke and mirrors. The Holy Spirit is the revealer of God’s presence.

    I would only add the rider that we don’t, and may never, know the limits of “natural”. The best illustration of this is the non-intuitive expansion from the Newtonian world to the quantum world that you teach. How many future surprises await us? You folks are already thinking that gluons and quarks may have structure. To speculate, perhaps there is a natural explanation for water changing to wine, or even for bodily resurrection. Perhaps these kinds of events simply cannot occur under current spiritual conditions. Speaking of spiritual reality, what is the relationship (naturally speaking) between spiritual and physical? We have no idea, of course, but it’s very clear the two interact – they are relational. The new heaven and new earth will be a very interesting place, naturally speaking. I wonder what kind of quantum mechanics and physiology we will be teaching there?

    As Polkinghorne points out in the next chapter of this great little book, we are not in training to be angels (p. 110). I like his general statement on the newness that is coming “It is theologically understood as a new world that, through Christ, has been integrated with the life of the Creator.” (p. 111)

  • Dan

    I’m less concerned about the science than the historicity, primarily because of the way the New Testament treats the events. If the flood was not global is less important than if the flood is historical. The precise nature of the formation of the first man is less important than the historicity of his existence, his choice and the effect on his progeny. The Bible is not a science book and no one claims it is. What is at issue is simply “did the events occur in space and time”, and 1 Cor 15 and 2 Peter 3 and other passages seem to insist they are part of the narrative – in some sense crucial parts.

  • Phil Miller

    Well, I do believe the historicity of event portrayed in Scripture is important – see my replies on that other recent post about whether or Jesus’ resurrection was an actual literal, physical resurrection or not to attest to that. But I don’t know if I extend that concern to the events in the Old Testament. I would say it’s much less important to me whether or not an event like the sun standing still was historic or not. Christ’s death and resurrection is the focal point of Scripture. Without that, nothing else really matters.