Richard Purtill “Defining Miracles”

In confronting miracle claims skeptics and naturalists look for flaws and weakness in the evidence put forward for specific miracles, and ask critical questions like, “Do we have eyewitness testimony for the event?”, “Are the eyewitnesses credible and reliable?”, “Are the accounts of the eyewitnesses consistent with each other?”, and “Is there physical evidence that confirms or disconfirms the testimony of the eyewitnesses?” Such questions are of obvious relevance to rational evaluation of miracle claims.

But there are also more general and philosophical questions that need to be addressed, the most obvious ones being, “What is a miracle?” and “What kind of evidence and what strength of evidence is required to establish the occurrence of a miracle?”

The book In Defense of Miracles (IVP, 1997) includes several essays on miracles edited by Geivett and Habermas, mostly by Christian philosophers (e.g. Geivett, Habermas, Craig, Davis, Nash, Geisler), and one of the essays is called “Defining Miracles.” In this essay, Richard Purtill proposes a definition of the word “miracle”:

A miracle is an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (p. 72)

This seems like a reasonable attempt at clarifying the word “miracle”, and so not a bad place to start in thinking about the question “What is a miracle?” I am going to try to find weaknesses and problems with this definition, and where I am able, to suggest improvements to it.

The point is not to show that Purtill has done a bad job of defining the term “miracle”, but to develop a clear and defensible analysis of this concept by reflecting on Purtill’s proposed definition. Ideally, I will be starting with an OK definition of “miracles” and ending with a good solid definition. If it turns out that Purtill’s definition is hopelessly flawed, or that I am unable to figure out how to improve upon it, the exercise will at least bring out some questions that need further investigation.

What grabs my attention most immediately is condition (5). Purtill asserts that something counts as a miracle only if God does it “for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history.” That condition is completely wrong, in my view. I believe this condition is based on a conception of God that is unappealing and difficult to defend. The conception of God that lies beneath condition (5) derives from the Bible. For example, consider the opening verses of Exodus, Chapter 20 (NRSV):

Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

God is often portrayed in the Bible as being very concerned about what humans think about him. But for me, and probably for many intellectually sophisticated believers, such a God is too petty and egotistical and insecure to be worthy of worship.

It is kind of like friendship; if someone is desperate to be your friend, that person is probably the last person you want to have as a friend. People who don’t have a desperate need for attention and affection from other people are more attractive and appealing than people who beg for or demand attention. If some being begs or demands my attention or affection or obedience, that is the last being that I would be inclined to worship.

In my view, if there is a God (i.e. an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person), he or she is not going to beg or demand to be worshipped by puny ignorant human beings. Such a being is not going to be deeply concerned about the theological beliefs held by humans. Such a being will not torment some human beings for having incorrect theological beliefs, or for practicing the wrong religion.

Now, I understand that my beliefs about what God would be like, if there were such a being, are controversial. But that is the point, condition (5) is based on a controversial view about the character and purposes of God. The controversy is not just between atheists like me and theists like Purtill. Many intellectually sophisticated theists would also have a problem with characterizing God as being deeply concerned about the theological beliefs and practices of human beings.

I have in mind a counterexample that illustrates my point. Suppose an orphaned child is wandering the streets in some grimy third-world city looking for food. The child believes in God and prays to find some scraps of food while digging through a bin of trash. God hears the prayers of this child and knows that the child will die of starvation unless it gets some nutritious food soon. God briefly considers exerting his omnipotence to create a hot meal ex nihilo for this starving waif. But God decides not to do this because, “The child has no parents or friends to tell the story of this event, and no stranger will believe this dirty orphan child’s story about a hot meal appearing out of thin air. So, creating a meal for this child will not show anyone, other than this one child, that I have acted in history.” God turns down the prayer of the hungry orphan, and the cold lifeless body of the child is discovered in the trash bin the next morning.

Is such a self-centered being worthy of worship? I don’t think so. In fact, such a being would not be a “perfectly good person” in my view, and so would not count as being God at all, even if he were all-powerful and all-knowing. In short, if God exists, and if God cared about the needs of a starving orphan, and if God created a hot meal out of nothing for that starving child, that would be a miracle, even if God had no intention of getting some good publicity as a result of this action.

About Bradley Bowen
  • Randy Peyser

    Hi Bradley, The wonderful thing I’ve discovered in my research about miracles is that miracles happen for people of all religions and belief systems. No one is excluded. I love tapping into universal truth. It works for everybody. Sincerely, Randy Peyser,

  • Bradley Bowen

    response to randy…

    If you accept Purtill’s definition of “miracle”, then it is false that there are miracles for people of all religions and belief systems, at least from the point of view of some of those religions.

    Purtill asserts that it is a necessary condition of a miracle that it be an event brought about by the power of God. By “God” he means something like an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person.

    Some forms of Buddhism reject belief in God, and the forms of Buddhism that encompass belief in a god, might not believe in this sort of god (?)

    Polytheistic religions need not include belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person. One form of Hinduism conceives of “God” as not being a person (the divine is neither personal nor impersonal).

    So, from the point of view of some forms of Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism, there can be no “miracles” in the sense defined by Purtill.

    You are free to reject Purtill’s definition and to suggest another one. But until you do so, it is unclear to me whether the concept of a miracle really fits with all religions.

    It is clearly false that miracles are possible from the point of view of Secular Humanism, or from the point of view of Marxism, or Naturalism. So, some belief systems don’t make room for miracles.

  • Gus

    In In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology , Gordon Kaufman states unequivocally that all religions are simply products of “human imagination.” And, I must say that at best, Miracles are a figment of our imagination; Often based on wishful or flawed thing. I agree with Kaufman. What he says now has an unmistakably louder ring of truth than all I’ve been taught to the contrary.

    I am most familiar with the judeo-christian tradition; and while I still find meaning in it’s scripture and some other ways, I no longer believe it has any true claim to transcendent knowledge or connections to a (G)od.
    Those who believe in miracles usually tie them into prayer.
    Yet. they often say, “Well, all we can do now is pray,” when faced with a crisis. Doesn’t this statement imply the prayer is a last result; having not yield most of the things asked for in the past? One of my favorite pet peeves is the saying, “It must have been his time to die.” Great circular logic! Of course it WAS his time or he would not have died at that time! However, did someone or thing predetermine that he would die at that time? I can’t believe so. I believe that we live in a reality that consist mostly, if not entirely, of a kind of random chaos.

    Physics has taught us about cause and affect. However, religious traditions tend to place to much faith in possible cause and affect circumstances where, at best, there is only a correlation. i.e. “We prayed he would live through the night and he did despite what the doctor said. S0 our prayer was directly answered by (G)od with a miracle.” In this scenario those who believe in this kind of cause and affect prayer will often go to great lengths to rationalize the outcome should the person die in the night: “God must have needed him.”

    This comes back to the idea that a supreme being has not only appointed a time and place for us to be born, but also to die and that this might be altered by “prayer.” The idea that birth and death are much, much more random has a much louder ring of truth for me. Again, these thoughts are based in circular logic; the religious views of “appointment” are not easily confronted by reason. Finally, didn’t the late, great theologian George Carlin say something like a real miracle had to be witnessed by 3 nuns and priest or was it the other way around? I do remember Geo. said a kid passed a cheese sandwhich through his noise; And as far as Geo. could tell all the requirements were met; a cheese miracle. Peace, Gus