Purtill “Defining Miracles” – Part 2

In a previous post (5/10/08), I began to examine a definition of “miracle” put forward by Richard Purtill in his essay “Defining Miracles” (Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997):

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)

I objected to condition (5) because it assumes an unappealing view of God. The Bible often portrays God as being self-centered and overly concerned about what human beings think about him. Although this characterization of God derives from the Bible, it is not in keeping with the concept of God as a perfectly good person. So, condition (5) is not an acceptable requirement for the application of the term “miracle”.

Condition (5) Makes the Concept of a Miracle Subjective

Another problem with condition (5) is that it makes the concept of a miracle subjective, because it makes the determination of whether a particular divine intervention should count as a miracle dependent on the beliefs and attitudes of the people who happen to have observed the event.

If God produces event E for the purpose of obtaining result R, then it is presumably the case that result R in fact occurs. That is because God is all-knowing, so God knows in advance whether producing event E will in fact have result R. If God intervenes in the world “for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history”, then that event will indeed have the effect of showing that God has acted in history. Therefore, if Purtill’s definition is correct, then actually showing that God has acted in history is a necessary condition for an event to be a miracle.

But whether a particular event actually shows that God has acted in history depends crucially on the beliefs and attitudes of the person or persons who observe the event. For an event to actually show something it must show something to someone. If God caused Jesus to violate the law of gravity and to levitate fifty feet up into the air, and if the only observers of this event were group of three dogmatic atheists, those atheists might well conclude that they had just observed a clever magic trick, and that nothing supernatural had occurred. The event of Jesus levitating up into the air would not have shown them that God had acted in history. Given condition (5), the levitation of Jesus would not be a miracle, even though the atheists (in this imaginary case) were mistaken and the event was in fact the result of a divine intervention.

The very same feat, however, would constitute a miracle (on Purtill’s definition) if God were to cause Jesus to levitate fifty feet into the air in front of a group of religious believers who were already inclined to see Jesus as an inspired prophet or messenger from God. These believers would be likely to conclude that the levitation by Jesus was caused by a divine intervention, and thus this event would show them that God had acted in history. So, in the one case where Jesus levitates for dogmatic atheists, there is no miracle, but in the other case where Jesus levitates for religious believers, there is a miracle, according to Purtill’s definition.

Condition (5) is objectionable because it makes the determination of whether an event constitutes a miracle dependent upon the subjective responses of the particular people who happen to observe the event. But intuitively the concept of a miracle is not subjective in this way. It is supposed to categorize events based on objective characteristics of the events, not based on the subjective responses of particular people to events. Requiring that an event “show” something, amounts to requiring that the event show something to someone, and whether an event does this depends on the particular beliefs, attitudes, and mental capacities of the persons who observe the event.

Do Miracles Have Some Other Essential Purpose?

Is there some other purpose that an event must have in order to qualify as a miracle? My earlier counterexample about the starving orphan suggests the idea that a miracle is an event which is based on a benevolent purpose. If God decides to create a meal for a starving orphan child, the main purpose would not be to get some good publicity–a perfectly good person would not care much about good publicity–but rather for the sake of helping the child, to provide for the needs and/or desires of the child. This sort of purpose is mentioned in the article on “Miracles” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2007, Online Library Edition):

The purpose of a miracle may be in the direct and immediate result of the event — e.g., deliverance from imminent danger (thus, the passage of the children of Israel through the Red Sea in the Old Testament book of Exodus, chapter 14), cure of illness, or provision of plenty to the needy.

Let’s consider an alternative requirement on the purpose of an event for the concept of “miracle” to apply:

(5a) for the purpose of rescuing some person who is in danger, curing some person of an illness, or providing for a basic need of some person.

One problem with this condition is that God might choose to intervene in history in order to “bless” or to reward someone who was not in danger, not ill, and not in need. For example, if God created a horse ex nihilo for a young woman who longed to have a horse to ride but who could not afford to buy a horse, this would be a miracle, even if riding horses did not help to meet any basic need of this woman or anyone else, and even if the horse was not required to help the woman escape from a dangerous situation.

In other words, God could intervene in the world to do something positive and beneficial for someone other than helping that person to escape from danger or illness, and other than providing for a basic need (e.g. food, shelter, and clothing). Such a divine intervention would be a miracle, so condition (5a) is too narrow.

To Be Continued …

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17047791198702983998 bpabbott

    Personally, I’ve always seen the childish nature of (5) as indicative of a fallacy of the divine.

    Meaning that anyone who makes such a claim regarding a god, does not understand the concept.


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