Purtill’s Definition of “Miracle” – Part 5

Richard Purtill proposed the following definition:

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. (“Defining Miracles” in In Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997, p.72).

I have previously argued that condition (5) should be rejected, and in my last post on this subject (7/25/08), I began to examine the first condition:

(1) brought about by the power of God

I eliminated the unclear term “God” from this condition:

(1a) brought about by the power of a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

Then I pointed out an ambiguity:

(1b) brought about directly by the action of a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

(1c) brought about either directly or indirectly (through the actions of others who have been empowered to do so) by a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

Contrary to my own previous comments, both (1b) and (1c) would require the existence of God (i.e. an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good person) in order for a miracle to occur. A miracle, on either condition, would imply the existence of God.

However, a “temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature” could be caused by some lesser being with supernatural powers, so we would have the epistemic problem of distinguishing apparent miracles (i.e. supernatural events not brought about by God) from real miracles (supernatural events brought about by God, either directly or indirectly).

One objection that applies to both (1b) and (1c) is that the ordinary use of the word “miracle” does not imply that the event was brought about by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person. The ordinary use of the word “miracle” allows for such events to be brought about by beings that don’t measure up to all three of these perfections, even by deities that lack all three perfections.

Note how the word is used in the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on “Miracle”:

Belief in miraculous happenings is a feature of practically all religions, and the incidence of miracles (i.e., of belief in and reports regarding miracles) is universal, though their functions, nature, purpose, and explanations vary with the social and cultural—including theological and philosophical—context in which they appear. However inexplicable, all miracles have an explanation in the sense that they are accounted for in terms of the religious and cultural system that supports them and that, in turn, they are meant to support. Without such an accompanying—explicit or implicit—theory (e.g., the presence, activity, and intervention of such realities as gods, spirits, or magical powers), there would be no miracles in the aforementioned sense but only unexplained phenomena. [1]

A “miracle” on this use of the term, could be brought about by “gods, spirits, or magical powers” even if there was no God, no all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person.

The article speaks of “miracles” being attributed to Greek deities:

Hellenistic religion presents one of the best examples of a civilization in which miracles play a major part. The intervention of the gods in the affairs of the Homeric heroes takes place in a cosmos in which the divine and human spheres still interact.
Later Hellenistic syncretism conceived of the sublunar world as a distinct sphere, though higher powers could miraculously irrupt into it. Miraculous cures (e.g., at the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus), divine manifestations of various kinds (e.g., voices, dreams, and theophanies), and even virgin births and resurrections were widely reported.
[2]

The gods of Hellenistic religion were not viewed as being perfectly good persons. Nor were they viewed as being all-powerful. If a miracle could be brought about by such a god, then the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person is not a necessary condition for the occurrence of a miracle.

Another point in support of this objection is that miracles are supposed to be used as the basis for determining which religion of the many competitors is the “true religion” and which sacred book is the “true revelation”. If the word “miracle” is defined in a way that excludes polytheistic gods and religions, such as Hellenistic religion, then this appears to beg an important question, and to bias the outcome (stack the deck).

Virgin births and resurrections in Hellenistic religion are excluded from consideration before we even start investigating miracles, if we define the word “miracle” so that only those supposed supernatural interventions that were allegedly brought about by an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good person are examined.

Are these objections sufficient to justify broadening the first condition to allow for miracles to be brought about by lesser beings?

(1d) brought about by the power of a god or spirit

To be continued…

[1] from section “Nature and significance”. Retrieved 2, 2007 from Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Library Edition: http://www.library.eb.com/eb/article-34104

[2] from section “Miracles in the religions of the world”. Retrieved 2, 2007 from Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Library Edition: http://www.library.eb.com/eb/article-34104

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13109187088709054890 askin

    Here are thirty very stunning incidents from the author’s own life, which conform with your defition of “miracles”.
    “SMALL MIRACLES” by Askin Ozcan,
    ISBN 1598001000 (Outskirts Press)

    http://www.outskirtspress.com/smallmiracles

    Available at http://www.bn.com, http://www.amazon.com

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Excerpt from SMALL MIRACLES:

    “I couldn’t go to my fiance’s birthday party without a present! I thought of not going to the party, but Anne was waiting for me and probably told her friends that I was coming. It would be a big disappointment for her. I was thinking on the sidewalk about what I should do. Time was running out! Suddenly a big truck stopped in front of me at the red light. Then it took off at the green with such speed that its back doors opened and a parcel flew out to the road. I wanted to take the parcel, but I was afraid that someone might see. But, there were only two persons around, one on a side street about a hundred yards away, the other on the main road about two hundred yards away. I went to the middle of the road and picked up the parcel. My first thought was to put it into the mailbox on the corner, but as I inspected the parcel, I noticed the address was ripped off. It could neither go to the addressee nor to the sender.”

    I have two comments on this (incomplete) story. (1) Why would a perfectly good person care about whether you had a present to give to your girl friend but be perfectly OK with letting the NAZIs murder 6 million innocent people, many of whom were worked and starved to death? (2)This story sounds like a coincidence story, and does not appear to involve any violation of any law of nature or law of chemistry or physics(nobody walked on water, water did not turn into wine, dead people did not come back to life, nobody magically levitated into the air, etc.).