Purtill’s Definition of “Miracle” – Part 7

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 proposed two improvements to Purtill’s definition so far:

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

I have noted that this definition does not accurately reflect the ordinary use of the word “miracle”, because we do not require that God be the cause of an event in order for an event to be called a miracle. In fact miracles can occur even if God does not exist, given the ordinary use of the word.

But narrower definitions of “miracle” which do require that God be the cause are acceptable in the context of discussion and debate between Christian believers and skeptics, because this concept provides a clear and relevant target for the defender of Christianity to aim at. It clarifies what is at issue between the Christian believer and the skeptic (also between Jewish believers and skeptics, and between Muslim believers and skeptics).

It is now time to consider the acceptability of conditions (2), (3), and (4). It appears to me that there are some plausible counterexamples to these conditions. Here are some examples that suggest these conditions make the definition too broad:

Example 1: A solar eclipse occurs and lasts for a few minutes.

Example 2: A snow storm occurs in the summer and snow falls for just half an hour.

Example 3: A woman uses birth control pills for the first two months of a sexual relationship.

Each of these examples seems to involve a “temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature”, but each of these events can occur without a miracle occuring. Furthermore, adding God into the equation does not automatically turn any of these events into a miracle.

The point of these examples is that there can be a “temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature” without there being a violation of a law of nature, or a supernatural event. Natural events can sometimes be temporary exceptions to the ordinary course of nature. But such events are not considered to be miracles.

There also seem to be plausible counterexamples that show that the conditions Purtill proposes make the definition too narrow:

Example 4: God creates a hot meal ex nihilo each morning and evening for ten years to feed a poor orphan child.

Example 5: God grants a saintly person the power to instantly heal any disease or injury simply by touching a sick or injured person on the forehead. The saintly person then procedes to heal thousands of people over a period of five years.

Example 6: God causes a mountain in California to rise up above the earth, to fly out over the Pacific Ocean, and to levitate one hundred feet in the air over the surface of the water for a period of three years.

I would be inclined to use the word “miracle” to describe each of these events, but condition (2) excludes each of these examples, because in each case the “exception to the ordinary course of nature” is hardly “temporary”.

So, it appears that conditions (2), (3), and (4), when taken together make Purtill’s definition of “miracle” both too broad and too narrow.


To be continued…

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

    Note:

    Example 4 has a parallel in the Old Testament. Chapter 16 of Exodus tells the story of how God provided bread or “manna” from the sky each day (except for the Sabbath) to feed the nation of Israel for a period of forty years (Exodus 16:35).


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