Providing Validation of the Christian Faith -- Part One
The central claims of Christianity are dependent on the apologetic1
value of miracles. If miracles have no evidential value, then there is
no objective, historical evidence to support the claims of historic,
naturalists argue that, no matter how unusual an event is, it cannot
be identified as a miracle. If true, this has serious implications for
those who believe in miracles. No unusual event that lays claim to
divine origin could be considered a miracle. Further, theistic
religions such as Judaism and Christianity, in which miraculous claims
are used apologetically, could not actually identify any of their
unusual events as miraculous confirmation of their truth claims, no
matter how much evidence they could
produce for the authenticity of these events.
Identifiability of Miracles.
There are two aspects to the case for the identifiability of miracles.
First, miracles in general must be identifiable before a particular
miracle can be identified. Second, one must be able to point to
distinguishing marks in order to identify a specific event as a
miracle. The focus here will be on the identifiability of miracles.
According to some, miracles cannot be identified
because the concept of a miracle is not coherent. Alistair McKinnon,
for example, claims that "the idea of a suspension of natural law is
self-contradictory. This follows from the meaning of the term."2
For if natural laws are descriptive, they merely inform us about the
actual course of events. But nothing, says McKinnon, can violate the
actual course of events. He wrote: "This contradiction may stand out
more clearly if for natural law we substitute the expression
the actual course of events. Miracle would then be defined as
‘an event involving the suspension of the actual course of events.’"
Therefore, "someone who insisted upon describing an event as a miracle
would be in a rather odd position of claiming that its occurrence was
contrary to the actual course of events."3
McKinnon’s argument can be summarized as follows:
1. Natural laws describe the actual course of
2. A miracle is a violation of a natural law.
3. But it is impossible to violate the actual
course of events (what is, is; what happens,
4. Therefore, miracles are impossible.
There are several problems with this argument. Three are particularly
Begging the Question. If
McKinnon is correct, miracles cannot be identified in the natural
world, since whatever happens will not be a miracle. If whatever
happens is ipso facto a natural event, then of course miracles
never happen. This, however, simply begs the question; this definition
of natural law is loaded against miracles. No matter what happens
within the natural world, it will automatically be called a "natural
event." This would eliminate in advance the possibility of any event
in the world being a miracle. But this fails to recognize even the
possibility that not every event in the world is of the
world. For a miracle can be an effect in nature by a cause that
is beyond nature. For the mind that makes a computer is
beyond the computer, and yet the computer is in the world.
Misdefinition. The problem
is that McKinnon has misdefined natural laws. Natural laws
should not be defined as what actually happens but what
regularly happens. As Richard Swinburne points out, "laws of
nature do not just describe what happens…. They describe what happens
in a regular and predictable way." Therefore, "when what happens is
entirely irregular and unpredictable, its occurrence is not something
describable by natural laws."4
In this way miracles can be identified as events within nature that
fall into the class of the irregular and unpredictable. There may be
more to a miracle than an irregular and unpredictable event in the
natural world, but they are not less than this. At any rate they
cannot be ruled out simply by defining a natural law as what actually
occurs. Even though they occur in the natural world, miracles are
distinguishable from natural occurrences.
Confusing Kinds of Events.
Since natural laws deal with regularities and miracles with
singularities, miracles cannot possibly be violations of natural
laws. They are not even in the same class of events. A miracle is not
a mini-natural law; it is a unique event with its own characteristics.
Therefore, to claim that miracles don’t happen (or should not be
believed to have happened), because they do not fall into the class of
natural events is a category mistake. By the same logic, we might as
well say that no book has an intelligent cause because its origin
cannot be explained by the operational laws of physics and chemistry.
Flew’s Argument. A
stronger attack on the apologetic value of miracles is laid out by
Antony Flew. The basic objection to miracles by contemporary
naturalists is not ontological but epistemological. That is, miracles
are not rejected because we know they did not occur. Rather, we do not
and cannot know that they did occur. Flew’s objection fits into
this category. If successful, Flew’s argument shows that miracles have
no apologetic value.
Miracles Are Parasitic to Nature.
Flew broadly defines a miracle as something that "would never have
happened had nature, as it were, been left to its own devices."5
He notes that Thomas Aquinas demonstrated that miracles are not
properly a violation of natural law. Aquinas wrote that "it is not
against the principle of craftsmanship... if a craftsman effects a
change in his product, even after he has given it its first form."6
Not only is this power inherent in the idea of craftsmanship; so is
the mind of the craftsman. A miracle bears the unmistakable
mark of power and divine mind. A miracle, then, is "a striking
interposition of divine power by which the operations of the ordinary
course of nature are overruled, suspended, or modified."7
Accepting this theistic definition, Flew insists
that "exceptions are logic dependent upon rules. Only insofar as it
can be shown that there is an order does it begin to be possible to
show that the order is occasionally overridden."8
In brief, miracles to Flew are logically parasitic to natural law.
Hence, a strong view of miracles is possible without a strong view of
the regularity of nature.
The Improbability of Miracles.
Flew argues that miracles are prima facie improbable, quoting
historian R. M. Grant that "credulity in antiquity varied inversely
with the health of science and directly with the vigor of religion."9
David Strauss, a nineteenth-century Bible critic, was even more
skeptical. He wrote, "We may summarily reject all miracles,
prophecies, narratives of angels and demons, and the like, as simply
impossible and irreconcilable with the known and universal laws which
govern the course of events."10
According to Flew, such skepticism is justified on a methodological
(to be continued)
(From Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker
Book House, 1999)
1 The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "apologetic" as "a
presentation intended to justify or defend something".
2 Richard Swinburne, Miracles, p. 49.
3 Ibid., p. 50.
4 Ibid., p. 78).
5 Antony Flew, "Miracles," EP, p. 346.
6 Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, Book 3, p. 100.
7 See Flew, p. 346.
8 Ibid., p. 347.
10 See ibid., p. 347).
Dr. Steve Sullivan
Dr. Norm Geisler
Copyright 2006, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute