What are miracles? If by “miracle” we mean an instance in which God overrules or violates the laws of nature for some greater end of His, a common enough definition, it is unclear whether we have any solid biblical grounds for believing that such things take place.
Of course, to say that is probably a headscratcher to most of you. Doesn’t the Bible obviously teach miracles? Isn’t it full of them? Perhaps so, but perhaps not. The key question is with respect to the idea of a “violation” of the natural order. Is it actually the case that, to accomplish certain things, God breaks, temporarily suspends, or simply overrides the order which He wrote into the fabric of creation? This would seem in a certain light to be quite problematic. After all, if God is the one who upholds and energizes the natural order by the power of His Word, then why would He also be the one who contradicts that order on a few scattered occasions? Could He not, in His omnipotent wisdom, have designed the natural order so that it would do His bidding in all circumstances without the introduction of cheats and exceptions? To put it more simply, why should God have to contradict His own rules? Could He even do so, since it is impossible for God to be unfaithful to Himself?
It is largely this question which raises doubts about the commonly understand nature of miracles as interruptions of the natural order. Yet there is another relevant issue involved, namely the second (or, more properly, first) sphere of creation, the heavens. While it is often forgotten, “heaven” as the domain of God and the angels was created in the beginning alongside the earth. So it, and its angelic inhabitants, can in a certain sense be considered part of the natural order. This modifies what can be legitimately considered a violation of the natural order. If angels and their doings are, in this larger creational sense, natural, then the scope of possible violations of the natural order narrows considerably.
A final consideration is, well, the nature of the natural order itself. Just what are, for example, the laws of physics? In modern times, we tend to think of them as autonomous mechanics, an independent set of gears behind the universe. In such a picture, God’s action must take the form of distinct interruption, a suspension of the ongoing system. But the Bible doesn’t speak of nature that way. In the Bible, the natural order is the ongoing creative work of God. It says of rain, “He makes waterdrops evaporate; they distill the rain into its mist” (Job 36:27), and of plants, “He causes grass to grow for the livestock and provides crops for man to cultivate, producing food from the earth, wine that makes man’s heart glad” (Psalm 104:14). In the biblical view, the ways of nature are the works of God’s own hand. So the laws of nature, to use a term I believe comes from James Jordan, are basically divine habits. The regularity with which the cosmos operates on every level is simply a matter of how God habitually energizes all things, how He usually governs the forces and masses of creation. So for God to do something different, say, bring a dead man back to life, is not an interruption or violation of any mechanism outside of God, but rather God playing a suddenly different tune, as it were, on the instrument on nature.
Of course, we don’t want to erase the Creator/creature distinction here, either. God opens up the clouds and pours rain upon the earth, but it is equally true that water vapor in the atmosphere condenses according to basic chemistry and physics and is pulled by gravity onto the surface of the planet. On this level, in accord with what was said just above, we should understand that even what we call the “laws” of nature are many orders of magnitude more complex than we like to think. We don’t understand the physical universe half as well as we think we do, and this also leaves room for questioning the supposed overriding nature of miracles. Some miraculous events which we think are naturally impossible may simply be possible by some aspect to the world which we currently know nothing about. After all, just in the last several decades we’ve discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, which has radically modified our ideas about what’s possible. Quantum mechanics alone seems to make nearly anything possible (I’m not entirely serious, but close enough).
The sum of all this is to simply offer a suggestion: maybe the way we normally think about miracles is wrong. If a miracle is an interruption or violation of fixed natural laws, then maybe they don’t exist. But this is, obviously, not to say that biblical miracles never happened. On the contrary, everything the Bible says happened most certainly did. The only questions here are what kind of events they were and precisely how they came to be. Maybe the line between the natural and the supernatural isn’t as clear cut as we tend to think.
And on the other hand, maybe not.