Symphonic Theology

Chapter 9: A Test Case-Miracles

By Dr. Vern Sheridan Poythress

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The principles of symphonic theology are best understood in the light of examples. In this chapter and the following one, I discuss a problem of medium-level complexity from systematic theology--the problem of the continuation of miracles. And I consider here only a few facets of the problem. 1


The word "miracle" is used loosely by English-speaking Christians. Its use is not restricted to technical theological or philosophical discussions. The word has fuzzy boundaries. Two people from different backgrounds may disagree as to whether God still works miracles today, but they may not mean exactly the same thing by the word "miracle." Some people will label some events "miracles" that others will not, even when both admit that those events occur. How much is the dispute one of semantics, and how much is it a genuine doctrinal difference?

Theologians have been aware of this problem and some of them proposed technical definitions that aim at greater precision. It is worth spending some time thinking about how to define "miracle," because many problems characteristic of systematic theology occur right at this stage of definition.

Some familiar definitions from the past are as follows. David Hume defined a miracle as "a violation of the laws of nature." 2 For Charles Hodge, a miracle "may be defined to be an event, in the external world, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple volition of God." 3 Very similar to Hodge, Louis Berkhof held that "the distinctive thing in the miraculous deed is that it results from the exercise of the supernatural power of God. And this means, of course, that it is not brought about by secondary causes that operate according to the laws of nature." 4 On the same page Berkhof also said that in a miracle God acts "immediately." Finally, John Murray said that a miracle cannot be done by created forces alone. 5


How do we know whether a definition such as one of the above is right or wrong? How do we know whether it is biblical? And even if we are convinced that one of them is right, how do we use it to decide what is and what is not a miracle?

Two dangers confront us immediately. One is the danger of introducing anti-biblical notions or assumptions by means of some key term in the definition. Hume's definition illustrates this danger. One has only to ask what Hume has in mind by the "laws of nature." It turns out that, for Hume, those laws are regularities understood within the framework of a world view in which the God of the Bible is denied from the outset. Rather than God's being continually involved in the world, as the Bible presents him, the world goes on "by itself." Similarly, Berkouwer's analysis uncovers unbiblical ideas behind "natural law" in the Roman Catholic theology of miracles. 6

A second danger is that we will automatically assume that there is only one right definition. Is there in fact more than one possible definition that could be "right"? What purpose do we want a definition to serve? For example, geometric figures can be classified by number of sides, length, perimeter, area, number of right angles, number of reentrant angles, etc. Is only one of these classifications correct?

The idea that there can be only a single useful definition of a technical term is related to the idea that there is only one possible classification or point of view that it is of ultimate interest. This opinion, however, is not necessarily true. 7 Definitions help us to recognize similarities among all the instances that meet the terms of the definition. But other similarities may cut across those first similarities. One can have vague "family resemblances" rather than a strictly delimited species with infinitely sharp boundaries.

Can we expect to construct a single correct definition of "miracle" from the Bible alone? To begin with, we cannot establish a definition by examining individual words in the Bible. Most Bible words, including words associated with the miraculous, have a flexible range of usage that we customarily find in words of ordinary vocabulary. For example, the word semeion ("sign") is used to designate what we naively would call miracles, but it also refers to other things. Conversely, sometimes what we would naively designate as a miracle (see, e.g., 1 Kings 17:17-24, especially v. 24) has no specific word attached, but rather a formula (v. 24) or nothing at all (Mark 7:24-30).

We unavoidably come to the Bible with our own naive idea of miracle. Then we have our ideas criticized and improved by listening to everything that the Bible says (not just passages that have a key word in them). As we listen, we may discover family resemblances and realize that there is more than one way of grouping together the phenomena that we had in mind.


In particular cases of the miraculous, different books of the Bible stress somewhat different things. The Gospel of John, for example, focuses on Jesus' works of power as "signs" that testify to him; they signify who he is and, rightly understood, illuminate the climactic work of the Cross. For example, the feeding of the five thousand in John 6 is followed by Jesus' discourse on the bread of life, which is his flesh. The mention of his flesh ultimately points to his self-sacrifice at Calvary.

The Gospel of Mark focuses on Jesus as the great opponent to the kingdom of Satan (see Mark 3:20-30). The casting out of demons and other elements relating to opposition have a particularly prominent place. The miracles are primarily actions of war.

The Book of Revelation sees the whole course of interadvent history as a sequence of mighty works of God (at least according to an idealist interpretation or an interpretation with any sympathy for this approach). The climactic miracle, to which all other miracles are tied and which they portend, is the cosmic miracle of war, victory, and physical transformation at the second coming of Christ.

Isaiah repeatedly reflects on God's acts of Creation and of the Exodus. These acts of God not only demonstrate that God alone is God, over against idols, and that he was Lord in the past but also point to a further, climactic manifestation of God's kingly power in the "last days." God will accomplish a second exodus and a new creation. Isaiah invites us to see all of God's works in relation to his mighty acts in the Creation and the Exodus.

For Psalms 135 and 136, the works of creation and providence are grouped together with miracles of the Exodus. All these events arouse our wonder because they display God's power and grace. They are an occasion for thankfulness and praise. He "gives food to every creature" (Ps. 136:25); he rules the clouds and rain (Ps. 135:7). Creation and providence, then, are seen as resembling other works of God's power.

No one definition will capture equally well all the emphases of these different books. If we group some things together in our definition, we also separate them from others. We cannot equally emphasize all the connections. John draws out connections between works of power and revelation. Mark shows us connections with spiritual war. Revelation shows us connections with the Second Coming and with interadvent calamity. Isaiah shows us connections in terms of global structural similarities among Creation, Exodus, and second exodus. Some of these connections intersect others. Elements that are immediately connected with one another in one way are not always immediately connected in all the other ways. There is no contradiction here. One must simply decide what one wants a definition to do, for it cannot do reflect all emphases simultaneously.


I outline here one possible way of capturing some of the connections between the various aspects of the miraculous events in the Bible. What we would naively call miracles are particularly striking demonstrations of God's lordship. But his lordship is demonstrated also in the apparently ordinary (for example, clouds, as in Ps. 135:7), to which we are sometimes blind. We thus may say that a miracle is a power demonstration of God's sovereign presence in creation. It is an extraordinary appearance of God. Now, God appears above all to deliver his people and attest his word. So we may say more precisely: a miracle is an extraordinary visible act of God to deliver his people and attest his word.

In agreement with the symphonic approach, we may expect that this definition has fuzzy boundaries, or loose ends. First, what is the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary? There is no sharp line. What is ordinary to one culture or one person may seem extraordinary to another. This definition in terms of what is extraordinary is oriented to the need for human response to God's ways. God does some things that we might say make us sit up and pay attention. The more spectacular exhibitions of God's power recorded in the Bible are indeed oriented partly toward the human need to notice him.

A second area of fuzziness involves the language "deliver his people." How much does this limit miracles to certain places in space and time? We expect miracles when God delivers his people. The central acts of deliverance are at the Exodus, the conquest under Joshua, the restoration from Babylon, and the two comings of Christ. Miracles cluster around all of these events except the restoration from Babylon. Can we say, then, that miracles are limited to these climactic acts? If we wish to use a narrow definition of miracle, they may be thus limited. But there is also a continuing process of deliverance through the power of the Holy Spirit in our age. The application of redemption already accomplished in the life of Christ is taking place.

Similarly, we expect miracles when God attests his word. The central acts of attestation accompany the giving of his word in connection with the central acts of redemption. Miracles attest prophets and apostles such as Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Peter, and Paul. In a secondary sense, however, all of history confirms and testifies that God is God and that God is true. Hence, in a subordinate way, there is continuing attestation to God's word.

What have I done here? The expressions "extraordinary," "deliver his people," and "attest his word" all represent restrictions on the definition and make it more precise. Each expression describes special properties (including relational properties) that characterize certain events and not others. While each expression narrows the overall meaning of "miracle," each of them still has some remaining vagueness or fuzziness to its boundary. Each can be made a perspective on the whole of history. Hence we can use the definition as a perspective and view every event of history as a miracle in an extended sense.


Someone may object that one of the other definitions is more precise than the one just presented. We must observe, however, that any of the other definitions may be used in an imprecise way. Any may be used to separate out roughly some group of events. My own suggested definition does so, provided that we do not narrowly define the key expressions "extraordinary," "visible," "deliver his people," and "attest his word."

But suppose we are after more than a rough separation. Suppose we want a line precise enough to be used in some rigorous theological reasoning that will show quite irresistibly that miracles do not occur today (or that they do). In that case, we have to look further at the meanings of the terms in the definitions that are put forward for our use.

First, consider the "laws of nature." Is "nature" what happens by itself? But nothing is independent of the Lord. Nothing is autonomous. God makes grass grow for the cattle (Ps. 104:14). There is also a problem with "law." Is a law merely a statistical average or the latest pronouncement by scientists? There is indeed some value of speaking of natural law. A miracle, as extraordinary, presupposes the concept of the ordinary. It presupposes that there are regularities. In a world of total chance or total irregularity, one could see no pattern, and one could say nothing. There are regularities. If we wish, we can label them "laws of nature." But are such regularities ironclad, as the word "law" tends to suggest?

Hence there are at least two main liabilities to the phrase "natural law." It may suggest that there are no exceptions to the regularities that scientists observe. And it suggests that law has an independence from God. From such a view one might conclude that God must "break through" an already existing law-out-there in order to act in the world. By contrast, the Bible pictures God as speaking. "He sends his word and melts them [snow and ice]; he stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow" (Ps. 147:18). His law is his word. The law is not something sitting in the world over against God, which God must break through.

The Bible shows us a personalistic world, not impersonal law. What we call scientific law is a approximate human description of just how faithfully and consistently God acts in ruling the world by speaking. There is no mathematical, physical, or theoretical "cosmic machinery" behind what we see and know, holding everything in place. Rather, God rules, and rules consistently.

A miracle, then, is not a violation of a "law of nature," and not even something along side laws of nature, but is the operation of the only law that there is--the word of God. What God says is the law (see Ps. 33:6).


What about defining a miracle as an "immediate" act of God? Right away, the symphonic approach asks what we mean by "immediate." Does it mean that, in a miracle, God uses no means? In what respect does something else have to be involved in order to be considered a means? How do we classify "means"? In fact, in an ordinary sense, God frequently does use means in bringing about events that are ordinarily classified as miraculous. In the Exodus, Moses himself is a fairly constant means. In the crossing of the Red Sea, an east wind is involved (Exod. 14:21).

Moreover, how can we as human beings tell what is and is not immediate? The idea is quite unclear when we try to apply it. It presupposes a sharp line concerning what is and is not a cause, which is difficult if not impossible to draw. Ps. 104:14 suggests that the growing of grass is an immediate act of God. All acts of God are in a sense immediate, because, as the Lord, God is present in each event. The existence of means does not undermine his presence.

One suspects that "immediate" is, in practice, an ambiguous or unclear term. An unclear term can be surreptitiously used with different specific meanings at crucial points in an argument. For instance, "miracle" can at one point be used as a technical term distinguishing miracles of apostolic times from "extraordinary providences" of our time. By definition, "miracle" connotes an act associated with an apostle or a prophet as the agent of special revelation. "Miracles," accordingly, have now ceased. But at a later point this conclusion may be taken to mean that certain types of events (e.g., healing of broken bones, resurrection from the dead) are or are not to be expected to occur now. The drawing of such a line comes from an illicit, concealed shift of meaning. The possibility of shifting between two senses of a word easily leads to fallacious argument, as Richard Robinson shows. 8


What can we learn from the arguments that are using these different meanings of "miracle"? In general terms, we can learn to beware of easy assumptions about terminology. As a rule, we ought to suspect any assumption to the effect that a particular expression draws a sharp line, with no fuzzy boundaries. In this particular case, we may also learn something about the focus of the Bible's concern. The desire in the arguments for the "cessation of miracles" is partly to protect the uniqueness of God's acts in the history of redemption. The Bible itself does recognize such a uniqueness. But the uniqueness in miracles recorded in the Bible is not primarily in their bare metaphysical character as, say, violation of natural law. They are acts of salvation or judgment. They anticipate the consummation.

If miracles are concerned with salvation and judgment, then the resurrection of Christ is the central miracle. It can serve as a perspective to understand all other miracles. Christ's resurrection, as a once-for-all event, is the foundation for his present life at God's right hand. As the living Christ, he now gives spiritual life to us. Old Testament miracles, in one way or another, prefigured the resurrection of Christ and its consequences. The miracles accompanying the Second Coming are also founded on Christ's resurrection. In the resurrection Christ received a body of glory. His own body is the paradigm for our glorification and the glorification of the universe (Phil. 3:20-21). It is thus the foundation for the miracles that are to occur at the second coming of Christ.

In general, the miraculous events in the Bible have a unique role in the way in which they are related to the central act of Christ's resurrection. We do not need to have that unique role repeated now, and we do not expect that it will be.

On the other hand, the emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ's resurrection does not imply that there are no surprising works of God now. In fact, the opposite is true. Christ's resurrection is the foundation for God's work with us now. Christ's resurrection power is now at work for us (Eph. 1:19) and in us (Eph. 3:20). It is on that basis that God may do surprising things now.

Let us look at some other values in arguments given for the cessation of miracles. What good things are theologians trying to protect when they argue that miracles have ceased? Even if we find that their terms are problematic, they probably have some reason for wanting to establish their conclusion. In this case, we may suspect right away that we have a situation with family resemblances. Various events that might be called miracles have resemblances of various kinds among themselves. They also have some dissimilarities. The theologians arguing for the cessation of miracles may have some bad methods, but they have probably also noticed some dissimilarities between apostolic times and now. They choose to emphasize those dissimilarities. What good reasons do they have?

First, the canon of the Bible is now complete, or closed. These theologians do not want to say that miracles could occur today of such a kind that they would attest new additions to the canon of the Bible.

Second, we are not to dote on the spectacular or to lust after it. Luke 16:31 points out that a spectacular event is not what unrepentant people need. In John 6:26, Jesus calls on people to go beyond excitement about an external spectacle. According to 1 Corinthians 13, an overvaluing of the spectacular was a sign of immaturity.

Third, miracles once had the unique function of conveying special revelation. Modern events do not. For example, Jesus healed Simon's mother-in-law of a high fever. That act was a vehicle for special revelation about the nature of his messianic mission. God still heals people of high fevers now. But healings now are not recorded as part of the Bible, nor do they establish the significance of Jesus' messianic mission at the foundation of a new epoch of redemption.

Note that the difference is not in the difficulty of healing now. According to naive thinking, healing a high fever is relatively easy, and raising the dead is hard. But inherent difficulty has nothing to do with whether either of these events plays a unique role in Jesus' life. It is not possible to draw a line between so-called difficult events such as resurrections and floating ax heads and less difficult events such as healing high fevers, such that one is a "miracle," no longer possible, and the other is an "extraordinary providence," still possible. The difference is not in the violation of natural law but in a different function.

In the light of this point, we might frame an alternative definition: miracle is an extraordinary visible act of God conveying special revelation. This formulation builds the idea of special function ("conveying special revelation") into the definition. By this definition, miracles have ceased (because special revelation is complete). But because this statement is a narrow definition, it still allows that all sorts of extraordinary acts of God might take place in our day. (They just wouldn't be called miracles.) And we would still have to remember about present-day general revelation. All providential acts of God, whether ordinary or extraordinary in our eyes, confirm more or less strikingly the faithfulness of our God and his word.

This definition has the advantage of enabling us to pay attention to the unique attestational function of great acts of God's power in the Bible. But it has the disadvantage of being liable to confusion. Anyone who does not keep firmly in mind the special technical sense of the word "miracle" will think that we are denying the occurrence of extraordinary providences now. For the sake of clear communication, therefore, I think that it is better to leave the word "miracle" alone and let it function as simply an ordinary, vague word in the English language. If we think that we need a technical term to distinguish biblical miracles and to discuss their unique functions, let us simply call them "biblical miracles."

What kind of extraordinary events can God bring to pass in our time? We need not be dogmatic about what ways God chooses to act. The important points can be protected without a needless dogmatism not based on the Bible. We are not supposed to lust for the extraordinary--but neither must we deny it.


  1. I owe a good many ideas of this chapter to John Frame.
  2. Hume, Of Miracles (reprint, LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1985), 30.
  3. Hodge, Systematic Theology 1:618.
  4. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 176.
  5. From an oral lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary.
  6. G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 233-237.
  7. See, for example, Richard Robinson, Definition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 149-92.
  8. Ibid., 59-92.
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