The faith of miracles (Hebrews 11)

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“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched round them for seven days.” (Hebrews 11: 29-30) 

Two bald statements that would seem to flatly declare that God intervenes in acts of power to help his people and crush their enemies.

These statements cannot be read in isolation from their context, however. In a sermon entitled “Faith to Be Strong and Faith to Be Weak,” John Piper compares and contrasts our two verses with what follows. The point of 11:29-30, he says, is that “Through our faith God can and does work miracles and acts of providence to bring practical earthly help and deliverance to his people.” But the point of what follows in 11:31-35 is that “God does not always work miracles and acts of providence for our deliverance from suffering; sometimes by faith God sustains his people through sufferings.”

The key phrase, of course, is “By faith.” It’s how the writer to the Hebrews describes our involvement in what God is doing on our behalf.

But what is a “miracle”? David Hume’s familiar definition, that a miracle was “a violation of the laws of nature,” raised the tricky question of what it would mean for a “law of nature” to be violated. If those laws are just statements of natural regularities, a “violation” could be seen as a miracle—but would more reasonably be taken as an indication that what had hitherto been assumed to be a “law of nature” was actually nothing of the sort. No law of nature was violated, because it wasn’t a “law” in the first place.

In his little book on Miracles, CS Lewis explores the regularity of the natural order and the capacity of the natural sciences to represent this. This serves as the foundation of a discussion about whether science limits or determines what actually happens in our world.

For Lewis, the word “miracle” doesn’t refer to an observation, but to an interpretation of an observation. And that interpretation is itself determined by the observer’s mind-set or outlook. “What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.” The interpetation of historical events made by the writer to the Hebrews is clear enough: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea …By faith the walls of Jericho fell…”

But if we are locked into a mind-set that excludes the miraculous as a matter of principle, then miracles can’t occur. End of discussion. “If Naturalism is true, then we do know in advance that miracles are impossible: nothing can come into Nature from the outside because there is nothing outside to come in, Nature being everything.” For Lewis, the question whether miracles occur “can never be answered simply by experience.”

A deeper criterion of the category of the miraculous is needed.

So Lewis critiques the concept of the “laws of nature.” “Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known.” Lewis defines miracles in theological, not observational terms. Whether they are ordinary or extraordinary, the fundamental characteristic of a “miracle” is that it is “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.”

So is Hume right, after all? No, says Lewis: “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature,” but are to be seen within a deeper informing context. If God made the universe in the first place, why should it not have an inbuilt capacity for the miraculous? Having offered a theological definition of a miracle, Lewis lays a theological foundation for the integration of the miraculous within the natural order, grounded in the idea that both share a “common Creator.”

Developing Aquinas’s idea of miracles as events that transcend the productive power of nature, Lewis emphasises the fundamental continuity of divine action in creating and inhabiting the world. Miracles are not about an external God pulling strings within a world that has no connection or relation to him. Rather, God is a “Power which is not alien,” who works at a deeper level within the world to achieve its ultimate aims and goals.

The Christian way of looking at things, Lewis suggests, leads us to believe in the “total harmony of all that exists.” Everything that happens within nature—including miracles, if they do indeed occur—must reflect and disclose that harmony. While miracles must, by definition, interrupt the “usual course of Nature,” they nevertheless reflect the “unity and self-consistency of total reality at some deeper level.” There is indeed a “total harmony” within the universe, which is only partially accessible to science. “In Science we have been reading only the notes to a poem; in Christianity we find the poem itself.”

 

Lewis leaves us with a thought that won’t go away and is philosophically productive. The laws of nature themselves came into being with the Big Bang. So if the origin of the universe was not a miracle, then what was it?

And this is where the two sides of John Piper’s sermon come together. It is not that God sometimes does miracles of deliverance and sometimes does not, to encourage our endurance in times of trial, but that these two opposite perspectives are bound together by our faith-vision of what God is doing in God’s world.

God is at work in us, through us and for us. “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command.” And by faith, we recognise that he sustains and completes. All will be well.

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