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Advanced Level Family and Religious Studies: Miracles and the New Testament

17 Apr 2019 at 15:37hrs | Views
The word "miracle," is derived from the Latin word miraculum, which is so translated in the New Testament of the Authorized Version from two Greek words. On twenty-two occasions the word semeion is translated "miracle." This designation is employed to show that the supernatural event was a sign of divine authority. On various occasions the word dunamis is translated "miracle" and the emphasis is here on the inherent ability of the agent. Frequently, supernatural events are also described as "wonders" through the use of the Greek words teras and thauma.

Buswell's (1962:176) definition of a Biblical miracle is concise but comprehensive:

A miracle is
a)    an extraordinary event, inexplicable in terms of ordinary natural forces,

b)    an event which causes the observers to postulate a super-human personal cause, and

c)    an event which constitutes evidence (a "sign") of implications much wider than the event itself.

The Gospel of John, the miracles are the "signs" (that Jesus is acting as God, or for and in God's place. After Jesus heals the cripple at Bethesda, he replies to his critics saying, "My Father is working still and l am working" (John 5:17). John wants his readers to understand that it was God in Jesus who performed the healing. The miracles are signs that Jesus is the all-powerful King.

The context for Jesus' miracles is one in which "faith" is demonstrated by the petitioner. At its most basic level, faith is exemplified a confidence that Jesus has the ability to heal and cast out demons. James Dunn (1975:74) at a higher level, it involves trust in God's power and "an openness and receptivity to the power of God to perform a mighty work. This feature distinguishes Jesus' religious miracles from the activities of contemporary magicians, in which faith is not a required element. It is this emphasis on winning people to faith that truly sets Jesus' miracles apart from Jewish and Hellenistic parallels. According to some scholars, Jesus' healing ability was dependent upon the recipient's faith. James Dunn (1975:74-75) writes, "Faith in the recipient as it were completed the circuit so that the power could flow." He goes on to say that Jesus' power was "not something he could use or display at will, nor did he want to."

"Your faith has saved you" (Mark 5:34; 10:52; Matt 9:22, 29; Luke 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42). For Matthew in particular, miracles are never used to bring unbelievers to faith, and in most Synoptic accounts faith was clearly the preparation for a miracle. As Matthew records Jesus telling the two blind men, "According to your faith be it done to you" (Matt 9:29). In light of this a clear understanding of conceptualizing Jesus' miracles is divorced from faith.

Apart from the single story in Mark 6, there is no clear evidence that Jesus' healing powers were in any way limited by others' faith. As Anton Fridrichsen (1972:79-80) asserts, "It would be an error to believe we could find in a single passage the idea that in the exercise of his supernatural power Jesus was bound to the faith of men." Fridrichsen and other scholars suggests that the lack of healing in Mark 6:5, (Matt 13:58) was due to the people's reticence to come to Jesus for healing, not any diminution of Jesus' powers. Jesus could not do many miracles because only a few solicited his help. While the interpretation of this passage is hotly debated, there is scriptural evidence that an initial faith on the part of the recipient is not a prerequisite for healing.

Particularly in the Gospel of John, faith is portrayed not so much as a prerequisite for miracles, but as a result of them (John 2:23; 4:39, 53; 10:42; 20:8, 29). By way of example, in the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda (5:2-15), there is no mention of the healed man's faith either before or after the event. As the author of John has Jesus saying, "The Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it" (5:21), regardless of any initial condition of faith. For John, a person without initial faith is still able to receive or experience a miracle.

In his miracle-working ability, the gospel authors and the witnesses to his miracles saw Jesus as the plenipotentiary of God. Jesus had the full power and authority of God to heal the sick, cast out demons, and even to make the wind and waves obey him. In the gospel accounts, dunamis and "authority" are often spoken of as interrelated concepts connected to miracles (especially exorcism), and there is a certain overlap in their definitions. Dunamis refers to "potential for functioning in some way, power, might, strength, force, capability." It can also refer specifically to power that works wonders, which is the usage we will be most concerned with. Evxousi, refers to a "state of control over something, freedom of choice, right," or also takes on the meaning of power: "potential or resource to command, control, or govern, capability, might, power."

Miracles have also been attached to Jesus as well as others that were committed by other disciples/apostles in the New Testament. It is vital when one interprets miracle to consider that it has to be exceptional, beyond the natural thereby bringing in the issue of deviating from the natural laws of nature.

Be that as it may, controversy over the conception of a miracle is primarily noted on whether a miracle must be in some sense, contrary to natural law. Must it, in particular, be violation of a natural law? Scepticism about miracles grew up during the enlightenment, when it became a fixed belief that there were laws of nature based on normal and experimentally repeatable patterns of cause and effect that could not be broken. Since miracles are in effect suspensions of these laws, they were "impossible". David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, was one of the first to put forward this view. There is a philosophical as well as a scientific problem here, not just whether miracles happen but whether a miracle can be logically defined. It is clearly important to acknowledge this view, which still pervades much of our thinking. Many would rather claim their senses have failed than admit a miracle.

William Lane Craig (2008:250) asserts that Hume essentially "presents a two-pronged assault against miracles." He first argues that "a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature." But since "a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle," he says, "is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined", Charles W. Hendel (1955:122). In other words, given the regularity of the laws of nature, Hume contends that miracles are exceedingly improbable events. But this is not all. He also argues that since miracle reports typically occur among uneducated, barbarous peoples, they are inherently untrustworthy and, hence, unworthy of our belief.

Now clearly, if Hume is correct, then this presents a real problem for Christianity. For Christianity is full of miracles. According to the New Testament, Jesus walked on water, calmed raging storms, healed diseases, exorcised demons, and brought the dead back to life! But if miracles are really as utterly improbable as Hume maintains, and if reports of miracles are completely lacking in credibility, then it would seem that the New Testament's accounts of miracles are probably unreliable and that Christianity itself is almost certainly false.

So how compelling are Hume's arguments? Should believers be quaking in their boots, fearful that their most cherished beliefs are a lie? Not at all! As philosopher of science John Earman (2000:3) observed in a scholarly critique of Hume's arguments, Hume's essay is not merely a failure; it is "an abject failure." He continues, "Most of Hume's considerations are unoriginal, warmed over versions of arguments that are found in the writings of predecessors and contemporaries. And the parts of ‘Of Miracles' that set Hume apart do not stand up to scrutiny. Worse still, the essay reveals the weakness and the poverty of Hume's own account of probabilistic reasoning. And to cap it all off, the essay represents the kind of overreaching that gives philosophy a bad name." Now admittedly, these are strong words. But Earman argues his case quite forcefully and persuasively.

Hume's Argument from the Laws of Nature

What are we to say to Hume's argument that "a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature" and that "the proof against a miracle…is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined"?

First, we might question whether miracles should be defined as violations of the laws of nature. According to Christian philosopher Bill Craig, "An examination of the chief competing schools of thought concerning the notion of a natural law…reveals that on each theory the concept of a violation of a natural law is incoherent and that miracles need not be so defined." Thus, we might object that Hume's definition of a miracle is simply incoherent. But this is a debated point, so let's instead turn our attention to a more pressing matter. When Hume says that the laws of nature are established upon "a firm and unalterable experience," is he claiming that the laws of nature are never violated? If so, then his argument begs the question, assuming the very thing that needs to be proved. It would be as if he argued this way:

• A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.

• Experience teaches us that the laws of nature are never violated (i.e. that miracles never occur).

• Therefore, experience teaches us that miracles never occur.

Such an argument is clearly fallacious. Hume would be assuming "as a premise for his argument the very conclusion he intends to prove." But this is probably not what Hume intended.

As Earman observes, Hume's view rather seems to go something like this: "When uniform experience supports" some law like regularity "that is contradicted by testimony," then one must set "proof against proof," and judge which of the two is more likely. The result of this new formulation, however, is that "uniform experience does not furnish a proof against a miracle in the sense of making the . . . probability of its occurrence flatly zero." {8} This is an important point. After all, there is a great deal of human testimony that solemnly affirms the occurrence of miracles. Thus, the only way that Hume can maintain that the uniform experience of mankind is against the occurrence of miracles is by assuming that all miracle reports are false. But this assumption, as we'll see, is completely untenable when miraculous events are attested by numerous, independent witnesses.

 Another ground for scepticism about miracles may be doubt about the integrity of the authors of the Bible and the texts that have come down to us. I would note that the Bible texts have come under intense scrutiny from which they have emerged very well, as for example being written close to the event and hence unlikely to have myths about miracles appended. The events of Jesus' life are related in a "matter of fact" and "fitting" way. I would also reply here that the greatest miracle – the resurrection – is the one that is most strongly attested to, with the reference in 1 Corinthians 15:6 for example "After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep." The resurrection was also reported by non-Christians such as Josephus and attested to by the willingness of the Apostles to die for Jesus' sake. Acceptance of the resurrection – the cornerstone of the Christian faith, lends powerful support to the other miracles.

In addition to the evidence that the power Jesus exercised originated from God, there is also evidence that this power belonged to Jesus in a sense. To use the more technical language of Werner Kahl, Jesus was not merely a mediator of numinous power (MNP), he was a bearer of numinous power (BNP).251 According to this view, it was not merely that Jesus was a transmitter of God's power, like an electrical conduit, but was a  source of power (like a reservoir or battery). As Loos describes it, Jesus "has received this power from the Father and may use it as He wishes."

Brian Maregedze is an author, Zimbabwean historian and columnist. M. A in African History, B.A Special Honours in History, B.A.A Major in Religious Studies and History- all from the University of Zimbabwe. Some of his authored and co-authored works include; A Guide to Sources of African History: For Advanced Level Examination Candidates (2018); Advanced Level Family and Religious Studies, focus on Christianity and Islam (2018), New Trends in Family and Religious Studies, (Zimbabwean Indigenous Religions and Judaism) Advanced Level, 2018 among other publications. Further reading material;, Call/app +263779210440 or Email He can visited at Valley Crest Academy, located 34/35 Masotsha Ndlovu Way, Parktown, Waterfalls in Harare.

Anton F, The Problem of Miracle in Primitive Christianity, trans. Roy A. Harrisville and John S. Hanson (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg) 1972.
Dodd E.R. Pagan and Christianity in an of Anxiety, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1965
Gundani, P., ‘Church, Media, and Healing: A Case Study from Zimbabwe,' in Word & World Vol. XXI, Number 2, 2001.
Hendrickx Hermann, The Miracle Stories, San Francisco: Harper, 1987.
Langa Vincent, ‘Bigwigs plunder national resources', Newsday, 13 December, 2012.
Machingura Francis, Feeding of the Masses: An Analysis of John 6 in the Context of Messianic Leadership in Post-Colonial Zimbabwe, Bamberg: University of Bamberg Press, 2012
Marshall I.H. (et. al) editors, New Bible Dictionary: third edition; Inter-varsity Press, England, 1996

Source - Brian Maregedze
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