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Miracles (Theology of)


In theological usage, a miracle is an extraordinary event, perceptible to the senses, produced by God in a religious context as a sign of the supernatural.

"Extraordinary." In interpreting the words "an extraordinary event produced by God in a religious context," one must understand that extraordinary means beyond the powers of corporeal nature, or at least extremely unlikely from the standpoint of those powers alone. There have been, however, differences of opinion among Catholic theologians in this regard.

Strict View. Many theologians, following St. Thomas Aquinas, have maintained that a miracle in the proper sense is beyond the power of all creatures, even incorporeal creatures, something of which only God could be principal cause, though a creature might serve as instrumental cause (see instrumental causality). This view has been increasingly abandoned on the ground that very few, if any, of the events regarded by Scripture and by

the Church as miracles are demonstrably above all created power. The proponents of the Thomistic view themselves have usually had recourse to the notion of "relative" miracles to include those not fitting their strict definition.

Intermediate View. A more common view is that adopted by Pope Benedict XIV in his classical treatise De servorum Dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione, according to which a miracle need be only above the powers of corporeal creatures. In this view a miracle could be effected by a created spirit as a principal cause; it would be "produced by God" in the sense that the spirit acted as God's agent, i.e., at God's command or at least with God's formal approval.

Wide View. In recent years some authors have argued that a miracle need not even be strictly beyond the powers of corporeal nature, provided it be a truly prodigious event, one at least highly unlikely ever to result from natural forces alone. Such an event, according to these authors, qualifies as a miracle when, occurring in a religious context, it is recognizably intended by God as a super-natural sign. Some authors who hold this view suggest that a miracle need not even de facto be caused by immediate supernatural intervention but might be produced by God in the merely mediate sense that it results from an extraordinary combination of natural factors providentially arranged by God, even in the very remote past.

"Sign of the Supernatural." Miracles occurring in connection with a claim of supernatural revelation serve as a divine signature to the truth of that claim. But miracles function as signs also in other ways. They not only confirm supernaturally revealed truths but represent those truths. Thus the resurrection of christ is not only a guarantee of His teaching but a symbol of His redemptive victory over the spiritual death of sin and an exemplar of the resurrection promised to the faithful. Miracles are also in themselves direct manifestations of one or more divine attributes; e.g., a miraculous cure bespeaks God's compassion. And miracles may testify to the sanctity of a man, as do the miracles accepted as evidence in processes of beatification and canonization. [see canonization of saints (history and procedure).]

"Perceptible to the Senses." Although a purely internal supernatural experience can serve as a divine sign, the term miracle is normally applied only to events that are ascertainable through the external senses. But while

the term is sometimes used exclusively of physical miracles, such as miraculous cures of bodily ailments, it is also properly applied to occurrences in the intellectual or moral order, provided there is external evidence of the operation of the supernatural in the mind or will. One type of intellectual miracle is prophecy in the strict sense, the prediction of an event or series of events by a human being in a manner beyond merely human knowledge. (see prophet.) An example of a moral miracle is a sudden complete conversion such as that of the Apostle St. paul (Acts 9.130). In these instances the internal supernatural experience is deducible from its external results; it would not be considered a miracle if it had to be accepted entirely on the word of the recipient. A fortiori, supernatural events, even in the material order, knowable only by divine faith, such as transubstantiation, are not considered miracles in the proper sense, though they have been called "miracles of faith."

Official Catholic Doctrine

The teaching of the Church concerning miracles is to be found chiefly in the pronouncements of vatican council i. The Council declared: "In order that the 'service' of our faith be 'in accord with reason' [cf. Rom 12.1], God willed that to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit there be joined external proofs of His revelation, i.e., divine deeds, and principally miracles and prophecies. Since these clearly show forth God's omnipotence and infinite knowledge, they are signs of revelation that are most certain and suited to the intelligence of all men. Therefore not only Moses and the Prophets but also and preeminently Christ the Lord Himself wrought many obvious miracles and made numerous manifest prophecies"(H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer 3009). With a view to the rationalism common in the 19th century, the Council condemned as erroneous the opinion that "miracles are impossible, and therefore all accounts of them, even those contained in Sacred Scripture, are to be rejected as fables and myths" and the opinion that "miracles can never be known with certitude nor serve as valid proof of the divine origin of the Christian religion" (Enchiridion symbolorum 3034).

The Oath against Modernism prescribed by St. Pius X in 1910 was even more explicit about the enduring apologetic value of miracles, stating that they are "eminently suited to the intelligence of all men of every era, including the present" (Enchiridion symbolorum 3539).

It is to be noted that in its official teaching the Church, while by no means excluding the other purposes of miracles, emphasizes their apologetic function, their role as "proof" of revelation. Vatican Council I furthermore clearly implied that among the various forms of evidence of the reasonableness of faith miracles hold first place.


Both scientific and philosophical objections have been directed against the very possibility of miracles.

The scientific objection, common in the 19th century, was based largely on a rigid scientific determinis. Although it has been undermined by a more modern indeterministic view of nature, even a deterministic theory of science does not exclude the possibility of miracles, provided the determinism is properly qualified by the awareness that the necessity of physical law is precisely a physical or "natural" necessity, one that allows for intervention of the supernatural, not a metaphysical necessity.

Philosophical objections to miracles are raised not only by atheists, on the obvious ground that if there is no God he can work no miracles, but also by deists, mainly on the ground that miracles would be contrary to God's immutability and wisdom, as though God's supernatural intervention implied a change in His original plan regarding the nature and operation of creatures or was even needed to correct that plan. The error in this view consists in the failure to see that miracles, like other forms of supernatural intervention, do not change or destroy nature or correct some essential defect in it, but build on nature and provide it with a complementary and higher perfection. They are not the object of a new or separate divine plan, but part of God's universal plan which from eternity included both the natural and the supernatural.


The crucial question about miracles is the question of their recognizability. Can there be certitude, first, about the external event itself, as a historical fact, aside from its natural or supernatural character? Can there be certitude, second, about the miraculous character of the event?

Recognition as Historical. Since miracles are by definition events perceptible to the external senses, there is in principle no reason why they should not, from that standpoint, be as definitely ascertainable, either to eyewitnesses or to others on the testimony of eyewitnesses, as are other external occurrences. The fact that miracles are also by definition extraordinary or prodigious events serves to strengthen their verification, since for that very reason they would attract closer attention on the part of the witnesses.

In point of fact, many miracles have presented all the necessary qualifications of historically attested events, occurring in the presence of numerous reliable witnesses, even adversely disposed witnesses, and under suitable conditions, in broad daylight, near at hand, etc. And while clinical evidence is unnecessary for this purpose, there is such evidence in favor of some miracles, for example, some of the cures of lourdes.

An argument advanced by David Hume against the historical verifiability of miracles is superficial but still widely repeated. Hume's argument in essence is that on behalf of any miracle there is for most men only moral certitude, certitude based on the testimony of human witnesses, whereas against the miracle there is physical certitude, the certitude of the laws of nature, and physical certitude outweighs moral. The fallacy in Hume's argument is the assumption that physical laws are opposed to miracles. Physical laws are conditional, not absolute. They state what happens under natural conditions but do not exclude the possibility of supernatural exceptions. The physical certitude, accordingly, is in favor of the general law, not against the exception, and is therefore in no way opposed to the moral certitude which is precisely in favor of the exception.

Recognition as Miraculous. The criteria to be applied in the recognition of miracles as miraculous vary with one's definition and understanding of miracle as explained above.

According to the Wide View. If one adopts the broad view that a miracle need not be strictly beyond the powers of corporeal nature but only extremely unlikely from the standpoint of those powers alone, the recognition of miracles becomes relatively simple. In this view the main emphasis with regard to the recognition of miracles is to be placed on the religious context. Not any religious context whatsoever is sufficient. The context must be such that one can reasonably conclude that God in His providence would not cause or allow the extraordinary event in question unless He did intend it to be taken as a sign from Him. There would be such a context, for instance, if a religious teacher claimed repeatedly that his doctrine was a new and directly authorized divine revelation, particularly if the teacher appealed to some forthcoming extraordinary event as miraculous confirmation of his claim. Just as an event clearly beyond natural power occurring in such circumstances would reasonably be interpreted as a sign of divine approval, on much the same grounds even an event not distinctly beyond the power of nature but highly unlikely on a natural basis would be rightly interpreted as a divine sign.

This theory of the recognition of miracles depends heavily on God's providence. [see providence of god (theology of).] Its force will vary with the degree of extraordinariness of the event and with the details of the religious context. But while this theory does provide a satisfactory explanation of the recognition of miracles, it is possible to present a stronger case by showing that many miracles are actually beyond the powers of corporeal nature.

According to Intermediate View. It should first be understood that there is more than one sense in which an event can be above the powers of corporeal nature. The event might be intrinsically of a kind that could never happen naturally with any corporeal subject; e.g., its occupying strictly the same place as another body. Or the event might be of a kind that could happen in another corporeal subject but not in the one under consideration, e.g., speech in a dog. Or it might be the kind of thing that could happen even in this subject but not under these particular circumstances or in this particular way, e.g., fluent speech in a newborn child or the instantaneous cure of an advanced organic disease. Along these lines theologians distinguish three classes of miracles: miracles with regard to substance (miracula quoad substantiam ), miracles with regard to subject (miracula quoad subjectum ), and miracles with regard to mode (miracula quoad modum ). The majority of miracles are of the third class, events that could happen naturally but not in this particular way or under these given circumstances.

The discernment of a miracle as something beyond the powers of nature involves a comparison of what happens in the miracle with what happens naturally under similar circumstances. Our knowledge of what happens naturally is based on experience, partly on our own experience but especially on the reported experience of others. Even though we do not know all that nature can do, we have a reasonably certain knowledge, based often on thousands or even millions of cases, of at least the general limits of the results produced by nature in a particular set of circumstances (e.g., in the case of a man of a certain age with a particular disease). In the extraordinary event considered a miracle we see that, although there are present at least approximately the same natural causes and conditions as in similar but admittedly natural cases, a distinctly different result occurs. We conclude that there must be some cause present other than the natural ones.

The disproportion between the natural effect and the miraculous effect may appear in various ways. The difference may be in quantity, or in quality, or in both. One particular difference, seen in many miracles, is in the time required. The miracle often takes place instantaneously, or at least in a much shorter time than is required to produce a similar result naturally.

There are, furthermore, in most miracles, positive indications that the principal force responsible for the extraordinary event is a force operating intelligently and freely and, therefore, not a merely natural force. (It is understood that the intelligence and freedom are not those of a human being. An extraordinary event would not be seriously considered as a miracle if there were good reason to suspect that the phenomenon might be within the power of a mere man to produce at will by an understanding and control of the forces of nature.)

Some of the indications of the action of an intelligent and free agent in a miracle may be mentioned. (1) The timing. If, for example, Christ's walking on the water were due merely to an unknown natural force, why should this force take effect just at those times that Christ chose to walk on the water? (2) The purposeful concurrence of several or even many factors. For example, in a miraculous cure there may be distinguished such separate steps as the provision of a certain amount of matter to replace lost tissue, the provision more specifically of the exact elements needed, the organization of that matter into the kinds of tissue needed (skin, muscle, nerves, etc.), the elimination of infectious matter, and so on. In some miracles, two or more completely distinct ailments have been cured simultaneously. (3) The multiplicity and variety of miracles in the life of Christ. If these were all due to merely natural forces, how explain the occurrence of so many and such different extraordinary events in the life of one man? Either these things happened because Christ knew how to use those forces at will, or they happened without such understanding on His part. The latter hypothesis would require an incredible series of coincidences. The former hypothesis would require at least supernatural knowledge in Christ. Such knowledge would constitute an intellectual miracle that could itself be taken as confirmation of Christ's claims.

Even if such considerations do not of themselves afford absolute certitude, they provide genuine moral certitude of the physically transcendent character of many miracles.

There is admittedly much that is still unknown about nature, but it is not necessary to know all that nature can do in order to recognize a particular effect as something that nature cannot do; it is not necessary to know the absolutely maximum weight a man can lift in order to know that he cannot by his own unaided strength raise a mountain. Nor need we have a complete knowledge of the power of mind over matteras in psychosomatic illnesses and cures, hypnosis, psychokinesis, order to recognize some effects as plainly beyond that power.

While formally scientific knowledge is not necessary for the discernment of miracles, it can be of assistance, both negatively and positively. It is often erroneously asserted that the progress of science has weakened the case for miracles. Science has indeed furnished a natural explanation of certain phenomena that may have once been looked upon as supernatural in some sense, especially by primitive manthough even this is sometimes exaggerated. And science has, by an increased understanding of nature derived from research and by the development of instruments, enabled man to do remarkable things previously impossible to him. But there is a vast difference between doing such things by the aid of scientific knowledge and instruments and doing the same or similar things without such knowledge and instruments. Science has not enabled man to reproduce any of the prodigies related of Christ, especially in the way in which He did them, i.e., without scientific instruments. And even if science were to bring this about, it would still have been miraculous for Christ to do such things at a time when the necessary scientific knowledge was, humanly speaking, unavailable. The progress of science has, in fact, strengthened the case for miracles by giving man a constantly deeper and fuller understanding of the processes of nature, thereby enabling him to recognize certain phenomena even more definitely as beyond natural powers.

Some have thought that the indeterminism espoused by modern physics constitutes an obstacle to the recognition of miracles on the ground that, if nature is basically indetermined, it is impossible to know what nature can or cannot do. But a genuinely basic indeterminism in nature is, to begin with, highly questionable, not only philosophically but also scientifically. Moreover, whatever indeterminism there is in nature (prescinding from the indeterminism of human free will, which is irrelevant in this connection), the indeterminism affects directly events on the microscopic scale and not appreciably those on the macroscopic scale; and only the latter have ever been considered as miracles. Even if the kind of indeterminism envisioned by modern physics were on a rare occasion to produce a striking effect on the macroscopic scale, it could never account qualitatively for such miracles as a resurrection or the sudden, complete cure of an advanced organic disease, in view of the nature of such miracles and considering, moreover, the positive signs of the operation in miracles in general of an intelligent and free agent, as previously explained.

If most miracles, even though recognizably beyond the powers of corporeal nature, are seldom discernibly beyond the powers of created spirits, how can it be known that they do actually come from God, at least through a spirit acting in God's name, rather than from an evil spirit acting for its own purpose?

A sufficient criterion is provided by the moral circumstancese.g., the dignity or incongruity of the event itself, the character and conduct of the human "miracleworker," and, most important, the good or evil effects of the event. Though there can be exceptions to the principle, morally good circumstances point to a divine origin, evil circumstances to a diabolic origin. The principle operates mainly in a negative way: God would not allow an evil spirit to produce a supernatural manifestation in connection with a false claim of revelation unless there were present one or more serious moral defects that would furnish a sufficient indication of the source of the phenomenon.

Recognition by Unaided Reason. Although a few theologians have held the contrary, the recognition of miracles does not strictly require the assistance of an internal divine grace. Nor is an authoritative judgment by the Church always necessary. There are indeed cases in which the nature of the miracle or the evidence for it are such that a prudent certitude would hardly be possible without an ecclesiastical decision. But Christian apologists have always maintained that some miracles, especially the major miracles of Christ, can be known with certitude independently of the divine teaching authority of the Church (magisterium).

In his encyclical Humani generis Pius XII spoke of "the many wonderful external signs God has given, which are sufficient to prove with certitude by the natural light of reason alone the divine origin of the Christian religion" (Enchiridion symbolorum 3876).

Miracles outside the Catholic Church

It is sometimes argued that miracles have been claimed by most religions and that, accordingly, they cannot serve as evidence in favor of a particular religion or church.

The appeal to miracles as confirmation of the truth of Christian revelation and of the Catholic religion does not exclude the possibility of miracles outside the Catholic Church and outside Christianity. God could work miracles in connection with another church or another religion for any number of reasons, e.g., to witness to the divine presence in a particular event, to confirm the truth of a particular doctrine, or to strengthen faith of individuals. On the other hand, Catholics logically hold that since the Church if of divine origin, God would not work a miracle under such circumstances that it could reasonably be interpreted as divine confirmation of another religion as a whole or of a doctrine contrary to the teachings of Christ and his Church. A comprehensive survey and evaluation of the best known claims of miracles outside the Catholic Church may be found in L. H. Monden, Le Miracle, signe de salut (Bruges 1960).

See Also: apologetics; revelation, theology of; miracles (in the bible).

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae la, 105.68, 110.4; C. gent. 3.101103; De pot. 6.110. benedict xiv, De servorum Dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione bk. 4, pt. 1, ch. 17. j. h. newman, Two Essays on Miracles (1897). j. de tonquÉdec, Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, ed. a. d'alÈs, 4 v. (Paris 191122) 3:517578; Eng. Miracles, tr. f. m. oppenheim (West Baden Springs, Indiana 1955), with extensive bibliography mainly of works in English. j. b. metz, Sacramental Mundi 4: 4346. j. a. hardon, "The Concept of Miracle from St. Augustine to Modern Apologetics," Theological Studies 15 (1954) 229257. f. taymans, "Le Miracle, signe du surnaturel," Nouvelle revue théologique 77 (1955) 225245, condensed in Theology Digest 5 (1957) 1823. "Reflexions sur le miracle," Lumière et vie 33 (July 1957) 289376. É. dhanis, "Quest-ce quun miracle?" Gregorianum 40 (1959) 201241. j. c. carter, "The Recognition of Miracles," Theological Studies 20 (1959) 175197. k. mcnamara, "The Nature and Recognition of Miracles," The Irish Theological Quarterly 27 (1960) 294322. r. w. gleason, "Miracles and Contemporary Theology," The Encounter with God, ed. j. e. o'neill (New York 1962) 132. r. a. h. larmer, Water Into Wine? An Investigation of the Concept of Miracle (Toronto 1987).

[t. g. pater/eds.]

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