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The term "miracle," like the word nice, is often used to refer primarily to the responses of the user. In this usage, a miracle is merely some event that astounds the speaker, with perhaps some presumption that others will or should react to it in the same way; just as in the parallel case nice means simply "agreeable to me," with perhaps again some suggestion that all right-minded people will feel the same. But the senses of "miracle" that are of philosophical and methodological interest are stronger and less subjectively oriented. Although they include the idea that wonder is called for as at least part of the appropriate response, the crux as well as the ground for the wonder is that a miracle should consist in an overriding of the order of nature. A miracle is something that would never have happened had nature, as it were, been left to its own devices.

This idea of overriding is essential; however, it is certainly subject to various variations and additions. Some writers, for instance, insist that the word miracle should be used in such a way that it becomes necessarily true that a miracle can be worked only by God or by his specially deputed agents. Others even build into their very definition of miracle some reference to the purposes for which Authority is supposed to be prepared to consider making such an exception. Certainly, most theist theologians are also at great pains to maintain that a miraculous event could not properly be considered a violation, since it would not really represent any infringement, of the fundamental hierarchical order. "It is not against the principle of craftsmanship (contra rationem artificii ) if a craftsman effects a change in his product, even after he has given it its first form" (Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, III, 100). But these very labors to show that and how such "violations" need involve no ultimate irregularity still admit and presuppose the essentially overriding character of the miraculous. There would be no point in trying to show in this way that a miracle must ultimately be no violation of regularity unless it were taken for granted that it apparently is such a violation.

This point is fundamental, and it needs to be stressed more heavily today than in the past. For in addition to the traditional theist reluctance to ascribe to the Deity anything savoring of unseemly irregularity, it is nowadays usual to encounter a certain shyness about any apparent repudiation of scientifically accepted modes of explanation. Thomas Aquinas, earlier in the chapter referred to above, gave a perfectly clear and unequivocal definition of miracle that makes no bones at all about the crux of the matter, namely, that "those things are properly called miracles which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature (praeter ordinem communiter observatum in rebus )." Again, in the twentieth century, Dr. Eric Mascall, remaining in the same forthright tradition, insisted in his article in Chambers' Encyclopaedia that the word miracle "signifies in Christian theology a striking interposition of divine power by which the operations of the ordinary course of nature are overruled, suspended, or modified."

Miracles and Natural Order

To seize the fundamental point that a miracle is an event that violates the "ordinary course of nature" is to appreciate that the notion of a miracle is logically parasitical on the idea of an order to which such an event must constitute some sort of exception. This being so, a strong notion of the truly miraculousa notion involving something more than the notions of the merely marvelous, the significant, or the surprisingcan only be generated if there is first an equally strong conception of a natural order. The inevitable tension between the ideas of rule and of exception thus gives concepts of the miraculous an inherent instability. It is perhaps relevant to notice how this tension has been felt in the history of ideas. Where there is as yet no strong conception of a natural order, there is little room for the idea of a genuinely miraculous event as distinct from the phenomenon of a prodigy, of a wonder, or of a divine sign. But once such a conception of a natural order has taken really firm root, there is a great reluctance to allow that miracles have in fact occurred or even to admit as legitimate a concept of the miraculous.

An interesting early case of this is provided by Benedict de Spinoza in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in which he tried to reconcile his vision of a natural order (Deus sive natura ) with an acceptance of the Bible as in some sense a privileged document. He did this partly by admitting the limitations of observatory powers of the men of biblical days, but mainly by urging that conventional interpreters of the Bible read far more miracles into it than it contains, because they constantly read poetic Hebrew idioms literally. Today, more and more theologians seem to be noticing the exact words used by the New Testament writers in describing the sorts of alleged events that, in more scientific ages, have been characterized (and perhaps dismissed) as miraculous. These words are τερατ ("wonders," or "prodigies"), δυναμει̑ς ("powers"), σημεία ("signs"); and, particularly in St. Paul, χαρισματ αμάτων ("graces of healing") and νεργήματα δυνάμεων ("effects of powers"). None of these words seems to carry any entailments about the overriding of a natural order. On the other hand, once a really strong conception of natural order has arisen, its adherents tend to dismiss out of hand all stories of putative occurrences in the belief that if they allowed that these occurrences had taken place at all, they would have to admit them to have been miraculous. One may refer here to R. M. Grant's recent Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (Amsterdam, 1952) and to William E. H. Lecky's classic study History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (London, 1890). The former summarizes its own thesis as follows: "Credulity in antiquity varied inversely with the health of science and directly with the vigor of religion" (p. 41). This, however, was later qualified by the important observation that "at least in some respects Christians were far less credulous than their contemporaries, at least in the period before Augustine" (p. 120). Lecky traced a development in which stories of the ostensibly miraculous, from being accepted as a chief guarantee of the authenticity of the Christian revelation, become instead "a scandal, a stumbling block, and a difficulty" (Vol. I, p. 143). In the nineteenth century the radical biblical critic David Strauss announced in the introduction to his Das Leben Jesu (2 vols., Tübingen, 1835; translated by Mary Ann Evans as Life of Jesus Critically Examined, London, 1848), "We may summarily reject all miracles, prophecies, narratives of angels and demons, and the like, as simply impossible and irreconcilable with the known and universal laws which govern the course of events." And in the twentieth century there was even a bishop of the Church of England capable of saying of the author of Mark, "He was credulous inasmuch as the miracles, as they are narrated, cannot, in the light of our modern knowledge of the uniformity of nature, be accepted as historical facts" (F. W. Barnes, The Rise of Christianity, London and New York, 1947, p. 108).

dilemma of holding strong rules while admitting exceptions

The spokesman for the occurrence of the miraculous faces a dilemma that arises from the very essence of the concept he espouses. It is tempting, but wrong, for the believer in the miraculous to think that he can afford to gloat over any little local difficulties and embarrassments that may from time to time beset the forward march of science. But insofar as a miracle involves an alleged overriding of a law of nature, he too is committed to showing the subsistence of a natural order. Exceptions are logically dependent upon rules. Only insofar as it can be shown that there is an order does it begin to be possible to show that the order is occasionally overridden. The difficulty (perhaps an insoluble one) is to maintain simultaneously both the strong rules and the genuine exceptions to them. The oscillations in the history of thought are to be understood by reference to this tension (amounting perhaps to a contradiction) that is inherent in the concept of the miraculous, and it is on this same tension that the various logical and methodological problems also center.

Logical and Methodological Problems

It is with logical and methodological problems that we are primarily concerned. The classical, and by far the best, approach is by way of the notorious section X, "Of Miracles," in David Hume's Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748). This and Section XI of this Enquiry, both of which were parts of a single coordinated case, constitute Hume's answer to what was, in his day, the stock program of Christian apologetic. This program had two stages: the first was an attempt to establish the existence and certain minimal characteristics of God by appealing only to natural reason and experience, the second was an attempt to supplement this rather sketchy religion of nature with a more abundant revelation. This program, in its characteristically eighteenth-century form, received its archetypal fulfillment in Archdeacon William Paley's Natural Theology (London, 1802) and also in his Evidences of Christianity (London, 1794). In the eighteenth-century form, the weight of the first part of the case was borne primarily by the Argument to Design. If from a watch we may infer a watchmaker, then the orderliness of the universe entitles us to infer, by parity of reasoning, a Maker of the universe. The second part of the case rested on the claim that there is ample historical evidence to show that the biblical miracles, including the crucial physical resurrection of Jesus bar Joseph, did in fact occur, and that this in turn proved the authenticity of the Christian revelation.

Paley's style of systematic rational apologetic has no doubt gone out of fashion, at least among Protestants. But Hume's challenges to the whole idea of a substantial natural theology and to the project of establishing the authenticity of any alleged revelation by proving that its claims have been supported by miracles are not, and are not likely to become, dead issues. For in 1870 the third session of the First Vatican Council defined as constitutive dogmas of the Roman Catholic religion both of the positions that Hume had challenged. The relevant passage of the canon dealing with the second reads, "If anyone shall say that miracles can never be known for certain, or that the divine origin of the Christian religion cannot properly be proved by them: let him be cast out" (si quis dixerit aut miracula certo cognosci numquam posse nec iis divinam religionis christianae originem rite probari: anathema sit ; H. Denzinger, ed., Enchiridion Symbolorum, 29th ed., Sec. 1813, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1953).

problem of supernatural revelation

Hume's main contention was thus, in his own words, that "a miracle can never be proved so as to be the foundation of a system of religion." For him, all other questions about the miraculous were, officially at least, merely incidental to this basic tenet. He defined a "miracle" as "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent." This definition has been attacked on various counts, but the criticism is misconceived, for two reasons. First, this was in fact the way in which the opponents whom Hume had in mind defined the term "miracle." Thus, Dr. Samuel Clarke, in his famous Boyle lectures (The Works of Samuel Clarke, Vol. II, London, 1738, p. 701), had defined "miracle" as "a work effected in a manner different from the common and regular method of providence, by the interposition either of God himself, or of some intelligent agent superior to men." Second, if, as Clarke and the orthodox tradition would have it, the occurrence of a miracle is to serve "for the proof or evidence of some particular doctrine, or in attestation of the authority of some particular person," then surely a miracle must be conceived in this way. It is only and precisely insofar as it is something really transcendentsomething, so to speak, that nature by herself could not contrivethat such an occurrence could force us to conclude that some supernatural power is being revealed.

In this context it would be worse than useless to appeal to revelation for criteria by which genuinely miraculous events may be identified, and thus distinguished from the unusual, the untoward, or the merely ordinary. For if the occurrence of a miracle is to serve as the endorsement of a revelation, then we have to find some means entirely independent of that revelation by which the endorsement itself may be recognized. Exactly the same point applies, of course, if, with what is now a rather fashionable school of apologetic, it is urged that miracles are not essentially overridings, but signs. If a sign is to signify to the unbeliever, then there must be some means independent of the doctrinal system itself by which the signs may be identified and read. As has been suggested already, there is much to be said for trying to interpret the records of τερατ and σημεία in the New Testament in terms of some notion of sign, rather than as miracle stories proper. But it is necessary to insist on two facts that seem to be often overlookednamely, that part of the price that must be paid for this method of interpretation is the sacrifice of the use of these stories as independent evidence of the genuinely revelatory character of the doctrines; and that such a sacrifice presumably entails the rejection of at least one defined dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, and hence of the truth of Roman Catholicism as a theological system.

A similar but different point applies if a relativistic definition of "miracle" is adopted, as was done, for instance, by John Locke. In his Discourse of Miracles (written 1702, published posthumously), he defined the word miracle as "a sensible operation, which, being above the comprehension of the spectator, and in his opinion contrary to the established course of nature, is taken by him to be divine." It was also done, in a slightly different way, by St. Augustine, who insisted that "nature is the will of God" (Dei voluntas rerum natura est ), and hence that "a portent is not contrary to nature, but contrary to our knowledge of nature" (Portentum ergo fit non contra naturam, sed contra quam est nota natura; De Civitate Dei, XXI, 8). To operate with a relativistic notion of this sort is necessarily to be deprived of the possibility of arguing that a miracle is a miracle regardless of whatever anyone may happen to know or to believe about it, and hence to rob the attempt to base an apologetic on the occurrence of miracles of whatever initial plausibility it might otherwise possess. For the occurrence of events that are merely inexplicable to us, and at present, provides no good ground at all for believing that doctrines associated with these occurrences embody an authentic revelation of the transcendent. There is, of course, no particular reason why Locke himself should have been disturbed about this. The case of Augustine, however, is more interesting, for he is a recognized saint and one of the four great doctors of the church. And yet insofar as he held to a relativistic notion of a miracle, he was safeguarding the vital doctrine of the total dependence of the whole creationbut at the price of subverting a sort of apologetic which it has since become essential for Roman Catholics to believe in as a possibility.

problem of identifying an event as miraculous

Up to this point it has been insisted that if the occurrence of a miracle is to serveas Clarke and the orthodox tradition would have it"for the proof or evidence of some particular doctrine, or in attestation of the authority of some particular person," then in a traditional sense, miracles must be conceived of as involving the overriding of some natural order that is at least partly autonomous. The importance of this crucial point is often overlooked. Another immediately consequential point, however, is overlooked perhaps even more often, namely, that if an occurrence that is miraculous in the traditional sense is to serve as evidence for anything, it must be possible to identify it as being miraculous. Furthermore, as was urged above, if its occurrence is to serve as an endorsement of some doctrinal system, the method of identification must be logically independent of that system. The difficulty of meeting this last requirement is often concealed by the acceptance of what seems, for many people, to be an almost unquestionable assumption. Protagonists of the supernatural, and opponents too, take it for granted that we all possess some natural (as opposed to revealed) way of knowing that and where the unassisted potentialities of nature (as opposed to a postulated supernature) are more restricted than the potentialities that, in fact, we find to be realized or realizable in the universe around us.

This is a very old and apparently very easy and tempting assumption. It can be found, for instance, in Cicero's De Natura Deorum, and hence presumably much earlier, in Cicero's Greek sources. Nevertheless, the assumption is entirely unwarranted. We simply do not have, and could not have, any natural (as opposed to revealed) criterion that enables us to say, when faced with something that is found to have actually happened, that here we have an achievement that nature, left to her own unaided devices, could never encompass. The natural scientist, confronted with some occurrence inconsistent with a proposition previously believed to express a law of nature, can find in this disturbing inconsistency no ground whatever for proclaiming that the particular law of nature has been supernaturally overridden. On the contrary, the new discovery is simply a reason for his conceding that he had previously been wrong in thinking that the proposition, thus confuted, did indeed express a true law; it is also a reason for his resolving to search again for the law that really does obtain. We certainly cannot say, on any natural (as opposed to revealed) grounds, that anything that actually happens is beyond the powers of unaided nature, any more than we can say that anything that any man has ever succeeded in doing transcends all merely human powers. For our evidence about the powers of nature in general, and of men in particular, is precisely and only everything that things and people do. For a scientist to insist that some recalcitrant fact constitutes an overriding of a still inviolably true law of nature isto borrow Rudolf Carnap's mischievous analogyas if a geographer were to maintain that the discrepancies between his maps and their objects show that there is something wrong with the territories concerned.

The insistence of the scientist, insofar as he is simply a scientist, on always seeking strictly universal laws is itself rooted in the fundamental object of the whole scientific quest: if scientists are to find comprehensive explanations, they must discover universal laws. A scientist's refusal to accept the idea that in any single case nature has been overridden by supernatural intervention is grounded partly on precisely the above-mentioned lack of any natural (as opposed to revealed) criterion for distinguishing natural from supernatural events, and partly on his commitmentwhich is chiefly what makes him a scientistto continue always in the search for completely universal laws, and for more and more comprehensive theories. In view of this, it need be neither arbitrary nor irrational to insist on a definition of a "law of nature" such that the idea of a miracle as an exception to a law of nature is ruled out as self-contradictory.

The seductive but erroneous idea that we do possess some natural means for the identification of the supernatural is one that, in some respects, parallels the notion that it is logically possible to derive prescriptive norms from knowledge of what is, in some purely descriptive sense, natural. In each case there are adherents for whom the division between natural and supernatural, or between natural and unnatural, is nothing but an incoherent muddle. Likewise, in each case there are others who, in support of their choice, are prepared to deploy some more or less elaborate structure of theoretical justification.

problem of evidence

All of this argumentation, although both relevant and (in spirit at least) thoroughly Humean, has little in common with the line of argument Hume chose to develop in the section "Of Miracles." Although this line of argument is equally methodological, it treats the question of miracles as it arises in the field of history rather than as it might impinge upon natural science. Hume was primarily concerned not with the question of fact but with that of evidence. The problem was how the occurrence of a miracle could be proved, rather than whether any such events ever had occurred. Consequently, even if Hume was successful, the way would still remain clear for people to believe in miracles simply on faith. In his own mordant way, Hume himself was happy to allow for this, but he always insisted that "a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence."

This concentration on the evidential issue means that Hume's thesis, however offensively expressed, is nevertheless at bottom defensive. Hume hoped that he had discovered "a decisive argument which must at least silence the most arrogant bigotry and superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations an argument which will with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion." These words were very carefully chosen. The whole argument was directed to the wiseto those, that is, who insist on proportioning their belief to the evidence. It did not show that the substantive claims of the bigoted and superstitious are in fact false. It was intended to serve as a decisive check on any attempt to solicit the assent of rational men by producing proof of the occurrence of the miraculous. In particular, the object was to interdict the second movement of the standard apologetic attack as outlined above.

If for present purposes a certain amount of misguided psychologizing is ignored, the following would appear to be the gist of Hume's "everlasting check." There is, he remarked, "no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life than that derived from the testimony of men and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators." Yet all testimony must ultimately be subject to assessment by the supreme court of experience. Certainly there are, as Hume observed, "a number of circumstances to be taken into consideration in all judgments of this kind." Yet "the ultimate standard by which we determine all disputes is always derived from experience and observation." (Of all people, Hume, as the author of that most famous paragraph in the Treatise of Human Nature, should have said not "is, " but "ought " always to be so derived.)

The weight of the testimony required must depend on the apparent credibility of the events reported. If the events are in some way marvelous and rare, then the testimony for them has to be treated with more circumspection than the witness to everyday occurrences. But supposing that the testimony is for events that, had they occurred, would have been genuinely miraculous: we are then confronted with a paradoxical dilemma, proof balanced against proof. However overwhelming the testimony might have appeared were it not being considered as evidence for a miracle, in this peculiar case the testimony must always be offset against a counterproof. In Hume's own words, "A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined."

In the first part of section X, Hume argued generally from the concept of the miraculousfrom, as he put it, "the very nature of the fact." In the second he deployed several more particular assertions about the corruptions to which testimony is liable, urging that such corruptions are exceptionally virulent where any religious issue is involved. He also added a further consideration relevant to any attempt "to prove a miracle and make it a just foundation for any system of religion."

This consideration was expressed badly and was entangled in one or two inessential errors and confusions. But a letter makes clear Hume's intent. The point is that if the occurrence of some sort of miracle is to serve as a guarantee of the truth of a system of religion, then there must not have been any similar miracle under the auspices of a rival system, the truth of which would be incompatible with the truth of the first. Consequently, insofar as we are considering a miracle not as a putative bald fact but as a possible endorsement of the authenticity of a revelation, we have to throw into the balance against the testimony for the miracles of any one candidate revelation all the available testimony for all the miracle stories presented by all the rival systems that are inconsistent with the first. In its appeal to a necessary conflict of evidence, this argument resembles the paradoxical dilemma expounded above.

Miracles and the Philosophy of History

Enough already has been said to suggest that there is more to Hume's check than a trite insistence that since the occurrence of a miracle must be very improbable, it would have to be exceptionally well evidenced in order to be believed. C. S. Peirce was in possession of the vital clue (which he seems never to have exploited fully) when he remarked, "The whole of modern 'higher criticism' of ancient history in general, and of Biblical history in particular, is based upon the same logic that is used by Hume" (Values in a Universe of Chance, edited by P. P. Wiener, New York, 1958, pp. 292293). When we follow this clue, it becomes obvious that Hume himself saw "the accounts of miracles and prodigies to be found in all history, sacred and profane" as presenting a methodological problem. This section on miracles constitutes the outer ring of Hume's defenses against the orthodox religious apologetic. But at the same time it is also part of his contribution to an understanding of the presuppositions and the limitations of critical history.

This fact seems not to have been appreciated as it should have been. There is, for instance, no reference to Hume's section "Of Miracles" in R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History (Oxford, 1946); and neither Collingwood nor F. H. Bradley seems to have had any idea of the extent to which Bradley's own essay, "The Presuppositions of Critical History" (Collected Papers, Vol. I., Oxford, 1935), echoed arguments first developed by Hume. It is worthwhile to consider possible causes of this neglect. In part it is to be attributed to the insistence (at one time universal) on treating section X, "Of Miracles," as though it were a separate and disingenuous essay, irrelevantly inserted into the first Enquiry simply to cause scandal and thereby push up sales. This perverse and gratuitously offensive notion has misled interpreters to overlook some extremely relevant remarks in Part I of section VIII which concern the inescapably uniformitarian presuppositions of both the natural and the social sciences. Even those who have succeeded in appreciating section X as a very considerable piece of argumentation have been inclined to pigeonhole it as being a contribution to the philosophy of religion only. Certainly Hume's argument does, in the first instance, belong to the philosophy of religion; and this, of course, is how Hume presented it. Yet, as we have already seen, it also has a place in the philosophy of science. The fact that Hume appreciated this is perhaps suggested by his proposal that if, against all reasonable expectation, there were to be sufficient historical evidence to establish that the "miracle" of a universal eight-day eclipse had occurred in January 1600, "then our present philosophers [scientists], instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain; and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived." It is surely significant that in this one context, and inconsistently with his own official definition of miracle, he spoke not of "a violation of the laws of nature," but rather, and more weakly, of "violations of the usual course of nature."

The same nodal argument which thus has a place in both the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science belongs equally in the philosophy of history. For what Hume was contending (with certain lapses and hesitations) is that the criteria by which we must assess historical testimony, and the general presumptions which alone make it possible for us to interpret the detritus of the past as historical evidence, must inevitably rule out any possibility of establishing, upon purely historical grounds, that some genuinely miraculous event has indeed occurred. Hume concentrated on testimonial evidence because his conception of the historian, later illustrated in his own famous History of England, was of a judge assessing with judicious impartiality the testimony set before him. But the same Humean principles can be applied more widely to all forms of historical evidence.

The fundamental propositions are first, that the present detritus of the past cannot be interpreted as historical evidence at all, unless we presume that the same basic regularities obtained then as today; and second, that in trying his best to determine what actually happened, the historian must employ as criteria all his present knowledge, or presumed knowledge, of what is probable or improbable, possible or impossible. In his first work, the Treatise of Human Nature (II, iii, i), Hume had argued that it is only on such presumptions that we can justify the conclusion that ink marks on old pieces of paper constitute testimonial evidence. Early in the first Enquiry, in the first part of section VIII, he urged the inescapable importance of having such criteria. In a footnote to section X, he quoted with approval the reasoning of the famous physician De Sylva in the case of a Mlle. Thibaut: "It was impossible she could have been so ill as was proved by witnesses, because it was impossible she could, in so short a time, have recovered so perfectly as he found her."

flaws in hume's account

Two very serious faults in Hume's presentation of his argument may obscure the force and soundness of De Sylva's reasoning, as well as the fact that this sort of application of canons to evidence is absolutely essential to the very possibility of critical history.

The first fault is a rather wooden dogmatism of disbelief. For against all his own high, skeptical principles, Hume tended to take it for granted that what in his own day he and all his fellow men of sense firmly believed about the order of nature constituted not just humanly fallible opinion, but the incorrigible last word. He was thus betrayed into categorically dismissing as downright impossible certain reported phenomena that the later progress in the study of abnormal psychology and of psychosomatic medicine has since shown to have been perfectly possible. But the moral to be drawn from these lapses into dogmatism is not that Hume was mistaken in insisting that the critical historian must apply canons of possibility and probability to his evidence, but that he failed to appreciate that all such canons are themselves subject to criticism and correction.

The second major fault in Hume's treatment is both more serious and more excusable. He was unable to provide an adequate account of the logical character of a law of nature. Hence, he could not offer any sufficiently persuasive rationale for employing, as canons of exclusion in historical inquiry, propositions that express, or that are believed to express, such natural laws. The way may thus seem to be open for a historian who holds different presuppositions, yet still remains truly a historian, to endorse as veridical stories of events that, had they occurred, would have been truly miraculous. (For a sustained study of such attempts to have it both ways, see T. A. Roberts, History and Christian Apologetic, London, 1960.)

This problem of the logical nature of natural laws has, of course, many more aspects than those that immediately concern us here. But it is important first to emphasize that it is at least as much a problem for Hume's immediate opponents as for Hume. For it is his opponents who need a strong sense of "miracle," in which the miraculous can be distinguished from the merely marvelous. It is tempting, but entirely wrong, for the spokesman for the miraculous to think that he can afford to triumph over Hume's difficulties without being himself committed in any way to producing his own account of the character of laws of naturean account that shall be more satisfactory as an analysis and yet, at the same time, consistent with the things the spokesman himself wants to say about the miraculous. His dilemma, to repeat, is that he needs to be able to accommodate simultaneously both the strong laws and the spectacular transgressions.

nomological propositions

Casting back to the reasoning of De Sylva, it can now be seen that (and how) it constitutes a paradigm of critical history. For it is only and precisely by presuming that the laws that hold today held in the past and by employing as canons all our knowledgeor presumed knowledgeof what is probable or improbable, possible or impossible, that we can rationally interpret the detritus of the past as evidence and from it construct our account of what actually happened. But in this context, what is impossible is what is physically, as opposed to logically, impossible. And "physical impossibility" is, and surely has to be, defined in terms of inconsistency with a true law of nature. Or rather, since this sense of "impossible" is prior to the development of science proper, it might be said that what is physically impossible is whatever is inconsistent with a true nomological proposition.

Both causal propositions and those expressing laws of nature fall under the genus nomological. Although Hume himself concentrated on the causal species, what he said can easily be extended. In his view, when we say that A is the cause of B, the main thing we are saying is that B 's are constantly conjoined with A 'snever as a matter of fact A and not B, or, in modern terminology, A materially implies B. Of course, he went on, people think they are asserting not a mere constant conjunction, but some real connection, and in a way this is right. The fact is, according to Hume, that there is a connection, but that it is a psychological one: we have formed a habit of associating the idea of an A with the idea of a B.

Yet this account of causal propositions cannot be adequate. All causal propositions entail subjunctive conditionals. (A subjunctive conditional, appropriately enough, is a proposition of the form, "If it were it would.") Thus, "A 's are the only things which cause B 's" entails "If A were not to occur (or to have occurred) B would not occur (or have occurred)." But no variation on the material implication theme, with or without benefit of associationist psychological speculation, can be made to entail any such subjunctive conditional. Furthermore, the same essential inadequacy afflicts any extension of a Humean analysis to cover nomologicals in general. For a nomological is, by the above definition, a contingent proposition that entails some contingent subjunctive conditional.

The essential difference between the contingent "All X are ϕ " and the equally contingent "Any X must be " is that the former can be expressed as a material implication, "Not both X and not , " whereas the latter cannot be so expressed, because it is a nomological, entailing such subjunctive conditionals as "If there were to have been an X (which in fact there was not) it would have been a . " The nomological goes far beyond the statement of a mere conjunction of X and as a matter of fact. It asserts also a (contingent) connection between X and . For although the nomological is no more logically necessary than the corresponding material implication, it says not merely that, as it happens, a constant conjunction has been, is being, and will be maintained, but also that it would be and would have been maintained regardless of what anyone did or might have done. To assert the nomological is to assert that the conjunction is one that can be relied upon. It is for this reason that experimental evidence is so essential to our knowledge of nomologicals: the obvious and ultimately the only satisfactory test of the reliability of a law is to subject it to strains. It is for the same reason that a knowledge of nomologicals provides, at least in principle, a guarantee of repeatability. To say that the conjunction of B 's with A 's is reliable is to say that any time anyone likes to produce an A he will thereby bring about a B.

the historian's approach

In the light of the above discussion, we can again consider the question of historical evidence for the miraculous. The critical historian, confronted with some story of a miracle, will usually dismiss it out of hand, asking first only whether it can be used as evidence, not for the occurrence reported, but for something else. To justify his procedure he will have to appeal to precisely the principle Hume advanced: the "absolute impossibility or miraculous nature" of the events attested must, "in the eyes of all reasonable people alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation." Our sole ground for characterizing the reported occurrence as miraculous is at the same time a sufficient reason for calling it physically impossible. Contrariwise, if ever we became able to say that some account of the ostensibly miraculous was indeed veridical, we can say it only because we now know that the occurrences reported were not miraculous at all.

objections to the historian's approach

To this representation of the procedure of the critical historian there are two main objections. First, it will be argued that such an approach to what purports to be historical evidence for the miraculous is irrationally dogmatic, for in this instance the historian seems to be represented as dismissing all evidence that conflicts with his own fundamental prejudices and as defending a closed system in which his professional predilections are guaranteed against falsification by a "Heads-I-win: Tails-you-lose" argument. This is a very understandable objection. It is made more plausible by the regrettable fact that there have been, and still are, many historical writers whose actual procedures correspond rather too closely to this suggested representation. Also it is, of course, true that the dilemmas generated by the tension implicit in the concept of the miraculous must necessarily seem to their victims to have a "Heads-you-win: Tails-I-lose" aspect. Nevertheless, the critical historian is not committed to the sort of bigoted dogmatism the present objection attributes to him.

Nomological laws and reports of miracles

As Hume was insisting from first to last, the possibility of miracles is a matter of evidence and not of dogmatism. For, to proceed beyond Hume, the nomological proposition that provides the historian's canon of exclusion will be open and general and of the form "Any X must be . " The proposition reporting the (alleged) occurrence of the miracle will be singular, particular, and in the past tense; it will have the form "This X on that particular occasion was not . " Propositions of the first sort can in principle be tested at any time and in any place. Propositions of the second sort cannot any longer be tested directly. It is this that gives propositions of the first sort the vastly greater logical strength that justifies their use as criteria of rejection against the latter. It will indeed be only and precisely insofar as we have evidence sufficient to warrant our assertion of the general nomological that excludes the particular historical proposition that we shall have sufficient reason to claim that the event it reports would have been genuinely miraculous.

The logic of evidence

Suppose that in some particular case the evidence for a miracle appears extremely strong. Then perhaps the historian may ask himself whether the nomological proposition that precludes this event is after all true. It could, in principle at any rate, be further tested. If, as is possible, it were shown to be false after all, then perhaps the event so strongly evidenced did indeed occur. But by the same token, that event could now no longer be described as truly miraculous. This, surely, is what has happened in the case of so many of the reports of astonishing psychosomatic cures, which Hume himself, in his capacity as a historiographer, too rashly dismissed. (Consider, for example, his contemptuous rejection of the stories of faith healings by the Emperor Vespasian and of the many cures associated with the tomb of the Jansenist Abbé Paris, all in section X of his first Enquiry. ) Alternatively, the nomological proposition might survive even our further tests. Hume should be the last one to deny that it must remain always conceivablelogically, that is, as opposed to physically possiblethat the event in question did in fact occur. Yet in this case, no matter how impressive the testimony might appear, the most favorable verdict that history could ever return must be the agnostic, and appropriately Scottish, "not proven."

Need for canons of evidence

The second objection to the above representation of the procedure of the critical historian suggests that there is something arbitrary or at least optional about the appeal to canons provided by some of our knowledge, or presumed knowledge, of what is probable or improbable, possible or impossible. Once again there is some ground for this objection. Certainly we can choose whether or not we will try to act as critical historians. But once that fundamental choice is made, there is nothing arbitrary and nothing optional about insisting on the employment of these canons. For the essential aim of the historian is to get as near as he can to a full knowledge of what actually happened, and why. To do this he must find and interpret evidence, for belief unsupported by evidence may be true, but it cannot constitute knowledge. Yet to interpret the detritus of the past as evidence, and to assess its value and bearing as such, we must have canons. And for a rational man, these canons can only be derived from the sum of his available knowledge, or presumed knowledge. It is not the insistence on the systematic employment of these always corrigible canons that is arbitrary; what is arbitrary is to pick and choose in the interests of your ideological predilections among the available mass of miracle stories, or to urge that it is (psychologically) impossible that these particular witnesses were lying or misinformed and hence that we must accept the fact that on this occasion the (biologically) impossible occurred. If one once departs in such arbitrary ways from these canons of critical history, then anything and everything goes. (For examples of precisely this sort of arbitrariness, see M. C. Perry, The Easter Enigma, London and New York, 1959.)

Possible justifications for belief in miracles

Nothing that has been said in this article decisively closes the door on faith. We have been concerned only with questions about the possibilities of having good reasons for belief in the miraculous. Again, nothing has been said to preclude the production of nonhistorical and nonscientific considerations that might, either by themselves or with the aid of historical or scientific evidence, justify our belief that certain miracles did indeed occur. Perhaps one might develop some defensible system of rational theology that would provide criteria both for identifying particular occurrences as miraculous and for separating the true miracle stories from the false. Hume tried to rule this out also, of course, in section XI of his Enquiry, and elsewhere. But it has been no part of our present task to examine arguments against natural theology. Finally, it is perfectly possible to develop a new concept and to apply to it the term "miracle." There is never anything to keep anyone from simply changing the subject.

See also Augustine, St.; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Carnap, Rudolf; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Clarke, Samuel; Collingwood, Robin George; Eliot, George; Hume, David; Locke, John; Natural Law; Nature, Philosophical Ideas of; Paley, William; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Revelation; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Strauss, David Friedrich; Teleological Argument for the Existence of God; Thomas Aquinas, St.


historical studies

Grant, R. M. Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought. Amsterdam, 1952.

Lecky, W. E. H. History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe. London, 1865. Chs. 13. These chapters carry on approximately from where Grant leaves off.

Stephen, Leslie. English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 3rd ed. London, 1902. Vol. I. Contains the classic account of the entire controversy of which Hume's "Of Miracles" formed a part.

logical and methodological studies

Augustine. The City of God, XXI, 8.

Hume, D. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, VIIIXI.

King-Farlow, J. "Miracles: Nowell-Smith's Analysis and Tillich's Phenomenology." International Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1962). Although this article appeared in a Jesuit journal, it seems to accept most of the sort of methodological criticism presented in the present article. The bibliography of recent Roman Catholic literature on the subject is especially valuable.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. London and New York, 1947. Mozley (see below), Tennant (see below), and Lewis all give Anglican views, of which Tennant's is perhaps the most liberal and Lewis's the most conservative. The latter employs a theoretical structure of the type referred to in the discussion of the problem of identifying the supernatural in order to uphold the possibility of miracles. For a discussion and development of the ideas touched on in that section, see the exchanges between H. H. Dubs, A. Lunn, and P. Nowell-Smith in the Hibbert Journal (19501952).

Mill, J. S. A System of Logic, III, 4 and 25.

Mozley, J. B. On Miracles. London, 1865.

Roberts, T. A. History and Christian Apologetic. London: S.P.C.K., 1960.

Smith, G. D., ed. The Teaching of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. London, 1952.

Spinoza, B. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, VI.

Tennant, F. R. Miracle and Its Philosophical Presuppositions. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1925.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa contra Gentiles, III, 98107.

illustrations of main methodological points

Huxley, T. H. "Agnosticism and Christianity." In Lectures and Essays. London, 1902. An attack on Newman (see below).

Middleton, Conyers. A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have subsisted in the Christian Church from the earliest ages through several successive centuries. London: R. Manby and H.S. Cox, 1749. A pivotal work in the great eighteenth-century controversy described by Stephen.

Morrison, F. Who Moved the Stone? New York: Century, 1930. A gripping, if very unsophisticated, study of New Testament evidence.

Newman, J. H. "Essay on the Miracles Recorded in Ecclesiastical History." In The Ecclesiastical History of M. L'Abbé Fleury. Oxford, 1842. This essay by the future cardinal deserves to be read alongside Middleton's Free Inquiry (see above).

Perry, M. C. The Easter Enigma. London: Faber and Faber, 1959. An attempt to apply the findings of psychical research to the interpretation of the New Testament documents. It illustrates both an admirably undogmatic flexibility about what in fact is and is not possible and a certain inconsistency in applying the canons of critical history.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest for the Historical Jesus, from Reimarus to Wrede. London: Black, 1910. A classic history of a historiographical subject. It is interesting to note that the work contains no reference to Hume.

Thomson, J. M. Miracles in the New Testament. London: Edward Arnold, 1912. An important but neglected work by a historian who later achieved distinction in the field of secular history.

West, D. J. Eleven Lourdes Miracles. London: Duckworth, 1957. A study of the best evidence by a psychiatrist and sometime research officer of the Society for Psychical Research.

Antony Flew (1967)

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Miracles, miracle workers, and their stories are found in the life and literature of all ancient societies and are not limited to religious texts. In ancient Greece figures like Epimenides, Pythagoras, and Apollonius of Tyana were all renowned for working miracles. To this day, healing remains the form that most claimed miracles take, and many of these miracles are associated with visitations to the shrines of saints. In Africa, India, parts of Asia, and Latin America, miracles remain an important and powerful dimension of "primal" religions and cults. Indeed, miraculous healings and exorcisms are the characteristic features of the world's fastest-growing form of Christianity: Pentecostalism. Contrary to secularization theorists, belief in Godand in miracleshave not disappeared with the advance of science and the rationalization of Western societies. For example, opinion polls at the close of the second millennium showed that nearly 90 percent of Americans believed in God, 84 percent believed in miracles, and nearly half (48 percent) said they had experienced a miracle in their own lives or in the life of someone else (Newsweek, 1 May 2000, p. 57).

Viewed historically, miracles and their stories were recognized and accepted long before systematic efforts to define what a miracle is. This is not surprising since the cultures that produced the scriptures sacred to the world's major religionsin this entry, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islamdid not regard nature as a closed system operating according to its own laws and therefore impervious to the action of God or the gods. Nonetheless, they recognized miracles as extraordinary occurrences. Thus, one classic definition, from Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, holds that "those things are properly called miracles which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature." The medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides (11351204) thought that miraclesespecially those in the Biblewere designed by the creator for very specific purposes and, though contrary to the observable laws of nature, were instituted at the beginning of creation as part of God's divine plan. For Deists and other Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century, nature was considered to be subject to immutable laws that even God cannot abrogate. As Voltaire famously put it: "It is impossible that the infinitely wise Being has made laws in order to violate them. He has made this machine [the universe] as good as he could." Still influential is David Hume's argument that not only are miracles impossible, but also that "No testimony is sufficient to establish" that a miracle has occurred.

Miracles as Narrative Constructions

But "nature" and its "laws" are notoriously loose, historically conditioned concepts, and the constructs of contemporary sciences correspond to no one's sense of "the order commonly observed in nature." Far more useful and descriptive in any cultural context is the biblical understanding of miracles as "signs and wonders" (Hebrew, otot u-mofetim ). Viewed this way, a miracle (from the Latin miraculum ) is an event that astonishes beholders (wonder) and at the same time conveys meaning (sign). Absent the sign factor, it is impossible to distinguish miracle from mere coincidence. Since signs are always signs of something, we can say that a miracle is an unusual event that discloses the meaning and power of the transcendent within the world of time and space.

From this definition it follows that miracles are always narratively constructed. To take a common example: if a terminally ill patient is suddenly cured and attendant physicians can find no cause in medicine or science to explain the cure, the patient or others may claim that the patient's sudden restoration to health is the result of prayer to God for a miracle. That is, they explain the otherwise inexplicable by fashioning a story. This is precisely what happens within the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the most rigorously methodological source of contemporary miracles and their stories. Once church officials are satisfied that a candidate for sainthood exhibited extraordinary virtue, they require two posthumous miracles attributed to the intercession of the candidate as a sign from God that the deceased candidate truly is now with God in the afterlife. Only after a board of physicians concludes that an unexpected healing has no known scientific cause does a board of theologians consider whether the healing is also a "divine sign."

Miracles in Sacred Scriptures

The best-known miracles are those found in the scriptures of the major world religions, and in the sacred biographies of the saints, sages, and spiritual masters who embody and extend scriptural precedents. When experienced as events embedded in religious traditions, miracles tend to define themselves as stories that in some way repeat or echo previous miracles within the same tradition. For example, the Hebrew Scriptures (for Christians, the Old Testament) contains so many and various kinds of miraclesdivine rescues, healings, feedings, punishments and blessings, even raisings of the dead and one ascension (of Elijah) into heaventhat it can fairly be regarded as the repository of most of the forms that miracles take in the later Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Within the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, later books deliberately recall earlier miracle stories. For example, there are 120 repetitions and allusions to the ancient Israelites' divinely provided crossing of the sea of reeds, the great deliverance miracle in the Book of Exodus. When the prophet Elisha picks up the mantel of his predecessor, Elijah, the power to produce similar miracles passes with it. When Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead, these miracle stories echo the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, though Jesus does them on his own authority. Likewise in the Book of Acts, the apostles Peter and Paul work the same kind of miracles that Jesus did, but they do so in his name and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Although in the Koran the prophet Muhammad notably refuses to work miracles, the story of his ascension (mi'raj ) into heaven, a narrative developed out of a Koranic verse (Q. 17:1), replicates and surpasses the ascensions of Elijah and Jesus. This same story also provides the model of the mystical path followed by later Muslim mystics who are the chief miracle-workers in Muslim tradition.

In Buddhism, miracle stories are tied directly to Buddhist teachings as manifestations of their power to liberate. Thus the Buddha's first disciples collectively repeat the miracles of the master as they progress along the path to perfect enlightenment. In the Puranas ("ancient tales"), a vast and very popular collectin of sectarian scriptures composed and edited between the second and seventeenth centuries c.e., the miracles of Lord Krishna not only echo previous stories of earlier Vedic gods but also have the power to establish in his devotees the ability to replicate the experiences of Krishna, in some cases by becoming Krishna himself.

From this it can be seen that miracles achieve their meaning as signs through specific narrative traditions. Conversely, narrative traditionsto a large extentdetermine which kinds of extraordinary events are recognized as miracles and which are not. Thus, in order to understand the significance of many scriptural miracles, one most know what previous miracles are being replicated, echoed, or superceded. But there are important exceptions in Islam. In the Koran, Muhammad says "the signs [ aya, meaning miracles] are with God alone;" the greatest sign is the Koran itself, every Arabic verse (sura) of which Muslims regard as the actual words of Allah. But the miracles attributed to Muhammad (mu'jizat ) are all found elsewhere, chiefly in the hadith (roughly, "the traditions") of the Prophet, considered second only to the Koran in importance. However, in the various authoritative collections of the hadith, Muhammad's miracles tend to be merely listed apart from any interpretive narrative context. This arrangement suggests that miracles were incidental to the life and importance of the Prophet and may have been included in the hadith for the apologetic purpose of demonstrating that Muhammad, like Jesus, Moses, and other prophets of Allah before him, possessed the power to work miracles. Thus, among the three monotheistic traditions, Islam makes a formal and linguistic distinction between the miracles produced as signs by God and the miracles attributed to the prophets, whereas in Judaism and Christianity the distinction is informal: in the Bible, the power to work miracles belongs to God as the creator and sustainer of the world, but beginning with Moses that power passes to the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus not only heals and raises the dead, like earlier Jewish prophets, but also exercises power over nature (as in calming storms and walking on water), a sign of his divinity since the power to control nature belongs to God alone.

In the various religious and philosophical traditions collectively known as Hinduism, miracles are usually understood as manifestations of innate divine power. Here we must distinguish between the miracles of God or gods, principally Shiva, Vishnu, and the latter's many avatars (especially Krishna and Rama) and the miracles of the saints or renunciates in a long line of ascetics reaching back to the fabled sages (rishi ) of the Vedic period (1500500 b.c.e.) Stories of the gods and their avatars belong to the great and complex tapestry of Hindu mythology and need not concern us here. Far more relevant to the Hindu understanding of miracles are the stories told of the saints.

Just as the Hindu deities can descend in human forms (avatars), so the Hindu saints can, through the practice of asceticism (tapas ), rise to godlike status. Thus the saint is often understood to be a "god-man" or a "goddess woman" by virtue of having "realized" the divinity innate in all human beings. In this context, a miracle is a manifestation of supernormal powers (siddhi ) acquired as a function of attaining ever purer forms of consciousness (samadhi ) through meditation and physical austerities. A classic treatment of the siddhi is the Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali, where the list of supernormal powers includes knowledge of previous lives; clairvoyance; knowledge of the moment when one will die; control over and thus freedom from one's bodily systems; the ability to levitate and transverse great distances in a moment's time; the power to expand or shrink one's body; and so forth.

Although the Buddha rejected the traditional practices of Indian ascetics, Buddhism incorporates the same understanding of miracles as supernormal powers that Pantanjali outlined. The main difference is that there is no "self" to be realized in Buddhist teachingsit is the last and greatest of illusionswhich is why the Buddha taught his disciples not to display their acquired powers before the laity: to do so would manifest pride and so trap them in yet another form of attachment to self. Yet after his own enlightenment the Buddha did perform many miracles, some of them more fantastic than any attributed to Hindu god-men. But he did so for evangelistic purposes, secure in the knowledge that he had liberated himself from all attachments.

Although miracles are found in all religions, in none of them are they considered a substitute for faith or commitment to a spiritual path. As signs, they point to different meanings according to traditions, and so may be seen as boundary stories separating one religious tradition from another. As wonders, miracles continue to elicit curiosity, if not always belief. An old Hasidic saying nicely captures the ambivalence that has always attended miracles and their stories: "He who believes all these tales is a fool, but anyone who cannot believe them is a heretic."

See also Mysticism ; Religion ; Sacred Texts .


Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Contra Gentiles of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Translated by the English Dominican Fathers from the latest Leonine edition. Book 3. London: Burns, Oates and Washburn, 19231929.

Gallup, George, Jr., and Jim Castelli. The People's Religion: American Faith in the 90's. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Hume, David. "Of Miracles." In Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Meier, John P. "Miracles and Modern Minds." In A Marginal Jew: Rethinking The Historical Jesus. Vol. 2: Mentor, Message, And Miracles. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Voltaire. Philosophical Dictionary. Translated and edited by Peter Gay. New York: Basic Books, 1962.

Woodward, Kenneth L. The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

. "The Science of Miracles and the Miracles of Science." In his Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Kenneth L. Woodward

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The idea of miracles was not invented by Christians; the terminology is endemic to theism and has always formed part of the language of religious discourse, in other religions and in paganism, meaning the wonder caused in man by events beyond his understanding. Since the Gospels contain accounts of miracles, an understanding of the miraculous is central to Christianity, but because of its use in other theistic contexts, it has always been a point of discussion. In the early twenty-first century the word miracle is given a limited meaning by dictionaries which generally describe a miracle as: an event exceeding the known powers of nature owing to special intervention by a deity or of some supernatural agency. This is to stress the etymology of the English word miracle, which derives its meaning from the Latin mirare, meaning to wonder. Exclusive stress is thereby laid on that which causes wonder and amazement. Popular use of the word unfortunately suggests that the more that is known about the laws of nature the less room there is for intervention by God. Miracle is then seen as opposed to nature, in terms of inexplicable wonder, but that is not the basic understanding of miracle within the Christian church. In the ancient world, the statement the world is full of miracles would not have meant the constant infraction of the course of this world principally because the notion of the law of nature was not used; it would have meant everything created is a wonder issuing from the hand of God.

The ideas underlying the English word miracle are complex. In the Bible it translates more than one synonym in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. In the New Testament, certain words and actions of Christ are called miracles, and the same word is used at times in English translations of the Old Testament. But in Hebrew the words translated by miracle are mopet (a prodigy), ot (a sign), and nipla (a marvel), and in Greek these events are called by other names, such as dunamis (an act of power) and, most often of all, semeon (a sign). The Latin Bible did not use miraculum for any of these; they were rendered mainly as signum, though virtus, mirabilia, prodigia, or portentum were also used. The word miraculum entered Christian vocabulary from another source; its root, miror, I marvel, was widely used in classical literature in describing any event that gave rise to this reaction, but the main word used both in Scripture and in the writings of the early church fathers was signa, a sign, stressing theological meaning rather than psychological reaction. For the early church there is only one miracle, that of creation, with its corollary of re-creation by the resurrection of Christ. God, they held, created the world out of nothing in six days, and within that initial creation he planted all the possibilities for the future. All creation was, therefore, both natural and miraculous. Everyday eventsthe birth of children, the growth of plants, rainfallwere all daily miracles, signs of the mysterious creative power of God at work in the universe. But it was always possible that people would become so accustomed to these daily miracles that they would no longer be moved to awe by them and would need to be provoked to reverence by unusual manifestations of Gods power. Such events were also within the original creation, hidden within the nature and appearance of things, which at times caused miracles that seemed to be contrary to nature but were in fact inherent in it. The most usual channel for these hidden causes to be made manifest was the prayers of the saints, living and dead, through whom the re-creating work of Christ was revealed. Events happened in nature or miraculously, but both were equally the work of God.

To pose only the question How does this happen? to any event need not exclude the older question Why does this happen, what does it mean? The why and the how questions about miracles can be equally useful. Miracles and nature were for centuries put on an equal footing as signs from God to man. However, in the twelfth century a distinction was found possible in the relationship between miracles and events of other kinds. While miracles were an accepted way in which Christians were in touch with the supernatural, other modes of supernatural contact to some extent were distinguished from miracles. Most of all, a distinction was made between miracle and magic. The arts of magic were consistently forbidden in the Christian church as being a manipulation and distortion of creation by mankind. Edicts of church councils and disciplinary directions in penitentials alike forbade magical practices to Christians throughout the Middle Ages. The churchs teachings on magic did not change, nor did the disregard for those teachings at a popular level decrease. In fact, in the twelfth century the revival of learning, and the interest in how things happened rather than why, led to an increase in the amount of magic practiced, and discussion of the question of the mechanics of events began to predominate over the question of their significance.

Modern-day miracles are often connected with the saints, those who are thought to have most clearly embodied the love and power of God in their lives. Miracles are recognized as signs that God is able to work uniquely through those nearest to Him in charity, especially in healing sickness; such signs of this work of God will be seen both in the lives of saints and also after their deaths. This view is connected with the theology of Christ as the Second Adam, re-creating all the world in a redeemed form so that a new relationship is set up between redeemed humanity and Gods mercy. Such a perspective is often seen in the stories about the new relationship of love and respect between the saints and the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water; the life of plants, animals and birds, as well as humans, were then seen to be miracles in both senses of the word. Miracles can then be understood as both natural and significant, as a normal part of redeemed creation.

SEE ALSO Roman Catholic Church


Cavadini, John C., ed. 1999. Miracles in Jewish and Christian Antiquity: Imagining Truth. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Chenu, M. D. 1968. Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century. Eds. and trans. Jerome Taylor and Lester K. Little. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1950. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. London: Geoffrey Bles.

Ward, Benedicta. 1982. Miracles and the Medieval Mind: Theory, Record, and Event, 10001215. London: Scholar Press.

Benedicta Ward

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MIRACLES. Miracles were a vital feature of Christianity in the early modern period. Issues surrounding the possibility and impossibility of miracles were enthusiastically discussed in many theological, devotional, and scientific works, even as most Europeans actively sought divine intervention when harsh circumstances threatened. In his theological and historical work, The City of God, the fifth-century theologian St. Augustine (354430) had outlined many of the teachings concerning miracles that were to play an important role in Europe for centuries to come. Augustine had stressed that the greatest of all miracles was the daily re-creation of the earth, sustained and controlled by a benevolent God, who used nature as a mirror to display his power over every aspect of his Creation. In this view, seemingly inexplicable events that occurred in the natural order were not to be feared, but rather to elicit awe as signs of God's dominion. At the same time, The City of God also enthusiastically recounted many wonders the saints had worked in recent years, using these as signs to confirm the truth of orthodox church teachings. These dimensions of Augustine's theology of miracleshis emphasis on nature's wonders and his insistence that the miracles of the saints confirmed the church's truthcontinued to exert a powerful influence on the religious piety of the early modern world.

Around 1500, though, it was the miracles of the saints that most often captivated the European imagination. The keeping of records of miracles worked by the saints was a common practice, one whose origins stretched back into late antiquity and found at least partial inspiration in the teachings of Augustine. A vast network of pilgrimage shrines sustained the practice, and the manuscript records that survive from these places reveal that an exchange mentality largely governed Europeans' appeals to the saints. When life's trials threatened, the faithful approached the saints with prayers and vows of pilgrimages and gifts. With their requests granted, pilgrims journeyed to the saint's shrine, often describing their miracle to a scribe, who carefully recorded their testimony. These miracle records were often proclaimed to those who visited these places. By the later fifteenth century, such accounts were increasingly being committed to print and circulated among a broad readership. Church authorities and humanist critics sometimes condemned these practices, seeing in them an indulgence in forms of magic and barter they believed bordered on idolatry. At the same time, the tens of thousands of miracle records that survive from the period point to the widespread popularity of the practice.


During the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers stepped up criticisms long voiced about the saints and their miracles, unleashing a war against pilgrimage and the cult of the saints in an attempt to rid the European countryside of these practices. In turning to oppose the long-standing popularity of the cult of the saints, Protestants faced several dilemmas. First, they needed to explain the seeming effectiveness of the saints to their sixteenth-century audience. In some cases the reformers accused the medieval clergy of having promoted fraudulent miracles. More often, however, they admitted that the miracles that had long been attributed to the saints were real, but that they had actually been worked by demonic, rather than divine, agency. A second issue involved the role that miracles had played in confirming not only a specific pilgrimage or saint but all church teachings. From the early days of the Reformation, reform-minded preachers and theologians responded that miracles were unnecessary to those who possessed faith, since faith was in and of itself its own self-confirming miracle. Even as they made such a claim, though, most sixteenth-century reformers were anxious to exploit wonders that seemed to confirm their own religious positions. Like Augustine before them, they turned to nature, where they found wonders that confirmed their teachings. The fashion for natural wonders in Protestantism emerged early, beginning even with Martin Luther, who in 1524 exploited a dramatic misbirth in print. Luther treated the appearance of a hideously deformed calf in Saxony, the so-called Monk Calf of Freiberg, as a divine pronouncement on the degenerate state of monasticism and the church. Numerous similar readings of natural miracles followed, and by the later sixteenth century hundreds of short broadsides and pamphlets filled with tales of recent celestial apparitions, earthquakes, floods, and deformed births poured from the presses of Europe. While accounts like these were consumed everywhere, the fascination with reading natural wonders as divine signs was far more pronounced in Protestant than in Catholic regions. Here, natural wonders came to satisfy the appetites of readers for signs of God's continued intervention in the world, an appetite that early modern Catholics indulged, by contrast, through the miracles of the saints. Even in the generally restrained and often rationalistic climate of John Calvin's Geneva, natural wonders played a role in shaping piety. Although on occasion Calvin held out the possibility that miracles had long since ceased to occur, he endorsed the publication of Luther's treatment of the Monk Calf in Geneva, and in the dedication to his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) he insisted that a steady stream of wonders had long confirmed the Reformation message. Thus a curious paradox surrounded miracles in the Protestant tradition. On the one hand, most Protestant commentators insisted that miracles were not necessary to those who possessed a saving faith. On the other hand, wondersif not full-fledged miracleswere enthusiastically tracked and commented upon and continued to shape piety in Protestant Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Miracles also entered into the heated religious rivalries of the time. The reformers' attacks of the early sixteenth century had sent pilgrimage and the recording of saintly miracles into a temporary decline in many parts of Europe, but in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these practices experienced a dramatic resurgence. Catholic propagandists enthusiastically promoted the miracles recently worked by their saints or by the Blessed Virgin Mary as a vivid testimony to Roman Catholicism's truth. These renewed efforts sparked bitter confessional rivalries and polemic, prompting the Protestant charge that pilgrimage and the intercession of the saints was nothing more than a form of sorcery. In the overheated disputes of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, miracles of healing, successful exorcisms, and any seeming violation of the natural order might be used alternately by Protestants or Catholics to condemn their opponents. At the same time, the popular demand for miracles of healing persisted particularly in the Catholic countryside and inspired the foundation of numerous new pilgrimage shrines, many of which grew to heights of popularity far beyond any pre-Reformation precedent. While the saints did not survive in Protestant territories except as vestigial models for piety, the fashion for visiting sites where great miracles had occurred was shared by Protestants and Catholics alike. At the end of the seventeenth century, for example, a spate of miracles involving images of Martin Luther inspired new pilgrimages among Lutherans to his one-time residences. As a result, the reformer's birthplace, Eisleben, was celebrated as Germany's "New Bethlehem" and was sought out by the pious well into the eighteenth century.

Even as the hunger for the wonders persisted, though, new forces were at work that questioned the possibility of God's supernatural intervention in the world. One important development in this regard was the appearance of the doctrine of the cessation of miracles, a teaching pioneered by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?1536) and endorsed by seventeenth-century Calvinists, alleging that wonders had been necessary only for the foundation of the Christian religion in ancient times. Once Christianity had been successfully established, the Holy Spirit had ceased to work miracles. While this notion did not find general acceptance among most religious thinkers at the time of its appearance, the doctrine pointed to a new skepticism that would eventually result in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment's denials of miracles. The most famous of these appeared in the work of the Scottish empirical philosopher David Hume (17111776). In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758), Hume argued that miracles were impossible because nature's laws operated according to ironclad regularity and inevitability and could not be violated. A similar debunking spirit pervaded Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary (1752), in which he argued that miracles had functioned throughout Europe's history only to sustain fanaticism and intolerance. Even as these elite attacks on supernatural beliefs flourished, accounts of miracles remained vital to the religious life of the eighteenth century, particularly in the Catholic countryside where the cult of the saints and pilgrimage retained great popularity. At the same time, the attacks of elites were not without an eventual impact. By the later eighteenth century, Europe's Catholic princes often viewed the appetite for miracles as an archaism and many reform efforts focused on weaning people away from the long-standing customs of pilgrimage and the veneration of the saints.

See also Erasmus, Desiderius ; Hume, David ; Reformation, Protestant .


Eire, Carlos M. N. War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Scribner, Robert W. Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany. London, 1988.

Soergel, Philip M. Wondrous in His Saints: Counter-Reformation Propaganda in Bavaria. Berkeley, 1993.

Walker, D. P. "The Cessation of Miracles." In Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe. Edited by Ingrid Merkel and Allen G. Debus. Washington, D.C., 1988.

Philip Soergel

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The English word miracle (from the Latin miraculum, meaning "object of wonder") has traditionally been used in a Christian context to refer to an extraordinary event that cannot have been brought about by human power alone or by the ordinary workings of nature and hence must be ascribed to the intervention of God. For most Christian theologians, only God can perform miracles; the function of saints, in heaven close to God, is to act as intermediaries on behalf of a supplicant to request a miracle from God. Hence, according to a strict Christian interpretation of the word, there are no miracles in the Buddhist tradition. A looser definition of the term, however, harking back to its original meaning as "object of wonder," allows miracles to be understood as extraordinary events that, because they cannot be explained by ordinary human powers or the everyday functioning of nature, evoke a sense of wonder. This looser definition proves useful to describe a wide variety of phenomena, including omens and other extraordinary changes in the natural world, acts of the Buddha and his disciples, and supernormal powers acquired through meditation—all common throughout Buddhist literature.

Miracles in the life of the Buddha

Paradigmatic miracles occur in accounts of the life of the Buddha, well-known wherever Buddhism is practiced. Although there is much diversity in detail, accounts of the Buddha's birth generally describe it as a marvelous event, different in almost every way from an ordinary birth. The Buddha was conceived in a dream in which his mother saw a white elephant enter her womb, an event accompanied by earthquakes and other auspicious omens. Unlike other women in ancient India who gave birth sitting down, the Buddha's mother gave birth standing up, the infant emerging not from the womb, but from his mother's right side, causing her no pain. At birth the infant was bathed by streams of water that fell from the sky, after which he immediately took seven steps and declared in a loud voice, "I am the chief in the world."

Later, as the child matures, marvelous events accompany him throughout his life as he receives the assistance of gods who through various devices help him to pursue his fated life as a seeker of truth. At the moment when Śākyamuni is enlightened and becomes a buddha, the earth shakes, the heavens resound with the sound of drums, and flowers fall from the sky. As a buddha, Ŏākyamuni was believed to possess the standard set of supernormal powers or abhijÑĀ (higher knowledges) accruing to those of high spiritual attainments, including the power to know details of his previous lives, the ability to see the past lives of others, the power to read minds, and other magical powers, such as the ability to fly. In the course of his teachings, the Buddha demonstrates these powers repeatedly, frequently, for instance, recounting events that took place in the previous lives of members of his audience in order to explain the workings of karma. Similarly, the Buddha performed two famous miracles at the city of Śrāvastī in order to win converts. After admonishing his own disciples for displaying their magical powers in public, the Buddha declared that, in their place, he would perform a miracle at the foot of a mango tree to demonstrate his superiority to proponents of false teachings. On hearing this, his opponents uprooted all of the mango trees in the vicinity so that he would be unable to fulfill his vow. In response, the Buddha took the seed of a ripe mango, and no sooner planted it in the ground than it sprouted and in an instant grew into an enormous tree. This done, he fulfilled his promise to perform a miracle by the mango tree when he rose into the sky and emitted water and fire from his body in spectacular fashion.

Finally, the Buddha's nirvĀṆa is accompanied by a number of marvelous events. When the Buddha predicts his own death, vowing to enter nirvāṇa in three months time, the earth quakes once again. Three months later, as the Buddha lay down to die, flowers fell from the sky. At the moment he entered nirvāṇa, there was a great earthquake and loud peals of thunder. Some of those present then attempted to light the funeral pyre, but were unable to do so. Later, when the disciple MahĀkĀŚyapa, who had been away, arrived on the scene, the pyre miraculously caught fire of itself, leaving behind relics that were themselves later attributed with miraculous powers.

Many attempts, of varying degrees of sophistication, have been made to root out all that is miraculous, and hence historically suspect, in accounts of the Buddha's life in order to derive a more sober, believable narrative, or to interpret miracles in the Buddha's life as rhetorical tools for explaining Buddhist doctrines. For the vast majority of Buddhists, however, marvelous events were and are an integral part of any biography of the Buddha. In general, Buddhists have interpreted these literally, as signs of the Buddha's unique attainments. Indeed, some of the phenomena described above, such as the Buddha's power to see the previous lives of others, are recounted in such a matter-of-fact manner that they are miraculous only in a weak sense. In other words, however fantastic such powers may appear to a modern skeptic, from the perspective of the tradition, they are more commonsensical than marvelous.

Disciples of the Buddha

Many of the Buddha's disciples were credited with supernormal powers and associated with miraculous events. Mahākāśyapa, as a product of his determined cultivation of the most trying austerities, could fly. ŚĀriputra attained the "dharma eye," allowing him to perceive the past lives of others. MahĀmaudgalyĀyana, called "foremost of those who have supernormal powers," could vanish from one place and appear in another in an instant.

Later figures in Indian Buddhism possessed marvelous powers as well. Upagupta, for instance, to prove a point, once caused a drought of twelve years. The powerful King AŚoka (third century b.c.e.), who was at first hostile to Buddhism but eventually became its greatest patron, was, according to legend, converted upon seeing the supernormal powers of a monk his executioners could not kill.

Miracles in the spread of Buddhism

Miracles continued to play a prominent role in the history of Buddhism as it spread beyond India. Legends of the founding of Buddhism in other lands are typically tied to miraculous events. In Sri Lanka, it is said that the Buddha himself visited the island at a time when it was dominated by demons. Traveling directly to a grand meeting place of these demons, the Buddha hovered above them in the sky, calling up rain, winds, and darkness, and thereby terrifying the demons to such an extent that they conceded dominion of the island to him. In China, the introduction of Buddhism was linked to Emperor Ming of the Han dynasty (r. 58–75) who, according to the legend, had a marvelous dream in which he saw a golden deity flying through the air. The following day, when he asked his ministers to explain the dream, one informed him that he had heard of a deity called the Buddha whose body was of golden color and who could fly. The emperor then dispatched envoys to obtain more information about the Buddha, thereby initiating the introduction of Buddhism to China. In Japan, the introduction of the first Buddhist image was followed by widespread pestilence, prompting the emperor to have the image destroyed. This act was followed by the miraculous appearance of a large log of camphor wood that emitted the sound of Buddhist chants. Impressed, the emperor gave orders that the wood be fashioned into two Buddhist images, thus assuring the successful introduction of Buddhist devotion to Japan.

Miracles and monks

Throughout the Buddhist world, accounts of holy Buddhist monks are laced with miraculous events and descriptions of their marvelous powers. Many of these are patterned on accounts of the Buddha, noting a monk's auspicious birth and the omens that followed his death. It is said, for instance, that when the prominent Chinese monk Hongren (602–675) was born a bright light filled the room, and that when he died the sky turned dark and mountains trembled, as they did every year on the anniversary of his death. Other monks are credited with the standard supernormal powers of being able to read minds, levitate, and recognize the past lives of others. For example, according to one biography, the Korean monk WŎnhyo (617–686) once appeared at one hundred places at the same time. Holy monks are often thought to have special powers over nature, taming wild animals and changing the weather. The twelfth-century Vietnamese monk Tịnh GiớI, for instance, received the title Rain Master after provoking rain during a serious drought, something other eminent monks of the time were unable to accomplish. The Japanese monk KŪkai (774–835) was also said to be able to provoke rain through his mastery of Buddhist ritual. To this day, stories circulate of miraculous events associated with prominent or mysterious monks, nuns, and lay Buddhist figures, living and dead.

In addition to miracles provoked by individuals, countless miracles are associated with Buddhist objects. Buddhist scriptures are said at times to protect their owners from fire, Buddhist images come to life in dreams to offer warnings and advice, and prayers to relics result in miraculous cures. Such stories permeate Buddhist culture, only a small portion of the total ever being written down or otherwise reaching beyond the local level.

Explanations for miracles

Scholastic Buddhist literature does not group all of the phenomena discussed here into one category; there is no well-attested Buddhist term equivalent to miracle. Buddhist writers have expounded at length on the classic set of supernormal powers accruing to holy men, but have shown less interest in proposing a general theory of miracles. In some cases, the miraculous was explained according to local theories. In East Asia, for instance, recourse was often made to the Chinese concept of resonance (ganying) by which animals, the weather, and so on respond to a person of high attainments or an event of extraordinary significance just as one string on a musical instrument responds naturally to another. More frequently, wondrous events are simply recorded without a sustained attempt at explanation. In fact, many Buddhist texts and teachers make a point of downplaying the significance of supernatural events. They insist that supernormal powers are a by-product of cultivation and not its goal. The Buddha himself upbraided his disciples for displaying their powers in public. Nonetheless, the allure of the marvelous made it an exceptional rhetorical tool. That is, Buddhist texts are at pains to demonstrate the extraordinary powers of, for instance, the Buddha, before going on to dismiss these powers as child's play and peripheral to the far greater goals of enlightenment and release from suffering.

There has never been a strong tradition of skepticism toward miracles within Buddhist circles, though those hostile to Buddhism were always ready to discount Buddhist claims to the marvelous. For the most part, Buddhists have always accepted the supernormal powers of the Buddha and the potential of Buddhist figures and objects to provoke miracles. In modern times, however, it has become commonplace for Buddhist writers to strip away miraculous events from ancient Buddhist writings in an attempt to reveal a historical core to a given legend. While not in itself unreasonable, this approach is often accompanied by the assumption that miraculous stories emerge in response to the demands of an unsophisticated laity, steeped in popular superstition. In fact, for most of Buddhist history, miracle stories have been popular at all social levels and accepted as literally true by even the most erudite of monks.

The future of Buddhist miracles is uncertain. Even Buddhist leaders skeptical of accounts of miracles have not made concerted efforts to disprove Buddhist miracles or discourage the propagation of stories of marvelous, supernatural events associated with Buddhism, suggesting that miracles will continue to occupy a place of importance in Buddhist culture for the foreseeable future.

See also:Buddhahood and Buddha Bodies; Buddha, Life of the; Disciples of the Buddha; Relics and Relics Cults


Gómez, Luis O. "The Bodhisattva as Wonder-Worker." In Prajñāpāramitā and Related Systems: Studies in Honor of Edward Conze, ed. Lewis Lancaster. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series, 1977.

Kieschnick, John. The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Nakamura, Kyoko Motomochi. Miraculous Stories from the Japanese Buddhist Tradition: The Nihon ryōiki of the Monk Kyōkai. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Ray, Reginald A. Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Thomas, Edward J. The Life of Buddha as Legend and History (1927). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

Woodward, Kenneth L. The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

John Kieschnick

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In Clearwater, Florida, crowds gather to pray to an image of the Virgin Mary that is said to have miraculously appeared on the side of a building. In rural churches in Tennessee the faithful believe that God will supernaturally protect them as they handle poisonous snakes during worship. New Age leaders cite theoretical physics to prove that the universe is unpredictable and hence compatible with belief in everything from astrology to out-of-body experiences (OBEs). Literal belief in the Bible's miracle stories is part of the increasingly conservative agenda in the massive Southern Baptist convention. Pentecostal faith healers like Benny Hinn talk without a blush about their repeated trips to Heaven to visit Jesus and announce raisings from the dead in their worldwide crusades.

That American religion is open to the miraculous at the end of the twentieth century is both quite natural and quite surprising. On the one hand, given the Biblical worldview that has informed Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant theology, one would expect many Jews and Christians to retain belief in the wonder-working power of the Creator. This is the especially the case for Hasidic Jews and for followers of Jesus influenced profoundly by the dominance of miracles in the four Gospels, the traditions recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and stories about the Virgin Mary and other saints.

What is surprising in the vitality of supernatural belief in American religion, Christianity in particular, is the degree to which it has survived centuries of skepticism. Here the shadow of David Hume, following in the footsteps of René Descartes (1596–1650), Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), looms most significantly. Hume (1711–1776), the famous Scottish philosopher, forever altered discussion of miracles with his brilliant and provocative essay "On Miracles." It has been the subject of hundreds of essays and books and is the key philosophical document in the enormous literature on the subject.

Hume's skepticism about miracles has been interpreted in two main directions. There are some philosophers who believe that he simply thought that miracles were impossible since they were contrary to unalterable laws of nature. This would make the issue of miracles one of logical deduction from scientific certainties. Grant the premise that laws of nature cannot be broken, and there needs to be no historical inquiry about this or that purported miracle.

Other philosophers contend that Hume was not making a scientific point but a historical one. According to these interpreters, Hume's whole essay is largely a work about human experience and historical analysis. In the end, given the fallibility of human testimony, the superstitious core in various contradictory religions, Hume believes that the wise person always remain skeptical about miraculous reports. Hume is not really saying that miracles are impossible but that they are so improbable as to be unworthy of serious consideration.

Whatever interpretation one adopts, Hume's ultimately negative verdict about miracles created an immediate shock wave in European and American thought. Christian apologists attacked his personal integrity and also mounted logical objections to his essay's argument. Hume was also targeted for his lack of clarity, a point that has been seconded even by agnostic philosophers like Antony Flew, one of Hume's best defenders and most careful critics. Is Hume making a logical case against miracles? If so, his openness to historical testimony is absurd. If his argument is largely historical, it is curious that he speaks about the "absolute impossibility" of miracles.

These points aside, despite instant replies from Christian philosophers, Hume's essay dealt a withering blow to supernaturalism. Hume's contempt for Jewish and Christian religion is masked by his professed concern for any religion that seeks to have miracles at its foundation. Hume's allies and enemies knew full well that he meant for his essay to be another blow to religion in the name of rational Enlightenment truth.

Hume's legacy had an immediate impact on biblical study. It became fashionable to reinterpret the miracles of the Bible so that the supernatural elements disappeared. Thus the story of Jesus walking on water was really just about the Nazarene reaching the disciples on a raft (unseen just below the surface of the lake). The feeding of the five thousand was actually about people sharing their hidden lunches. Jesus' resurrection was reduced to faith's encounter with his enduring teaching and example. Miracle became parable in a new liberal paradigm.

The power of Hume has waned in the last half of the twentieth century. This is due in part to mounting philosophical skepticism about the validity of Hume's specific arguments. American philosophy is no longer in the grip of thoroughly rationalistic systems (like the logical positivism of A. J. Ayer), due in part to the creative work of Christian philosophers. Alvin Plantinga, in particular, has constructed a Reformed epistemology that feels no need to build worldviews on Cartesian or Humean skepticism.

As well, science no longer wears its crown so proudly, and its utility is celebrated more than its value as the foundation for all knowledge. This is reflected in such celebrated works as Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics. As well, the astounding evidence of design in the universe makes the case for miracles of another sort seem more reasonable. Martin Gardner, a theist and critic of all religions, argues for a sense of wonder about the natural world that makes belief in God and immortality seem sensible, if not rationally certain. Finally, the new postmodern mindset has made more room for alternate understandings of the universe, even ones that allow things to go bump in the night.

Of course, the religious landscape of the United States has always been varied, despite powerful unifying trends in philosophy and theology. Even after the triumph of Charles Darwin's naturalism in the last century, many Americans became fascinated with the emerging spiritualist tradition, and its claims about contacting the spirit of dead relatives. While Protestant liberalism was losing all interest in miracles (past or present), Pentecostalism swept the nation, with astounding tales of healings and supernatural visions. After midcentury, the emergence of Billy Graham and a new evangelicalism led to greater assent to the reality of miracles, especially about the core miracles in the Biblical narrative.

The arrival of other world religions to the United States has meant new worlds of supernatural discourse. The stories of Buddha (his special birth, his powers over nature, his ultimate enlightenment) combine with the traditions about Krishna (or other Hindu gods) to rival the stories of Jesus and also unite in opposition to a secular mindset. In orthodox Islam the great miracle is its holy book (the Qur'an), delivered from heaven to the prophet Muhammad. In folk Islam, legends about Muhammad combine with animistic traditions to create a world where Allah's infinite powers extend to every aspect of nature and daily life.

The United States is also home to many new religions that have no worries about Hume and his legacy. Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, alleges that he has been to heaven to converse with God directly. The Mormon Church is built on reports of angelic visits to their prophet Joseph Smith. Scientology's therapy program is rooted in phenomenal stories about humanity's cycles of reincarnation. Shirley MacLaine's miracle-laden New Age life got repeated national coverage in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s angel stories circulate freely, creating a whole new market for books, trinkets, and television shows.

Hume's arguments still have enormous power in American intellectual life or in religious traditions as they subject other religions to his skeptical thrusts. On the whole, however, Hume would be disappointed that his Enlightenment skepticism held power so briefly and has virtually no impact on the lives of millions of Americans who believe that with God (or Buddha or the Force or your inner self, and so on) that "all things are possible."

See alsoGraham, Billy; Healing; Magic; Myth; New Age Spirituality; Snake Handling; Spiritualism; Unification Church; Virgin of Guadalupe.


Flew, Antony. "Miracles." In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards. 1967.

Gardner, Martin. The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. 1983.

Swinburne, Richard. The Concept of Miracle. 1970.

James A. Beverley

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Miracles, in the biblical sense are signs and wonders, the extraordinary events that inspire awe and open the world of the divine. By the Middle Ages the differentiation between the natural and supernatural had been made and miracles were redefined as the invasion of the supernatural into the world of the natural. As the concept of natural law and an orderly universe developed, the word miracle gradually took on the meaning it has had for the last three centuriesan event that occurs outside the laws of nature as we know them. Christian theologians tended to view a miracle as an event caused by God laying aside one of his own laws out of his concern for humanity.

David Hume (1711-76), the great Scottish philosopher, defined a miracle as "a violation of the laws of nature." The idea that nature follows certain laws and the consideration of whether or not those laws can be violated set the issues of a modern debate. Alfred Russel Wallace, prominent nineteenth-century scientist, in his book On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1881), assumes the existence of natural law and objects to Hume's skepticism by arguing that since we do not know all the laws of nature we cannot rule out the possibility of an unknown law overcoming a known one. He suggests that a miracle is "any act or event necessarily implying the existence and agency of superhuman intelligences."

Contemporary observers of the progress of science have developed a different approach to the question of miracles. They note that the idea of natural law is a concept imposed upon nature by scientists, who have observed its regularities. A miracle, they say, is a religious affirmation in the face of an extraordinary event that affects the individual positively. Calling an event a miracle is but one evaluation among several (e.g., coincidence, trickery) that can be made about the occurrence.

According to Hume, no amount of human testimony can prove a miracle. Hume's philosophy created a scientific environment in which the evaluation of an anomalous extraordinary event could only be explained as a phenomenon already understood. It is on this basis that, in spite of a popular belief in the paranormal, many scientists generally refuse to investigate the nature and evidence of so-called miracles. This resistance is odd since the history of human progress demonstrates that, as Charles Richet stated, "the improbabilities of today are the elementary truths of to-morrow." The truth of his statement was amply demonstrated in the lives of great scientists, many of whom had to fight an entrenched scientific community for recognition of their discoveries in an era in which the process of accepting new facts was very slow. Galileo (1564-1642) was persecuted and declared "ignorant of his ignorance;" the evidence of his telescope was rejected without examination; Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), born the year Galileo died, had to fight for so long for recognition of his theory of gravitation that he nearly resolved to publish nothing more and said; "I see that a man must either resolve to put out nothing new, or become a slave to defend it." Modern science is replete with stories of people who were ridiculed by their contemporaries for their extraordinary ideas and discoveries and otherwise outstanding scientists who thought the ideas of their younger colleagues to be mere ridiculous flights of fancy.

Belief in the reality of miracles has always been a cornerstone of religion. In former times it was sufficient to have faith that the divine power that created the universe of matter could also transcend its laws either directly or through the agency of particular humans. However, the religious skepticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuriesbuilt in large part by the emergence of science and later sustained by its obvious success in changing the world through technologythrew doubt on the reality of all miracles, sacred or secular.

Part of the present-day opposition to claims of the paranormal is based on the brilliant achievements arising from applied scientific laws, reinforcing confidence in the logic of the material world. From this viewpoint, many agnostics and atheists deny the possibility of either religious miracles or secular paranormal happenings, claiming that both are the result of malobservation, superstition, or fraud. Meanwhile many religious authorities have upheld the validity of biblical miracles as indicating God's omnipotence and intervention in human affairs. For example, Vatican Council I(1870-71) denied that miracles are impossible. However, many theologians, responding positively to the world of natural science, have taken the view that miracles are no longer necessary in modern times as evidence for religious faith. Even the Roman Catholic church, informed by its own experience as much as by modern scientific worldviews, champions the idea of caution in evaluating apparent miracles in modern times, since it would be foolish to ignore the possibility of misunderstanding or deception. Ever since the claimed miraculous healings associated with pilgrim centers like Lourdes, the church has been careful to insist on satisfactory scientific and medical evidence over a prolonged period of time before placing official confirmation on any claimed miracle.

Through the twentieth century a spectrum of approaches to the question of miracles have been put forth. Older supernatural worldviews have survived and are still championed by conservative Christians. Paranormal events are judged to be either godly miracles (within the context of the Christian community) or devilish deceptions (occurring elsewhere). More liberal Christian leaders have suggested that while miracles are possible, they are rare, and tend to occur spontaneously.

A growing body of believers, members of metaphysical, Spiritualist, ancient wisdom, and other occult religious groupsas well as many parapsychologiststend to accept the existence of genuine paranormal events, but define them as purely natural events that science is slow in defining. Some would accept basic ESP, but not take the additional step and offer a positive evaluation of evidence for spirit communication or human survival. Of course, a small but vocal group deny the existence of all paranormal or supernatural events.

The problem of the distinction between religious and secular "miracles" remains a matter of polemics between conservative Christians and other religionists. Parapsychologists, Spiritualists and liberal Christians may point to the many reported miraculous events in the Bible as descriptions of paranormal events that also occur in modern times. Conservative believers accept as miraculous only those events with a clearly established religious purpose and reject all other claimed paranormal happenings. Some conservative Christians claim that all psychic phenomena are mere simulacrum of the miraculousthe work of devils or deceptive spirits counterfeiting real miracles. Of course, non-Christians resent such accusations.

Extraordinary eventsmiracles to the believerare the common property of all religious traditions and the nonreligious alike. Every religious community can produce accounts of extraordinary occurrences to strenthen the faith of their believers. Most religious traditions also de-emphazize miracles as secondary to the development of a mature relationship to the transcendent and the performance of spiritual, moral, and social duties within the human community. In such a context, miraculous events may be helpful signposts or motivators at some point, but they do not take the place of spiritual development. In fact, too much attention to the miraculous (or long-term focus on psychic events) may actually be a hindrance to spiritual progress.


Ebon, Martin, ed. Miracles. New York: New American Library, 1981.

Gopi Krishna. The Secret of Yoga. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Hill, J. Arthur. Spiritualism: Its History, Phenomena, and Doctrine. London: Cassell, 1918.

LeShan, Lawrence. The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Press, 1998.

Réginald-Omez, Fr. O. P. Psychical Phenomena. London: Burns & Oates, 1959.

Rogo, D. Scott. Miracles: A Parascientific Inquiry Into Wondrous Phenomena. New York: Dial Press, 1982.

Stemman, Roy. One Hundred Years of Spiritualism. London: Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, 1972.

Thurston, Herbert, S. J. The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism. London: Burns & Oates, 1952. Reprint, Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1953.

West, Donald J. Eleven Lourdes Miracles. London: Duck-worth, 1957.

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According to a Gallup poll taken in 1988, 88 percent of the people in the United States believed in miracles. In the results of a survey on spirituality published in the December 1997 issue of Self magazine, 91 percent of the readers who responded answered that they believed in miracles. In that same month and year, a poll commissioned by the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans believed in miracles and that such acts originate from the power of God. The May 1, 2000, issue of Newsweek carried the result of that news magazine's poll that stated 84 percent of American adults said they believe that God performs miracles and 48 percent claimed to have witnessed one.

Jon Butler, a Yale University professor of American history who specializes in American religion, defined miracles as physical events that defy the laws of nature. "Most miracles have some physical manifestation that is evident not only to the individuals involved, but may be evident to the people around them," he said. "The catch is, how do you explain it?"

Father James Wiseman, associate professor of theology at Catholic University, said that there are always going to be some people "who see immediately the hand of God in every coincidence, and those who are going to be skeptical of everything. And there is a great in-between."

Miracle stories are found in all the world religions, and while accounts of wonder-working saints and sages and the ancient acts of divine intervention in human affairs are celebrated regularly by the faithful who gather in churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout the world, contemporary Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims still pray for and expect miraculous occurrences in their own lives today. And, according to the Newsweek survey, 43 percent of those polled who belonged to no religious body at all admitted that they had on occasion prayed for God's intervention.

Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are filled with miracles and wonders performed by prophets, angels, and God. So, too, does the Qur'an contain accounts of countless miracles, thus enabling the contemporary followers of Islam to expect such occurrences as proof of the validity of their faith. Islamic theologians have established two basic kinds of miracles: the mu'jizat, or prophetic miracles; and the karamat, those wonders performed by holy people and saints.

The Roman Catholic tradition contains many healing miracles performed by saints and popesboth alive and in spirit. Early in 1967 the Irish Independent of Dublin carried the account of a miracle healing that had brought a dying nun "from death's door to a healthy normal life" after the spirit of Pope John XXIII (18811963), who had died in 1963, appeared and spoke to her.

Sister Caterina Capitani (b. 1943 or 1944), a nun of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, suffered from varicose veins of the esophagus, a condition thought to be incurable and surgically inoperable. However, because the unfortunate sister endured continual hemorrhages, physicians decided to attempt an operation at Medical Missionaries of Mary of the Clinca Mediterranea in Naples, Italy. Two surgeries were performed, but they were unsuccessful; and when the incision on her stomach opened, Sister Caterina's condition steadily worsened to the point where she collapsed. Desperate to attempt any new therapy, her doctors sent the nun south for a change of air, but she was soon returned to Naples when it was decided that she had only a brief time to live.

Sister Caterina lay in her room alone. She had turned on her side when she felt someone place a hand on her stomach. Summoning all her strength, she turned to see Pope John XXIII standing beside her bed. He was not attired in his papal robes, but she easily recognized him. In a quiet yet authoritative voice, the ethereal image of the pope, who had died on June 3, 1963, spoke words of great comfort: "Sister, you have called to me so many timesthat you have torn out of my heart this miracle. Do not fear. You are healed."

The spirit of Pope John then told Sister Caterina to call in the sisters and the doctors so that a test could be performed. But before she did so, he assured her once again that no trace of her illness would remain. Just before the image vanished, he told Sister Caterina to come to Rome and pray at his tomb.

The moment the spirit of the deceased pope disappeared, Sister Caterina rose from her bed and was elated that she felt no pain. When she summoned the sisters and doctors into her room, they were astonished to find that the scar on her abdomen, which had been open and bleeding, was now completely healed. No other physical sign indicated that moments before there had been a gaping wound. The sisters declared the healing a miracle. Sister Caterina had not been expected to survive the day, yet that evening she was up and eating her supper with the community.

According to the Irish Independent, ever since her miracle healing by the apparition of Pope John XXIII, Sister Caterina lived a normal, healthy life in every way. "This is a phenomenon that cannot be explained in a human way," the account concluded.

Contrary to those skeptics who suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is likely to accept nearly all claims of miracles as genuine, many serious steps are taken by various committees to authenticate a miracle. Father Frederick Jelly, professor of systematic theology at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, has served on miracles committees and has listed the questions asked to authenticate a miracle as the following: What is the psychological state of the person claiming the miracle? Is there a profit motive behind the miracle claim? What is the character of the person who is claiming the miracle? Does the miracle contain any elements contrary to scripture or faith? What are the spiritual fruits of the miracledoes it attract people to prayer or to acts of greater charity?

Once these questions have been determined and reviewed, the committee makes its decision as to whether or not the event was heaven-inspired. If the committee decides the event is miraculous and its implications have national or international effect, the case may be referred to the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The Sacred Congregation has the authority to institute a new investigation and make its own ruling and recommendation to the pope, who is the final arbiter of the validity of miracles.

Rather than miracles, Philip Hefner, professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, stated in an essay in Newsweek (May 1, 2000) that he would rather talk about blessings. "We receive blessings, often quite unexpectedly, and we want to praise God for them. We know we cannot claim the credit for these blessings. Even though we cannot predict their arrival, nor understand why so much of human life involves sorrow and evil, we can be grateful and render praise."

Delving Deeper

Glynn, Patrick. God: The EvidenceThe Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1997.

Humphrey, Nicholas. Science, Miracles and the Search for Supernatural Consolation. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

Schroeder, Gerald L. The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Steiger, Sherry Hansen, and Brad Steiger. Mother Mary Speaks to Us. New York: Dutton, 1996; Signet, 1997.

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Miracles in the Islamic tradition play less of an evidentiary role than in some other religions since the prophet Muhammad's humanity is stressed. The miracles of prophets mentioned in the Qur˒an are known there as signs (ayat) and include Abraham's not being harmed by the fire he was thrown into (21:69), as well as Jesus' speaking as a baby (19:30–33), bringing birds made of clay to life (3:49, 5:110), and healing powers (3:49). The Qur˒an itself is often said to be the main miracle of Muhammad since an untutored or illiterate (ummi) person could not have been the source of this most compelling and eloquent message.

The sayings of the Prophet and his biography (sira), as they developed provide examples of various miraculous occurrences during the life of the Prophet including the childhood opening of his breast and cleansing of his internal organs by an angel, his night journey from Jerusalem through the seven heavens, his splitting of the moon, multiplication of food, and bestowal of blessings generally.

In later Muslim sources prophetic miracles were termed mu˓jizat, or "things which render the detractors or opponents incapable or overwhelmed." In other words, acts incapable of being imitated as in the doctrine of the i˓jaz al-Qur˒an—its incomparable eloquence and content. In theological or philosophical discussions the term kharq al-˓ada—a break in God's customary order of things—is used to indicate the miraculous. In the case of Sufi saints miracles are usually termed karamat (gifts or graces). They have the ambiguous role of both confirming spiritual attainments and potentially distracting from the ultimate goal of service of God. Classical authors struggled to differentiate prophetic and saintly miracles, and those who were inclined toward Sufism saw the saintly miracles as emerging and continuing the prophetic legacy. Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 930) argued that the signs of the prophets emanated from the divine power while the karamat of the saints emanated from the divine generosity. Other Sufi commentators differentiated the public nature of prophetic miracles from the secretive aspects of saintly powers. Later Sufis, however, did not hesitate to openly enumerate the graces they received as in the Lata˒if al-minan of al-Shar ani or the many accounts of saints performing miracles that led to mass conversions on the frontiers of Islamic expansion. South Asian saints' lives often consecrate chapters to waqi˓at or "events" of a paranormal nature including mind reading and predicting future events.

More recent reformists and some classical theologians, such as the Mu˓tazila, were more skeptical of miracle stories, given their rationalist proclivities, in some cases denying saintly miracles altogether. Debates over the physical reality of prophetic miracles such as the night journey or moon splitting still engage Muslim commentators.

A color plate of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus appears in the volume two color insert.

See alsoMi˓raj ; Muhammad ; Prophets .


Gramlich, Richard. Die Wunder der Freunde Gottes. Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, 1987.

Gril, Denis. "Le Miracle en islam, critère de la sainteté." In Saints Orientaux. Edited by Denise Aigle. Paris: de Boccard, 1995.

Marcia Hermansen

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273. Miracles

See also 79. CHRIST ; 151. FAITH ; 252. MAGIC ; 349. RELIGION ; 359. SAINTS .

the study or lore of miracles.
the working of wonders or miracles; magie. thaumaturgist, thaumaturge, thaumaturgus, n. thaumaturgic, thaumaturgical , adj.