What is Christian doctrine? And do words such as eschatology, sanctification, and atonement really have anything to do with our everyday, going-to-class, working, hanging-out-with-friends lives?
Christian doctrines begin as interpretations of the Bible. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have preserved what they believe the Bible teaches. They form doctrines so that they may remember what other Christians have historically believed about God, humanity, and God’s mission in this world.
These days it’s no less important than in ages past for us to understand Christian doctrine. So we’re offering you brief posts about what Christians have historically believed are the core teachings of the Bible. We hope you find that these historic teachings not only broaden your understanding of Christianity but also deepen your love of God.
The word “miracle” is sometimes used to describe anything extraordinary. We speak of miracle drugs, miracle diets, miracle kitchen counter cleaners. But what is a miracle really? A supernatural event? The extraordinary result of a natural law?
The God of Miracles
C. S. Lewis, in his book titled Miracles, says, “I use the word Miracle to mean an interference with Nature by a supernatural power.” Many Christians agree with Lewis.
Whether or not an extraordinary event is miraculous may depend on its origin. Can the event be explained by the secondary cause of natural law or is it interference by a supernatural power? In daily life the origin of extraordinary events is not easy to discern. Mysterious instances abound: the healing of a man’s cancer seems spontaneous; money for an urgent need arrives just in time; and less profound, of course, the moment you pray to find a parking space a car drives away from the store’s front door. We shake our heads in wonder and say, “Wow! That was a miracle.”
Religious-yet-non-biblical explanations for extraordinary events typically employ theological constructs along a continuum from deism to pantheism. These constructs are as different as north from south. To one extreme, deism proposes a god who’s far from us, governing the world from a distance. In deism, an intelligent god is like Johnny Appleseed, spreading life here and there through the laws of nature. This deistic god doesn’t take personal responsibility for nurturing the seeds planted but rather assumes that human beings can steward life all by themselves. For deists, miracles are the visible mechanisms of natural laws.
To the other extreme, pantheism portrays a god who’s near to us, guiding the world through a “divine” presence within everything. In pantheism, an impersonal god is like an all-pervading energy that determines the course of existence through evolution, with no more regard for humanity than human beings extend toward one another. For pantheists, miracles are the manifestations of the divine in nature.
Neither deism nor pantheism provides us a theologically balanced worldview. The Bible, however, teaches that God is both transcendent and immanent, governing this world through both the laws of nature and miraculous acts. This biblical God personally loves all his creation and has a redemptive plan for humanity. This God took the initiative to implement our rescue from sin and today intervenes in our lives through extraordinary acts of love, both natural and miraculous.
The Nature of Miracles
In the Old Testament, as the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, God said to Moses, “Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water. . . . Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land” (Exodus 14:16, 21).
While this escape of the Israelites from the pursuing Egyptians is extraordinary, it nevertheless happened, at least in part, through the natural principle of cause and effect. Notice, for instance, how Moses is commanded to raise his staff and stretch out his hand “to divide the water.” However, the text of Exodus 14:21 tells us that Moses’ obedience was not the exclusive cause for the water’s parting, explaining that “the Lord drove the sea back . . .” and thus proving that God himself parted the waters. God originated the miracle.
But Exodus 14:21 also says that “the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind.” So God originated the parting of the Red Sea but used both Moses’ obedient actions and the natural instrument of a strong east wind to perform this miracle. From this we may conclude that an uncomplicated reading of the descriptions in Exodus 14:16 and 21 makes a compelling argument for God’s using secondary causes to perform a miracle.
Instruments of God’s Miracles
Questions about natural law versus supernatural miracle may not seem relevant to our everyday lives; unless, for instance, one of our parents has a serious disease and we’re desperate to know whether God works more through the skilled hands of a surgeon or through prayers for our parent’s healing.
These days in scientifically developed societies it seems there’s a wide gap between the laws of nature and the mysteries of miracles. But judging from how God worked through Moses and an east wind to part the Red Sea, and worked through Mary and a natural pregnancy to incarnate the Second Person of the Trinity, and worked through Jesus’ apostles and everyday language to bring about supernatural healings, it’s not so absurd to say that God at times uses ordinary people and natural laws to produce miracles.
Perhaps then miracles are all around us. Perhaps they are an ordinary part of our daily lives. And as we mature in love for God we become not merely astute witnesses of God’s miraculous works but also significant instruments by which our Creator performs miracles.
Jonathan Rice is an editor and writer with InterVarsity.