Darwin and Christianity - Part 14: Meditation on Miracles

July 17, 2010 Length: 55:12

What are some of the misunderstandings and misgivings about miracles, and how does that relate to natural science and Christian theology?





As we continue our “stream-of-consciousness musings,” as my reflections have been called—I really like that: “stream-of-consciousness musings.” In a sense, that is very much what we are doing here, especially when we are trying to come to terms with what is going on in natural science, but my musings are, of course, hopefully intended to help us to rethink, to rethink how we understand the relationship between what we come to know and to believe and believe and to know in the area of natural science and what we have come to know and to believe in the area of Christian theology.

And I will, perhaps next time, even, make some reflections on the relationship between faith and knowledge. What is the relationship between believing and knowing? What is the place of human reason, reasoning, drawing conclusions, making inductions and deductions from observable what we could consider to be facts or seemingly to be facts before us? This is a very important area when we speak about the relationship of natural science and Christian theology. But that’s for next time.

For today, we just want to say a few things, very few things, very superficial things, about the specific issue of miracles. We may come to some surprising insights here today. I hope so, because the issue of miracles is a very central issue. But I believe, like so many of these issues, particularly from the side of Christian theology, that there are some pretty grave misunderstandings or prejudices or prejudgments about things that maybe are not warranted theologically or even scripturally, are just not warranted by a reading of the Bible, by a reading of the New Testament, by actually seeing what the holy Scripture says.

Here I would like to make a point that others have made, certainly before me, and that is this: is that when we are reading and studying the Scripture, we must read and study what it actually says. We must not come to it with an idea of what it says before we read it. Many people have opinions about the Bible and about teachings in the Bible that they just got second-hand or they got from somebody else or some Bible teacher or some preacher or some radio talker or even from one’s grandmother or whatever, and this is not acceptable. This is simply not acceptable. If we’re going to interpret the holy Scripture, we’ve got to read what the Scripture says, we’ve got to know what the words mean, we have to know what the context was, we have to know what is really being claimed, and not come to it based on popular teachings received second-hand from people who didn’t know what they were talking about.

You might say, “Well, how can you say that? We have the holy Fathers and so on, and they teach us.” Well, I would say, “Yeah, great, but let’s follow the holy Fathers.” If we’re going to start quoting the holy Fathers, then let’s be sure we know what the holy Fathers are actually saying. I think that applies to everything. It certainly applies to worship in church. If we’re going to, for example, interpret the Divine Liturgy, we’d better know what it said and what is done and how is the right way to do it and what the rubrics actually say and what the prayers actually mean and what the translations [say], if they are defective or not. In other words, you have to really study the reality itself.

Now, relative to the Bible and the holy Fathers, there’s a text of St. Gregory the Theologian in his poems on the bishops of his time. He was not very impressed with the bishops of his time; in fact, he couldn’t stand them. He has these really terrifying poems about the bishops of his time. St. Basil the Great also does. If you read, for example, the last chapters of St. Basil’s Treatise on the Holy Spirit, what he describes—or Gregory the Theologian, in his Theological Orations, what he describes about the people who make themselves theologians, he says they have more spots than a leopard and are ignorant of everything. But about the Bible, he said about some of the bishops of his time: They quote the Scripture second-hand and even then they get it wrong. They quote the Scripture second-hand, if not third-hand, fourth-hand, fifth-hand, and even then they get it wrong.

Here I think that there’s a particular problem for Americans, modern Americans, Americans of my generation and those before me, and that is this absolutely unacceptable view that fundamentalistic Evangelicals knew the Scripture and were teaching them truly and that those who didn’t follow what they were saying were not getting it right. Well, the question is who was right and who was wrong.

Here I have to make a personal comment on this, and that is that I can remember so many times in my lifetime where I would give a sermon in one of my churches, and after it was over some person would come up to me—I’m tempted always to say some pious man or woman, usually woman, actually—and they’d say, “Fr. Tom, what you said can’t be right in church. What you said today was not right.” And I would say, “Really? What was wrong with it?” They’d say, “Well, it wasn’t what the radio preacher said on Tuesday that I heard, and he was speaking about the same thing, and he didn’t say what you said, so you’d better go back and check, because you’re not getting it right.” Well, the point being is that the radio preacher was right and the pastor, meaning me, Orthodox priest, was wrong! And how many people have that attitude? How many people have that attitude?

Another memory that comes to my mind is once, years ago, probably 30 years ago, I was giving a talk in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about Genesis. In my talk, I used basically liturgical texts and patristic texts, trying to say how it would be used. I remember speaking about Adam saying there’s no “St. Adam Day,” and on the icon of Pascha, when Jesus is pulling Adam and Eve out of the tombs, they have no haloes on. The historical figures, like John the Baptist and David are clearly marked, with haloes; they’re obviously actually human beings.

Now, there obviously were the first human beings, the first man, the first woman, or the first men and women, whoever they were, but in any case in Scripture Adam and Eve are not used that way. They’re used as types, as theological figures. We sing in Church, “You came to save Adam.” We never say, “You came to save Peter” or “You came to save Abraham.” Adam and Eve: “Adam rejoices; Eve exalts.” We don’t say, “Abraham rejoices and Sarah exalts” and so on. So I was trying to make the point that Adam and Eve must mean something different theologically. We say to restore the image of Adam, to return Adam to Paradise,” or on Christmas we sing, “Today Adam is allowed again to enter Paradise. Today the cherub is removed from the gate of Paradise. Adam enters in again. He partakes of the Tree of Life.” We sing that in church, but it doesn’t mean that you can go somewhere on the planet earth with your camera and take a photograph of some cherub moving and some man walking into Paradise and partaking of the tree of life. I don’t even know what you would eat from the tree of life, by the way. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil had fruit on it; I don’t know what the other tree had. But in other words, all this way of interpreting things.

So at that particular talk in Pittsburgh, many years ago, I tried to use liturgical hymns and songs and patristic texts and New Testament, how the New Testament refers to Adam as a typos of Christ, and the first man Adam from the earth, the second man from heaven, and so on. When it was over, one woman raised her hand and said, “Oh, Fr. Tom, that was really interesting. Thank you for preparing that. Thank you for telling us all about that. But I’ve got to be honest with you”—and this woman, by the way, was the wife of an Orthodox priest, and she said, “I really do have to be honest with you, though.” And I said, “Well, what is it?” And she said, “I just want to tell you: I prefer the traditional teaching.” And what she meant by “traditional teaching” was not the Fathers and the liturgy and the hagiography and the iconography. What she meant by “traditional” was the radio preacher.

So we’ve got to really be careful what we mean when we use certain words. What I want to do now is just to reflect a bit about the word “miracle”: the word “miracle” and how we use that term, “miracle.” What I’d like to say in the beginning is that nowhere in the New Testament does it ever say that Jesus worked a miracle. Never. The word “miracle” isn’t even there. In a sense, “miracle” in a contemporary usage, very often in the debate between science and religion, is that a miracle is a divine act or an act that a person does by divine power, by divine presence, but the ultimate subject of that act is God, either directly or working through an instrument, and when that particular act takes place, the laws of nature are broken—they are overcome—and something happens that is not natural. It becomes unnatural; it becomes supra-natural, and it is something that science cannot possibly deal with, because science deals with natural phenomena.

So a miracle is an unnatural thing or a supra-natural thing or a divine act, that actually breaks or supersedes the laws of nature, which would be the way things act. And if you’re a theist and a creationist, you would say the way things act the way God decided that they ought to act. So you have God acting naturally through things, through the laws of nature that God gave, if you’re a theist, and then you have God breaking these laws of nature when he so decides to intervene for some very particular purpose, and then God can do whatever he wants in a miraculous way that is beyond anything that science can deal with, because it’s exactly outside the realm of natural science because it’s unnatural or super-natural or contra-natural or divine rather than created. And it is God himself acting in a different way from the way he normally acts, that he normally acts through the natural laws, but every once in a while, when he, so to speak, feels like it or has some purpose for it, he will come and break these laws of nature. So that the miracle is a suspension of the law of nature or a breaking of the law of nature or an overcoming of nature or doing an act which is simply contrary to nature, unnatural, isn’t the way that things actually operate.

That would be, in many people’s minds, what a miracle is, and then scientists, atheistic people even—let’s put it that way—if they’re atheistic or pantheistic, would say: No, there’s just natural activities, and these natural activities could be marvelous, wonderful, amazing. They may even be mysterious in the way that we cannot explain ever how they work; we can observe their working, but we can’t say what makes them work in that particular way. Sometimes we just have to say, “Well, that’s the nature of the reality. If you mix two parts [hydrogen], one part [oxygen], you get water, and that’s just the way things are.” And you say, “Well, why is that the way things are?” “Well, that’s just the way [that] things are.”

Then those who would “not believe in miracles” as just defined, a contra-natural or unnatural or super-natural acts that have their origin in God, those kind of people would simply say they don’t exist; there’s no such things as miracles. There’s nothing miraculous absolutely at all. Miracles are just lies, basically. If you allege miracles, you just don’t know enough about nature or you’re trying to explain things that you don’t know the reason for, so you attribute them to God. Here there was a long tradition of doing that. It was the so-called “God of the gaps.” In other words, wherever you had a gap in your knowledge, you just say God did it. If you couldn’t explain how thunder is, you could say God’s making it thunder. Then when you finally understood what thunder was scientifically, well, then you had no further need for God.

Then, of course, I’ve quoted before this famous saying of Laplace to Napoleon—I think it was Laplace—when he was asked where was God in his theory. He said, “I have no need for that hypothesis. I deal only with observable scientific realities where I have no need for a recourse to any supernatural cause, or certainly not to any supernatural intervention.”

There are plenty of people, even theologians, even Christian theologians, so-called, who would simply deny miracles in that particular sense of the word. They would say, “Nothing in the Scriptures, certainly nothing in the New Testament is miraculous. It’s either fantasy, fable, or there’s some natural explanation.” I don’t know: When Jesus fed the 5,000, he shamed the people into sharing their bread and everybody got fed, but there was nothing supernatural about it. When Jesus walked on the water, that was just a kind of, you know, something not true; it was just something made up. They said that he did it for some particular reason, but he didn’t really do it. So then you start saying: Well, what did he really do, what did he really didn’t do?

Then, of course, the big ones, the two biggies for Christians would be the virginal conception and the virgin birth of Jesus as God’s Son in human form, born of a virgin, Mary, and the Resurrection from the dead. You could say that, well, people can’t be born of a woman alone; you have to have a seed, you have to have a seed of man, you have to have semen, and if you don’t have it you’re not going to have a birth, so virgin births are just mythical, fabulous inventions of various people to give certain authority to certain human persons. I believe it’s in Dawkins’ book, God is Not Great, where he has a half a page of all of the virgin births that you can find in world literature, and just puts Jesus together with them as being exactly the same thing. Whereas, as C.S. Lewis said, if you look at it a lot closer, you’ll see that it’s not the same thing at all. It’s something quite different, where you have in Christianity.

Although C.S. Lewis, as I mentioned last time, would say there are truths in the mythologies that become fact in Jesus, because there were some kind of understandings and insights and perceptions and reasonings, where human beings came to certain conclusions that if there’s going to be any kind of—well, use the word—salvation or any kind of meaning or any ultimate happiness, happy ending, so to speak, for the human saga, then you’re going to have to have some “miracles.” Something’s going to have to break into the way things are right now in order to make it straight, but those who say there are no miracles are those who also say there is no what we could call teleology. You can’t come to any kind of purpose or goal or end for the human story; you just can’t deal with it,

And science as such cannot deal either with origins, etiology, nor teleology, nor purposes. When you get to how everything began, nobody knows and can know by science, and what the purpose of it is at the end and what’s going to happen, that also nobody can know. Or they can say, “Yeah, I do know, by observing reality, it’s all going to just deteriorate; there’s just going to be”—forgot the technical term—“atrophy. It’s just going to go down, and the world is either going to explode or burn up or die or run out of gas or whatever, and that’ll just be the end, and that’ll be the end of it, and there’s nothing beyond that at all. If you’re a courageous, honest person, you just face that fact and deal with it, that there is no purpose, and that there’s many things that we don’t know, but what we do know is that there certainly aren’t miracles. There are no miracles.”

Here you even have people, New Testament exegetes, like, for example, Bultmann, a very famous exegete in my childhood, who simply said miracles are excluded. So if you’re going to preach the Gospel as a literary reality, you have to de-mythologize all the miracles and find their theological meaning, but you must admit at the same time that they never really occurred—there is no virgin birth, there is no resurrection of the dead, there are no angels, there are no miraculous, wonderful happenings that Jesus did by divine power—that just simply doesn’t exist. You have to find other explanations for them, so you have kind of natural explanations of religious myths, basically, and that’s the best you can do. If you want to do that, you can, if you feel there’s some meaning to it, and there are folks who feel that there is meaning to it. I mean, Bultmann himself thought that there was meaning to it, because he studied Christianity in terms of world religions: Religionsgeschichte, they call it, the history of religions.

Then you have people like Joseph Campbell and others who study all the myths. Then they say, well, there’s these myths that [are] repeated, and if they’re Jungian, they’re in the human subconscious or unconscious or collective consciousness or whatever. Then there’s a certain language of snakes and of sex and whatever, and you find certain meanings in these things that the human mind in its inventiveness have created in order to try to come to terms with reality, but those whole things are outside the realm of natural science totally. There’s no relation to them at all.

But then you have other people, like René Girard and C.S. Lewis, who would say, no, studying these myths are very important, because you can understand what people were hoping for, looking for, intuiting, intimating about the meaning of things, and then when Christianity comes along and the Gospel of Christ comes along, you all of a sudden, if you’re studying mythical literature, you read this and you say, “Ho-ho, my goodness! This is not the same thing! This is the key to understanding it all. This is where it all comes from. You would expect these kind of things to happen.” In C.S. Lewis’ celebrated formula, “The myth has become fact,” and the fact, the historical fact of Christ, has given an understanding to all these mythical productions of humanity that you’d find all over the globe.

But getting back to the issue of miracles as a kind of suspension of nature or a breaking of the law of nature… And sometimes in our Orthodox Church we even sing that way. We sing, for example, about the Theotokos in church, that “when God wills, the order of nature is overcome; when God wills, the order of nature is vanquished” somehow, or is broken, or God can just make things happen that are contrary to nature and absolutely cannot be explained scientifically and so on.

Now, what I would like to say now is this: It seems that there could be another way of looking at this, the issue of miracles, I mean. C.S. Lewis thinks so. If you read his book on miracles or the essay on miracles in the book, God in the Dock, you will see that he quotes St. Athanasius the Great, for example, and he says St. Athanasius the Great thought a different way of looking at all of this, and, miraculous to say, mirabile dictu, you could actually even say that the New Testament looks at it differently. The Christian Scriptures do not look at it this way, the way that we’ve just been talking about, about what a miracle would be and why some people would “believe” in miracles and other people “don’t believe” in miracles. So you have people say, “Do you believe in miracles?” “No, I don’t believe in miracles. I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in miracles.” Well, how can you be a Christian without believing in miracles? If you’re a Christian, you’ve got to believe in miracles. Jesus did miracles. It’s all over the New Testament; he did miracles, and it’s all about miracles.

What happened, of course, after the Middle Ages, certainly in the Orthodox Church: the miracle became almost the most interesting thing to people: the miraculous healing of the saints and all that kind of stuff, as showing divine power and power over nature and all that kind of stuff: breaking the laws of nature, that these saints could do. There became a kind of what I would call almost an aberrant, almost a pathological interest in miracles, which you do not find in the New Testament at all, which I’m going to try to speak about right now. You just don’t find that kind of thing in the New Testament.

By the way, some of the… And this is not “by the way” at all: it’s very important. The apocryphal writings in the earliest Christian era, those that were not canonized, that did not become part of the holy Scripture, they were filled with all kinds of magical miracle happenings: Jesus doing miracles as a boy, all kinds of different kinds of miraculous things were going on. Take for example the apocryphal story of Thekla and Paul. It’s just filled with fabulous, miraculous, all kinds of happenings that you do not find in the New Testament at all, and certainly not in the same way—neither those kinds of actions nor the purpose for which they were done, which very often was simply to show divine power as an end in itself.

So let’s now try to ask this question: What does the Bible generally and the New Testament in particular tell us about miracles? What do we actually come to see when we look at it as it’s given to us, when we lay aside our prejudgments, our customary understandings?—and here St. Gregory of Nyssa, by the way, he spoke very violently about what he called the tyranny of custom, the tyranny of false traditions, where things would just be repeated over and over again and people would take them as if they were truths, and they were simply old lies. St. Cyprian of Carthage said the same thing, by the way, in the third century. He said: An ancient custom may be nothing but an ancient error, an ancient mistake. He said, “Antiquitas non est veritas; antiquity is not truth.” Just because things were said for a long time doesn’t make them true.

For example, in our modern time, you have people say, “We call God Father because of patriarchal society and because we have an idea of the human father and we project it onto God.” If you read the Bible, nothing’s further from the truth. God is never called Father directly in a prayer in the entire Old Testament. Jesus is killed for killing God his Father, and the Scripture says that we call our human fathers fathers because they’re supposed to image God to us, and we don’t call God Father because of our human fathers. The only reason Christians can call upon the one, true, and living God as Abba Father is because of Jesus, because God is literally, really the Father of Jesus Christ. That’s the New Testament teaching.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, my teacher, used to call it the Lenin Principle. You repeat something long enough and hard enough and loud enough, people begin to believe it, and then sooner or later it just becomes a truism and everybody just accepts it as the truth even though it’s nothing but an ancient lie. So repeat a lie long enough, get it into school textbooks or something, and then you have everybody believing it without examination. I’m afraid that something like this is happening in the area of the Bible generally and the miraculous, at least for today, in particular.

So, getting to miracles. First of all, there is a word in Greek for the wonderful, wonders, the term “wonders.” It is certainly the teaching that God works wonders. The Greek word would be thavmasios or thavmasia, the wonders. There’s a verb form: thavmazo means “to marvel at” or “to wonder at” or “to be astonished or amazed at.” So there are wonders, wonderful things.

Orthodox Christians, they can’t hear that term, “wonders,” without immediately coming to mind that line from the psalm that’s sung on all the major feast days of the Orthodox Church—on Christmas and Epiphany and Pentecost and Pascha—“Who is so great a God as our God? You are the God who works wonders!” You see: “You are the God who does wonderful things!” So God is the wonder-working God. We speak about wonder-working saints: saints who work wonders. Even icons we have in our tradition: wonder-working icons. What has happened in [the] English language is the term “who works wonders,” the word “miracle” simply became a synonym for the term “wonder.” So you can say, “God is the God who does miracles.” Instead of saying, “works wonders,” you say, “does miracles.” Instead of having a “wonder-working” icon, you have a “miracle-working” icon. Instead of St. John Maximovitch, for example, being St. John the Wonder-worker, or St. Gregory Thavmatourgos, the Wonder-worker, or Nicholas of Myra in Lycia Thavmatourgos, Chudotvorets in Slavonic, a worker of chudesa, of wonders, we use the term “miracle.”

Then immediately people think: “Oh, that means suspending nature, doing something contrary to nature, breaking the laws of nature. That’s what miracles are: things that are not naturally explicable and so on.” Well, here I would like to just present the thought that that is not the way the Bible uses the term. In fact, in the Scripture, the wonders of God, the mighty works of God, the powers of God, that God who shows forth his power, his authority—these are wonders that many scientists could simply call natural. They would call them natural, like, I don’t know, the hippopotamus, the behemoth, the lion, they are mighty, their grandeur, they’re awesome, they’re terrifying, or the sun, the moon, the stars, the galaxies, or the thunder, the lightning, or the flowers and the beauty of nature—all of these things are considered to be wonders, thavmasia, wonderful things of God, amazing, astonishing, astoundingly beautiful things of God. And they’re all there and the believing person would say they are what they are because God created them to have these particular powers and authorities to act in these particular ways that just astonish us, that we admire. You know, mirare: that’s where you get that term. We are astounded, we are amazed, we are astonished, we are filled with admiration when we see these marvelous things.

Then, of course, in the Scripture, the wonders of God, the wonders to perform, that God does with his people, are very often also wonders like leading the people out of Egypt and so on, where you can say, “Well, these are miraculous acts,” but they’re also wondrous acts, and we don’t know how they’re done. Then, of course, if you read, for example, Exodus, you see that the magicians of Egypt were doing those kind of wonders the same way that Moses and Aaron were, and that wasn’t the point. That wasn’t the point of what kind of strange—even that term “strange” would be there sometimes: the “strange” activity; there’s a word in Greek for that, too: paradoxa, the strange things of God—you find that in Luke—or the megaleiotite, the marvelous, mighty things that are there. So you have these wonders which I would say in the Bible are not necessarily contra-natural or unnatural or supernatural; they’re just marvelous, grandeurious, wonderful things.

Having said that, we can go, for example, to The Origin of Species, the very ending of the book, The Origin of Species... which very interestingly in this book by Richard Dawkins, the guy who wrote The God Delusion, this atheist writer, he wrote a whole big, thick book [subtitled] The Evidence for Evolution, and he called it The Greatest Show on Earth, the most marvelous, greatest show on earth, that it’s just filled with grandeur and wonder and so on, and that book, by the way, The Greatest Show on Earth, was very positively reviewed by the Orthodox writer and cultural critic and theologian David Bentley Hart, who was very critical of Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, but very, very positively praising his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, where he says finally we have a wonderful laying-out for the popular reader of the natural world, with of course an evolutionary worldview.

But in this book, The Greatest Show on Earth, the atheist writer, Richard Dawkins, ends the book by a kind of an exegesis, an interpretation of these famous final lines in the last paragraph of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. I’ll just read those lines again, and if you want to go and read Dawkins’ interpretation of them, I would recommend it. It’s very fascinating to read, but this is what Charles Darwin wrote in the first edition of The Origin of Species. He said:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one—

By the way, in all of the later editions of The Origin of Species, that sentence was changed by Darwin himself, where he added the words “by the Creator.” So it would read this way in all the later editions:

There is a grandeur in this view of life with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one, and that, whilst the planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful (there you’ve got the word: miraculous, “most beautiful and most wonderful”) have been and are being evolved.

So this is the famous peroration, and then Dawkins comments on it, line by line. But what you find both Darwin saying and Dawkins agreeing is that you have this thing that is beautiful and wonderful, that there’s a grandeur to it, with its several powers, and it’s originally breathed into new forms, even into one. And then Dawkins didn’t like that Darwin added “by the Creator.” He felt that he was just capitulating to the readers and to the time and not to appear as bad as he was, but in fact in The Origin of Species, Darwin speaks about the Creator very frequently, several times in The Origin. Then the atheists would say, “Well, he meant that like a Spinoza-god or an Einstein-god, a force of nature; he didn’t mean the kind of a Christian God.” Nevertheless, you have a God and you have a Creator.

But the point that I want make now is that there is this wonderful, strange grandeur that makes people wonder. Here in the Bible and in the New Testament, the verb, to wonder at or to be astonished at or to just be enthralled with, that occurs many, many, many, many times. Oh, to marvel, to wonder, to be amazed. That occurs very often, but it’s the people who are amazed, and they are amazed at what Christ does in the New Testament. They’re amazed in the Old Testament at what God does, but let’s now just stick to the New Testament.

In the 27 books of the New Testament, what Jesus Christ does never—and I’ll underline that—never is called a miracle. In fact, it is never even called a wonder. It’s not even called a wonderful thing. It is not. The people wonder at it. They say that it’s marvelous and wonderful, but the Scripture itself never calls it a wonder. You cannot find one sentence in the New Testament where it says, “And Jesus did a miracle,” that Jesus did a miracle.

Now, the King James Version sometimes translate[s] the term dynamis as a miracle, a mighty work, a powerful work—but the Greek text does not use the term, neither miracle nor wonder. Here I think the Bible uses wonders for all kinds of things. So in that sense the Bible doesn’t even know the modern definition of a miracle. Everything is wonderful that God does, and it’s wonderful in all its ways, whether it can be explained or not, whether it seems to be according to the laws of nature as people understand them or whether it doesn’t.

But then that leads us to the whole issue of the laws of nature. When you read the New Testament, you have Jesus doing all kinds of things that we now would popularly call miracles, and certainly people do call them miracles. For example, he casts out demons, he opens the eyes of the blind, he makes the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, the dumb to talk, he calms the winds, he feeds in the wilderness with bread, he walks upon the waters, and he raises up the dead, and he himself gets raised up from the dead. His own resurrection is the greatest of the miracles. But in Luke and Matthew even his birth is miraculous in that sense. How is it going to happen? And it’s to Mary: “With God, all things are possible.” God can do these marvelous things, and God can make you to have a baby from God himself, because God is the cause of all the wonders that exist throughout all the universe all the time, whether you want to call them natural or unnatural. That is exactly what C.S. Lewis points out that St. Athanasius was saying way back in the fourth century.

St. Athanasius was saying that everything that God is a wonder and that the creation of the world from nothing and that there is something rather than nothing and that it works in this way and that the waters bring forth life and the earth brings forth plants and there are stars differing from star in glory and there are these galaxies. People like Athanasius and Basil and John Chrysostom, they didn’t even have nearly the idea of how grand and glorious and marvelous the whole universe is that we have today with our Hubble telescopes and our understanding of astronomy and the hundred thousand billion galaxies with the hundred thousand billion stars.

Here I want to make a correction. I think I said somewhere that probably the Church Fathers thought that the earth was flat and that there were waters above the waters and so on. Well, somebody wrote to me, and I assume they’re right—they know more than I do, so I accept their word as the truth—that, no, by that time Ptolemy and others knew that the earth was curved and it was a globe and it was round, but they still had a different idea about its relation to the sun and the moon and its place in the galaxies and all that kind of thing.

Nevertheless, what the Church Fathers knew or didn’t know, what they see—and here’s how C.S. Lewis would interpret Athanasius—what they see happening in the New Testament is that God, who works all these wonders from the beginning to the end and has a purpose for them all, because people don’t see it, they don’t glorify him. As St. Paul would say, they don’t honor and give thanks and glorify God because his dynamis and his theotis, his divinity and his power, are to be seen in all things that are made, and they start worshiping the creatures rather than the Creator, and they become idolaters. Well, what God has to do, according to Athanasius and C.S. Lewis is to become a man to live on earth and to do all these wonders in a human form through his humanity, and then to show two things: what was God’s intention from the beginning and what will be the final end. All of the works of Jesus in the New Testament, they either point back to the beginning and the original condition of humanity or they point to the end about what will be at the end, when all things are restored and things will finally be the way God created them from the beginning, which then allows us a different way of understanding what Jesus was up to.

What Jesus was doing was showing the activities of God in ways that people could not deny if they were honest, because they were right before their eyes, but they were the same kind of things that God was doing all the time. God was creating human beings with eyes to see, with ears to hear. He was creating human beings to be alive and not to die. He created human beings to have powers over creation and to rule the powers of even the demons, to have power over demons. He created people to be healthy and not to be sick, not to have infirmities, not to be epileptics, lunatics, or paralytics or demon-possessed or anything else.

When we read the New Testament, we see that what Jesus was doing in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and John, it says: He was doing mighty works. That’s what it says he was doing. It doesn’t use the term “miracle”; it uses the term dynamis. There’s another thing he was doing. He was showing his exousia, his authority. Power and authority is what he was showing, and he was showing that he had the power and the authority of God himself, which was the same power and the same authority by which God created the world in the beginning and by which God was doing all the marvelous works that he was doing, and it was that same power and authority by which nature itself was acting, that God gave these powers and authorities to creatures—to increase, to multiply, to grow.

Take for example childbirth. Plants and animals and human beings reproduce. Let’s just stick with human beings and mammals. We reproduce by sexual intercourse. A little gooey part coming out of the man’s sexual organs goes to the woman’s. It hooks up with an egg there, and all of a sudden you have a human being nine months later, and it grows and goes through all these stages inside the woman’s womb, as it says in the psalm, “marvelously and wonderfully knit within the womb,” by powers given to the creatures by God himself from the beginning, because you can’t explain by science where these powers come from, and you cannot explain how they work, either. You can study a seed and know that it grows, and if it grows a certain way something’s going to be produced, but you can’t answer how.

Way back when, the holy Fathers like Gregory the Theologian says how is the answer that no one can say. If you ask the question why, you could say because it has powers granted to it, but why does it exist at all? There’s no answer to that. And how does it do the things that it does? How do cells reproduce in our body? How does the eye work so that we can see? We can describe it—with light emitting this and that—still, to say that it does it and came to a point where it did it, you hit a certain dead end with natural science. You simply have to say, as my atheistic biology teacher used to say in high school, “It’s the nature of the beast. That’s how things work. That’s how cells work.” That’s how elements work: you take two parts hydrogen, mix it with oxygen, you’ve got water. That’s the way it works. Why does it [do] it? Well, that’s just how it does it.

Well, the believer would say it’s because it’s got these powers and these authorities given to it by God himself. There are certain powers, you might even call them rules, laws, ways of behavior within the created order and that these things happen when they go this way. If you wanted to relate it to Darwin, you could say when changes take place over long periods of time and different things happen within them, then different things also happened—and here a believer would say, yeah, but they happened by powers and authorities that are given to that reality in the first place by God, and some of the developments could be positive and some could be very negative. You could die, people could be corrupted, they could become sick, and you can have extinction and all these kind of things.

Now, if we get back to the New Testament, in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke, these acts of God are called, not wonders, not miracles, but powers, powerful works, mighty works. So you have the term dynamis, powers. They’re sometimes also called paradoxa, strange things. They’re also called megaleiotite, marvelous things or mighty things. And they’re sometimes called “virtues” in the old King James translation in English, which is just an English word for “power.” And very often they have Christ saying, “Power went out from me. I know that power went out from me.” Power went out from him. Then it even says in Mark’s gospel…

Here I would just suggest if you don’t want to read the whole Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, just read the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Mark, where this whole sixth chapter in Mark speaks about the mighty works that Jesus was doing, the hai dynameis. It even says he could not do mighty works there because of the lack of faith of the people, but then it says he gave authority and power to his disciples to do the same mighty works with the same power and authority that were operating in him. And then it says these powers were operating—the verb there would be from the term ergon or working—within him. So you have Jesus working these powers and having the authority to do so, and then giving these same powers and authorities to his disciples to do these things, and then when the people saw it they were astounded, they were amazed, they were astonished, they never saw anything like it before.

The next question would then be… And by the way, in St. John’s gospel, these are not called “mighty works” or “paradoxes” or “mighty acts”; they’re called “signs.” In St. John’s gospel they’re always called signs. What signs did Jesus do? That’s used in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke sometimes, too: “What sign did you do? What sign will you show us?” Well, a sign of what? A sign that you have the power and the authority, that you have the dynamis and the exousia. In Slavonic it would mean that you have the syla, you have the power, and then you have the vlast, you have the authority. In Latin, it would be that you have the vis, the power—it’s where you get the term “virtue” in the plural—and then you have the auctoritas, the power over all things, the power over nature, the power over reality.

In these acts that Jesus does, it’s very interesting to note that he is not breaking the laws of nature. What he is doing actually, for the most part, [is] restoring the laws of nature, because nature has been corrupted, nature has become sick, it has become unhealthy, it has become mortal, it has become corrupted, it has become demon-possessed, and it has become dead. It dies. So you can actually say Christ comes into the world to restore reality the way God—and St. Paul would say through him and for him and in him and by him, and St. John would say the same thing: he’s the Logos by whom all things were made; all things were made through him, by him, for him—that he now comes—and Athanasius would say that’s why he has to come: the Creator has to be the Restorer, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Healer. What does he do? He restores, he saves, he heals, he cures, he makes whole.

So what he’s actually doing in these mighty acts is showing how reality was meant to be in the beginning, how it was actually even created in the beginning, how it got all destroyed and corrupted and screwed up by creatures and mainly by human beings and by demons and when human beings lost the power over the demons. So he comes and gives that power back and he restores. He’s not so much breaking or violating the laws of nature as restoring the laws of nature. When a human being goes blind, the laws of nature are ruined. When a human being is a lunatic or an epileptic or a paralytic, or when a person is demon-possessed and has all kinds of dark powers casting him around and his brains are all scrambled and everything, Jesus comes to restore, to heal, to make be what should be from the beginning and what will be at the end when he comes again in glory.

So all of the mighty works of Jesus, which we call popularly miracles, are done to show how life was supposed to be, how it was intended from the beginning and how it will be at the end. And he does all these signs in his human life and, very important, he does them to show that he can, because he’s God in human flesh, because he’s God’s Son, he’s the Logos, he is the Lord of the living and the dead, he is the Lord over all creation, he’s the Lord of lords, the King of kings in human form, God’s own Son, God’s own power, God’s own truth, God’s own light, God’s own wisdom, God’s own glory. That’s who Jesus Christ is, and he had to be born into the world of a virgin, because if he had a human father, he wouldn’t be who he is, because he’s God’s Son. So that had to take place, but he comes to restore, to heal, to resurrect, to renew. This is what he does.

In some sense, he’s not destroying the laws of nature; he’s restoring them. He’s not breaking; he’s healing. He’s liberating; he’s not enslaving. He’s making whole. He’s purifying; he’s not defiling. Here you have another very important point, that Jesus does all these miracles, as we would call them, these wonders, and here let’s say it again: the Bible does not call them that; they call them powers, authorities, mighty works, and signs, but they never use the term “miracle”; they are never called “wonders.” The reaction to them is that people marvel and wonder what’s going on, but they’re actually restoring, they’re healing, they’re saving. Then he never does them for no purpose, so to speak. In fancy language, they all have a soteriological meaning; they’re salvific. And they’re prefigurative, they’re prophetic: they show what it’s going to be for everyone at the end.

So all the people that Jesus healed, they got sick and they died again. The people that he raised from the dead, they died again: Lazarus died, Jairus’ daughter died, the only son of the widow of Nain died. They were restored to life for more life in this corrupted world, but the corrupted world has to be saved. The whole reality has to be saved. The demons have to be purged from the whole of creation, not just from this person or that person. And living longer in this world is simply to be longer in the corrupted condition. As John Chrysostom said, if you believe a miracle has happened to you to heal you for longer life in this world, know that it’s always for more crosses, more suffering, more affliction, more witness. So the signs are a witness. In St. John’s gospel, the signs are a testimony; they’re a witness, like in a court of law: they bear witness to who Christ is as God’s Son, as God in human flesh, as the divine Logos.

But they’re not magical, mystical acts, just an end in themselves. And you will never find in the New Testament Jesus saying, “Step right up and I’ll show you a miracle! Come right here! Put your hand out!” He never does that, never. In fact, it says in Mark that in certain places he cannot even do the mighty acts because the faith isn’t there. He’s got to deal with the faith. Now, sometimes he can just do what he wants to show, but that could be to elicit faith or it also could be done to provoke his enemies to kill him, like he raises Lazarus to provoke people who hate light and who hate life to kill him. But they always have a messianic purpose; they always have a signicative, a significant, a signifying purpose, a symbolic, theological purpose—unlike the apocryphal literature, where you just have magical signs just for no good reason whatsoever.

The mighty works of Christ in the New Testament always, always have a purpose, a messianic purpose. They’re not just done as a sign in and of itself. They’re not done just to show miraculous as such. And nowhere in Church history do you have a saint doing miracles just to do miracles as such. Miracles, as a matter of fact, prove nothing to anyone, because if a person could even see something that is marvelous, wonderful, amazing—a blind man sees, a corpse is raised, the powers of the universe are controlled, the winds are kept, the water, you could even walk on the water and have control over the water—they don’t believe. In fact, in the parable in Luke, it says that even if someone rises from the dead, if people don’t follow the laws of God and have faith in God and have their own philosophy that they’re going to hold onto no matter what and they’re going to believe what they want to believe even if somebody rises from the dead right before their eyes, well, there’s nothing that even God can do about that.

Jesus says, “I danced for you… I piped for you, you didn’t dance. I wept, but you didn’t weep. What do you want?” He says, “How can you believe when you don’t give glory to God? How can you believe when you seek your own will and your own glory?” But he said, “If any man’s will is to do God’s will, he’ll know that this is all from God,” and he will see in the acts of Jesus what you can see writ large in the cosmos as such. Jesus does in a compact human form what God is doing in the cosmic universal form from the beginning of creation and every day of our life. These miracles in that sense are happening before our very eyes: the mighty acts of God.

So this is how I think that we would want to look at it. The only plea that I make today is this: Let’s understand what we mean by miracles. Let’s understand how the Scripture uses that term. Let’s understand what the purpose of miracles [is]. Let us see that for the most part miracles are not breaking the laws of nature but restoring the laws of nature and bringing them to be what God intended them to be from the beginning. Let us see that everything was created, in that sense miraculous from the beginning. Let us come to see that nature itself is miraculous in that sense.

Nature itself is doing these mighty, marvelous works of God, and God gives those powers to nature to do it, but when we don’t see it, when we don’t love it, when we don’t thank God and glorify God, as St. Paul says in the first chapter of the letter to the Romans, then God’s got to do something about it. And we Christians believe that what he does do is that he works these kind of mighty acts. He worked them in the Old Testament. He worked them with Elijah and the Ba’alim. He worked them with Moses. He worked them with the prophets. And he certainly worked them in his Son Jesus Christ and in the apostles and in the saints of the New Testament—definitely.

And you can’t be prejudiced. You can’t begin by saying there’s no such thing as a wonderful, mighty act that goes contrary to the laws of nature in their fallen form. We should remember: When we study nature now, we’re studying it in its corrupted form. When we study the universe now, we’re studying a universe that is not the way God intended it to be from the beginning, and not the way that it will be at the end, when the kingdom of God is established. We’re studying a corrupted world, and that’s particularly important when we do so-called human sciences like psychology and so on. We’re studying fallen people. That’s what we’re doing. It’s not natural for people to be blind. It’s not natural for them to be deaf. It’s not natural for them to be dead. And we could even say it’s not natural for them to be fornicators or adulterers or committing bestial sexual acts or acts of sex with a person of their own gender. This is not God’s will; this is not the way it was made to be. It’s not God’s plan.

So the only plea today is, especially if we’re going to try to come to terms with how Christian theology should interact with natural science, at the very center of the issue is the issue of miracles. But let’s understand miracles as they’re used in Scripture and in Tradition and in Christian theology. Let’s not give meaning to a miracle that is not the meaning that is given in the word of God and not given to us in holy Scripture. Let’s read it the way it’s written. Let’s interpret it the way it’s given to us within the traditional interpretation of the covenanted community of God, and then with that theology let us engage the claims of natural science.