Miracles Schmiracles

I am glad we are having this discussion, and only regret that I have been so slow to respond. Anyone following along may very well believe that I gave up.  But here I am again, with a few follow-up thoughts.  I appreciate Pastor Brandenburg’s response to my article, and I would encourage anyone following this discussion to read what he wrote.  I also want to commend James Bronsveld for a great contribution.  You can read his comment here.

From what Pastor Brandenburg writes, I gather that he opposes the use of the term “miracle” to describe the supernatural work of God because of the way the King James Bible uses the term.  The King James Bible carefully avoids any use of the word “miracle” other than to describe signs and wonders.  Pastor Brandenburg seems to argue that we should limit our use of the term to the way the English of the King James uses it.

Smith’s Bible Dictionary similarly restricts miracles to “signs and wonders,” and supports Pastor Brandenburg’s insistence on limiting our use of the word “miracle.”

A miracle may be defined to be a plain and manifest exercise by a man, or by God at the call of a man, of those powers which belong only to the Creator and Lord of nature; and this for the declared object of attesting that a divine mission is given to that man. It is not, therefore, the wonder, the exception to common experience, that constitutes the miracle, as is assumed both in the popular use of the word and by most objectors against miracles.

No phenomenon in nature, however unusual, no event in the course of God’s providence, however unexpected, is a miracle unless it can be traced to the agency of man, (including prayer, under the term agency), and unless it be put forth as a proof of divine mission. Prodigies and special providences are not miracles.

So, he is not alone in his view of the word “miracle.”  I do not oppose this restricted view of miracles absolutely.  Certainly, Biblical miracles include a very limited range of acts. I too believe that Christians use the term “miracle” too casually, so it is good to consider this topic.  But then again, I don’t agree absolutely, and I want to explain my reasons.

As I see it, we have two questions before us: first, can “miracle” refer to the supernatural?  Secondly, would that be evidence of “soft continuationism”?  My answer to the first question is “yes;” to the second, “no.”

“Miracle” and the supernatural

Words have a denotation and a connotation.  I will gladly concede that in its proper Scriptural sense, “miracle” refers only to Signs and Wonders.  That is the denotation of miracle, and the King James stays true to that denotation.

But William Smith aside, there is also a popular use – and popular understanding – of the word “miracle.”  Pastor Brandenburg may wish to demolish that popular use.  But then, that would be a concession of sorts, that this is the way we use the term which now needs to be corrected.  It seems to me that if this is his desire, he should explain why we should stop using the term the way we do.  Does the English of the King James restrict our use of language?  If so, what Scriptural warrant is there for using words like “supernatural” – a term not found in the King James Bible – to describe salvation?

In order to discuss this topic fully, we must consider the power of connotation.  When I say that salvation is a miracle, nobody thinks that I am offering to work one for them.  On the other hand, if I say that salvation is “supernatural” most people in our culture would look for UFO’s or start discussing the paranormal.  Hey, I just typed “supernatural” into Google and discovered that there are 13 complete series of TV shows by that name, dealing with – guess what – the paranormal!  You can check it out here.  Whether we like it or not, our culture’s understanding of these terms differ from the true denotation.

If, on the other hand, I say that salvation is a miracle, the listener understands that I mean to say that it is a work of God alone.  Modern culture connects “miracle” to God.  I suppose we have the Lord Jesus to thank for that.  To say that salvation is a miracle is to say that it is supernatural in its nature and not the result of some natural process the way Charles Finney claimed.  That would be a good reason to say that salvation is a miracle – in order to make it clear that salvation is the work of God and not the work of man, urging believer and unbeliever alike to look to the Lord for forgiveness and redemption.

On the other hand, to say that salvation is not a miracle gives the impression to the average listener that salvation is the work of man and not the work of God.  When Pastor Brandenburg asserted that “salvation is not a miracle,” that is how I read what he was saying.  I know him well enough to know that he would not argue that salvation is a work of man.  Nonetheless, I was startled by that assertion and read it as overstatement.

The question is not whether salvation is a miracle in the same sense that Jesus walking on water or healing the man born blind was.  Clearly it is not.  The question is, can we lawfully and Scripturally claim that a supernatural event such as salvation has a miraculous quality to it.  I understand the need for precision, but are we bound always to use the proper denotation in our discussions of Scripture and the works of God?  In other words, must we restrict our use of language to strict meanings, or can we lawfully acknowledge changes in connotation?

Forgive me while I go ape for a minute: but the assumption that we must always use language in its strict meaning is actually a very modernist assumption.  It is not Scriptural.  Our modern world demands scientific precision and mathematical accuracy.  Everything must be submitted to the scientific method, strictly defined, logically arranged, precise meaning.  The Bible refers to the eyes of the Lord, calls Him a Rock, a fortress, a high tower, a shield and buckler.  He is a lion.  He is a lamb.  He is water.  He is light.  He is bread.  None of these descriptions are scientifically accurate, nor do they fit with the demand for mathematical precision.  If I pick up a rock, I don’t think, “this is just like God.”  And yet, by calling Himself a Rock, God communicates His own immutability far more accurately than a technical discussion of immutability ever could.  Even a child can understand that God is a Rock.  As long as we keep the connotations distinct from the denotations.

Put simply, this is the difference of the “analytic paradigm” and the “poetic paradigm,” and the Bible uses the poetic paradigm far more frequently.  This is with good reason: the Bible is not a textbook of systematic theology.  God communicates with us in terms we can understand.  He remembers our frame.

I hope my answer will not be unnecessarily tedious here, but I want to “interact” a bit with the arguments made by Pastor Brandenburg, particularly regarding the Greek word dunamis.  Pastor Brandenburg pointed out the two words translated “miracle” in the New Testament, and pointed us to an article on his blog in which Thomas Ross gives a very thorough examination of the variety of Greek and Hebrew words translated “miracle” in our King James Bible.  I appreciate Thomas’ work on this.  I also did some homework myself and found that the words dunamis and dunamai are used more than 300 times in the New Testament.  Of the times those words are used in the New Testament, only dunamis is translated “miracle,” and only 7 times out of about 120 verses.  This is an example of a point I made earlier – that the King James Bible is careful with what it refers to as a “miracle.”  Only those events that are clearly miracle-working events are called “miracles” in the King James.

Yet the majority of the time, dunamis indicates supernatural power.  To the early New Testament believer, it is hard to say what distinction would be made between the dunamis of, say Matthew 13:54 and the dunamis of Romans 1:16 or I Corinthians 1:18.  To translate dunamis as “miracle” at all seems to blur the line between the supernatural and the miraculous.

I notice that Thomas Ross (in this article) also recognizes that there is a looser sense in which the term “miracle” can refer to the supernatural.

In conclusion, while there are words that designate miracles in the Old and New Testament that encompass ideas broader than the strict sense of a miracle as a sign and wonder, the strict sense designated by mofeth or a semeion, this strict sense has particular words assigned to it in the canon and has clear Biblical support.  Do miracles occur today?  In the sense in which the English of the Authorized Version employs the word “miracle,” the answer is “no.”  In the sense of the Hebrew word mofeth and the Greek word semeion, the answer is “no.”  In the sense of a few other Hebrew and Greek words, the answer is “yes,” although in those instances the KJV did not translate the words as “miracle.”  Do miracles take place today?  In the sense of a sign and a wonder, the answer is “no.”  In a looser sense, the answer is “yes.”

The question then is this: are we bound by the language of the King James Bible?  Must we restrict our use of terms found in the King James to the precise meaning of the King James?  Perhaps Pastor Brandenburg can give the Scriptural arguments for this kind of restriction on our use of English.

As for me, I am fine with saying that God is a Rock.  He isn’t, of course.  Not if we insist on the denotation.  But the Bible uses the poetic paradigm to express much truth – to our unspeakable blessing.  And in some ways, we can learn far more about God when we say that He is a Rock – which is the Biblical term – than we can by saying that He is immutable – a term nowhere to be found in Scripture.  In the same sense, to say that salvation is a miracle – again, a Scriptural term – communicates very clearly to the listener that salvation is a supernatural event – again, a term nowhere to be found in the Bible.  And I think “miracle” communicates far more effectively, given our modern-day understanding of the supernatural.

Though Thomas Ross sometimes sacrifices readability for precision, that is what I understand him to be saying in this paragraph…

…it is better to conclude from the existence of this category that regeneration is a miraculous work of Divine power and that the Spirit’s power in progressively eradicating indwelling sin in Christians, producing spiritual fruit, and performing other works associated with salvation is a similar work of Divine power, rather than a priori concluding that Christian salvation is non-miraculous, and from this a priori establishing a category, otherwise not clearly attested in the New Testament, where dunamis refers to non-miraculous actions.  The identification of salvation with the miraculous is clearly supported elsewhere in Scripture with texts that indicate that personal regeneration is in the same category as a work of Divine power with the transformation or cosmic regeneration involved in establishing the Millennial earth (Matthew 19:28; Titus 3:5; palingennesia) or the fact that both bringing into being a universe and bringing into being a clean heart are works of creation (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 51:10; bara’).  Furthermore, the identification of dunamis with the miraculous establishes that a Biblical miracle, as a work of God’s power, is not necessarily a rare event, for the exercise of Almighty power in sustaining the universe employs dunamis (Hebrews 1:3).  While God constantly sustains the universe, Scripture indicates that this is a miracle in the sense of dunamis.  Furthermore, while they are not able to replicate everything done by the Almighty, the powers of darkness can perform miracles (2 Thessalonians 2:9).

Miracle and Soft Continuationism

Even if the term “miracle” can only refer to signs and wonders, we should not necessarily assign the label of “soft continuationism” to believe “miracle” can refer to supernatural works of God.  Soft continuationism would be, “I can perform miracles — sometimes through prayer.”  I certainly don’t claim that kind of power.  I pray for healing for those who are sick, but I don’t believe I have a gift.  If the person is healed, the glory goes to God.  My prayers have no healing power – though they do have power to encourage, and they effectively lift a person in need before the Lord.  I believe that God is still a miracle-working God.  I do not believe that men have this gift any more.

On the subject of prayer for the sick, if a cure for blindness is discovered, and a friend of mine born blind goes to the doctor, there certainly cannot be a problem with my praying that the cure will work.  My wife, who has Lyme disease, often goes to the doctor and pursues new treatments.  If I am willing to try a new treatment and to pay for it, why would I not also thank the Lord for medical advancements and ask Him to work through that God-ordained process.  Yes, there are times when the will of God is evident in our sickness.  For instance, old age cannot be cured.  But God in His goodness and providence has also extended means by which the sick can be healed (antibiotics, chemotherapy, etc.).  If it is lawful to seek healing through these processes, it is also lawful to ask the Lord’s blessing on the treatment.  I like the way Zachary Damm, who teaches in our Christian school, said it: “We are asking for supernatural healing while using natural, God-ordained processes, within submission to the will of God.”  David’s prayer for his sick child certainly gives a wonderful example of submission to the will of God as we pray for the sick.

In fairness, Pastor Brandenburg doesn’t seem to be arguing that any one of the things he listed can by itself serve as evidence of soft-continuationism.  I certainly agree with his larger point, that we have a lot of unscriptural views of the work and operation of the Holy Spirit.  It causes a lot of confusion and sends people out on many Quixotic pursuits.  Which, by the way, is my reason for interacting with what he has written – not because I want anyone to reject his larger point, but because I believe many would be tempted to reject it based on some of the objections I have raised.

Some might consider it to be indulgence, but I would lobby for charity – believe all things, hope all things – in the case of those who misunderstand these terms and “operations” of the Spirit.  Don’t label me a soft-continuationist because I believe that miracles can include the supernatural works of God.