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Science, Theology, and the Miraculous
by John Warwick Montgomery

An excerpt from Faith Founded on Fact

Chapter 2


From earliest Christian history-indeed, from the pages of the Bible itself-miracles have been the mainstay of Christian apologetics. Taking their cue from Jesus' own assertion that the "one sign" to His generation of the truth of His claims would be the "sign of Jonah" (Jesus' resurrection, Matt. 12:39, 40 and from Paul's catalog of witnesses to that Great Miracle apart from which Christians would be "of all men most miserable" (see I Cor. 15), patristic apologists such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea confidently argued from the historical facticity of our Lord's miracles to the veracity of His claims and the consequent moral obligation to accept them. Every major apologist in Christian history from that day to the mid-eighteenth century did likewise, whatever the particular philosophical or theological commitment he espoused. The list includes Augustine the Neo-Platonist, Thomas Aquinas the Aristotelian, Hugo Grotius the Arminian Protestant, Blaise Pascal the Catholic Jansenist, and Joseph Butler the high church Anglican.

But when the onset of modern rationalism in the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century came David Hume's attack on miracle evidence for religious truth-claims. Coupled with Immanuel Kant's critique of the Aristotelian-Thomist theistic proofs for God's existence and Gotthold Lessing's argument that historical data are never certain enough to establish eternal verities, Hume's refutation of the miraculous altered the entire course of Christian apologetics. Indeed, Hume's Enquiry can be said without exaggeration to mark the end of the era of classical Christian apologetics.

Hume's criticism was of course itself immediately subjected to retort and rejoinder. It was only slowly that its devastating character became clear. The end result is to be detected in...significant changes in apologetic emphasis and strategy. There is a movement away from presenting prophecy and miracle as external proofs, like flying buttresses, sufficient in themselves to prop up the Christian edifice.

A cruel dilemma thus arises for the modern Christian: far more than his predecessors living in ages of faith he needs to be able to give a reason for his Christian hope, but the chief apologetic support available from miracle evidence seems to be denied him.


The overall Christian response to Hume has been terror and flight. Apologists have generally taken their cue from Soren Kierkegaard's willingness to substitute for objective proofs of faith the believer's personal, existential experience and to claim that, in the final analysis, "truth is experience and to claim that, in the final analysis, "truth is subjectivity." Thus miracles in the heart have replaced miracles in history in the weaponry not only of theological radicals such as Rudolf Bultmann and neoorthodox advocates of the "theology of crisis," but also of evangelical pietists who sing with A. H. Ackley, "You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart." Unhappily for these positions, however, the analytical philosophy of the twentieth century devastated attempts to "validate God-talk" by subjective faith experience on the ground that all pure subjectivities are in principle untestable. Their inner truth-claims, being compatible with any and every state of affairs in the external world, are epistemologically meaningless. Miracles in the heart, as I have noted elsewhere, are philosophically indistinguishable from heartburn, and thus offer little in the way of a substantial apologetic to modern secularists who have not yet experienced Jesus Christ personally.

A few modern Christian apologists, recognizing the defeat inherent in a capitulation to subjectivity, have attempted to persevere along the lines of the classic appeal to prophecy and miracle. John Henry Newman in the nineteenth century and C. S. Lewis in the twentieth are prime examples, and their positive impact should encourage the faint of heart. Lewis-and a respectable number of contemporary philosophers-have not yielded to Hume; they have offered trechant direct attacks on the logic of his argument against the miraculous. My approach has followed this same line: I have maintained (1) that when Hume assumes that there is an "unalterable experience" against miracles and concludes that miracles do not occur, he is engaged in completely circular reasoning, and that only a truly inductive approach (examining without prejudice the firsthand evidence for alleged miracles) can ever answer the question as to whether they in fact occur; and (2) that miracles cannot be ruled out a priori in our contemporary Einsteinian universe where, in the words of philosopher Max Blac, the concept of cause is "a peculiar, unsystematic, and erratic notion," so that "any attempt to state a 'universal law of causation' must prove futile." Indeed, the central thrust of my apologetic has been to argue for the compelling nature of Jesus' religious claims on the basis of His deity, and His deity on the basis of the miracle of His resurrection from the dead.

A number of objections to this rehabilitation of the classical miracle-focused apologetic have been raised both within and without the Christian community. The present essay offers an opportunity to reply to them and thereby remove some misconceptions as well as strengthen a case which, I remain convinced, ultimately takes its mandate from biblical revelation itself. We shall not spend any time on the recurrent objection of theological liberals and mediating evangelicals that our case for the biblical miracles involves a naive acceptance of the historicity of the scriptural texts and a neglect of the historicity of the scriptural texts and a neglect of the "assured results of modern criticism." I have pointed out again and again that such "assured results" are nonexistent, that redaction criticism, documentary criticism, and historical-critical method have been weighed in the balance of secular scholarship and found wanting, and that the burden of proof remains on those who want to justify these subjectivistic methods, not on those who take historical documents at face value when their primary source character can be established by objective determination of authorship and date. We leave this historical issue-which does not really constitute an issue except for those in a modern theological backwater-and proceed to those philosophical criticisms of the miracle-apologetic which seem to have the greatest force. Five such criticisms will be dealt with here: (1) Miracles require law but law negates miracles; (2) The defender of miracles holds to uniform law while denying it; (3) Miracles even if provable don't prove deity; (4) Miracles can always be reduced to natural events, and (5) Science requires us to reduce miracles to natural events.


We are told that we cannot demonstrate a miraculous occurrence simply by marshaling historical evidence for it and then making special claims for its significance. For such an event to be significant, it must contravene natural law, and so the apologist must first agree to the existence of uniform law to keep his miracle from becoming trivial; but the moment he commits himself to absolute natural law he has perforce ruled out the miracle he wants to prove! His choice (so the argument goes) is between no miracle at all or a "miracle" that contravenes no law and is therefore trivial!

In reply we must first emphasize the point made earlier: no one (believer or unbeliever) who lives in today's Einsteinian universe can benefit from the luxury of an absolute natural law. By this we do not mean to present the naive argument that the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle has "negated" Newtonian physics (quantum physics has, rather, introduced a statistical formulation of the same problems); what we are saying is that "abandonment of the deterministic world-view in physics has made it more difficult to regard the existing state of science as finally legislative of what is and what is not possible in nature." Although formulations of natural laws were as subject to the finite limitations of the observer in Newton's day as they are today, the successes of eighteenth-century science bred overconfidence. Hume, drinking deeply at the founts of Newton, transmuted general experience of cosmic regularity (which did and does exist) into "unalterable experience" against miracles (which could not be established even in principle). Today, in the wake of the general and special theories of relativity, there is much less likelihood of scientific or philosophical claims to the "unalterability" of any physical laws.

To be sure, the absence of any meaningful concept of absolute universal law (from the human observer's standpoint) requires the redefinition of what is meant by "miracle." A miracle can no longer be understood as a "violation of natural law," for we are unable to assert that physical laws, being but the generalized product of our observations, are indeed "natural"-that is, absolute and unalterable. R. F. Holland effectively redefines miracle as an event which is (1) empirically certain (actually having occurred), (2) conceptually impossible (inexplicable without appealing beyond our experience), and (3) religious (calling for a religious explanation). Margaret Boden Simplifies the definition by regarding a miracle as an event (1) inexplicable in scientific terms but (2) explicable in religious terms. A miracle cannot be viewed today as a violation of cosmic or physical law; it is best regarded phenomenally as a unique, nonanalogous occurrence. All historical events are unique, and (to paraphrase George Orwell) some events-such as Napoleon's career-are more unique than others; but all nonmiraculous historical events, even the most surprising ones, are analogous to other events in the explanatory patterns we successfully apply to them. The miracle is both unique and without analogy (except, of course, insofar as it is analogous to a similar unexplained miraculous event, as in the case of the obvious parallel between Jesus' resurrection and Lazarus' resurrection-brought about, not so incidentally, by Jesus). When compared with nonmiraculous events, the miracle offers a unique, nonanalogous resistance to successful explanation by all the techniques which would readily account for it if it were other than miraculous.

To return, however, to our objector's argument. Have we not fallen into the very trap he set for us? By refusing to go along with an absolute notion of natural law, have we not rendered alleged miracles trivial, since they no longer stand out as a stark violation of cosmic regularity? Hardly, as the immediately preceding mention of historical uniqueness clearly shows. A historical event does not need to be miraculous to be significant: significance is a function of its actual or potential impact on other events and persons (including the observer and student of the event). Thus the battle of Waterloo, though not especially dissimilar to other military engagements in certain respects, is nonetheless of great significance, at least to Englishmen and Frenchmen, because of its effect on their national pride and history. Napoleon's life, with the added dimension of particular historical uniqueness, has even more potential significance-not only for Frenchmen, but also for all those who are fascinated by the wonders of greatness.

Ian Ramsey perceptively observed that scientific regularity tends to reduce rather than heighten significance, whereas history, with its stress on the particular and the concrete, is the stuff out of which significance is made: "Scientific language may detail uniformities more and more comprehensively, but its very success in so doing means that its pictures are more and more outline sketches of concrete, given fact...In history we are not concerned with abstract uniformities but with a concrete level of personal transactions."

Whether a historical miracle will be "significant," then, will depend not on its relation to supposed natural law, but to its inherent, concrete character. If an event touches the wellsprings of universal human need, its significance can hardly be doubted. And even on the most minimal level, the nonanalogous nature of any miracle serves attract attention, to raise questions, and perhaps to remind the indifferent of the Socratic truth that the unexamined life is not worth living. Thus does the Scripture refer to even the least redemptive of Jesus' miracles as Semeia ("signs") that point to Him and to the truth of His divine claims.


Recent opposition to the kind of miracle apologetic I espouse has taken the following sophisticated form in the work of philosopher Antony Flew:

The basic propositions are: first, that the present relics of the past cannot be interpreted as historical evidence at all, unless we presume that the same fundamental regularities obtained then as still obtain today; second, that in trying as best he may 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; and, third, that, since miracle has to be defined in terms of practical impossibility the application of these criteria inevitably precludes proof of a miracle.

Flew's argument is really two arguments in disguise, and we shall take up each in turn. On the one hand, he seems to be saying that the proponent of miracles has no right to argue for them on the basis of a consistent underlying method of investigation (empirical method), since one cannot assume its absolute regularity and applicability and then use it to prove deviations from regularity. Once a miracle is granted, there would be no reason to consider empirical method as necessarily applicable without exception, so it could perfectly well be inapplicable to the investigation of the miracle claim in the first place!

But here a lamentable confusion is introduced between what may be termed formal or heuristic regularity and substantive regularity. To investigate anything of a factual nature, empirical method must be employed. It involves such formal or heuristic assumptions as the law of noncontradiction, the inferential operations of deduction and induction, and necessary commitments to the existence of the investigator and the external world. Empirical method is not "provable." The justification for its use is the fact that we cannot avoid it when we investigate the world. (To prove that what we perceive with our senses is real, we would have to collect and analyze data in its behalf, but we would then already be using what we are trying to prove!) One cannot emphasize too strongly that this necessary methodology does not in any way commit one to a substantively regular universe: to a universe where events must always investigates the world in the same way-by collecting and analyzing data-but there is no prior commitment to what the data must turn out to be.

Thus a team of researchers could conceivably go down the rabbit hole with Alice and empirically study even Wonderland, where Alice cried, "Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual I wonder if I've been changed in the night?" Even a world of maximal miracles-where predictability would approach zero-could be investigated by empirical method, for the consistent collection and analysis of data can occur even when the data are not themselves consistent and regular. In short, whereas irregularity in basic empirical methodology would eliminate the investigation of anything, the discovery of unique, nonanalogous events by empirical method in no way vitiates its operation or renders the investigator liable to the charge of irrationality.

Flew has elsewhere expressed a more potent variation on this same argument in the following terms: the defender of the miraculous is acting arbitrarily when he claims 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." The criticism here is that the advocate of miracles must commit himself to certain aspects of substantive regularity in order to analyze the evidence for a historical miracle. He must, for example, assume that human motivations remain the same in order to argue (as I have) that neither the Romans, the Jewish religious leaders, nor the disciples would have stolen Jesus' body in order to claim that Jesus was miraculously resurrected. But, we are told, such argumentation inconsistently uses regularity of experience where it serves a purpose and discards it at the point of the desired miracle, instead of there also insisting on a natural, ordinary explanation.

In reply we might begin by noting that this argument seems somewhat inappropriate for the rationalist to propose. Since he himself is committed to employ only "ordinary" explanations of phenomena-explanations arising from "common experience"-he is in a particularly poor position to suggest any abnormal explanations for any aspect of a miracle account, including the psychological motivations or responses of the persons involved. Presumably the rationalist would be the last one to appeal to a "miraculous" suspension of ordinary psychology so as to permit the Jewish religious leaders (for example) to have stolen the body of Christ when they knew it to be against their own best interests.

However, the issue lies at a deeper level than this, and we may be able to arrive there by posing the question in the starkest terms. If we interpret or explain historical events along ordinary lines (in accord with ordinary experience) where this does not contradict the events to be interpreted, are we therefore required to conclude that unique, nonanalogous events do not occur even when ordinary observational evidence exists in their behalf? Flew demands that we answer this question in the affirmative. To use common experience of regularities at all in historical interpretation, says he, precludes all possibility of discovering a miracle, even if the use of such common experience provides the very convergence of independent probabilities (as Newman would put it) for asserting that the event in question is a miracle.

Curiouser and curiouser, if we may again appeal to Alice! The fallacy in this reasoning arises from a lack of clear perception as to the proper interrelation of the general and the particular in historical investigation. In interpreting events, one's proper goal is to find the interpretation that best fits the facts. Ideally, then, one will set alternative explanations of an event against the facts themselves to make an intelligent choice. But which "facts" will our explanations be tested against-the immediate facts to be interpreted, or the entire, general range of human experience? Where particular experience and general experience are in accord, there is no problem; but where they conflict, the particular must be chosen over the general, for otherwise our "investigations" of historical particulars will be investigations in name only since the results will always reflect already accepted general experience. Unless we are willing to suspend "regular" explanations at the particular points where these explanations are inappropriate to the particular data, we in principle eliminate even the possibility of discovering anything new. In effect, we then limit all new (particular) knowledge to the sphere of already accepted (general) knowledge. The proper approach is just the opposite: the particular must triumph over the general, even when the general has given us immense help in understanding the particular.

In linguistics, for example, our general knowledge of how words function in cognate languages can help us immensely when we want to discover the meaning and function of a word in a new language. In the final analysis, however, only the particular usage of the word in that language will be decisive on the question, and where general semantics or lexicography is in tension with particular usage, the latter must triumph over the former. But who would say that the linguist therefore has no right to use general linguistics since he ultimately is willing to subordinate it and revise it on the basis of isolated, particular usage? He would in fact be abrogating his role as linguist if he did allow the general to swallow up the particular at the point of tension between them. Likewise, in the investigation of unique, nonanalogous events (miracles), one has every right to employ regular experience in testing out such claims, but no right to destroy the uniqueness of the event by forcing it to conform to general regularities.

How does a historian properly determine what has occurred and interpret it? Admittedly, he takes to a study of any particular event his fund of general, "usual" experience. He relies upon it wherever it serves a useful function and not because he has any eternal, metaphysical justification for doing so. But the moment the general runs into tension with the particular, the general must yield, since (1) the historian's knowledge of the general is never complete, so he can never be sure he ought to rule out an event or an interpretation simply because it is new to him, and (2) he must always guard against obliterating the uniqueness of individual historical events by forcing them into a Procrustean bed of regular, general patterns. Only the primary-source evidence for an event can ultimately determine whether it occurred or not, and only that same evidence will establish the proper interpretation of the event.

Thus, in the argument for Christ's resurrection, nothing in the primary documents forces the historian to miraculous explanations of motives or actions of the Romans, the Jewish religious leaders, or the disciples (indeed, the documents show them to have acted with exemplary normality-as typically sinful and insensitive members of a fallen race). But these same primary documents do force us to a miraculous understanding of the Resurrection, since any alternative explanation runs directly counter to all of the primary-source facts at our disposal. The documents, in short, force us to go against biological generalizations as to corpses remaining dead, but do not require us to deviate from psychological generalizations as to individual and crowd behavior. Contrary to what Flew imagines, we do not arbitrarily prefer biological miracles over psychological miracles; we accept no miracles unless the primary evidence compels us to it, and if that evidence requires psychological miracles rather than biological ones, we would go that route.

French judge Jacques Batigne describes a bizarre case in which a corrupt magistrate's clerk, in the face of overwhelming scientific proof of his guilt, stubbornly maintained his innocence for almost a year, even when it was unquestionably in his best interest to come clean and he knew it. Those involved in the case were so impressed by the clerk's fine past record and sincerity that they did everything possible to believe that a "physical miracle" accounted for the evidence against him, but the facts finally brought them to the conclusion that the "miracle" was psychological: the clerk inexplicably preferred to act against his own interest.

The Gospel narratives give us no such situation. There a biological miracle is forced upon us, like it or not. The primary facts, and those facts alone, can arbitrate such questions; generalizations, though helpful to us in reaching the point of primary investigation, must bow to the facts there revealed.

to continue...

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