Let us take a few biblical quotations as a starting point.
- In the finale of Mark’s Gospel, the Apostles, after the Ascension, “they going forth preached everywhere: the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed” (Mk 16:20). These signs are precisely the miracles that accredit the heralds of the Gospel. In the same sense, in Acts 2:22, Peter, presenting “Jesus of Nazareth” as ” a man approved of God among you [the men of Israel], by miracles, and wonders, and signs, which God did by him, in the midst of you,” distinguishes, with these three terms, the admiration aroused by the unusual fact (miracles), the operation itself as the result of divine omnipotence (wonders) and its significant value (signs);
- In Mt 13:58, we read that ” And he [Jesus]wrought not many miracles there [in Nazareth], because of their unbelief,” making faith a prerequisite for miracles, while faith ” as a grain of mustard seed” seems to be required to perform the miracle of moving mountains (cf. Mt 17:20). Hence the ambivalent relationship between miracles and faith: miracles rationally support faith, but faith gives miracles their theological significance. Like prophecy, then, the miracle is a reason for credibility, but cannot be reduced to this function. Finally, we cannot underestimate the dialectic in St. John’s Gospel between “seeing,” in particular works, and “believing” in the Word, which seems to place the presence of signs and the adherence of faith in a relationship of proportional inversion.
There are a number of objections to the ability of miracles to lend credibility to a proposition of faith.
The first concerns the link between the miracle and the message it is supposed to confirm. If, according to Mt 24:24, ” For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders,” like Pharaoh’s magicians, how do miracles accredit true prophets? For that matter, a miracle may well testify to the agility or skill of a (true) prophet, without necessarily attesting to the relevance of the prophecy itself.
The second type of difficulty revolves around the knowledge of what is described as miraculous. Is it not because of a temporary lack of scientific explanation that we resort to the category of the marvelous? Rather than lending credibility to anything, it is more a case of naive credulity! As for the Church’s recognition of the miracle, it seems suspicious since it is the Church itself that authenticates what confirms it. What kind of faith is it, moreover, that claims to rely on factual (“phenomenal”) evidence when it should only be interested in the symbolism (“theologoumenal”) of the “stories” in question?
The third set of challenges to the miracle concerns the specific response to the problem of evil that the miracle seems to bring. Why, for example, a cure for one patient and not another? By being only a partial and therefore arbitrary solution to the scandal of the presence of evil, the miracle adds injustice to that scandal! And what is this capricious God who, through the exception represented by the miracle, suspends the order of things he has established?
The Church’s Position
A remarkable synthesis of the relationship between faith and miracles can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, based on the teaching of the First Vatican Council:
What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived”.28 So “that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.” Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability “are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all”; they are “motives of credibility” (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is “by no means a blind impulse of the mind.” (CCC 156).
At this point, what is a miracle? It is a physically proven event, produced beyond, or beyond the influx of, natural second causes by an immediate intervention of God, provoking, through its departure from the usual course of things, the admiration of its witnesses; it lends credibility to the person of Christ and authenticates His discourse; it signifies the action (often in parallel with physical healing) of God in the order of salvation; finally, it anticipates eschatological renewal. Saint Thomas Aquinas takes as his starting point the notion of order, that is, an open set—for an order can be subordinated to a higher order—of principal second causes, hierarchically ranked up to the ultimate effect produced. This notion is particularly fruitful, as it articulates the efficient cause and the final cause through the implementation of means. God, as first cause, transcends all order. He can therefore either produce effects from the outside, without the assistance of their natural second causes, or produce more than they could. The miracle constitutes a departure from the natural order insofar as this order depends on second causes, but not a violation insofar as this order depends on the first cause (Saint Thomas Aquinus, Summa Theologica, Ia, 105, 6).
It is time to answer the objections.
First, the prodigies ultimately attributed to demons do not exceed their natural capacity, which is certainly more extensive than ours; above all, the true miracle is properly speaking a “charism,” i.e., a gift graciously granted with a view to the common good of the Church (Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, 178, 1), which is certainly not the aim of diabolical sleight of hand! But miracles, insofar as they confirm a discourse so that it becomes believable, are very useful in the service of this common good. In this sense, prophecy, which foretells a future that may not come to pass, is the miracle par excellence, because it links the predicted work even more closely to the discourse it corroborates. As in the case of all the charisms that can be possessed without charity, a wicked man can perform miracles which, while they certainly do not demonstrate the exemplarity of the preacher-predicter, nevertheless confirm the truth stated, as in the case of the prophecy of Caiaphas (cf., Jn 11:49-52).
Second, it is clear that a true miracle, which effectively surpasses the power of nature and its processes, must be scientifically examined to establish its veracity. The Church entrusts this task to independent experts, as in the case of the healings at Lourdes, and is more than circumspect when it comes to authenticating a miraculous fact. As for denying miraculous accounts their factual underpinnings and retaining only their meaning, as Bultmann did, this would be to dissociate the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history, and consequently to base this faith on the random and the fictitious.
Finally, the miracle in no way claims to be a “miracle solution” to the crucial problem of evil, which remains entirely a mystery. The miracle may be aimed at specific individuals, but it is for everyone an announcement and promise of eschatological renewal, when bodies, participating in Christ’s resurrection, will be glorified. That God bypasses second causes to intervene directly in the cosmos is within the realm of His sovereign freedom, and in keeping with His solicitous Providence.
Let us conclude by pointing out that creation and justification, understood as the passage from sin to Grace, although the work of God alone, are not strictly speaking miracles, since they are not by nature capable of being produced by other causes (Summa Theologica, Ia, 105, 7). The Eucharist is an interesting case in point. As such, it is not a miracle, for God alone still has power over the substance. We only speak of a “Eucharistic miracle,” like the one at Lanciano, when certain accidents are modified to make flesh and/or blood appear, “as a figure of truth”, says Saint Thomas, that of the reality of Christ’s presence (Summa Theologica, IIIa, 76, 8).
Canon Christian Gouyaud, a priest of the Strasbourg diocese and coordinator of the seminary at Strasbourg, France. he holds a doctorate in theology, teaches at several training institutes, and is the author of several books. This article appears courtesy of La Nef.
Featured: Miracles of St. Francis Xavier, by Peter Paul Rubens; painted ca. 1617-1618.