Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

CHAPTER III. Possibility of a Supernatural Providence.

SECTION 1. -- Miracles conceivable and possible.

Thesis XXXIX. -- Miracles, as believed in by Christian monotheists, involve nothing self contradictory or absolutely impossible, nor are they in any way opposed to the existence of physical law. Consequently, they are intrinsically and extrinsically possible, and by no means effects unworthy of a wise Governor of the Universe.

240. In the present section we are only concerned with the possibility of miracles; in the next we shall discuss whether they come within the range of human knowledge. Our thesis says, first that miracles are not self-contradictory, or that the proper notion of a miracle does not involve any union of mutually inconsistent ideas.

To prove this it will be necessary to inquire what is meant by "a miracle." In a wider sense, we call "a miracle" anything astonishing. Thus, we may speak of "miracles of beauty," "of learning," "of virtue." And we may call any effect of an unknown cause "a miracle." But the Christian, theological sense of the word miracle is far more restricted, and very definite. In this sense no event is called a miracle, unless it be due to quite a special interference of God. Yet not even every such event is a miracle. Something must be added, as will appear from the two following definitions of miracle, the first of which is given by St. Thomas, the second adopted by modern theologians.

241. According to St. Thomas, "miracles are effects wrought by the power of God alone in things which have a natural tendency to a contrary effect, or to a contrary way of producing it."{1}

In explanation of this definition we have to make the following remarks:

(a) St. Thomas requires for the existence of a miracle that the effect in question should be attributable exclusively to Divine power. It appears from the context of his doctrine that he means to say: The principal cause of a miracle is God alone; a creature can only be instrumental in its operation, either by disposing the matter in which, by virtue of the Divine volition alone, the miracle is produced, or by obtaining miracles from God through prayers or good works, or by commanding in the name of God that a miracle shall take place. Such a command supposes a special Divine inspiration, through which the person who works the miracle is made sure that his command will be efficacious.{2}

To some readers the objection may occur: You say, God alone is the principal cause of a miracle. But God is the principal cause of every positive effect. Therefore, according to your explanation, every positive effect is a miracle? The answer to this objection is that God is the principal cause of a miracle, not merely in the sense of prime cause, but inasmuch as principal cause denotes a cause endowed with natural faculties proportioned to a certain effect, and is thus opposed to instrumental cause, which by itself alone has no perfect natural aptitude for the effect in which it is said to be instrumental, but is raised to that aptitude by a special impulse and direction proceeding from the principal cause. Thus, in the action of painting, God is the prime cause; the artist is the principal cause; and his brush and pallet are the instrumental causes of the picture. The action of painting is, therefore, a human action depending upon ordinary Divine concurrence; but it is not a Divine action. Though God be the prime cause, human faculties are proportioned to such an action, and therefore the painter is the principal cause of it. But a miracle is an effect which, considered in the concrete with all its circumstances, is manifestly proportioned to the Divine power alone. Elias prayed, and the wet wood caught fire miraculously, not because the natural conditions prerequired for this effect were present, but because God willed it so on account of the prayer of the Prophet. The man born blind, who washed himself in the pool of Siloe by the command of our Lord, was cured, not because the washing was proportioned to the cure, but because the Incarnate Son of God willed it so on condition of this act of obedience. The man born blind was to a certain extent the principal cause of his going to the pool and washing himself there; but the Son of God was not only the prime, but also the sole principal and proper cause of the miracle.{3} (b) By the additional words, "in things which have a natural tendency to a contrary effect, or to a contrary way of producing it," St. Thomas implies that the effect of a miracle is either something which in the ordinary course of nature never happens, or something which in the ordinary course of nature does not happen in this way. Of the first kind is the raising of a dead man to life again, of the second kind the cure of a very serious disease by a simple command.

242. After having given his definition, the Angelic Doctor, by way of further explanation, indicates two series of facts, which at first sight would seem to be miracles, but are not miracles in the sense in which Catholic theologians use the term.

The first series is formed by the hidden effects of nature -- (ea quae natura facit nobis tamen vel alicui occulta). There are natural effects, the natural cause of which is unknown. That cause may be either some hidden force or forces of nature acting by themselves, or it may be forces of nature applied by the natural faculties of man in an artificial way, or it may be forces of nature utilized by pure spirits, supposing they act only with their natural faculties. All these effects are wonderful and marvellous, but not miracles.

The second series is made up of actions which are Divine, but occur regularly in the ordinary natural or supernatural course of things -- (ea quae Deus facit nec aliter nata sunt fieri nisi a Deo). Such actions are: (1) The creation of each individual human soul, which takes place through purely Divine power as often as the substratum of a human body has been duly prepared by natural causes. As we have shown in Book I., no human soul can come into existence otherwise than through immediate Divine creation. But this creation follows a certain rule, laid down by God from eternity to be followed regularly; and moreover it follows a rule which must be observed, if God wills mankind to continue to exist in agreement with the exigencies of their nature. The creation of a human soul, then, though a purely Divine action, is neither a miracle nor a supernatural action in the strict sense of the word. It is not a miracle, because it is in harmony with the ordinary course of things: it is not a supernatural action, because it is necessary for the completion of human nature. Also the first creation of pure spirits and of matter, though most marvellous, does not come under the category of miracles, because by that creation the very foundation of created nature was laid. Christians believe also in other actions, transcending not only the faculties of creatures, but even the exigencies grounded on their nature and their faculties; and therefore strictly supernatural actions, yet not miracles. Such actions are the infusion or increase of sanctifying grace through the sacraments of the Church, and through acts of perfect contrition. Such are also all illuminations and inspirations of the Holy Ghost, by which men are prepared and helped to the performance of saving and meritorious works. These actions are not miracles, because they follow the ordinary course of constant supernatural influence of God upon rational creatures, in accordance with the general direction of His Providence in the present order of things towards a supernatural beatitude.

The conversion of St. Paul no doubt was preceded and accompanied by miracles in the strict sense of the word. The conversion itself may be rightly called a miracle of grace; but it was not a miracle in the ordinary sense, because it was not a supernatural and extraordinary change produced by God in Saul as in a living, corporeal being; but the change was made in his spiritual faculties. Miracles, as understood by St. Thomas and Catholic theologians, are extraordinary Divine operations in nature, that is to say, in the sphere of sensible corporeal things.

243. To express this clearly, modern theologians define a miracle to be a sensible, unusual, Divine, and supernatural work.{4} (a) A miracle is defined "a sensible work," because the definition does not extend beyond those extraordinary supernatural facts which imply changes perceptible through the senses.

(b) A miracle is defined "an unusual work," because it is opposed to the ordinary course of nature, or to the ordinary way in which corporeal things under similar circumstances act and react on one another. The mere frequency of a miracle in comparatively few spots of the globe does not take away its character of being "an unusual work." To use the words of St. Thomas: "If daily some blind man were made to see, this would nevertheless be a miracle, because opposed to the ordinary course of nature."{5}

(c) A miracle is called "a Divine work," because it is due to a special positive agency of God. The co-operation of even the holiest and most wonderful of the saints in the miracles which they are said to work, does not extend beyond acting as impetrators, or as instrumental and ministerial causes, as explained above.

(d) A miracle is called not only a Divine, but also a supernatural work, because it is not one of those Divine works which complete the natural existence of corporeal things, man included. To these works belong the first creation of the world and the continual creation of individual souls.

Note. -- In the language of Scripture miracles are often called signs, prodigies, virtues. The word sign refers to the intention God has in working miracles. He wills thereby to speak to man in a sensible way. The name prodigy points to the wonder excited in human minds by the sight of miracles; whilst the word virtues implies that they are manifestations of power, supreme and Divine.

244. Against the definition of miracles just explained, a difficulty may be raised from a division of miracles very common in Catholic schools, and mentioned repeatedly by St. Thomas. Miracles are divided into miracles above nature, beside nature, and against nature -- (miracula supra naturam, praeter naturam, contra naturam). Above nature are those miracles which are worked in material subjects, in which in the ordinary course of nature similar effects never occur. Thus, it never happens naturally, that a dead and decomposing body rises to life again. Therefore, the resurrection of Lazarus was a miracle above nature.{6}

Beside nature are those miracles that occur in material subjects, in which through the forces of nature, either left to themselves or artificially applied, similar effects do occur. Here an effect is known to be miraculous by its occurring at a prophesied time, or simply upon the word of a thaumaturgus, and that in cases in which similar effects could not have been obtained through natural forces otherwise than gradually and with no certainty about the success. Thus, the fact that in Egypt, upon the word of Moses, all the first-born of men and beasts died in one night, whilst the Israelites were spared, was a miracle beside nature. Such a miracle also was the sudden withering of the hand of Jeroboam, when he stretched it out against the Prophet of God; and the blindness of the sorcerer Elymas, caused upon the prediction of St. Paul.{7}

Against nature are the miracles which happen in material subjects that naturally tend to a contrary effect, and are not prevented from producing their effect by any natural cause. Thus, the preservation of the three companions of Daniel was a miracle against nature; also the going back of the shadow upon the sun-dial of Achaz.{8}

This is the division of miracles which is substantially to be found in St. Thomas.{9} The term "nature," which is taken as the standard of this division, means the whole of corporeal substances and their forces acting under ordinary Divine concurrence, either by themselves alone, or under some artificial direction of rational creatures. We must note that the miracles which are said to be against nature, are in no way against the essence or against the final end of natural substances, but only against the course of action these substances would take, if God had not from eternity decreed for special reasons to interfere with it.

But how to combine the division with the definition? The definition says, that every miracle is supernatural, or above nature. In the division, on the contrary, only one class of miracles is marked as being above nature. The solution is to be found in the fact that in the definition the miraculous effect is considered as it exists in the concrete, with all its circumstances, knowable to a diligent observer. When thus viewed, every real miracle must be pronounced to be supernatural, or a Divine effect. But a miraculous effect, though manifestly Divine when viewed adequately, may be taken into consideration inadequately and the question asked: How does this effect stand to the efficiency of mere natural forces, abstraction being made from all particular circumstances? This consideration leads to the result that some miracles are above nature, others beside nature, others against nature. Therefore, the definition is not opposed to the division; because in the definition the miraculous effect is viewed as happening under all the peculiar circumstances under which it does happen: whilst the division of miracles is made by comparing the effect with the forces of nature, abstracting from concrete circumstances. And thus far of the definition and division of miracles.

245. That miracles are conceivable and not intrinsically absurd, is easily shown. They are by hypothesis extraordinary effects of Divine power in corporeal things, beyond the powers of creatures. There is certainly nothing in this concept approaching to self-contradiction. The power of creatures is finite. It is, therefore, conceivable that God should work in created things in a way impossible to creatures; and that not in the ordinary way, which the continuation of created existences and activities implies, but in a manner quite extraordinary. Again, as we have seen, God is infinitely powerful and free. If He is infinitely powerful, He certainly can produce effects in corporeal things, which no created activity left to itself could produce under the circumstances. And if He is infinitely free, He cannot be said to have been necessitated from eternity so to order the course of created activities as to leave no room for His own immediate interference further than was altogether necessary for the continuance of the world. Miracles are consequently conceivable as works of God's absolute power.

246. It remains to be considered whether they can be combined with the eternal decrees of God. God, it may be urged, cannot contradict Himself. Now, universal experience leads to the conclusion that the material substances of the universe follow natural laws, or certain uniform ways of action, so that under the same circumstances the same effects occur. These natural laws must have been decreed by God from eternity. If so, what room remains for extraordinary interference? Some such train of reasoning seems to have been in Dr. Carpenter's mind, when he penned the following lines: "In regard to the Physical Universe then, it might be better to substitute for the phrase, 'Government by Laws,' 'Government according to Laws': meaning thereby the direct exertion of the Divine Will or operation of the First Cause, in the forces of Nature, according to certain constant uniformities which are simply unchangeable, because -- having been originally the expression of Infinite Wisdom -- any change would be for the worse."{10} There is much truth in these words, but not the whole truth. God's decrees are indeed irrevocable, and the course of nature is at least generally uniform. Were it otherwise, mankind would be held in a state of perpetual suspense by the unavoidable and insoluble question: What will happen next? There would be no stimulus to labour where no fruit could be counted on; and human life, if possible at all, would be in a condition of abject misery.

But the one concession, that God governs the world according to natural laws, does not involve the other, that in every particular case the general law is applied. There are exceptions made in human legislation, where it is foreseen that a general enactment would bear too hard upon a particular case. So the Creator may foresee from eternity that in this case and that an exception to the general course of nature will serve His purpose better than the maintenance of the uniformity; and He may decree that exception accordingly from all eternity. Let us suppose, at least for argument's sake, that it is God's eternal design to raise some of His rational creatures to a union with Himself in knowledge and love, far more intimate than any that their nature could lay claim to. This being so, God could no doubt decree to communicate His benevolent designs to particular chosen legates, and to commission them with the promulgation of those designs to mankind. In order now to give these His legates an incontestable authority, He could decree to make known to them what they could not possibly know by natural means, namely, the future free actions of men with all their particular circumstances. Such a decree itself would be a decree to interfere with the psychological law of the natural dependence of the human mind upon ideas gathered from experience or elaborated by reason. It would be a suspension of a psychological law for a higher end and in a particular case only. There is nothing repugnant in all this. If, then, God can thus inter fere with a psychological law on behalf of a Prophet whom He sends, why should He be unable to give His Prophet still more authority, by decreeing that in particular cases a prayer, a command, a touch, or even a mere volition of that Prophet should be followed by an extraordinary effect in a corporeal thing? There is again nothing unworthy of God in this supposition. No decrees are repealed, but from eternity the rule and the exception from the rule are settled with one act of Divine volition in the light of infinite knowledge and with an intention not to help nature to that for which as a work of God it is competent by its natural forces, but to raise it to a higher level out of pure generous love.

247. Once we understand that God is infinite intellect and will, and acts by mere volition according to eternal decrees, we can have no difficulty in solving modern arguments against the possibility of miracles. Almost all are variations of those of Spinoza.{11} This author starts from the supposition that God must from eternity will everything He knows, a supposition disproved by us in Book II., where we treated of the free-will of God. (Cf. pp. 295, seq.) We showed there that God wills nothing with absolute necessity but His own existence. Arguing in particular against those miracles which the scholastics called against nature, Spinoza says{12} that such miracles would involve either the absence of general laws of nature, or the supposition that God could act against the laws of His own nature. This difficulty is done away with by what we have shown in Book I., that the self-evolving God of Spinozism exists only in the imagination of pantheists. The phrase, "against nature," means, as we have seen, no more than this, that the natural tendency to action proper to a corporeal being in a particular case remains potential, instead of becoming actual, as it would have become had not God decreed to make this case an exception to the general rule.

"But," continues Spinoza, "if miracles are, strictly speaking, all above nature, then you must admit a break in the necessary and immutable course of nature; which is absurd. It would follow also that the principles of reason are violable; for after all they are but laws of nature. In that case we are unable to trust them, unable to prove the existence of God; and thus miracles, far from being a help to the knowledge of God, prove a total impediment to that knowledge."

This argument confounds in the first place the course of nature as decreed by the Divine mind from eternity with the course of nature as it commonly occurs in human experience. Under the former respect it is absolutely immutable, not under the latter; and this suffices for the possibility of miracles, as has been shown in the proof of our thesis. If in a particular case the common rule is not followed, if, for instance, water changes miraculously into wine, it does not follow that equally well in another particular case two and two might become five, and thus a principle of reason be violated. If Spinoza had studied St. Thomas, he would have found the solution of his difficulty.{13} St. Thomas says, that if we speak of an action against principles of nature (or more accurately, against the natural tendency of physical forces), we imply thereby that such an action surpasses created agencies, from which it does not follow that the Almighty Creator cannot effect it, supposing it to be in keeping with His justice and wisdom. But the principles of reason are not tendencies of physical forces, but enunciations of inviolable truths, which cannot be set aside by any rational being without the ruin of all certainty, much less be over-ruled by God, Who is the First Truth and the Source of all truth.

Spinoza's difficulty regarding the perturbation of order by miracles has been repeated by Voltaire, Strauss, and others, and seems to be a chief stumbling-block for many, because they forget the distinction between order as conceived by God and order as manifested in the uniformity of nature. Order under the first aspect reigns everywhere; order under the second aspect is the normal thing, but there are exceptions for wise reasons. Such exceptions are no more perturbations of the laws of nature than in human society privileges modifying the tenor of a general, civil, or criminal law, granted by the lawgiver at the same time he establishes the law, and granted with wise limitations, can be called abrogations of the law itself.

{1} "Illa quae sola virtute divina fiunt in illis rebus, in quibus est naturalis ordo ad contrarium effectum vel ad contrarium modum faciendi, dicuntur proprie miracula." (De Potentia, q. 6. De Miraculis, art. 2. in corp.).

{2} Cf. St. Thomas, ibid. a. 4.

{3} Cf. 3 Kings xviii. 30-39; St. John ix.

{4} "Opus sensibile, divinitus factum, insolitum, supernaturale" (Cf. T. Pesch, Instit. Phil. Nat. p. 711.) Whilst agreeing in the substance, different modern representatives of Catholic Theology and Philosophy vary in the form of the definition. To our mind the form adopted l.c. recommends itself for great precision.

{5} Sent. ii. dist. 18. q. 1. art. 3. ad 2.

{6} Cf. St. John xi. 43, 44.

{7} Cf. Exodus xi. xii.; 3 Kings xiii.; Acts xiii. 8-12.

{8} Cf. Daniel iii. 21-24; 4 Kings xx.

{9} St. Thomas, Sent. ii. dist. 18. q. 1. art. 3. solutio; De Potentia, q. 6. art. 2. ad 3m.

{10} Mental Physiology, p. 706.

{11} Tract. Theol. Polit. c. 6.

{12} Loc. cit.

{13} De Potentia, q. 6. art. i. obj. ii. As this passage is one of the many in which Aquinas anticipated modern difficulties, we will give it in full. The obj. ii runs thus: "Sicuti ratio humana a Deo est, ita et natura. Sed contra principia rationis Deus facere non potest, sicut quod genus de specie non praedicetur, vel quod latus quadrati sit commensurabile diametro. Ergo nec contra principia naturae Deus facere potest." His answer is: "Ad undecimum dicendum, quod logicus et mathematicus considerant tantum res secundum principia formalia; unde nihil est impossibile in logicis et mathematicis, nisi quod est contra rei formalem rationem. Et hujusmodi impossibile in se contradictionem claudit, et sic est per se impossibile. Talia autem impossibilia Deus facere non potest. Naturalis (i.e. the physicist and biologist) autem applicat ad determinatam materiam; unde reputat impossibile etiam id quod est huic impossibile. Nihil autem prohibet Deum posse facere quae sunt inferioribus agentibus impossibilia."

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