Miracles and Natural Law

By: Bored in Vernal
February 27, 2011

NT SS Lesson #7

Growing up as the daughter of a Protestant minister, I was well acquainted with many of the Biblical miracles. The parting of the Red Sea, the appearance of manna, the healing of the sick, walking on water, these were all supernatural occurrences which couldn’t be readily explained. I viewed these events as exceptions to the laws of nature — in a word: magic.

When I joined the Church at age 19 I was taught that miracles were impairments of our technological understanding. We might not be able to comprehend the mechanism by which the miracle worked with our present knowledge. But I was told that God never violated natural law. Brigham Young explained it thus:

Yet I will say with regard to miracles, there is no such thing save to the ignorant — that is, there never was a result wrought out by God or by any of His creatures without there being a cause for it. There may be results, the causes of which we do not see or understand, and what we call miracles are no more than this — they are the results or effects of causes hidden from our understandings. [Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, pg. 140-p.141 (11 Jul 1869)]

Following upon Brigham’s heels, John Taylor preached that miracles could be understood, and their principles applied:

True science is a discovery of the secret, immutable and eternal laws, by which the universe is governed; and when practically applied, sets in motion the mighty wheels of useful engines, with all the various machinery which genius has invented, or art contrived. It ameliorates the condition of man, by extending the means of intellectual, moral, social, and domestic happiness. [John Taylor, Times and Seasons, vol. 4, 1842, pg. 46 (15 Dec 1842)]

Years later, this doctrine was still strongly held among LDS scientists and theologians. James E. Talmage wrote:

Miracles are commonly regarded as occurrences in opposition to the laws of nature. Such a conception is plainly erroneous, for the laws of nature are inviolable. However, as human understanding of these laws is at best but imperfect, events strictly in accordance with natural law may appear contrary thereto. The entire constitution of nature is founded on system and order. [James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, 1966, p. 220]

Now, I don’t know if the modern Church has taken a position on the subject of whether miracles accord with natural law. Our Sunday School lesson does point us to such a definition, found in the Bible Dictionary: “Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power. Some lower law was in each case superseded by the action of a higher.” But I wonder if we are beginning to give up that rhetoric in favor of a more supernatural approach. Don’t you think, if we really thought miracles could be understood, that we’d study about them in an attempt to discover the natural law behind that miracle? Don’t you think, if miracles had a natural basis, that with our increasing scientific knowledge we would begin to see how some of the miracles of the past were accomplished? Are we any closer to being able to totally control the physical world and produce at will whatever we choose? But we aren’t even asking God to show us those eternal principles. I submit that, if there really are miracles, they are more like magic than Brigham or John Taylor or even James Talmage described.

What if God has the power to command the elements to do something other than they would in natural law?

I find myself coming full-circle, back to my roots. Thomas Aquinas writes, in the Summa Theologica (Q. 110, art. 4, respondeo), “A miracle properly so called takes place when something is done outside the order of nature.” Thomas makes it clear that by ‘nature’ he means the whole of created nature, and not just physical nature. He concludes that God alone can work miracles.

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19 Responses to Miracles and Natural Law

  1. Jared on February 27, 2011 at 8:02 AM

    One critic of the miracles of Jesus said that the only reason Jesus walked on water is that he didn’t know how to swim.

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  2. Mike S on February 27, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    I think that many people just don’t actually WANT a natural explanation. Perfect examples are evolution, age of the earth, structure of the universe, etc. Scientists have actually figured out HOW God did a lot of things, but people don’t actually want to accept them. They fear that if we know HOW God did something, then He wouldn’t be God. The people who figure out how something happens are then demonized as “God-less scientists”.

    A perfect example (in hindsight) is Galileo. He taught a model of the solar system that suggested the earth wasn’t the center. It wasn’t as much the facts that bothered people, but the idea that Man might lose his esteemed place at the center of Creation with everything revolving around the earth. We accept this now in hindsight, and people still believe in God. But people today still cling to the “miraculous” and reject explanations.

    - As I talked about in a previous post, a Primary teacher in my ward taught that the “creation of the earth was a miracle” (her exact words) and denounced the scientists who talk about a Big Bang.
    - People routinely reject a perfectly sound explanation for how humans were created because we have to be “miraculously” created
    - The list goes on

    We really don’t want to see the man behind the curtain.

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  3. Jon on February 27, 2011 at 11:11 AM

    I’m more for the natural miracles. They’ve figured out how Moses could have split the Red Sea (earthquake), etc. I guess you could say I’m believe more along the lines of Mike S.

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  4. Dan on February 27, 2011 at 12:07 PM

    BiV,

    I think we, being as inquisitive as we are these days, would love to investigate and research a miracle if it would just occur in our time. Jesus is not walking on water now. We cannot record the status of the water as he steps over it, nor the air around him to see what changed. We cannot investigate how Jesus healed the leper by merely touching him. We understand today how to heal leprosy, but we do not know, nor can we verify how Jesus did it because no one alive right now is capable of doing what he did.

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  5. Dan on February 27, 2011 at 12:11 PM

    Jon,

    Who has posited that an earthquake held the waters back long enough for thousands of people to walk across a fairly long section of the Red Sea?

    I’ve actually heard a theory that wind had done it (wind does push water back). it could just be that God has actual, literal, power to order molecules this way or that way, and they obey.

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  6. FireTag on February 27, 2011 at 1:07 PM

    Dan:

    It would seem a lot easier to anticipate WHEN the wind would blow and then inspire Moses to arrive there at the proper time. You can move the earth to the far side of the sun with a grain of dust if you’ve got a few billion years and full knowledge to play with. (Orbits of the inner planets are chaotic on a scale of a few million years.)

    Producing God’s interaction with nature in miraculous ways is seldom all that hard IF you can believe that there is an Inspirer who interacts with human consciousness. That’s the great conceptual boundary to cross: any interaction between the physical and spiritual requires SOME theory that we don’t yet have (but that inquiring minds like mine certainly seek).

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  7. FireTag on February 27, 2011 at 1:11 PM

    BiV:

    One thing that interests me about the OP is the similarity of the idea that BOTH magic and science seem to be about finding a way to put humanity in control of what happens.

    I wonder if that similarity is compatible with fealty to God in either worldview.

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  8. Mormon Heretic on February 27, 2011 at 1:45 PM

    Don’t you think, if miracles had a natural basis, that with our increasing scientific knowledge we would begin to see how some of the miracles of the past were accomplished?

    I think there are plenty of people that try to figure out God’s miracles with natural explanations. I’ve posted about these with different theories of the Exodus. For example, (1) Floyd McCoy of the University of Hawaii says a tsunami might have created a land passage for the Israelites across a lagoon.

    (2) Jim Hoffmeier of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, “The Hebrew Yam Suf literally means sea of reeds. When the Greek translators took the Hebrew Yam Suf and translated it into Greek, they translated it as Red Sea instead of Reed Sea. So we’ve been stuck with a faulty translation for over 2000 years.” The word tuf, the Egyptian word for reeds is the same word as suf in Hebrew. So Yam Suf, he suggested, was a name derived from this body of water. Now it is called the [extinct] El Balah Lake.” [In Hebrew it means the lake where God devoured.]

    (3) Stephen J. O’Meara, Volcanologist, Volcano Watch International flies over an active volcano. “Imagine the Jews, reaching this massive land bridge, formed by lava. Here we have earth being created before our eyes. You can see the lava flow going into the ocean on a new bench of land. This is a very highly unstable platform of land. The bench will not last for long. This whole area can fall in just a matter of minutes. Massive collapses have occurred here in Hawaii almost in the blink of an eye.”

    I guess this would coincide with an earthquake definition, but you can see there are many scientists with lots of ways to figure out how this was accomplished. I think many scientists are in favor or Brigham’s definition.

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  9. DavidH on February 27, 2011 at 5:00 PM

    I view the creation of the earth and us as a miracle. Yet we can now understand or hypothesize processes for the creation that do not involve magic or violations of natural law. Similarly, I consider the birth of a child a miracle, yet we now understand how that occurs without magic or violations of natural law.

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  10. Mark D. on February 27, 2011 at 9:16 PM

    If you believe in creatio ex nihilo, as in classical theism, it simply isn’t a problem for God to suspend the normal order of things whenever it suits his purposes.

    But if God is embedded within the universe, or worse, has a body, then suspending natural law is a much more problematic proposition.

    What causes God to continue to exist, for example? According to Joseph Smith, God himself cannot cause himself to cease to exist, nor any other individual for that matter. That is a perfect example of a natural law.

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  11. Mike S on February 27, 2011 at 9:25 PM

    I think a problem is that people conflate “amazingly cool” with “miracle”. I think the process by which a single fertilized egg develops into a human being is amazingly cool. I can talk about HOW it happens, but it’s still amazing. I think many people would call it a “miracle”.

    To me, things move from “miracle” to “amazingly cool” as we understand the process. I think it could mean a lot about HOW God does things, but I think it’s a matter of semantics.

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  12. Bored in Vernal on February 27, 2011 at 9:50 PM

    Well, you’re all a bunch of Mormons, aren’t you? :)

    I think the problem comes in when you think about how the miracles were performed. It may not be difficult to chemically change water into wine, but to do it instantly, with a wave of the finger? To walk on water without the visible aid of anti-gravity boots? To heal ten men’s leprosy simultaneously? We are seeing some kind of law being superseded here.

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  13. Mike S on February 27, 2011 at 9:57 PM

    BiV:

    I agree with you. I would consider all of those miracles, because I don’t understand them yet allow that God can do things I don’t understand.

    However, I don’t consider miracles many things I hear talked about on Sunday – ie. creation of the earth, human development, etc. As mentioned, they are amazingly cool and show a great understanding of the universe, but miracle? I don’t know.

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  14. FireTag on February 27, 2011 at 9:58 PM

    Biv:

    Good point. But there’s still that old saw “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Could be substitute “understanding of nature” (to include spiritual nature) and have the meaning stay the same?

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  15. Bored in Vernal on February 27, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    Mike, I agree with you on your “amazingly cool” point. And FireTag, you are spot on about our understanding of nature being at a low enough level that we consider a lot of things miracles that are really just “amazingly cool.”

    BUT….

    ARE there real miracles which reach the level of going against natural law (understood or not understood)? I think maybe there are. Though it’s true that I’ve never seen an amputee healed.

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  16. LDS Anarchist on February 28, 2011 at 12:18 AM

    My understanding of miracles is that all miracles are a result of God speaking and the elements changing their normal (or natural) course and re-arranging themselves to obey the command of God, or of saints speaking in the name of God with faith and the elements doing the same as if it were God Himself speaking.

    For example:

    “For thus didst thou manifest thyself unto thy disciples; for after they had faith, and did speak in thy name, thou didst show thyself unto them in great power.”

    “Wherefore, we search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea.”

    “For behold, by the power of his word man came upon the face of the earth, which earth was created by the power of his word. Wherefore, if God being able to speak and the world was, and to speak and man was created, O then, why not able to command the earth, or the workmanship of his hands upon the face of it, according to his will and pleasure?”

    So, we see from these few scriptures that the earth was not created as a natural process, nor was man created by a natural process, nor is any miracle accomplished by natural processes. There are always two ways to do things. You can use faith as a principle of action or you can use faith as a principle of power. You can move a mountain using your action faith by getting together a multitude of men and arm them with shovels and eventually that mountain will be moved one tiny bit of earth at a time. Or, you can exercise power faith and command the entire mountain in the name of Jesus to move immediately, as Jacob and his people did.

    The miracles of God all operate by power faith, or “the power of his word.” It might feel nice to assure oneself that the miracles of God operate under natural processes, but I believe that it ultimately misses the mark entirely and falsely elevates man to a greater position than the nothingness that he is. Again, appealing to the words of Jacob:

    “Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God.”

    As Jacob so eloquently explained above, man cannot find out the ways of God on his own. Not a single one of the miracles of God have a natural process to them. Not a single one. The only way any one of us can learn the HOW by which any of the miracles of God were done is through revelation from God. So, we do not now know, nor can we know, the HOW of these things, through science, because science is incapable of revealing the process.

    Even the devices of God that we know of (the Urim and Thummim, the seer stone, the Liahona, the sixteen small stones of the brother of Jared) were not anything at all like typical machinery (or advanced technology.) They did not have on/off switches. In fact, they didn’t have switches, at all. They all worked according to faith in God. If there was no faith in God, these devices did not work.

    When the Lord returns and all things are revealed, we will see how very wrong we were on all points concerning how anything that God has done was done.

    Miracles are done to point men to God, so that they glorify Him. They are done by the miraculous power of God, by non-natural processes, so that man will be amazed and dumbfounded by His almighty power. If miracles were a natural process that could be discovered by man eventually, it would tend to lower the perceived greatness of God in man’s eyes and raise man’s perception of himself as more than mere nothingness. And so we have Isaiah saying:

    “They are created now, and not from the beginning; even before the day when thou heardest them not; lest thou shouldest say, Behold, I knew them.”

    It will be interesting to see how the current church membership will react when the prophesied signs, miracles, wonders and marvels start appearing among us: whether we will “depend upon our own wisdom” and ascribe them to natural laws and “good guesses,” or whether we will believe them to be non-natural processes, the very power of God. I wonder, when the histories of Helaman 16 and 3 Nephi 1 repeat among us, which side the LDS will side with, the believers or the unbelievers?

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  17. John Mansfield on February 28, 2011 at 7:20 AM

    When that Brigham Young quote came up in the priesthood manual, I was struck by its Age of Enlightenment moving into the Industrial Revolution setting. Science was moving forward, whereas a few centuries earlier pre-Galileo and Leonardo, even mundane things like rocks falling off towers didn’t have much in the way of explanation. Things just happened.

    A search for rational explanations of Jesus walking on water and raising Lazarus from the dead ignores the way the stories are presented, and presumably why they were enacted, as demonstrations of some power far beyond the control of anyone but the Master of the Universe or one of his intimate servants.

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  18. Justin on February 28, 2011 at 7:36 AM

    Well, you’re all a bunch of Mormons, aren’t you?

    It’s common among Christians in general [also specifically LDS] to “explain away”. The description of miracles as amazingly cool/technologically misunderstood events is but one manifestation of this phenomenon.

    It is also seen when Gen. Conf. talks reference “ministering angels” in a story about a great visiting teacher bringing meals, or when the best gifts of the Spirit are described in terms of doctors healing, missionaries learning languages quickly, etc. or are described as merely happening among LDS rather than being possessed by LDS.

    I also saw this “explaining away” in my congregation’s Sun. School lesson on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. When discussing what “the pure in heart shall see God” means — I pointed out that God will minister personally to those who have become pure in heart. The next commenter pointed out that the LDS Footnote for that verse says, “God, Privilege of Seeing” — and said that this means that it is only a privilege that a select few have, like the Prophet(TM) and the Apostles(TM). The next member stated that, to her, it means we can see the “God” that is in every person — and thereby be more likely to love/serve them.

    Is it wrong to say that we should seek to see the “God-nature” inherent in every human we interact with — No. Is it wrong to praise a faithful visiting/home teacher who serves a family in a big way — No.

    However, we ought not take scriptures and “likens them to ourselves” to such a degree that we are not even talking about the same things as scriptures were any more.

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  19. raedyohed on February 28, 2011 at 10:36 AM

    BiV –
    What I find self-defeating about this kind of discussion is that a scientist (the discoverer and intellectual originator of the concept of ‘natural law’) would be quick (I hope) to point out that ‘natural law’ is only an intellectual construct, a generalization in principle to facilitate the discussion of observed phenomena. No scientist believes (though past ones perhaps did) that somewhere there are inscribed a series of laws which the universe and all that is in it must follow. Instead the natural and physical sciences understand that so-called laws only describe in general terms the reproducible events we observe and predict in nature. But in reality these events are best described on an individual basis in terms of mechanisms of interaction, and not as general law. Whatever ‘law’ may exist in the natural world it is not written in the heavens, but in the very elements. Their action IS law.

    “But I wonder if we are beginning to give up that rhetoric in favor of a more supernatural approach. … What if God has the power to command the elements to do something other than they would in natural law? …We are seeing some kind of law being superseded here.” Again, there aren’t really laws, just interactions.

    If you could point to some recent discussion along those lines by any Church leadership it would be an interesting question to investigate. You yourself might feel this particular shift for any number of reasons. I don’t really see it, but who knows; we often see what we want to see. That being said I am glad to see posts like this, and the comments which follow it supporting the historically accurate view that even from early on Mormons were not supernatural in their religious world-view. Rather, they allowed the supernatural [unreal] to become a part of the natural [real] world.

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