Miracles and Natural LawBy: Bored in Vernal
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.