Denis Edwards and Keith Ward on miracles

Miracles present what is probably the toughest challenge for Denis Edwards’ noninterventionist account of divine action. After all, isn’t a miracle by definition an act of God “intervening” in, or overriding, or bypassing the normal chain of events?

Edwards considers one traditional view on what a miracle is, namely that of Thomas Aquinas. As we’ve seen, Edwards follows Aquinas in distinguishing between God as the primary cause–that is, the cause of created beings’ very existence–and creatures as secondary causes, “the patterns of relationship we find in the natural world, everything studied by the sciences, and everything that could ever be studied by the sciences” (How God Acts, p. 81).

A miracle, for St. Thomas, is an event where there is no secondary cause, but which is brought about by God directly. A miracle, in Thomas’s words, “surpasses the capabilities of nature.” Despite following Thomas’s general metaphysical line, this is a point where Edwards differs: “miracles can be seen as wonderful manifestations of the Spirit that occur through secondary causes” (p. 84).

To flesh this out, Edwards takes a bit of a detour through the philosophy of science. Miracles are often said to be “violations” of the “laws of nature.” But we can distinguish several meanings of “laws of nature.” It can refer to our theories or intellectual descriptions of the patterns and relationships of nature, but it can also refer to those underlying patterns and relationships themselves. Our theories, at best, imperfectly model the reality they seek to describe, and there are multiple levels of reality–mental, personal, ethical, aesthetic–that are, as yet, not comprehensible under some general law-like description.

The upshot is that so-called miracles may be beyond the laws of nature in the sense that they are not explicable by our currently formulated theories, but may still be intelligible in light of the natural order taken as a whole (if we fully understood it). “This opens up the possibility that miracles may occur though a whole range of secondary causes that our current science cannot yet model or cannot yet model well” (p. 87).

But if that’s the case, then what makes an event a miracle? Following Karl Rahner, Edwards proposes that a miracles are “signs and manifestations of God’s saving action” (p. 87). To be a miracle, it’s necessary, not that an event be directly brought about by God, but that it be experienced by us as a revelation of God’s grace. For example, in principle, science might come to some understanding of how “prayer, human solidarity, love, or faith can contribute to biological healing,” (p. 89), but that would not detract from the religious significance of such an event.

It might be useful to compare Edwards’ view with that of another contemporary theologian–Keith Ward, whose book Divine Action is devoted to many of the same problems as Edwards’. Ward would agree with Edwards that miracles are events in which God’s purposes are disclosed to human beings, but he goes further: a miracle can be understood as a sequence of events “which takes physical objects beyond their normal physical realizations, and displays their relation to their spiritual origin and goal” (Divine Action, p. 176).

Ward argues that contemporary science offers a picture of a universe that is much “looser” and more open than the one offered by, say, deterministic Newtonian physics. The universe, Ward argues, is thus open to being influenced by God: “the whole ‘seamless robe’ picture of nature as a closed causal system is much less compelling than it once may have seemed” (pp. 177-78). In Ward’s view, the universe “is always orientated toward God” as the “purposive causal basis as of the universe itself” (p. 179). Consequently, direct divine action can’t be ruled out.

This is obviously a complex issue, but there are some considerations that incline me toward Ward’s side of the debate. Edwards is concerned to safeguard the completeness of scientific explanations of phenomena, which, he thinks, requires a closed causal system on the level of creatures. But as Ward points out, miracles and other special divine acts are not the kind of measurable and repeatable events that would fall under general scientific laws or explanations. So, you could theoretically have a “complete” physics without it necessarily excluding divine acts that make a difference to how things go in the world. It therefore seems rash to rule out divine intervention for the sake of preserving a closed causal nexus.

Secondly, Ward agrees with Edwards that God respects the autonomy of the created order, but that this is not an “unrestricted” autonomy. God will act to bring the divine purposes to fulfillment. “A miracle will be an extraordinary event, improbable in terms of the physical system considered in itself, but fairly probably in the wider context of a spiritual purpose for the whole system” (p. 180). The causal processes of nature are not, in themselves, the final word because the universe as a whole is, by its nature, rooted in and open to its creator (and redeemer).

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2 thoughts on “Denis Edwards and Keith Ward on miracles

  1. Thanks for posting this. I like Ward’s view better, Given Edwards’ view, a miracle would more or less be defined by those who witnessed it – I mean if a miracle is just an event that hasn’t yet been explained by current science, then it wouldn’t necessarily be something caused intentionally by God as a kind of communication, but just a consequence of someone’s lack of knowledge?

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