Paul Helm on Miracles: Signs of Grace, not Violations of Nature

Cover of "The Providence of God (Contours...

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It’s not often that I find myself reading a Calvinist’s take on Divine Providence, but I’m currently doing so in preparation for my PhD comprehensive exams (which will include questions about the theology of John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, among others).  Paul Helm’s discussion of miracles below is a good one, at least as far as theological determinism and much of classical theism goes (see his blog here):

It is important to note that the Bible does not employ a rigid distinction between the natural and the supernatural.  Nor does it operate with a technical and precise definition of a miracle as a violation of, or suspension of a law of nature.  Rather, ‘signs and wonders’ (some of which have no scientific explanation) function as powerful expressions of God’s power and grace.  Their meaning is bound up with the meaning of the other events and teachings to which they point, and with which they are integrated.  They do not have a scientific or magical significance of their own.

Moreover, miracles must not be regarded as divine tinkerings, as the way in which God deals with an emergency situation which has arisen unexpectedly . . . some philosophers and theologians have objected to the occurrence of miracles because they seemed to be dishonoring to God, as if the machinery of the universe were defective and God had to make running repairs.  Whatever the shortcomings of this general approach, it quite correctly recognizes the inadequacy of supposing that miracles are needed because God’s providential order is in danger of breaking down.

We may agree with Leibniz that God is perfect and that [God] does not do anything without having a sufficient reason to do it.  It does not follow,  however, that God cannot have a sufficient reason to perform a miracle; to act, that is, in a way that involves unprecedented changes in physical nature [e.g., the resurrection?].

If miracles are not metaphysical first-aid, what are they?  They are signs, signs of God’s grace, and of its urgency and power.  They do not occur apart from the history of God’s dealing with [God’s] people, but they are integral to that history.  They invariably accompany new phases of God’s redemptive activity, and their significance cannot be understood except in terms of the significance of the history of which they form a part.

As we have seen, the history of Israel and of the church is built upon covenantal promises which God fulfills by, among other things, providentially ordering the affairs of [God’s] people.  The purpose of that history is to reveal God’s grace in the redemption of men and women.  Miracles are not signs of the power of God in the abstract, or magical tests of strength, or entertaining exhibitions of divine cleverness; but they are signs of grace.  They are intended to make those who believe that God orders the affairs of nature for their good gasp — not only at the power of God in the miracle, but at power of a deeper magnitude in the revelation of saving grace which the miracles signal.

The Providence of God, pp. 106-7

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