05 February 2024, The Tablet

Miracles of healing

B5 | 4 FEBRUARY 2024 | MARK 129-39 

This homely episode in which Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, is the first of Jesus’ miracles in Mark’s gospel; and it becomes the pattern for all the healing miracles that follow. Nothing serves more effectively to separate the modern mind from the world of the New Testament than the miracles. Many non-believers stumble over the very concept of miracles; and even for many believers, the miracles are an embarrassment, the aspect of the gospels most out of keeping with Christianity ‘come of age’, something to be explained away, rather than marvelled at. Small wonder that the biblical miracles were one of the first targets of the demythologisation of the gospels which became fashionable in the mid 20th century. 

But the belief that Jesus performed miracles is as old as the gospel tradition itself, so they can’t be circumvented without damage to its integrity. That extraordinary events really were associated with Jesus is evident from the fact that in the text itself, even those who opposed Him didn’t deny that he did such deeds; rather, they attributed what he did to evil agencies. 

For many, the last, sensible word on miracles was spoken by the Scottish Enlightenment polymath, David Hume (1711-76) when he argued that the very notion of miracle, understood as a violation of the natural order, an event outside the laws of nature, was incoherent, simply because, given the nature of inductive knowledge, by which we infer probable knowledge from events, as opposed to deducing certain knowledge from premises, there could never be adequate evidence that anything was a genuine miracle, again, understood as a violation of the natural order, rather than a mistaken perception or insignificant coincidence.  

The defensive reaction of certain strands of liberal Christianity to that apparently deadly charge was to concede that it must have been naïve credulity or scientific naïvety on the part of his contemporaries that convinced them that Jesus had worked miracles. The problem with that defence, like many similarly misguided reactions in our own day, is that it acquiesced in, rather than took to task, the curious notion that a miracle is a a violation of the natural order, a supernatural intervention in the natural world. 

What’s more, this unsatisfactory defence also relied on the equally curious idea that Christianity believes in two distinct and different worlds, the natural and the supernatural, co-existing separately alongside one another, but functioning according to different laws and regularities – or lack of the same. 

It's highly significant that the understanding of miracles as violations of the laws of nature – an idea which proved so vulnerable to Hume’s scepticism – along with the correlative idea that the so-called ‘natural order’ is somehow independent of God and thus patient of violation and intervention, coincided with the decline and near dissolution of a classical Christian understanding of the word, ‘God’. The debate about miracles gathered steam precisely when both a burgeoning confidence in the empirical and mathematical sciences led to the assumption that the world largely runs itself, with occasional interventions from the deity; and when the loss among some Christian theologians of a sense of God’s transcendence began to erode that ancient reticence concerning all talk of God which had characterised Christian theology from its beginning. 

Until this point, it had always been central to the Judaeo-Christian understanding of God, that he permanently transcends all our words and all our understanding. Justin Martyr (b.100), the first philosopher-convert to Christianity, spoke of the “incurable madness” of those who think they can understand God; St Augustine said that “If we have understood it, it is not God”; and St Thomas states categorically: “We cannot know what God is, only what he is not” and “We are united to God most perfectly when we are united to him as completely unknown.” 

This keenly felt Christian reticence has a direct bearing on the understanding of miracles. Given the word ‘God’ refers primarily to the creator and sustainer of everything that exists, who transcends all things yet is also immanent in all things and acting in all acts, classical Christian theism made no sharp distinction between the natural and the miraculous. Augustine, for instance, saw all creation as both nature and miracle. The notion of a ‘violation of nature’ would not have made sense to him. “For how can an event be contrary to nature”, he asks, “when it happens by the will of God, since the will of the great Creator assuredly is the nature of every created thing? A portent, therefore, does not occur contrary to nature, but contrary to what is known of nature.” 

In other words, God may produce some events in different ways from others, but it is He who makes it possible for anything at all to happen: anything that exists - objects and events - manifests God’s power, presence, and goodness; and events whose secondary causes we can’t understand – miracles, in other words - are especially powerful evocations of the mystery that accounts for everything that happens and, indeed, for this world’s very existence. 

In a world where God sustains everything at every moment, miracles are not to be understood as either events without causes, or, conversely, as events which God uniquely causes. Rather, as with all other events, without exception, God is the primary cause, and that applies also to miracles. But unlike all other events, in the case of miracles there are no discernible secondary causes. 

If, on the other hand, the world is thought to run itself, with occasional interventions by the deity – ‘miracles’ - as proposed by deism, then such divine interference easily and plausibly gets portrayed as the sort of thing science should repudiate; and talk of God acting in the world rapidly turns into nonsense. 

But if, as earlier Christian theologians held, God acts in all the world’s events; if, in Aquinas’s words, the nature of any created thing “would collapse…were God’s power at any moment to leave the beings he created to be ruled by it,” or, as Calvin said, “If God should withdraw His hand a little, all things would immediately perish and dissolve into nothing”, then the picture changes. Divine action is not an interruption in or a violation of the normal course of things: it simply is the normal course of things, including miracles. 

It is one thing, however, to vindicate the possibility of miracles, but quite another to understand their significance. Interestingly, there’s no single word in the New Testament that corresponds exactly with what’s usually meant by the word ‘miracle’. Instead, there’s a whole range of words, meaning variously ‘the unexpected’, ‘works of power and authority’, or ‘signs’ and ‘portents’. The nearest to our word ‘miracle’ is best translated as ‘marvels’. But all these words designate events, albeit unexpected events, within the world. They constitute evidence, not of something alien and extraordinary acting from outside, but of the active presence of God’s power and authority within creation, accounting for its very existence, and the existence of every event, rather than any specific events. 

Now it is clear that both Jesus’ contemporaries and the gospel-writers saw his miracles or ‘mighty works’ as evidence of the longed-for fulfilment of the prophecies that had sustained Israel. They are, as it were, acted-out parables of the kingdom, in which the healing that takes place is far more than a physical cure. This is why most of the miracles of healing concern those who, through illness or deformity, have been excluded from the community as ritually unclean. In this sense, the healing miracles are of a piece with Jesus’ welcoming of those other socially and religiously ostracised outsiders, the tax-collectors and prostitutes. 

When Jesus heals - and, interestingly, ‘to heal’ and ‘to save’ are the same word in the Greek text - he restores wholeness by re-connecting individuals not only with the source of life but also the source of their deepest identity. And, in doing so, he redefines the boundaries of the community of Israel, overturning in one stroke the distorted understanding of the Law which had served only to exclude and reject. 

What all these anonymous individuals who are restored by Jesus have in common is that, unlike the hostile authorities who display ever increasing scepticism, and unlike the disciples, who persistently fail to understand what Jesus is about, those who come to Jesus seeking healing come to him with the courage and faith to ask for help. Unhindered by vanity and hubris, their neediness and weakness afford them better insight into who Jesus is and what he and he alone can do for them. And it’s precisely these, the desperately needy and the helplessly indigent, who are placed before us as models of faith. 

The miracles of Jesus in the gospels, then, aren’t charming stories for the scientifically naïve; nor are they recounted as curiosities and marvels in the long distant, pre-scientific past. They were told, and are re-told, in the context of a living community of faith, then and now, to reveal new possibilities of wholeness and healing, powerfully reminding us that, even now, in our lives, Christ’s ministry of reconciliation continues, in Word and Sacrament, restoring us to fullness of life, the life of charity and friendship with God and one another, for which we were created. “The miracles”, C S Lewis says, “are a re-telling in small letters of the very same story, which is written across the whole world, in letters too large for some of us to see.

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