Purtill’s Definition of “Miracle” – Part 6

A miracle is an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (“Defining Miracles” in In Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997, p.72).

In my last post on this subject (9/3/08), I raised an objection to the first condition:

(1) brought about by the power of God

I had previously eliminated the unclear term “God” from this condition:

(1a) brought about by the power of a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

The objection to this condition is that the ordinary use of the word “miracle” does not imply that the event was brought about by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person. The ordinary use of the word “miracle” allows for such events to be brought about by beings that don’t measure up to all three of these perfections, even by deities that lack all three perfections.

Furthermore, If the word “miracle” is defined in a way that excludes polytheistic gods and religions, such as Hellenistic religion, then this appears to beg an important question, and to bias the outcome (to stack the deck in favor of Christianity and other monotheistic religions).

Are these objections sufficient to justify broadening the first condition to allow for miracles to be brought about by lesser beings?

(1d) brought about by the power of a god or spirit

Condition (1d) does a much better job than (1a) of capturing the meaning of the word “miracle” in ordinary usage. However, there is no Commandment Of Analysis that Thou shalt not define a word in a way that departs from ordinary use of that word. The ordinary meaning of a word is simply to be preferred, if for no other reason than to avoid confusion and ambiguity: using a word with a special or technical meaning while readers/listeners interpret the word according to the ordinary meaning, or using a word with a technical meaning, and then unintentionally slipping back to the ordinary meaning later on in a discussion. If there is a rule here, it is something like this: Do not depart from the ordinary meaning of a word, unless you have a good reason to do so.

One possible reason for departing from ordinary usage of the word “miracle” would be to capture the meaning of the word as it is used within a particular theological tradition (such as Christianity or Catholicism) or within a particular scholarly discipline (such as philosophy of religion). Religious and theological traditions may use the word “miracle” in a way that does not line up perfectly with ordinary usage. Philosophers also may develop or stipulate definitions of religious terms for their own intellectual and theoretical purposes.

Since the present context is a discussion or debate in the philosophy of religion, a definition that is determined by a specific religious or theological tradition seems inappropriate. Philosophy of religion does not require that one accept any particular religious assumptions or beliefs. It only requires that one be willing to discuss, analyze, and evaluate religious ideas in an objective manner, constructing and evaluating arguments (and cases) that do not (or at least try not to) assume or presuppose the truth of any specific religious tradition or outlook.

So, does (1a) capture how the word “miracle” is used in the field of philosophy of religion? I don’t think so. Much of the philosophical discussion of miracles has revolved around David Hume’s skeptical arguments about miracles in his book Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Hume’s definition of “miracle” does not limit the scope of this concept to events caused by God:

A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent. (Enquiry, Section X, Part I, Paragraph 90, footnote, emphasis in original)

Hume was a skeptic, but his definition is similar to a definition of “miracle” given by the Christian philosopher Samuel Clarke, who was a contemporary of Hume’s:

…a work effected in a manner…different from the common and regular method of providence, by the interposition of God himself, or of some intelligent agent superior to men. (The Works of Samuel Clarke, Vol. II, London, 1738, p.701)

Since Hume and Clarke did not use the word “miracle” in the narrow sense proposed by Purtill, it is unlikely that philosophers of religion have generally adopted this narrower meaning for the purpose of scholarly discussions and debates about miracles, which frequently involve discussion of Hume’s critical examination of miracle claims.

Thus, departing from ordinary usage is not justified by claiming that condition (1a) captures the usage of “miracle” in the discipline of philosophy of religion, nor is this justified by claiming that (1a) reflects the usage in a specific theological or religious tradition. Is there some other reason for departing from ordinary usage?

A plausible reason that comes to mind is that a key objective of defenders of Christianity is to persuade skeptics and doubters that God does intervene in the events of the world from time to time. Proving that there are other sorts of supernatural events and agents who sometimes intervene in the physical world is of much less interest in terms of making a case for Christianity.

If it could be proven that ghosts, for example, do sometimes rattle chains or walk up stairs making the stairs creak at night, this might put an end to my belief in naturalism, but it would not go very far in getting me to believe that there is a God, or that there is a God who is very concerned about what we humans do and believe.

A defender of Christianity might reasonably narrow the definition of “miracle” so that it covers the sort of supernatural events that he/she intends to prove occur, as part of a case for the truth of Christianity. It would, of course, be easier for an apologist to prove that some sort of intelligent beings sometimes bring about supernatural events, but this would not help the case for Christianity very much. So, if a defender of Christianity wants to set the bar higher, and try to prove the much stronger claim that sometimes supernatural events occur that were brought about by an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good person, then we skeptics and doubters should be more than happy to let this person make the attempt to prove this claim.

So, while I think condition (1d) captures the ordinary meaning of “miracle” better than condition (1a), it seems reasonable to permit a defender of Christianity to narrow the scope of this concept in order to provide a clearer target for him/her to aim at in an argument with a skeptic, and a more focused issue of disagreement between those points of view.

To be continued…