The Cambridge Companion to Miracles

By: Timothy Lim Teck Ngern
Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, edited by Graham H. Twelftree. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 338+xiv pp. ISBN 978-0-621-899986-4.

This collection of eighteen essays, edited by Regent University’s Distinguished Professor of New Testament Graham Twelftree, examines miracles from a range of perspectives. It includes critical approaches (involving authors skeptical about miracles as well as others who engage with historical figures like Hume, Spinoza, and Voltaire), religiously-informed approaches (that accept the actuality of such occurrences on the basis of their tradition-based and philosophical reasonings with historical proponents like Aquinas in Christianity, Vasubandhu in Buddhism, and Maimonides in Jewish thought), and interdisciplinary approaches (explaining miracles in philosophical debates, and its application for those in palliative care, i.e., care-givers to patients who desire miraculous cures for their ailments). While not organized as sections dealing with critical, confessional/religious, and interdisciplinary approaches, this threefold categorization helped me as a reader to appreciate the complexity behind the volume’s efforts in making sense of the miraculous.  

The Companion is divided into four parts. Part I, and its two chapters, frame the volume. The first chapter explains the nature of a miracle and the different methods for evaluating the miraculous. In a nutshell, miracles refer to the unusual, unexpected, and awe-producing events that imply divine intervention. Chapters thereafter refer back to this definition of a miracle, examining it from various perspectives. Chapter 2 discusses questions arising from the different conceptions of miracles and what these conceptions have to say about the point (or meaning) of miracles Bringing scientific, philosophical, and theological concerns, the second chapter asks, on one hand, if creation is mechanistically order or understood, do miracles imply a fallible God who has to intervene to further divine purposes? This brings to my mind (not in this chapter) the example of Voltaire who suggested that miracles disfigure God’s own handiwork. On the other hand, if miracles do not violate the laws of nature, how can they be explained naturally? An example in a later chapter illustrates the point here; Maimonides maintained that ‘miracles’ were predetermined at the time of creation and then actualized without violating God’s will/nature: thus, biblical miracles are to be read allegorically rather than supernaturalistically. The author of Chapter 2 registers that the sophistication of philosophy and theology in the Middle Ages led Augustine and Aquinas for instance to believe that miracles are a result of direct divine action (not solely based on ignorance of natural causes as skeptics would suggest). He further asks, if later advances in sciences may subsequently provide natural explanations to events originally conceived as miracles, and if so, how one may approach miracles apologetically? Chapter 2 concludes that miracles are signs of God’s love and continual involvement in creation.

Part II reviews how miracles were understood in Western antiquity and the Middle Ages. Part III explicates miracles in traditional (folk) religions, Hinduism, Islam, early Indian Buddhism, Christianity and Jewish philosophy. Part IV reviews the history of philosophical and theological debates since the early modern period. The volume concludes with a discussion of how understanding the arguments of miracles would be useful to those in palliative care and other helping-professionals. With regard to the flow of ideas organized in the book, readers would have been better served if the various approaches to miracles, currently located in chapters 15 and 16 of the Companion, were brought forward into the introductory part I since they provide perspective on the development of the understanding of miracles in the history of Judeo-Christianity and the other religions.

Primarily written for scholars of religion, I see that the Companion also offers insights for pastors and those in the ministry. Since the volume discusses how miracles relate with a modern scientific worldview, preachers would be better informed about what is involved in labeling an occurrence a miracle. In addition, the volume provides summary discussions of evidences for miracles in other religions, thus providing resources for more sensitive pastoral and theological proclamation, especially to those informed by traditions that have otherwise been predisposed to labeling such phenomena in other religious traditions as demonic. Further, other religious views about the miraculous might also challenge typical lay Christian notions, such as the early Indian Buddhist attitude that miracles are not for public display, being a counter-perspective to some excessive displays of power in some Pentecostal/Charismatic churches. Church leaders who see miracles as confirmation of their divine authority, support for their theological assertions, and indications of divine approval (for expanding church projects, for instance) would be challenged by this volume to rethink their theological paradigm of miracles. This is notwithstanding the collection also traces how miracles have been appealed to as evidence of divine providence approving expansionism in the history of Christianity.

Finally, ministers are often perplexed as to how they can help those who struggle with trusting God for healing on the one hand, and while embracing advances in biomedical science and technology to facilitate the process of healing on the other hand. To assist pastors and care-givers in palliative care, Chapter 17 offers several points of consideration: a) healing is God’s prerogative; b) that accepting medical treatments (while waiting for God’s healing) does not indicate a denial or lack of faith; c) a healthy faith will result in harmony with self and others; d) patients under the guidance of an informed practitioner will be helped in dealing with painful realities.

Prior to reading this volume, I was anticipating engagements with different conceptions of reality vis-à-vis the miraculous in this companion.[1] Yes, investigating the subject from philosophical, scientific, and theological perspectives, the Companion establishes that miracles defy simple explanations. Some contributions in the Companion follow modernity’s disenchantment with the miraculous, examining miracles through the lens of cause-and-effect approaches that privilege skeptical attitudes to the miraculous. This is evident, for instance, in chapters 4, 6, 7, and 9. Other contributions such as chapters 10-14 and 16 show that the desire to locate miracles in scientific terms is a wrongheaded pursuit, especially in light of overwhelming evidence for reported miracles in various faith traditions.

However, I was still unclear about two issues. First, was the editor confronted with space constraints imposed by the publisher? And/or, was he unable to include more scholars of Asian traditions for this volume? My concern is that only a limited number of Asian and Buddhist perspectives were represented. Most importantly, absent from the discussion, for instance, are chapter on Taoism and Confucianism, especially Taoism’s understanding of the cosmic tao’s transformation of wu with wuwei, by means of the energy chi through which devotee achieves the ability to manipulate the natural world. The Companion’s discussions were instead limited to a narrow Buddhistic tradition (ch 12) and a generalization of folk/traditional religiosity (ch 9) that do not represent the broad scope of miracles across the Asian religious landscape. I am sure that the editor realizes that whole volumes could be devoted to teasing out the miraculous in each of the world’s religious traditions.

Second, I was surprise to find no substantial treatment of miracles in the other sciences such as psychology (in particular, depth psychology), neuroscience, and palliative care (the latter was hinted at several times in the volume, especially at the Introduction, and in Chapters 10 and 17). These ought to be considered as paramount trajectories especially given that miracles today are rejected not only by deconstructionists but also by psychologists and psychiatrists from non-religious perspectives.[2] Hence, I am curious as to the reasons for omission of these sciences in this volume. Oftentimes, reviewers point out what books neglect to cover, and these are sometimes lodged out of ignorance behind the circumstances a volume is put together, as is the case here.

On the whole, the Companion is a high-quality collection of essays that discuss a wide-range of interrelated issues – such as whether believing in miracles requires faith in God, miracles as understood in different religions, and how explanations of the miraculous could affect theology (understanding of God and his involvement with creation) vis-à-vis nature and science. I highly recommend it to scholars of religion and ministers.

* My appreciations to Prof Amos Yong and Esther Ng Ailey for their comments and proofreading to earlier drafts of the review. Any faults remain my own responsibility.

[1] Walter Watson’s The Architectonics of Meaning (Chicago University Press, 1985) names four shades of realities – existential realities, substrative realities, noumenal realities, and essential realities.

[2] Harold Ellens, Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal, 3-vols (Praeger, 2008).

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Timothy Lim Teck Ngern
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2 Responses to “The Cambridge Companion to Miracles”

  1. Graham Twelftree says:

    Thank you very much. I appreciate the time and consideration Tim has given to this book and for helping continue the conversation about the miraculous, a topic too often neglected even in Christian scholarship. Indeed, it is helpful to be reminded what was in the book! It is near two years since the proofs and indexing were being done.

    Researchers are never islands, entire unto themselves, but part of enquiring communities. Part of the community (often unseen and unacknowledged) that produced this book are the librarians who aid our research. I am glad to begin by acknowledging the support of Bob Sivigny of the Regent University Library.

    I have discovered that a good book has a gestation period far exceeding all other known forms of parenting. From conception to safe delivery, this one kept us waiting for nigh on five years, and along the way, at last count, required the attention of around 2,500 emails.

    Inherent in a book that is the first of its kind is that it is extraordinarily difficult to find able scholars willing to work in a new and potentially disreputable field. Virtually no work has been done in some areas, such as the Old Testament and some of the major religions, and in others only a little.

    Thus, much of the pre-natal life of the book was taken up establishing the right mix of chapters and potential contributors. Identifying highly qualified authorities across the globe who could and were willing to deal with the topics, and had a reputation for delivering quality work on time, involved extended searches, and discussions with the Press. Too many times, the Press warned that a potential author had the reputation for uneven work, or quantity rather than quality, or a disregard for deadlines. I find myself agreeing with Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, and well known from his share of editing. He said that punctuality and consideration were “the two cardinal virtues of a contributor.”1 In these struggles to find the right contributors for topics, as well as the problem of space, is the greater part of a response to Tim’s two concerns—the lack of Asian scholars and perspectives, and no substantial treatments of miracle in relation to the sciences.

    Eventually, however, the cast of 17 contributors and chapters was assembled. A review of the list of contributors shows that there is one from the University of Western Australia, some from Canadian institutions, and some from this country, as well as from the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham and Oxford in Britain. There is also one—the last one—from the University of Southern Denmark. As painful as parts of the process were, I have made no enemies of whom I am aware, but established some firm friends one of whom I was able to meet for the first time when we both gave papers in Oxford a few weeks ago.

    I was once told—by someone who had obviously not tried it—that if you cannot write, then you can always edit. This is not my first attempt at editing, and those who have tried it know there is much pain and controlled breathing in the delivery room. To share my pain, between two and four, and in a few cases—if memory serves me correctly—five or six anonymous peer reviewers were marshaled to read and report on each chapter or one of its rewrites. Authors were then able to revise their chapters, in some cases, a number of times, to produce the most robust, reliable and readable pieces possible. Sadly, in the nature of things, the identity of these around-60 reviewers will forever remain unknown. However, their contribution to the process of development and revision, and careful editorial attention, meant that the text going to the Press was very clean and one that required little work for Ann Lewis, the exceptional copy editor at Cambridge.

    Besides considerations of space and availability of scholars, another part of a response to Tim’s concern about breadth of coverage is that an important and dominating agenda of the book is to contextualize the miracles of Jesus though chapters on the Hebrew Bible, Classical culture to the Romans, Second Temple and early rabbinic Judaism, as well as early Christianity.

    In this respect, should you read this book, I suspect that a couple of issues are likely to strike you. One is that miracle is important for all the major religious traditions. So, the question arises: what are we to make of similar miracles being found in different religions? Just as Jesus fed a crowd with a small amount of food, so did a chief disciple of the Buddha. Not only is Jesus said to walk on water, and give sight to the blind, there are also stories of S.ūfī saints of Islam accomplishing the same feats. Both Jesus and Buddha are said to have had miraculous births. One distinctive of the miracle stories of Jesus is that, although they may secondarily reflect on the identity of Jesus, by and large, they are distinctive in their compassion, directed to meeting human need.

    Another issue that will arise for the reader is this. Those who are not religious, or do not consider it possible to establish that miracles have taken place, are likely to see the relativity inherent in their, generally Western, explanations of their world. An unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of the enchanted world of others might justly be perceived as another expression of cultural or intellectual colonialism.

    Apart from these rather large issues, there are a number of pedal notes—recurring sub-themes—heard through the text of this book. One, is the problem of defining a miracle. For example, for a Christian a miracle might be an unusual or humanly impossible event brought about by divine intervention. For a Buddhist a miracle would be the natural expression of the power of the mind of a holy man.

    Second is the ambiguity of miracle. An event seen and understood by some, but missed or at least supposedly misunderstood by others, has led more than one tradition to hold that miracles could neither create faith in the unbeliever nor strengthen the belief of the already faithful. Perhaps, then, a miracle can only be perceived (or not) and interpreted against an existing world view—faith, religion or community—and its set of perceptions. In other words, perhaps, a miracle is no more than my way of seeing as extraordinary what another sees as ordinary.

    Third is the meaning of miracles. They might equally be claimed as evidence for the goodness of the deity or as for his tragic neglect of those who don’t experience the mercy or marvel. Or, miracles could be taken as evidence of an incompetent creator meddling in an unfinished or imperfect work. Alternatively, according to some, if miracles occur in a world overseen by a perfect, all-powerful creator, they must have been planned from the beginning. How, then, do the Jews interpret a God who saves them from Pharaoh, but not from Hitler? Perhaps, then, “true faith has nothing to do with fortune,” as Kenneth Seeskin, one of our writers, says.

    Fourth, is the place of miracles in the disputes along the uncertain borders between religions and cultures. For example, in the tenth-century battles with the Christians, Muslims pointed out that if the miracles of Jesus are also seen in the life of Moses there can be no difference between them as prophets. This gives rise to hints in this book of the view that miracles are of doubtful value in proselytising, or in establishing the divine or special status of the religion or miracle worker.

    Lastly, from time to time, key individuals come to the fore. Not only founding figures of the various religions—Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muh.ammad—but there is also evidence of other individuals of brilliance who have given attention to the problem of miracle, and whose views still merit our consideration: Saint Augustine, Al-Bāqillānī, the tenth-century Islamist, Thomas Aquinas, Baruch Spinoza and David Hume.

    This book makes no claim to cover all the territory, and may not answer all the questions raised by a thoughtful person. But, in this collection of essays an attempt has been made to provide more than enough raw material for fruitful discussion, questioning and reflection on the perennial set of problems associated with the idea of miracle. Thank you again to Tim for the opportunity to interact on this subject.

  2. Christopher Wilson says:

    I think the primary value of this text is that it opens up the discussion on a filed which is seldom discussed at the academic and critical levels. From my initial and cursory review of the field it seems that religious scholars either embrace cessationism and try to dismiss the phenomenon of miracles; or they accept testimonies and anecdotes without critical reflection. There should be a place between these 2 poles which allows for the phenomenon of the miraculous, but that accepts that many/ most reports of the miraculous might have natural causes or at least would fail to withstand scientific skepticism. As this is the direction I hope to go in my future research I have found that this is a skill already developed somewhat within Catholicism for the purposes of authenticating the miracles of the saints; but has been almost untouched by Pentecostals. Development of such a skill set would be of usage to Pentecostals in the area of discernment as to whether various movements and gifts of the spirit are authentically moves of God or have natural causes. For now this book is an important development in a field which is crying out to be developed and explored.

    Your brother in Christ,