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On the Theology of Miracles


Summa Theologiae, Pars I, q. 105, aa. 6-8

Article 6. Whether God has the power to do anything outside the order inherent in creation

1. God seems unable to do anything outside the established order of things. Augustine says, God the founder and creator of all natures, does nothing contrary to nature . Now anything that is apart from the pattern inherent in nature seems to be contrary to nature. God cannot, then, do any such thing.

2. Further, as the order of justice originates with God, so does the order of nature. God has no power, however, to transgress the order of justice; by that fact he would be doing something unjust. Neither, then, does he have power to transgress the order of nature.

3. Further, God has fixed the order of nature. Should he do something outside it, then, he would appear to be changeable, and that is inadmissible.

On the other hand, there is Augustine's statement that God does on occasion do something against the usual pattern of nature [ Contra Faustum Manichaeum 26, 3. PL 42, 481].  

Reply: From every cause there results some sort of order in its effects, since a cause has the meaning of being a principle. In consequence there are as many orders as there are causes, with one order contained under another, even as one cause is subordinated to another in such a way that the higher cause is not subject to the lower, but the other way round. There is a clear example in human affairs: the domestic order depends on the father of the family; that order in turn is subordinated to the municipal order deriving from the city's ruler, the municipal order comes under the regimen of the king, who is the source of order in the whole realm.

Thus if we look to the world's order as it depends on the first cause, God cannot act against it, because then he would be doing something contrary to his foreknowledge, his will or his goodness. But if we take the order in things as it depends on any of the secondary causes, then God can act apart from it; he is not subject to that order but rather it is subject to him, as issuing from him not out of a necessity of nature, but by decision of his will. He could in fact have established another sort of pattern in the world; hence when he so wills, he can act apart from the given order, producing, for example, the effects of secondary causes without them or some effects that surpass the powers of these causes. Thus Augustine, God does act contrary to the normal course of nature, but no more goes in any way contrary to the supreme law, than he goes against himself [loc cit. PL 42, 481].

Hence: 1. When there is some occurrence among natural beings at variance with their inherent natures, it can come about in two ways. The first is by the action of an agent that did not bestow a being's natural tendencies, e.g. someone raises a heavy body upwards who is not the cause of its downward pull; such action is against nature. The second way is by the action of that agent upon which a natural action depends; such an occurrence is not contrary to nature. An example is the tides: even though they are not in accord with the downward flow natural to water, they are not unnatural, since they derive from the influence of a heavenly body, upon which the natural tendencies of earthly bodies depend. Because, therefore, order is established in nature by God, should he effect anything not in keeping with this order, it would not be contrary to nature. Thus, in the work cited, Augustine says, Whatever he does from whom comes every mode, number and order in nature is natural for any being [loc cit. PL 42, 480].

2. The order of justice exists on the basis of its relation to the first cause who is the measure of all justice, and this is why God can do nothing that transgresses this order.

3. God so fixed the definite order in nature that he still reserved to himself what at times he was to do differently for good reason. He is, then, not changed when he acts apart from that order.


Article 7. Whether everything that God does outside the normal pattern is a miracle

1. All the things that God does apart from the natural pattern do not seem to be miracles. The creation of the universe or even of human souls and the justification of the sinner are done by God outside the natural pattern of things, in the sense that they do not come about through the activity of any natural cause. Still, such deeds are not classified as miracles. Thus not everything that God does out of keeping with the natural pattern of things is a miracle.

2. Further, a miracle is described as something difficult and unusual, surpassing the capabilities of nature and the expectations of those who wonder at it [Augustine, De utilitate credendi, 16. PL 42, 90]. Now there are certain things done apart from the normal course that nonetheless are: not difficult, since they have to do with minor matters, e.g. tools being recovered or the sick healed [cf IV Kgs 4:6]; not usual, since they occur repeatedly, e.g. the sick were laid in the streets to be healed by Peter's passing shadow [cf Acts 5:15]; not beyond the capacities of nature, e.g. the cure of fevers; not beyond expectation, e.g. the resurrection of the dead, which we all hope for, even though it will be outside the normal in nature. Accordingly not all things done apart from the natural pattern are miracles.

3. Further, the world ‘miracle' derives from the word admiratio . Now wonder has to do with things apparent to the sense, whereas at times there are exceptions to the natural course in mattes not apparent to sense, e.g. the apostles came to possess knowledge without either studying or being taught [cf Acts 2:4]. Not all exceptions to the normal course of things, then, are miracles.

On the other hand, Augustine states that when God does things contrary to the pattern known and expected by us in nature, we call them great and wondrous works [ Contra Faustum 26, 3. PL 42, 481].

Reply: The word ‘miracle' is taken from admiratio . Now we experience wonder when an effect is obvious but its cause hidden; in the example noted at the beginning of the Metaphysics [Aristotle, Metaphysics I, 2. 982b16], when someone witnesses an eclipse of the sun but does not know its cause, he wonders. However, the cause of some observed effect may be known to one person and yet unknown to another. In this way the same thing may be wondered at by the one and not by the other; e.g. the peasant is in awe at the sun's eclipse, but not the astronomer. But the word ‘miracle' connotes something altogether wondrous, i.e. having its cause hidden absolutely and from everyone. This cause is God. Thus the works God does surpassing any cause known t use are called miracles.

Hence: 1. Creation and the justifying of the sinner, while they are acts of God alone, are strictly speaking not miracles, because they are acts not meant to be accomplished by other causes. Thus they do not occur as exceptions to the pattern in nature, since they are not part of that pattern.

2. A miracle is described as difficult not because of the worth of the matter about which it occurs, but because it surpasses the capabilities of nature. It is termed unusual, not because it may occur repeatedly, but because it is outside the normal pattern. Something is said to surpass the capacities of nature not only on the basis of the kind of thing done, but also of the manner and order of its doing. A miracle is said to be beyond expectation, but of nature, not of grace, i.e. the hope arising from faith, whereby we believe in the resurrection to come.

3. While the apostles' knowledge as not itself perceivable, it became so in effects that showed it to be miraculous.


Article 8. Whether one miracle is greater than another

1. One miracle seems no greater than another. Augustine writes, With things done miraculously, the whole significance of what is done is the power of the doer [Epist. XCVII, 2. PL 35, 519]. Now it is by that power, God's that all miracles are done. Thus one is no greater than the other.

2. Further, the power of God is infinite, and the infinite immeasurably surpasses the finite. Accordingly it is no more to be wondered at that God achieve one effect than he achieves another, and one miracle is no greater than another.

On the other hand, speaking of his miraculous works, Our Lord says, The works that I do, he also shall do, and greater than these shall he do [ Jn 14:12].

Reply: nothing can be termed a miracle in relation to God's own power, because whatever is done is insignificant compared to that power; Behold the gentiles are as a drop from a bucket, and are counted as the smallest grain of a balance [ Is , 40:15].

Rather something is termed a miracle by reference to the capability of nature that it surpasses. Therefore the more it exceeds nature's capability, the greater any miracle is said to be. Something may be beyond nature's powers in any of three ways. The first is in terms of the kind of thing done, e.g. that two bodies co-exist in one place at one time, that the sun's course be reversed or that the human body be made glorious. Since nature can in no way achieve such things, these have first rank among miracles.

In a second way something exceeds the resources of nature not as to what is done, but as to the subject in which it is done; e.g. raising the dead, giving sight to the blind and the like. Nature can cause life, but not in the dead; sight, but not in the blind. These rank next among miracles.

In a third way something surpasses the powers of nature by reference to the manner and order of its doing; e.g. a person's being instantly cured form fever by diving power without the gradual process of cure normal in nature; the air's being condensed by God's power into rain without natural causes, as was done at the prayer of Samuel [1 Kgs 12:18] and Elijah [II Kgs 18:44]. Such deeds are least among miracles.

Note that within each class there are gradations, corresponding to the degree to which nature's powers are surpassed.

Hence the solution to the objections is obvious; they are argue from the standpoint of God's power.

Summa Theologiae I, q. 105, aa. 6-8, edited by Blackfriars, translated by T.C. O'Brien (London-New York: Eyre & Spottiswoode - McGraw-Hill, 1975), vol. 14, pp. 79-87.