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Nature miracles in their context

19 September 2014


How can a Christian explain the occurrence of walking on water? [Answers, 12 September]

I was impressed by Canon Terry Palmer's subtlety concerning what actually happened in the Gospel accounts of the nature miracles. Atheists will be more forthright: no such things happened. Furthermore, since healing miracles also took place within the matter and causal processes of nature, healing miracles will probably go the same way.

What allegedly happened is bizarre and incredible without a proper context. The context of the physical sciences, and indeed of our familiar everyday life, cannot sustain the significance of any miracle. Canon Palmer draws attention, perhaps for this reason, to "the real significance of the story", which ascribes to Christ "the power and mastery of God as the Lord of winds and waves".

The problem is that significance itself lies in a context that is beginning to fragment, since "what happened historically is probably beyond our grasp," where a "reverent agnosticism relegates factual details to a historical suspense account". I take this as a way of saying that what supposedly happened is doubtful and is thereby relegated from the context. Hence any significance of miracle stories is also detached from what happened.

But, in the wider context, Christ's miracles are signs of the coming Kingdom, set within the religion of Israel, where God performed many mighty works. How much more that is "beyond our grasp" will be relegated from the context by a reverent agnosticism?

Canon Palmer quotes the Old Testament to support the significance of Jesus as "the Lord of winds and waves". But this is not credible if "Jesus was seen walking or wading in the shallows"! Then we have the "I AM" at the burning bush. But the burning bush is another questionable nature miracle. Canon Palmer mentions the "I AM", but it floats free as the burning bush is relegated, and context continues to disintegrate.

The significance of these nature miracles in both the Gospels and the Old Testament is about the reality of God, not merely about stories that people believe. Canon Palmer speaks of the "power and mastery of God", "the Living One"; these presumably convey something of the reality of God. But the divine reality is shown in what supposedly happened. If that is in question, the reality of God itself comes into question. After all, the "nature" part of nature miracles surely contributes to the sense of the reality of God as "Lord of winds and waves". If the facts, as in what happened, do not go beyond the working of the normal causes of nature, then a context of what happened, the reality of God, and Canon Palmer's "real significance" lie in ruins. We are left only with stories.

One may object that the parables of Jesus are just such stories, where what happened is not important. Indeed so, but the parables speak to us of the reality of God in the context of Jesus's life and ministry, where the miracles are signs of the coming Kingdom. The credibility of the King himself lies in this context, including what happened.

So the whole context weaves what happened together with the reality of God shown in his mighty works, all of which is woven into the history of Israel and the ministry of Jesus. To unpick that context will unravel the whole context.

(Dr) Henk Carpentier Alting
Heaton Moor, Stockport


How can I learn about the various "heresies" that have arisen in the Christian Church during its 2000-year-old life? Is there a . . . Dictionary of Heresies?

M. A. T.


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