Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016
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God’s Special Providence & Miracles
Exceptions to Expectations
Westminster Shorter Catechism – Question #8 How doth God execute his decrees?
Answer: God executeth his decrees in the works of creation and providence.
Westminster Confession of Faith IV – Of Creation (previous study)
In creation God gave material reality to his decrees. He made a setting suited for the display of his glory. He made man to live in that setting with the physical ability to receive divine revelation.
Westminster Confession of FaithV – Of Providence (previous study)
In providence God preserves and governs his creation so that it will accomplish all He made it to achieve. He is ever revealing himself generally in the things made.
Westminster Confession of Faith 5:3 “God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.”
God can do all his holy will. He executes his decrees with certainty, and it includes all that occurs.
The created physical universe is an energy-matter continuum embodied with physical laws. These principles govern how the parts interact and define their relationships.
All God made, and all that his providence governs, is an execution of his decrees. The decrees are ordered toward the manifestation of God’s nature and glory. Therefore, the operations of the universe are not inherent in the substance of the universe itself. They are embedded in it as a direct intention of the Creator in fulfilling his eternal purposes.
God acts directly at certain times without following the laws he decreed to ordinarily govern things. When God uses and directs secondary causes it is a mediate or natural operation. When God acts directly it is an immediate or supernatural operation.
The supernatural does not violate natural law. God is not part of his own created order. He is by definition above it. He is not bound to follow the ordinary principles we perceive as physical laws. More precisely such works of God involve principles that lie above and behind natural law. They come from the eternal purpose of God, which is the cause of the ordinary relationships governing things.
The Confession says that God may freely work “without, above and against” his ordinary providence. Theologians distinguish these two strains of providence as “providentia ordinaria” and “providentia extraordinaria” (ordinary and extraordinary providence). Sometime they are called general and special providence.
Some call any thing supernatural if it’s beyond their ability to explain it. It is undeniable that God has performed true miracles. It is also true that some things called “magical” are simply well understood physical laws. For example, some natural ingredients were in times passed thought to “miraculously” heal people. Now we know they include compounds that give very specific physical help to the body’s immune system, or fight off various infections. Today we just consider them “medicines”. Ancient people thought eclipses of the Sun and Moon were supernatural signs, but now we know they are the expected results of the Moon moving between us and the Sun or moving into the shadow of the Earth.
Healing of disease is not generally a supernatural event. God created the body with an immune system to fight various infections and disorders. Sometimes it works in ways we still cannot fully explain or duplicate with medicines. The body may seem at times to spontaneously go into remission even when untreated. These are the ordinary ways in which we get over common colds, flues, and infections.
Sometimes more severe diseases also seem to reverse themselves without any intervention by external treatments. People with various cancers and heart diseases may be given no hope, yet they recover for reasons medical science is not yet able to explain. In most people there is no prayer or even faith in the God of the Bible. Such remissions should not be seen as miracle healings.
God generally works by these natural means he put into the physical world when he made it. Not all these processes are fully understood by us. They are natural, involving secondary causes, not supernatural direct interventions of God. We should still give God the glory when he uses our immune systems, doctors, or medicines to accomplish their work in us or in our loved ones.
Some things that appear to be miraculous healings are just psychosomatic. Severe stress, fear, or guilt can bring on physical symptoms. Some report symptoms or believe they have specific diseases – but nothing is physically wrong. Such disorders can be reversed simply by convincing the person that the disease has been removed. Some are convinced they can be healed by claims of magical or supernatural means. The underlying stress is temporarily suppressed, so the imagined symptoms go away.
Such healings are really not healings at all. They are not evidences of miracle healings as sometimes cited by unscrupulous practitioners.
Medical science has made great progress, but many things still cannot be explained. The actual mechanisms linking wellness and a person’s attitude is still not fully understood.
Satan is a great orchestrator of deceptions, particularly to cause trust in things contrary to truth. Many have used deceit to gain a following.
Claims of Miracles and testimonials are not unique to Christianity. Ancient Babylonians, Greeks, Barbarians and others claimed miracles to convince followers. Many religions and cults claim miracles, visions, healings, and wonders to authenticate their message. If each claim was true, God would be affirming contradictory messages.
I remember going to see the “weeping icon” of St. Nicholas in Tarpon Springs, Florida. News reports said the painting of St. Nicholas was miraculously shedding tears. The painting had a glass covering over it and there were some drops of water on the inside of the glass over the Saint’s hand. The drops were not on the painting itself and they were not at that time near his eyes. Some reported though that at time they were near his eyes. I have seen moisture form on glass many times, even when there was no picture of a Saint near by. Water in the air often condenses into drops when there is a temperature difference and the air pressure is at certain levels. There is no reason to suppose that the drops by the painting of St. Nicholas were supernatural.
There are many claims of miracle healings, visions, and special revelations by people with many different beliefs about God. They promote messages they say are from God, but completely contradict Scripture and the claims of others who say God has spoken to them or who claim to perform great miracles.
Jesus warned us in Matthew 24:24 saying, “false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.”
We are warned to test the spirits of those who would ask us to trust and follow their teachings. 1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Calvin warned (in his Prefatory address of his Institutes which he directed to King Francis I), “We may also fitly remember that Satan has his miracles, which, though they are deceitful tricks rather than true powers, are of such sort as to mislead the simple-minded and untutored [2 Thessalonians 2:9-10]. Magicians and enchanters have always been noted for miracles. Idolatry has been nourished by wonderful miracles, yet these are not sufficient to sanction for us the superstition either of magicians or of idolaters.”
The basic word “miracle” and our English word “mirror” both come from the same Latin word “mirari” which means “to wonder at”. That gave the Anglo-French word “mirur” which means “to look at”. Miracles are things that stir us to wonder as we look at them.
Many things may excite our wonder. Even many natural things. Our ordinary use of the term is very broad and general. A good copy machine or a fine tasting margarine have been called “miracles” by the advertisers.
In the Bible we are told that God has at times worked in ways that surpass the physical laws. Since these actions go beyond the way things work naturally, we call them “supernatural“.
God works powerfully all through the ages of history to convert a soul to Christ, or to turn a believer back to God by the influence of the Holy Spirit. So these are “miracles” only in one narrow sense. They are direct acts of God, but they do not supervene any natural laws or physical processes. They are acts in the realm of spirit – neither “natural” nor “supernatural”.
God uses our prayers when we intercede for someone’s health. However, God may use the immune system, medical help, or other processes we do not yet fully understand. These all involve the use of secondary causes but they do not surpass natural processes.
Dr. Reymond, of Covenant Theological Seminary, writes, “I do not deny that miracles of grace and remarkable answers to prayer occur today. I do however question the occurrence today of what are referred to as genuine miracles of power.” (from What About Continuing Revelations P. 43)
God’s supernatural miracles are not simply to stir wonder or to relieve suffering. The Davis Bible Dictionary says that true miracles are not merely amazing or supernatural events we can’t explain.
If everything God does is called a “miracle” in the same sense, including things in the spirit realm and his ordinary guidance of secondary causes, then everything would be a miracle. The word would lose its meaning.
which is clear at the time of their occurrence.
They are not simply acts of wonder to convince the stubborn and unbelieving. Very few conversions are recorded which resulted from observing the biblical miracles. Egypt saw Moses lead his people out after the great plagues and the death of the first born. They saw God appear in the pillar and the cloud. They saw the Red Sea close in over their powerful army. Yet Egypt did not repent as a nation and come to a true faith in Jehovah.
The biblical miracles were not mere acts of benevolence and kindness to relieve suffering or to restore life.
Some claim that God’s will is to cure all who are diseased if they will only have faith. That is directly contrary to Scripture.
Paul prayed three times about his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). The Lord told him that it would not be taken away because it served a purpose. This infirmity, what ever its nature, was to keep the Apostle from “exalting himself.” It did not remain because Paul doubted, or because his faith was not strong enough. It was God’s love and wisdom that left Paul with this affliction for purposes not immediately evident.
God does not will that all diseases should be cured. This is not the purpose of miracles. He has revealed clearly in Scripture that he can do whatever he chooses. God is able to deliver from every disease or affliction. The question is not what he can do, but what he intends to do, and what he actually decrees and does. We need to understand what is meant by “miracle” as the term is used in Scripture.
God often delivers from sicknesses and injuries by natural workings of providence, and by secondary means. These merciful acts are always God at work, but not in violation of natural processes. It would be a mistake to call these ordinary operations “miracles.” Miracles of God’s direct intervention should not be the ordinary expectation of his people in every era.
B. B. Warfield writes that God does not, “deal with men atomistically, and reveal himself and his will to each individual… this is the mystic’s dream. It has not, however, been God’s way. He has chosen rather to deal with the race in its entirety.” The miracles have a larger purpose than the immediate benefits they may extend to the individuals directly involved (Miracles p. 26).
On a time line of biblical history from creation to the completion of the New Testament dots when miracles took place are not distributed throughout the whole span of time. They are confined almost exclusively to specific periods, separated by centuries.
– Creation was a direct and immediate act of God and would qualify as a miracle.
– The translation of Enoch in Genesis 5 was separated from creation by a long unspecified period of time.
– The various acts of vengeance upon sin are more generally classed as judgments but they were still miracles. They include the flood in the time of Noah, the division of the human race and confusion of languages beginning from the incident at Babel. Each was separated by long ages.
– A few supernatural events took place in the time of Abraham (22nd Century BC).
– Then there is a long gap until the time of Moses, Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, and the events up to the conquest of Canaan. (16th Century BC)
– Then there is another gap until the time of the kings in the divided kingdom under Elijah and Elisha. (10th Century BC)
– Then another long gap lasted until the miracles associated with the time of Daniel and the latter prophets. (6th Century BC)
– After several centuries another flurry of miraculous activity took place in the time of Jesus and the Apostles (1st Century AD). God’s covenant promises were fulfilled in the Messiah, and the Apostolic church was established.
Past that time Dr. B. B. Warfield writes, “there is little or no evidence at all for miracle-working during the first fifty years of the post-apostolic church.” He points out that such claims began slowly and increased rapidly as Christianity began more and more to compromise with paganism adopting its superstitions about the world. Warfield writes, “… this stream of ‘miracle-working’ which has run … through the history of the church was not original to the church, but entered it from without.” (Miracles p. 74)
When God’s plan of redemption advanced significantly, the truth of it was explained by direct revelation through specific chosen spokesmen sent by God. Miracles were performed to authenticate the human who was delivering the revelation as a representative of God.
Geerhardus Vos explains that associated with major events in God’s work of redemption, a period of special revelation occurs to explain the event. He points out that such “objective-central acts” are “never entirely left to speak for themselves; they are preceded and followed by word-revelation.” (Biblical Theology pp. 14-15)
Warfield shows how at each of these times, a period of miracles of power occurs to confirm the truth of the messengers of God.
This means that once the event is explained, the special revelation ends. When the special revelation is completed and received, the period of miracles ends. Each is without purpose without its predecessor and must cease when its job is done.
B. B. Warfield writes that miracles “… belong to revelation periods, and appear only when God is speaking to His people through accredited messengers, declaring His gracious purposes.” (Miracles p. 25)
Until the final stage of redemption in the return of Jesus Christ in judgment, there is no continuing need for added revelation and no promised continuance of the offices of prophet or apostle. Since no confirmation of new revelation is needed the biblical purpose for miracles can not exist in this church age until special revelation resumes at the final consummation.
John Skilton, associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, writes, “when the work of the apostles was done, and they had confirmed the salvation which the Lord began to attest in his earlier ministry, when the church had been planted, the apostolic foundation provided, and the New Testament had been written, there was no further need of the apostolic office and of the signs and gifts which had so notably accompanied it. … With the death of the apostles and of others who in the apostolic age had received special gifts, these special gifts died out.” (Special Gifts for a Special Age p. 3)
In 2 Corinthians 12:12 Paul wrote in defense of his apostleship: “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles (works of power)”
This triple expression should be taken as a whole. The supernatural events where God intervenes immediately have three designations:
– They are signs because they teach us something about God.
– They are wonders because they astonish and amaze us.
– They are miracles of power because they are done by God’s power over creation beyond its ordinary operation.
Paul explained directly that the purpose of these miracles is as signs of true apostleship. They are confirmations from God to attest to the authenticity of the message and of the messenger.
Charles Hodge agrees saying, “The signs of an Apostle were the insignia of the Apostleship.”
Dr. Hughes writes, “These signs were confirmatory of the apostolic work and word, and therefore of the authenticity of the Apostles’ mission.”
The same three words are found in other places in the New Testament to convey the same idea.
Mark 16:20 (concluding a much disputed portion) explains that the work of the eleven Apostles being addressed by Jesus after the resurrection “confirmed the word by the signs that followed.”
In Acts 2:22 Peter explains, “Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs.”
In Acts 14:3 Paul and Barnabas were at Iconium. It is said that the Lord “was bearing witness to the word of his grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.”
In Romans 15:19 Paul used these signs as God’s evidence that he was at work in those converted “in the power of signs, and wonders, in the power of the Spirit.” (“Power” here translates the same root word as “miracle”.)
In 2 Thessalonians 2:9 Paul warns of Satan’s work in the lawless one who acts “with all power, and signs and false wonders …”
In Hebrews 2:4 the writer says, “God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and various miracles …”
These terms are used together in many other places as well (see Acts 2:43, 4:30, 5:12, 7:36, 14:3 & 18:13). Clearly their purpose is to act as evidences of the authority of the Apostles.
B. B. Warfield writes, “these gifts … were part of the credentials of the Apostles… their function thus confined them distinctly to the Apostolic Church, and they necessarily passed away with it.” (Miracles p. 6)
John Calvin (also in the Institutes’ prefatory address) said, “In demanding miracles of us they [our antagonists] act dishonestly. For we are not forging some new gospel, but are retaining that very gospel whose truth all the miracles that Jesus Christ and his disciples ever wrought serve to confirm… This false hue could have been more dazzling if Scripture had not warned us concerning the legitimate purpose and use of miracles.”
The Davis’ Bible Dictionary retains this idea in its definition of biblical miracles of power: “events in the external world, wrought by the immediate power of God and intended as a sign or attestation.” (p. 526)
The historic position of the Protestant churches, particularly the Reformed is that God never promised that miracles of power would continue in Christ’s church in this present era. The extraordinary gifts (such as tongues, prophesy, and miracles of power) have ceased. They fulfilled their purpose by the end of the New Testament period. What we see today therefore cannot pass the biblical test for such supernatural wonders.
(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)