November 2018 Print

Miracles and the Laws of Nature

by Fr. Paul Robinson, SSPX


If God changed the laws of the universe, it would be impossible for us to do science, at least to a large degree. The reason is that, for science to work, scientists have to make two major assumptions: that the laws of the universe are the same throughout the entire universe, and that those laws have not changed over time. The first assumption is necessary for there to be laws of nature; the second assumption is necessary for us to be able to apply laws of nature backwards in time, to model the physical history of the universe.

If God changed the laws of nature, He would be an unreasonable God, for He would be at the same time creating humans with reason and creating a universe that confounds their reason. This causes immense problems in theology.

Catholics have historically allowed for both theology and science by saying that God does not change the laws of nature, but only suspends them. Protestants and Muslims, however, have tended to create a conflict between and in religion and science by saying that God changes nature’s laws. Let us consider these two views, with their consequences.

Catholic Realism and miracles

Catholics are instinctively realist in philosophy. Realists are those who accept that the concepts in our minds match up with reality. Specifically, they accept that, corresponding to the notion of “dogness” in the intellect, there is an actually existing principle in the dog Rover panting before me that makes him to be a dog. This principle is called a “nature” or an “essence.” There have to be real natures outside the mind if we are to account for the fact that types of beings exist, groups or species that all have the same behavior, such as dogs and cats and rhododendrons.

When we speak of laws of nature, we are really just speaking about the laws of these natures, the laws that hold for the types of being existing outside our mind. What does this have to do with miracles, you may ask? Well, if you accept that individual things have natures, then you must conclude that God cannot change those natures; He can only annihilate them.

Take Rover, for example. “Dogness” is his type of being. Say that God wants to change Rover’s “dogness” to “catness.” Because “dogness” is a feature of Rover that pertains to his very being—it’s his type of being—then God would have to change the whole being of Rover to make him into a cat. In other words, there is no direct path from “dogness” to “catness.” To get there, Rover first has to pass from “dogness” to “non-dogness.” In other words, he has to be annihilated, and so not be Rover at all anymore.

If you are inclined to wow your friends with your realism, consider bringing this up when the topic of reincarnation comes up at the next cookout.

So, if God is not even able to change the laws of nature—since reducing a dog to non-being is not really changing it into something else—would He make use of His power to annihilate in order to work miracles? Would He, for instance, annihilate and re-create things in the universe, or the universe itself, periodically, in order to do some re-configuration in the cosmos?

The answer, for the Catholic realist, is “no.” It would be unreasonable for God for annihilate something and then create something else (see the Summa Theologica, I, q. 104, a. 4). It would be even more unreasonable for God to annihilate the universe and then create another universe with different laws of nature.

When God works miracles, He is reasonable. This is why Catholic theologians hold that God does not change the laws of nature when He works miracles, and He does not occasionally reconfigure the laws of the universe. It is precisely because God respects what He has created—both His universe and His humans—that He does not do so.

What God rather does is suspend the laws of nature, as I explain in The Realist Guide to Religion and Science (p. 103):

“It is more correct to say that God suspends the laws of nature when He works a miracle, in that the normal workings of nature do not manifest themselves—not because they have been changed, but because they have been prevented from acting. At the same time God suspends natural laws, He produces an extraordinary effect by means of direct creation or by using a creature already existing as an instrument of His power. Thus, when Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come forth,” the normal corruptive processes eating away at Lazarus’s body are suspended and God communicates to the voice of the God-man the power to restore life to that same body. The course of nature has been changed, but the laws of nature have not been changed.”

In the example given, God:

—works a local miracle that does not tamper with the laws of the universe. 

—changes the course of nature, by stepping into the arena of created causes. This is similar to you changing the course of nature by, for instance, holding a book three feet off of the ground, when normally it would fall to the ground. You are not changing the nature of the book; you are just interfering with its normal mode of operation.

—uses the miracle in order to convince human reason of a truth that is not directly accessible to it, namely that Our Lord Jesus Christ is God. He does not use this miracle—or any miracle—to convince humans to mistrust their reason. It is perfectly reasonable for God to teach humans supernatural truths—and so enlighten their intellects—by means of miracles, but it makes no sense for Him to teach them to abandon reason by means of miracles.

In summary, the Catholic realist holds that miracles are a suspension of the laws of nature, not a changing of them. This view harmonizes with the idea of a God who is wise and reasonable in all that He does.

Theological idealists and miracles

Protestants and Muslims tend more to be idealists than realists in philosophy. An idealist starts with theology rather than philosophy in forming his notion of miracles. He begins with an idea of God that is not taken from reality, but is more taken from a pious desire to make sure that God has absolute freedom, that God can will whatever He wants, whenever He wants. Such a theologian is called a “voluntarist.”

In order to “give” God total free will, voluntarists have to strip from Him another one of His faculties, His intellect. In other words, they hold that, if God’s will were bound to follow the reasonable dictates of an intellect, then God’s will would not be completely free. To save God from this “restriction,” they make the claim that God does not follow any set ideas in what He does.

To take a simple example of this line of thought, let us say that we were wondering if God could create a rock that is too heavy for Him to lift. Theologians holding that God cannot do anything that contradicts reason would say “no.” The God of raw-will theologians, however, would say, “We cannot restrict God’s power and choices by the categories of our human reason. It seems to us that creating a rock too heavy for you to lift is against reason, but our minds are limited. And who are we to put constraints on the choices of God? God forbid that we should dare pretend to impose the limits of our thinking on the action of God!” Thus, they conclude, God must be able to do even those things which seem impossible to reason. God can do anything, even the impossible and contradictory.

Certain Catholic theologians, especially William of Ockham, tended in this direction. The Church, however, has never allowed such a theology of God to become mainstream in Catholicism, and, in fact, has fought against it tooth and nail throughout the ages. Meanwhile, such a God idea is standard in Islam and Protestantism.

Muslims form their God idea from the Koran. But the Koran presents Allah more as an absolute and even arbitrary ruler than as a consistent and reasonable ruler. In the early Middle Ages, two schools of Muslim theologians were battling on whether the Koran should be interpreted literally in those passages that contradicted reason or whether it could be interpreted allegorically in order to save reason. Ultimately, the literalist and voluntarist school of Al-Ash’ari won out. It projects an image of an Allah who is not subject to reason and so a universe that cannot be fathomed by reason. Effectively, Allah recreates the universe anew at every moment, in such a way that there is no consistency from one moment to the next. This prevents human minds from being able to discern causal connections between events that happen in the flux of time. The only explanation that can be given for anything is, “Allah did it.” Everything is a miracle.

The first Protestants, who took Ockham’s system to its ultimate limit, tended to make an Allah out of the God of the Bible. There were several reasons for them to do this:

—they held that God does unreasonable things, such as damning people for no fault of their own;

—they had a strong dislike for the faculty of reason;

—they wanted to turn religion from being something objective to being something subjective.

The Protestants did have one major obstacle standing in their way: the very Bible they claimed to understand and honor, a Bible which consistently proclaims God’s consistency and reasonableness. But because the Reformers were voluntarists as theologians, they willingly accorded to God the freedom to be unreasonable and inconsistent. Even more, they made Him into a God who wants to stamp out reason in His creatures. How does He do this? By means of miracles. He starts by creating creatures with reason, then He has them use their reason to investigate the nature that He has created, and finally He tells them (by means of a literal reading of the Bible) that what their reason has discovered is wrong. This puts His creatures in a dilemma: do I accept my reason or my God? The good creatures reject their reason; the bad creatures reject God.

For the Reformers, the God of the Bible is of such a nature that He works miracles that contradict the laws of nature in order to teach humans to distrust their reason and place their complete trust in God, a God who gives them reason so that they can then reject it for His glory. The voluntarist God, in short, is a God who intervenes in His universe in such a way as to make it impossible for His creatures to make sense out of it. Miracles are, for Him, not so much a means to help His creatures understand His goodness as to exact a total unreasoning submission to Him.

Modern Protestant fundamentalists typically do not go this far. They certainly, however, subscribe to a voluntarist theology, which makes them more anxious to defend God’s ability to be arbitrary than God’s will to be reasonable. Specifically, they attack the principle of uniformitarianism, the fancy name for the assumptions of science stated in the first paragraph of this article, i.e. that the laws of the universe are consistent throughout the universe and throughout time.

In place of uniformitarianism, such Protestants, who are labelled with the ambiguous term “creationists,” subscribe to the principle of “Biblical catastrophism.” This is defined as “the doctrine that, at least on the occasions mentioned in Scripture, God has directly intervened in the normal physical processes of the universe, causing significant changes for a time” (Whitcomb & Morris in The Genesis Flood). According to this principle, God sometimes works miracles at the level of the universe itself. But if God has done this, He has, by doing so, removed the possibility of humans engaging in historical sciences, which rely on the assumption of uniformitarianism. This deleterious consequence does not overly disturb the creationists. They are willing to sacrifice the intelligibility of God’s universe in order to cling to a voluntarist notion of God.


Catholic realists claim that God works miracles by suspending the laws of nature, not by changing them. Such a God corresponds to what reason tells us about reality and about God Himself.

Protestant and Muslim idealists claim that God works miracles by changing the laws of nature and by doing all manner of things contradictory to reason. Such a God revels in confounding our reason, because He wants us to surrender reason in His honor. Here, neither miracles are reasonable, nor the God who works them.

With the realist God, we are able to have a God Who is reasonable, loving, powerful, and in line with Biblical revelation, while the voluntarist God fails to harmonize reason and Faith. This is strong evidence that the realist God is the real God.