Newton's definition of miracle

From: Ted Davis <tdavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Fri Aug 05 2005 - 15:53:38 EDT

I found the passage in Newton in which he defines a "miracle." It's from a
MS at Lehigh University that so far as I know has no formal catalogue
identification. Here goes:

For Miracles are so called not because they are the works of God but
because they happen seldom & for that reason create wonder. If they should
happen constantly according to certain laws imprest upon the nature of
things, they would no longer be wonders or miracles, but might be considered
in Philosophy as part of the Phenomena of Nature {notwithstanding their
being the effects of the laws impressed upon Nature by the powers of God}
notwithstanding that the cause of their causes might be unknown to us.

The words in brackets are crossed out. Don't make too much of this
particular fact; there can be no doubt that Newton believed that God's power
was the source of natural regularities. Newton was probably just tying to
be careful about what he would say, esp if it was intended for publication
as perhaps this MS was. Publicly, he tried to say as little as possible
about God; privately, he wrote over a million words about religious
subjects. When he uses words like "the cause of their causes might be
unknown to us," he almost certainly meant just what the deleted words meant;
he was simply being a bit coy.

Here's the commentary I wrote on this passage many years ago:

What Newton assumed here, I contend, is that God does all things in nature,
whether usual or unusual. Most things he does by laws he established, and
these we consider natural. Some things, which happen seldom and therefore
give us reason to marvel, he does without laws. The word `miracle' is
reserved for unusual events simply because ordinary events don't create the
same degree of wonder. Newton's point about miracles not being so called
because they are divine works is thus seen to be etymological: `miracle'
derives from the Latin verb `mirari', to create wonder or astonishment.
Considering Newton's beliefs about divine activity in nature, he could
hardly have meant that miracles are not acts of God; his point can only have
been that they are simply extraordinary acts of God.

Ted
Received on Fri Aug 5 15:55:00 2005

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