About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Miracles, Answered Prayers and Isaac

This strange creature is Isaac, my three-year-old son. There’s a short story surrounding his conception that may contextualize some of the issues Denis Edwards raises in Chapter 5 of How God Acts. Isaac, you see, is a miracle baby, an answer to prayer – or so my wife and I suppose. Let me explain.

I have diabetes. Back in 2007, when Ruth and I were trying for a baby, this was especially a problem, for the diabetes was affecting my sperm count and the quality of the sperm. Also, if I recall correctly, Ruth wasn’t ovulating consistently. Given our various problems, conceiving a child was going to be very, very difficult. It reached a point when we were ready to concede that IVF was the only feasible option for us. But we thought we’d continue to try the standard, time-honoured way as well, just in case. And guess what…

Isaac was conceived very soon after our first try, if not on the first try itself. We regarded him as a miracle baby, an answer to prayer – and we still do, even though we’ve found water jugs in the ironing basket and headless gingerbread men shoved under the sofa. But let’s think more deeply about how to regard him: Is Isaac really a miracle baby? What on earth does that mean? It’s not like Ruth was barren or I was sterile. So to call Isaac a miracle baby is probably just something we as proud, gushing parents are permitted to say. It’s our colloquialism.

However, circumstances conspired against Isaac’s conception. It really wasn’t going to be a straightforward task, and it could have taken months, even years, for the right sperm and the right egg to connect and form the Wright child. So what were the chances of all this happening on pretty much the first or second attempt? If Denis Edwards is right to talk about the miraculous as taking place through natural processes, then why should we not see Isaac as a miracle baby? Isaac’s conception was, to echo Edwards, a wonderful manifestation of grace that occurred in and through natural processes (you should know by now that I don’t do the notion of secondary causes, which I consider a theological spin on the natural order). But surely, depending on your interpretation of this statement, the birth of any child could be interpreted as a miracle. So while the circumstances surrounding Isaac’s conception may be more unusual compared to many, the actual conception is no more unusual than the conception of any other human baby: sperm + egg = child.

Is it safer ground to say that Isaac is simply an answer to prayer? Once more, any child could be regarded legitimately as an answer to prayer – although, presumably, many children that are conceived and born aren’t specifically the result of actual prayers. In Isaac’s case, this was the case: because of the issues with my sperm and Ruth’s eggs, we prayed, our church home group prayed, and other friends prayed that we would have a child. And, soon enough, this was so. Again, physiologically, Isaac’s conception wasn’t unusual, but the circumstances of his conception would have made it difficult and perhaps unlikely without medical help. So did God, hearing our prayers, give one of my sperm the shove it needed to penetrate Ruth’s egg? Did God enable Ruth to ovulate at just the right time? And how providential was Isaac’s conception, given that he was born just over a month after I’d gone through my Ph.D viva and so no longer had to deal with that? There are so many questions that could be asked, but in my mind there is no doubt that Isaac is more a specific answer to a specific series of prayers in which Ruth, myself and our friends asked for us to have a baby.

Let me linger on one phrase a moment longer: in my mind. Edwards, and Edwards’s use of Karl Rahner, suggests that the acceptance and recognition of miracles and answered prayers is precisely that, a human acceptance and recognition, even interpretation, of events. To some, Isaac’s conception is probably not an answer to prayer, and certainly not a miracle. But if Edwards is right to suppose that miracles take place in and through natural processes, there needs to be some criteria, however tacit, by which such interpretations can be made, otherwise absolutely everything could be labelled a miracle (which, in turn, makes nothing miraculous). Could this be, as Rahner implies, the testimony of the Holy Spirit? Does the Spirit first need to open our eyes to when and where God has acted so that we can recognize God’s action for ourselves?

Of course, this raises all sorts of questions about the art of interpretation. And it’s not just in connection with answered prayers or the miraculous that we face these questions of interpretation, but with events and actions more generally. (When the Persians defeated the Babylonian Empire, for example, Second Isaiah interpreted Cyrus as being God’s Messiah [Isaiah 45:1] – but why?) This is one of the reasons, I submit, why the doctrine of providence is so important: It asks questions about events that ordinarily we wouldn’t ask, questions about God’s relation to all things, and our response to God’s action. In the very personal case of Isaac’s conception (so personal, it’s now online), I am convinced – I always have been – that my son is an answer to prayer; but the doctrine of providence is making me think through why I think that is so.


  1. This seems to be a follow on from some of the questions I asked while we chomped on a Chinese (meal, of course!).

    But if I've read this correctly then the definition of a miracle has altered a bit. In it's strictest sense isn't a miracle something that physically straightforwardly impossible?

  2. Well, it depends on what you think a miracle is in the first place, I suppose. Edwards's point is simply that God's actions in the world always take place through secondary causes; it's just we can't explain them (yet).


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