Natural and supernatural

Maybe I ought to explain why I consider the combination of a naturalistic, unguided interpretation of creation and evolution, with the admission of the category of “miracle” with regard to the events of the Bible and phenomena like answered prayer, to be illogical. Broadly this is the position that seems to be held by those leading BioLogos, as far as one can ascertain and steer round their provisos and ambiguities.

The consideration of “natural” and “supernatural” came to me not through the science-faith issue, but through other theological issues we were wrestling with at my previous church. Like many Evangelical (and other) churches, we were broadly sympathetic to the rising Charismatic movement, looking as leaders of an independent congregation to integrate its best insights into our practice whilst avoiding the excesses evident even at that relatively early stage.

One day a visitor from a South African theological college (Reformed!) took us to task over the issue of cessationism. Miracles and other such spiritual gifts had died out, he said, after the apostles. The reasoning was threefold:
(a) Biblical miracles occurred at specific important stages of salvation history as signs. A valid point.
(b) We don’t see miracles today (a point which is frequently and irrationally extended to say that if we do, they must be false!).
(c) Frequent miracles would undermine the reliability and faithfulness of God in nature.

The last point, you will see, comes straight out of the Enlightenment and is one of the pillars of the “statistical deism” (as coined by Russell) view of God’s role in nature as originally creating and sustaining, but nothing else. When pressed, our visitor admitted that God could, and might, do miracles rarely today. He also conceded that God answers prayer by direct action, but excluded that from the category of “miracle” without really putting it in any other. However, none of that altered the fact that miracles were only performed by Jesus and the apostles, that they decrease in frequency in the New Testament (eg in Acts) and that they died out altogether with the apostles.

I was able to show that all these three were questionable: “spiritual” manifestations were clearly widespread in the early Church, though notable miracles were certainly signs of apostleship. Their frequency is actually consistent throughout Acts (how often positions are held on the basis of what turns out to be simply false evidence). And I found from the Patristic writers, and even later authors like Bede, that miracles were considered part and parcel of the Gospel for centuries. The Charismatic argument, of course, was that miracles died out not by God’s withdrawing them, but through Christians not apprehending them through the Spirit.

My own conclusions fell somewhere in between: I saw clearly that we were in a different ballpark from the apostolic age. Spectacular miraculous claims tended to resolve into collective self-delusion or manipulative abuse, or to be promised for the near future based on dubious claims of “a new thing for the last days.” Yet theologically, cessationism seemed unjustified, and the whole insistence on “miracle” as the only alternative to “nature” a false dichotomy.

To begin with, nobody in the debate doubted that God answers prayer, and sometimes in highly specific ways, notwithstanding all the painful issues Christians have with the understanding and practice of prayer. Then again, within the church setting, I experienced instances of praying for people who were more or less instantly healed from, for example, acute back pain or tenosynovitis. And I also saw the sometimes uncanny insights given to people ministering in pastoral situations. My response was to shelve the category of “supernatural miracle” as unhelpful, and to subsume such things into “special providence of uncertain spiritual mechanism”. Instead of spiritual gifts of minor healing, for example, being dissected as to whether they counted as “miraculous”, we viewed them as the everyday working tools of the Church of Jesus Christ, just as the gifting of individuals to preach or lead effectively are.

Now, turning to science, the cessationist’s anxiety about the disruption of natural processes is even stronger. The justification for methodological naturalism is not only that science can’t deal with the supernatural, but that there’s not enough supernatural there to affect its conclusions seriously. The main concern for the TE/EC who prefers a non-interventionist account of evolution is that God “ought” not to interfere in the closed system of natural law. Subsidiary ideas of God’s kenosis or the freedom of nature really arise from that commitment, rather than underpinning it.

It is hard to see, then, why Biblical miracle should be exempt: why can God intervene in the case of a storm in Galilee when he can‘t in a gene mutation? The answer that miracles represent the breaking-in of a future new creation is the same as that of the cessationists, and is only partly true – what about Old Testament miracles? And what explanation can one give for the new creation being able to break into the closed physical system of the old? If it is so able, why make so much of God’s “inability” to modify physical laws as he sees fit throughout the world’s history, for they are clearly then mere guidelines rather than absolutes?

In any case, the explanation only works if miracles are exceptional. There are perhaps a few hundered Biblical miracles, and it is, I suppose, argued that God’s unusual activity here does not interfere with the predicatibility and reliability of nature in general. But as soon as the possibility of direct answers to prayer and the exercise of spiritual gifts is admitted, that exceptionality breaks down completely. I have indicated that applying “supernatural” to such things is unhelpful practically: I pray for my bus to be on time today; it is; I thank God as for all good things and take it as answered prayer, rather than accepting the liberal idea of mere pious attribution. But it’s providence, not a miracle. A miracle would be if a bus turned up on time when I don’t live on a bus route. But providence or miracle, it is still God’s direct activity. It is not the mere outworking of deterministic law, nor of chaotic chance, nor of quantum indeterminacy, though all those things might play their part. Essential to active Christian faith is that God watches over his creatures – especially his redeemed creatures – and supplies their needs when they ask him.

On that supposition, shared willingly by BioLogos, the world is awash with God’s direct activity. The atheist will even make jokes about it – how does God integrate the prayers of 2 billion Christians and, in all probability, those of others too? But we’re not atheists, are we? Jesus taught us to pray thus, and we know that God is all wise and knows how to administer the requests of his people. If we take into account, too, the Bible’s teaching on the non-human creation, the world is also awash with God’s direct, wise, provision for the eagles, the lions, the ravens, the sparrows and the herbs of the field. But though, apparently, BioLogos steps aside from interpreting all those passages literally (preferring, it seems, to understand them only as “God rejoicing in the creation he sustains in being,”) it happily embraces the Christian God who answers prayer.

In other words, it accepts a world that is awash with the special providence of God. Now the categories Darrel Falk, at least, chooses to work with are the “natural v miracle” pair used by my South African cessationist brother, rather than anything like the “NIODA” (non-interventionist objective divine action) proposed by Russell. And that inevitably means accepting a world awash with supernatural activity, the suspension, or breaking, or bypassing or however one wishes to term it, of the natural processes which would not, of themselves, answer a single prayer. God, then, normally interferes with nature in our world. The unmodified outworking of the laws of physics is the exception, rather than the rule.

So why was it the rule, rather than the possible exception, in the pre-human world? Why is God unlikely, in any way, to have overseen the direction in which evolution would go as specifically as he oversees whether or not you make a good showing at your next interview or presentation? The reasons given for even contemplating a “naturalistic” view of evolution (since Falk’s latest position seems to be complete agnosticism on the matter – more on that maybe in another post) are completely inconsistent with accepting an “interventionist” view of prayer. And no attempt has been made to resolve the inconsistency. And that’s why, in my view, it’s an illogical – even daft – position.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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