Someone at BioLogos dismissed my distinction between providence and miracles, by saying that there is “nature” and there are “miracles” and nothing else and it’s simple. There’s little point in replying there because, apart from a rather dense thread made contentious by the usual suspects, if he won’t even investigate the army of theologians and philsophers I cited for the last two thousand years on the doctrine of providence (the Fathers, the Scholastics, the Reformers, Wesley and even Arminius), he surely won’t pay any attention to me. To some ECs holding the “intellectual high ground” means one needn’t engage with not only ones opponents in ID or YEC, but ones predecessors in the faith.
But it may be of use to some readers here to see some reasons why it’s not practically good, for the concept of a truly theistic evolution, to divide the world up into a “natural” and “miraculous” dualism. It is certainly theologically wrong, for it maintains the deistic (and I’ll still use that word, despite the recent protests that Evangelicals of whom it is used are not true Deists – that’s true, for they lack the logical consistency of the Deists)… the deistic conception that “nature” runs happily without God, and that “miracles” are an interference with that normal running.
Now, the biblical understanding of “miracles” certainly has the meaning of something outside the normal run of things, though without any specific “theory” as to what, exactly, God is doing differently. In the New Testament, the two words mean “[work of] power” and “sign“, the former emphasising the special demonstration of God’s power, and the latter the meaning of a supernatural demonstration. When Jesus turns water into wine, then, he is both doing something outside the normal pattern of things, and signifying the way that the Kingdom itself will transform that order into something entirely new, and as John says “thus revealed his glory”.
If we make such a twofold division our assumption with regard to nature, however, some problems soon become obvious to many, if not to my BioLogos interlocutor. Category errors lead quite logically to erroneous conclusions, which is why categories need to be clear.
The first problem is the “incompetent God” argument that the early Deist Leibniz used against Newton. What kind of clockmaker would make a machine that needed to be constantly adjusted by miraculous interventions? For God to have to tinker with nature means he can’t have designed it very well. How that “precision made” view of natural law fits with the belief that nature is not rigidly deterministic (partly because Calvin mustn’t get a foot in the door) I can’t fathom, because they seem mutually contradictory. But to them as believe it, both can apparently be true at once.
The erroneous assumptions underlying this are twofold: the first is that things that happen “by the nature of things” (ie by natural law) are a machine functionally independent of God, like an automaton. The second is that miracles are interferences in the running of that automaton from the outside. Turning water into wine is fine once, but if it happens all the time God perhaps ought to have made less water and more wineries in the first place.
In fact, though, the regularities studied by science (or just appreciated in daily life) are, as Ps 89 says, signs of God’s faithfulness, not of the world’s fixity: that they employ genuine secondary causes is a theological and philosophical choice (against occcasionalism), but that makes no difference to their being an established baseline for living in the world, not a constraint on God. If I base a song on a repeated riff, forming a regular pattern for the piece, I may play it or program some instrument to play it, and it is still completely my work, to be varied for interest or kept the same for uniformity at my pleasure. Even philosophers of science, of course, realise that “laws” are derived from observations of what usually happens, not rules of what ought to happen – scientists are sometimes less careful, and the Enlightenment kind certainly were, for reasons I’ll mention later.
But the necessary result of thinking of any “direct” actions of God as “miraculous interferences” is to lead one to minimize their frequency, if only to maintain the value of the currency of true miracles. And so many TEs, wishing to defend God from the charge of incompetence or compulsive magicianship, become semi-deists in believing that if God acts in that way, it must surely be rarely. I’m pretty sure, therefore, that many TEs have an idea, based on the exceptionality of mankind, that God “intervened” to make man – but not aardvarks, zorillas and everything else between, which arose “naturally”. Otherwise each species, and even each mutation leading to them in evolution, would be a miracle, and nothing in the world natural.
Related to this is the idea that such wholesale miracle-mongering would be a deception on the human race. This complaint holds less water, in that there is no inherent right for mankind (or its scientists) to untangle a regular, lawlike, causal network between every event. Still, with the mental concept of providence as “miracle” in place, too much of it seems like destroying the idea of “normality” at all, like a bad fairy story in which every problem is instantly solved by the wizard’s spells.
Of course, one way this is expressed is as the “dignity” of created causes to be able to get on with their jobs without the boss changing every memo they write or elbowing them aside to do the job himself. That “dignity” is a dangerous beast, easily becoming the template for the personification of nature and the “free process” theology that regards a providential God as a puppet-master (to use John Polkinghorne’s term). But it carries some weight even in instrumental terms: if natural processes were created to do a job, and the Creator keeps operating manual override, it’s the old “micromanagement” canard: God is the ultimate busybody in everybody else’s affairs.
The answer to all these is that providence is not miracle, and that nature was never created so that it would produce “normality”. In a simple, but valid human analogy, nature was created as a set of tools or instruments by which God creates normality – or if he chooses, exceptionality. A host of metaphors can illustrate this: pens and printers do not write books, but writers always use them. Trumpets do not play voluntaries, but trumpeters always use them. Computers do many complex tasks – yet not a single one but to execute the will of their owners, and in many cases (such as the one I’m using right now) with the owner’s ongoing input.
The case I’ve presented here, and at BioLogos, is that although God’s activity in creation itself is outside space and time, and beyond process – being in fact one timeless act responsible for all entities and all events – yet its effects are seen in real time and may be spoken of humanly in temporal terms. We see that the universe (apparently) simply was not until space and time appeared, so that, like Genesis, we speak of an initial creation of the world. Yet we also see things in the world moving towards their intended ends, and in an evolutionary view, that those ends involve novelty and development – ardvaarks and zorillas once were not, and now are. That’s nothing new – the old theologians knew well that God is still creating human history as part of his government of the world towards its appointed end. Evolution does nothing to change things conceptually – it’s deistic thinking that does that.
I’ve suggested that, within the context of faith, “natural law” should be seen as the manifestion in creation of divine faithfulness. But “contingency” should equally be seen as the manifestation of divine freedom. It’s not that God occasionally does contingent acts, if one could only know which they are (I recall R J Russell’s uncertainty as to how often God might govern quantum events, as if sometimes they manage without him). Rather, it’s that all contingency in nature is that part of God’s work that is not regular. Miracles are an extreme example of that – but “special providence” is not miracle, because it is how God continues to act creatively in every event in the world, just as “general providence” is how God continues to act regularly by every natural law in the world.
One footnote: early modern scientists were well aware that both the faithfulness and the freedom of God needed to be maintained in science (whereas somehow modern science has made contingency Epicurean – and Christian scientists, for the most part,
leave it that way and, through clenched teeth, admit the occasional hypothetical miracle). But Bacon hoped that the study of providences, as well as of laws, might even reveal some of the patterns of God’s freedom. That was a pious hope rather than a reasoned conclusion, for God’s contingent acts are what means that the world needs to be studied empirically, rather than simply deduced from principles of reason, as the Greeks had expected.
But Bacon should have realised that it’s always a mistake to insist that human reason applies to God, and that is what the Enlightenment rationalists’ hubris assumed. Another poster on BioLogos claims that he has never read the Deists, but concludes from Scripture not only that God did create the world “in a perpetual motion”, but that if he was able to, he must have done so, or defy reason. That commenter, I’m sure, fails to appreciate how we gain our worldviews not by reading the books of thinkers, but by imbibing them from childhood once they have become common currency in a society.
For that “rational constraint” on God, in that particular form, has “Enlightenment Deism” written all over it. It inspired Leibniz in his philosophy of “the best of all possible worlds”, which (contrary to common belief) doesn’t mean this world is perfect, but that it’s the best God could conjure up under the constraints of reason. Self-contained precision was the easy part of God’s work, and therefore self-evident – which made it scandalous that a supposedly rational person like Newton couldn’t see it.
But the particular Enlightenment “mark of Cain” is in this supposition of the world as causally self-sufficient, not in the imposition of reason on God’s actions per se. For in an earlier age, it was equally self-evident that since God could create every possible species of mineral, vegetable and animal, that he was duty-bound to have done so, or be unjust to the creatures he left out of creation.
This principle of plenitude was what inspired the classification-craze of scientists like Linnaeus – somewhere there must be a creature to fill every gap in the nested heirarchy. With Darwin, of course, that “plenitude” became scattered through deep-time, and it is one unconscious justification for universal common descent (when both logic and much evidence suggests multiple origins of life). I’ve mentioned before that nested heirarchies are no more evidence for common descent than they are of mediaeval plenitude, apart from assumptions that come from beyond science.
But God doesn’t have to create everything, or even what we consider the-best-of-all-possible-worlds. He is free – and uses his freedom liberally. It’s enough that he is good, that he creates what he wants, and calls it “good”. Once we stop insisting that God must create, or allow, everything possible (so we don’t have to believe in infinite random variation either, as it happens), we can begin to see the God of providence more clearly. He is not steering the occasional privileged molecule or sperm, but, as is inherent to a monotheistic creation, directing all things toward their end by creating them and their histories.
Such a God is not an inveterate tinkerer, or a mere mechanic, or a monomaniac. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Logos and the Author of life, who because of his utter transcendance is able to be seen as thoroughly, and pervasively, imminent in his creation. To imagine that any part of such a creation could remain apart from his government is as absurd as saying – well, that randomness can cause anything.
Now, say after me…