Many times on BioLogos, columnists or commenters have deplored the use of the term “supernatural” to describe God’s activity. The usual criticism of this term is that it seems to imply a universe which normally works by itself, with God jumping in every now and then to do “miracles” — understood as violations of the normal causal nexus of “nature”. This would suggest that where nature is acting, God is not acting, and vice versa. Various BioLogos writers and readers have suggested that this would be a “deistic” notion of God rather than a Christian one (the Christian notion affirming that God acts in all things), and many have accused ID (intelligent design) of holding to such a notion. (It doesn’t, but that’s not my concern here.) Also, often the discussion is accompanied by the claim that the notion of “supernatural” activity is not found in the Bible, and that “miracles” in the Bible do not have the Humean sense of violations of the causal nexus, but are merely “signs” or “wonders” wrought by God. All of these points have some truth to them, but there is value in pursuing the question further.
In the discussion entitled, “Creation Full of Miracles?”, Jay Johnson (one of my favorite BioLogos commenters, being one of the least partisan, most independent thinkers there), puts the issue this way:
“In fact, I usually try to avoid using the words “supernatural” and “miracle,” but it’s hard to break a habit without slipping on occasion. The Bible itself never uses the terms. The vocabulary is that of “signs” and “wonders,” and the category of “supernatural” doesn’t even exist in the biblical vernacular. Most of the philosophizing and theologizing about miracles and the supernatural thus start from a faulty premise.”
I think that this is true, so far as it goes, but that leaving the matter there would be misleading. Jay’s comment tells part of the story, but there is another part that needs to be considered, and that part creates some difficulty for some of the formulations that one sees on BioLogos.
It is true that the word “supernatural” is alien to the Bible, but that is because “natural” (the contrasting term) is almost equally alien to the Bible. Putting on my Biblical scholar’s hat, I would point out that there is no word in Biblical Hebrew for “nature” (i.e., no word corresponding in meaning to the Greek word physis) and that even in the New Testament which was written in Greek, the word “nature” is virtually absent, never being found in the Gospels, Acts, or Revelation, but appearing only in a few of the Letters, mostly Romans and Galatians, for a grand total of eleven instances. The point is that the Biblical writers, for the most part, didn’t look at the world as “nature” or at the causes of its everyday activities as “natural”.
Modern scientists and philosophers, on the other hand, have since the 17th century tended to use “world”, “nature”, and “creation” almost synonymously. Many writers have used “nature” in such a way as to indicate that they mean “creation, what God made”, and “world” in common parlance usually refers to the realm of planets, stars, atoms, molecules, light, energy, etc., in which things happen by “natural causes”, not by the caprice of gods or pixies or spirits. Thus, when scientists say they deal only with “natural causes” they mean causes that don’t involve any spirits or demons or special actions of God. (Where by “special action” they would have in mind perhaps Moses parting the Red Sea or the like.)
Here is where BioLogos runs into a problem. It tacitly endorses this modern notion of the world “natural”. It agrees with Eugenie Scott that “natural science should investigate only natural causes”, and it takes it as obvious to all what “natural” means, i.e., that which occurs outside of special divine volitions. Of course, it does not deny (and even affirms) that “natural causes” go back to God, i.e., the law of gravity is an expression of the will of God (a point on which all ID proponents would agree), but it clearly distinguishes between, say, the law of gravity, and Jesus rising from the dead. No BioLogos person known to me has argued that Jesus’s resurrection is “natural” or that it can be explained by “natural causes” as BioLogos understands “natural causes.” There seems to be a concession that the Bible describes events which are explicable only on the hypothesis that God sometimes brings about events outside of the causal nexus that BioLogos scientists would call “nature”. So BioLogos in effect subscribes to a “natural/supernatural” distinction, whether it deplores that distinction or not.
BioLogos could of course avoid this problem by repudiating the typical modern notion of “nature” and “natural causes”. It could say that there is no such thing as “nature” or “natural causes” but only the will of God, governing all things. It could say that “nature” and “natural causes” are merely human conveniences, categories we use to make it possible for us to grasp regularities in the world — that there is no enduring causal nexus, no underlying “nature” to things which is objective, measurable, etc. Intelligent theists have taken this route before, e.g., the Muslim occasionalists. But that is not the route that any BioLogos leader has taken. They all hold fast to the idea of “nature” and “natural causes”. They accept the conventional wisdom, i.e., that God created a “natural” world, a world which has been endowed with certain powers for its own maintenance; e.g., plants have the power to reproduce, animals have the power to move, gravity keeps the planetary system together. They can of course, and do, attribute the origin of these powers of nature to God (as do ID people), but they still see nature as having the ability to carry on “on its own” (albeit “sustained in existence by God” or the like).
Thus, people like Dennis Venema have said that they see all the genetic differences between chimpanzees and men as in principle achievable by wholly natural means, the sort of flips, rotations, jumps, etc. which occur in “natural” reproduction and “natural” mutation, and that they see no reason to suppose that God has “intervened in nature” to turn some primitive pre-chimpanzee primate into chimpanzees and man. They think that “natural causes” are sufficient to explain the transition. And when it is argued that “natural causes” cannot explain the arbitrary nature of the DNA encoding system, they (as Venema recently did) will try to find some small part of the system that may have a non-arbitrary chemical basis, and suggest that maybe with new research the origin of the system itself (and hence the origin of life) will be explained wholly in natural terms, meaning, again, without any special divine action. The natural/supernatural contrast, whether the terms are used or not, are implied by the entire BioLogos project.
This is not surprising, since BioLogos arose as a reaction against Creationism, and the main claim of Creationism is that life and species could not have arisen by wholly natural causes, but required the guiding and active hand of God to perform special, local divine actions. Many if not most of the leaders and past columnists of BioLogos (Venema himself, Giberson, Falk, Swamidass, Kramer, Isaac and others), and many of the active commenters (e.g., Chris Falter) grew up as Creationists and firmly believed that God had to create through wholly supernatural means; but now they say precisely the opposite — that God could have, and did, create through wholly natural means (excepting perhaps the original creation of matter and energy). So their mental framework, given their conservative evangelical background (and here I don’t include Jay, quoted above, because I don’t know his original religious background and don’t wish to generalize to his case), is very much bound up with the natural/supernatural distinction.
So, too, is their opposition to ID. They insist (despite examples to the contrary, e.g., Michael Denton) that ID is all about supernatural intervention into nature — miracles. ID therefore, in their minds, is Creationist in spirit if not by the letter. They constantly claim to have rebutted ID arguments when they have found a “wholly natural” explanation for something — which implies that they think ID requires a supernatural explanation for that thing.
The inability of BioLogos to come up with any definition of “nature” or “natural causes” which does not implicitly accept a natural/supernatural distinction is a major weakness in the epistemology of BioLogos — at least, if BioLogos is going to go around saying that the supernatural/natural distinction is bogus, non-Biblical, etc. If BioLogos wants to be consistently “Biblical” it would drop not only the language of “supernatural” (and of “miracles” as supernatural events), but also the language of “natural”; but that it can’t do, or its protests against both Creationism and ID would fall to the ground.
Without a firm assertion of the reality of nature and natural events, the claim of BioLogos to be more “scientific” than Creationism and ID loses its basis. By “scientific” BioLogos means “making use of only natural causes to explain things, including the origins of life, species, and man”; but if the whole idea of “natural causes” has little or no basis in Biblical thought, then it becomes apparent that the idea of “nature” which BioLogos upholds is the idea of Descartes, Bacon, Newton, Kant, etc. — the idea of a quasi-autonomous world which God has given the created capacity to run “on its own” (albeit with his continued endorsement). God does not “interfere” with the natural world — except in the case of Biblical miracles — and therefore everything from the Big Bang to man is to be conceived of as occurring “naturally”.
I know that exceptions can be cited. At one time, Francis Collins entertained the possibility (I don’t know his current view) that while evolution can be explained by wholly natural causes, the first life may have required a supernatural intervention, to set up biological evolution in the first place. But such views among TE/EC leaders are rare, or if held are kept in the privacy of the TE/EC’s mind; the public statements all tend to a “molecules to man, all by blind natural causes” account of origins. Venema’s strong and visible distaste for Meyer’s argument (a distaste shared by Falk and Ayala, who tag-teamed with Venema to attack Meyer’s first book) that life required intelligent design shows that he would not be sympathetic with Collins’s suggestion. Most BioLogos leaders (and pro-BioLogos commenters on the site) appear to believe that all God had to do was ignite the Big Bang, and the rest would emerge by natural causes (albeit “sustained by God” in some vague way) without God ever exerting himself by any special, local divine action. The natural/supernatural distinction is there, whether acknowledged or not.
The problem goes back to the fact that the BioLogos approach to science-and-theology discourse ultimately serves two masters: traditional Protestant evangelical faith (based on the Biblical description of the world), on the one hand, and the modern constructions of “science” and “nature” (inherited not at all from the Bible, but from Kant, Descartes, Bacon, etc.) on the other. Thus, even if it is entirely true that in the Bible the distinction between natural and supernatural does not exist, in the modern notions of “nature” and “science” that BioLogos firmly defends, “supernatural” is always present in the background as the alternative to “natural” — whether it is explicitly acknowledged or not. BioLogos — indeed most modern TE/EC thought — has not adequately wrestled with this problem. Its entire attack on ID and creationism presupposes the validity of the natural/supernatural distinction, while its rhetoric (that the distinction is not Biblical) is at odds with that.
To get beyond this impasse, BioLogos would have to do some historical thinking. It would have to ask: How was it that all modern men — not just atheists but Christians — came to accept the notion of “nature” and “natural causes” as quasi-autonomous realities, which could be the subject of a demonstrative “natural science”? As we have seen, this notion is not found in the Bible. At best, the Bible indicates that there are rough regularities that we can count on — seasonal changes and so on — because God has for the most part a steady intent. But such a doctrine is as compatible with Islamic occasionalism (in which “nature” is a fictional construct maintained for human use) as with modern Christian notions of “natural science” (in which “nature”, though created, has a real and objective existence).
If we insist on limiting ourselves to “purely Biblical” assertions, then we could never say that ID or Creationism are “unscientific” because they affirm “supernatural causes”; the Bible knows nothing of “nature” or “science” at all. The sin of ID and Creationism, then, must be their refusal to assent to the “closed causal nexus” notion of “nature” held by modern science and modern scientists — whether those scientists be atheists or BioLogos leaders. But that is a sin not against Biblical thinking, but against a certain modern philosophical account of “nature” and of “science”.
For the above reasons, I argue that the claim that “the natural/supernatural distinction is alien to the Bible”, while a true claim, does not solve any of BioLogos’s theoretical problems, either regarding ID and Creationism, or regarding the philosophical basis of the modern notions of “nature” and “natural science.”