Miracles and the ordinary wonders of the Universe

Penman has replied to my last post  on Simon Conway Morris’s positive take on Biblical miracles. I think a post-length reply might be more helpful, not least because it gives me the opportunity to move away from Morris the individual. I mainly wanted in that post to show that childhood reading was what started him “ticking” – I’d not want to be responsible for a discussion about him behind his back that made him sick, rather than tick…
So, leaving Morris aside for the moment, I want to address the question of those who accept the Biblical miracles and yet have problems with God’s “intervention” in the world’s natural history. That seems to apply to some of the BioLogos guys, usually because of some combination of the ideas that science would stop, or that God’s involvement “ought” not to be detectable, or that God would be somehow cheating, or at least acting beneath his dignity, so to act in real time.

Alvin Plantinga has an interesting viewpoint on miracles, pointing out that the idea of scientific law presupposes a closed cause-and-effect economy: they apply in the Universe only inasmuch as there is no input from outside the Universe. Now of course, the Christian concept of miracle implies just such an external input on the part of God. To change water into wine or raise the body of Jesus implies not a breaking of scientific law, but a change of the conditions in which they operate. To give a clear example, if from heaven God were to apply an equal and opposite supernatural force to the gravitational field on earth, the law of gravitation would be overcome by an external factor, rather than broken.

So far so good. It would seem that theistic scientists must believe some such thing in order to accommodate Bible miracles – the Universe cannot always be a closed system. Natural science, in fact, is then most correctly seen by theists as doing its work on the approximation that the Universe is closed, just as the engineer will exclude certain factors not because they are absent but because they are mathematically negligible.

But miracles are not the only, rare, instance of the openness of the Christian Universe. Providence, even in the vague and loose form acknowledged in much modern Evangelicalism, also works on the assumption of an open Universe. This applies at all kinds of levels. Answered prayer implies that God acts in response to our entreaties, if only to change our own hearts: I know of no mainstream Christians who abhor prayer. Fulfilled prophecy is dependent not merely on foresight but on ordaining what will happen (Messiah will be born in a surviving Bethlehem of David’s maintained line and will save his preserved people, and so on.) God judges only if he acts – and alternatively can only show mercy by refraining from acting. And, of course, the frequent claims in Scripture of God’s care and providence for his creation imply some kind of openness to his will.

One might argue for an extreme form of fine-tuning to account for these things, which are as much a core part of Christian faith as the miracles. Logically it would be quite acceptable for the eternal God, hearing the cries of his temporal people out of time, to create a Universe in which, at just the right time, the king of Assyria has to cope with a rebellion back home. But from what we know of the natural sciences, such exact physical determinism lacks any plausible mechanism, even without accepting the reality of any degree of human freedom of action. Simon Conway Morris, for example, seems to hold that whatever “natural” principles govern life govern it across the Universe – life has probably arisen in many places and will tend to converge on the same general evolutionary outcomes. Mankind would be a typical example of the inevitability of intelligent life: I doubt he would consider that it is always bound to produce John the Baptist a few months before Jesus Christ.

Reformed theology has gone further than most traditions in establishing a robust doctrine of providence, and does so not on the basis of such a kind of Hyper-Deism, but on the immanence of God within creation. He upholds it, sustains it and directs it at every turn. One might argue about how that works – whether by directing chance, by controlling quantum events, or by the proverbial “tinkering”. But willy nilly, it implies, like the miraculous, a Universe that is open to God, rather than being a closed system operating only by the predetermined principles of nature.

If that is the case, then the quest to find a complete explanation of the natural history of the Universe – including evolution – through science appears rather perverse, except as a convenient working assumption. We have no more reason to believe it to be exhaustively true than we would expect the Resurrection, somehow, to be a clever outworking of the physics of the big bang. We should expect the working assumption to break down at some point, just as the engineer may have to take “negligible” forces into account under some circumstances.

The big debate around ID, then, boils down to this: is the information present in life encompassed by the working assumption of methodological naturalism, or is it at least in part a reflection of the openness of the Universe to the God who dwells apart from it? It seems to me that this question is no different from that facing Christian scientists in drawing conclusions about the processes that led one to a life-changing evangelistic meeting, or that led Pharaoh’s daughter to Moses’ basket in the Nile, or to return to penman’s post, that caused a storm to stop just as Jesus rebuked it.

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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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9 Responses to Miracles and the ordinary wonders of the Universe

  1. Cal says:

    Good post!

    I’ve come to a sort of mid-way on the mechanistic way of thinking/talking with some reformed and the hands-off open-theism (though I still like Greg Boyd’s careful nuances). I think of the fact that God works all things to good for those who love Him. It doesn’t say all things are good (‘Oh my family was massacred, it must be good’) rather even from pure evil from men or unclean spirits, God works it for good. I think of one of those adventure books. The Author still lays out the options, but the reader picks the ways. At the end of the book it still says Jesus. Man can say, freely “No YHWH, we don’t want you, we want a king like other nations”. This was not foreordained but by dropping a word, choosing Saul and then David. By speaking the Lord reorganizes the whole cosmos for good. How does man choose his way but the Lord directs his footsteps? It’s all beyond the pale.

    Also, have you considered even the possibility of a ‘semi-closed’ universe. I thought about this, posit the scenario in Narnia where Lucy is surprised to see Aslan. He tells her there was ‘Deeper Magic’. What if there are locks only the Lord has the key to. The Resurrection is a miracle in the fact that it was an untapped potentiality that only the Lord uses. This sort of thinking meshes well with the Scriptural fact that the Lord is all around, Heaven and Earth overlaying eachother, and Him being involved in creation.

    Another thing, I think a fair BioLogos pushback has been that the miraculous has always been to demonstrate something. They were signs, that’s why Jesus ‘could not’ do miracles in Nazareth or before Herod. They would be mere parlor tricks, not pointing to Himself. So in terms of creation, there’d be no point fora special intervention. However it doesn’t mean He’s not the total Creator. Fair criticism or do you think BioLogos would/could even argue that way?

    Some food for thought from chef Cal!

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    I can’t disagree with the general idea of God’s will meshing with the cosmos – the idea of concursive will involves this: man’s free actions are at the same time God’s free actions.

    But the context here was deliberately not that, primarily, of miracle, but of the necessity for God’s providential activity. I myself have defended the universality of miracles as “signs” on BioLogos. You mention the example of Saul and David, but even the act of speaking is a supernatural intervention in my sense of being information input from outside the closed Universe. I was thinking more of Joseph’s story – where his brothers intended to harm him, but “The Lord intended it for good – for the saving of many lives.”

    Think what control is necessarily involved there – apart from the maybe psychological knowledge that Joseph’s dreams would lead to murderous thought, it was necessary that he wasn’t actually killed, which involved Reuben’s actions, the fortuitous arrival of Midianite traders, the influential household into which Joseph was sold, the actions of a desperate housewife, a couple more dreams and the fact that eventually the chief steward remembered Joseph to Pharaoh, the unexpected fact of Joseph’s preferment to running Egypt, the famine, the actions of Jacob and the brothers … etc etc. All this “intended” by God for a very specific purpose related to the big theme of Genesis – the fulfilment of the covenant promise.

    So I conclude that “working for good” involves more interaction of heaven with the creation than many seem to admit. The question you raise, in essence, would be whether such activity of God is limited to the direct benefit of his covenant people. That is, would his “working everything out” from prehistory to ensure that there would be a covenant people at all count – or was the Universe a closed system before Adam?

  3. Avatar photo penman says:

    To pick up on a point or two, possibly from the previous post as well:

    I may be more amenable to the idea of a “natural law” in the structures of the universe than some other commentators here. Which allows me to have a more traditional concept of miracle as the super-natural action of God acting above & beyond natural laws.

    In my humble opinion Christians do believe, from a historical-orthodox perspective, in “natures”. The whole Christological debate of the 4th-6th centuries was posited on this. There is such a thing as divine nature & human nature. Human nature operates according to its own set of laws. (These are of course God-given.) The natural operations of a nature are its “energies”, in patristic terminology. It’s the manifested energies that enable us to distinguish between different natures.

    So when human nature operates according to its own natural laws, we can predict the outcomes. We know by experience the sorts of things human nature does. But when we encounter something like a human walking on water, changing water into wine, giving sight to one born blind, or rising from the dead, we know that human nature HERE is not operating according to its own laws. Super-natural power is at work. The early church fathers discriminated between the Lord’s human & divine natures by the manifestation of the different human & divine energies: the hunger, thirst, tears, blood of the human nature, but the superhuman works of the divine nature. Apologies if all of this is stating the damnably obvious, but its implications are important! Thus…

    Given that God has created a universe of natures, the normal way the universe works is by the inbuilt laws of those natures. We rightly assume that natures operate according to their natural laws & energies. In other words, we do not positively expect miracles in any given event. They are not normal. Our working assumption is that natures function naturally. EG we don’t expect dead bodies to rise during funeral services. We don’t even have a balanced assumption that half will stay dead & half will rise.

    So we do have a kind of methodological naturalism, except that we don’t EX CATHEDRA rule out miracles; they can happen, & have happened. But we don’t assume that we are dealing with miracle unless there is evidence for it. Our working assumption, based on the way God has made the cosmos, is that natures operate naturally according to their implanted laws.

    That provides my rationale for believing that in the history of life, we should assume that things unfolded according to natural laws, unless we have evidence to the contrary. We don’t need evidence to work on the assumption that things developed naturally – that’s the working assumption that we make in every area of life, owing to the very concept of a “nature” with which God has endowed entities. But we do, I think, need evidence to think that natures have not behaved naturally.

    I suppose what differentiates me from some of the TE/EC folk on BioLogos is that I’m perfectly happy to entertain putative evidence for miracle in the history of life, & that I myself – on largely scriptural grounds – believe that the emergence of humanity (divine-image-bearing humanity) did not happen naturally but by a supernatural “upgrading” of nature.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    A couple of points in reply, penman.

    “Nature” here seems to reflect the Greek philosophers’ idea – it’s the nature of a dog to have four legs, even when some have a leg missing. Yes?

    Firstly (before I forget!) on providence. I assume that, in your terms, it is in the nature of wheat to provide a harvest. Clearly so. But is it also in its nature to provide a good harvest in response to earnest prayer, or perhaps more equivocally is it in the nature of man to feel God telling him to avoid a journey and so miss a plane crash? These surely fall short of miracle (unless one debases the currency of miracle). Or is it in the nature of the Jewish race to bring forth a John the Baptist in response to prophecy, or for any band of 12 apostles to contain a betrayer, also according to prophecy?

    In the science/creation arena, the question is whether it is the nature of matter to bring forth life, or of forms of life to change their nature from, say, tetrapod to whale? Science is surely nothing else but the study of this kind of nature. One can explain, in purely material terms, why it is not in the nature of man to walk on water, by studying physics and biology. The contentious questions arise because people have felt there is insufficient explanation in the nature of chemistry to produce cellular life, or in the nature of life to evolve to where we are today.

    Darwinian evolution would seem to lean too heavily on chance (lucky accident, rather than nature). Attempts to reduce it to natural law (aka nature in your sense?) appear to require the existence of emergent properties of self-organisation (Kauffman, Morris, etc) which have so far eluded detection. Any such properties, at this stage of knowledge, would appear to require such a degree of fine tuning in creation as to be no less astonishing than direct divine interference would.

    Information is at the heart of this – is the necessary information intrinsic to the original natures of created things, or does it ultimately come from without? Perhaps the issue is brought into relief if one labels that information as “Λογος”.

  5. Gregory says:

    A short note of thanks to Penman for the insightful post and to Jon for his follow-up, leading to Logos (but not the BioLogos meaning of Logos – like a tug-of-war over Logoses – ID vs. TE/EC vs…?).

    Penman writes “God has created a universe of natures”. I wonder if the same could be said of cultures, societies, characters, etc. Has God (co-)created a universe of cultures? Nature alone would of course be merely ‘naturalistic.’

    Just a quick ‘search’ for ‘the nature of’ phraseology in this thread. 8 hits, all in Jon’s post. Hmmm….Might the NIV translation be inviting (disguised) naturalism all too easily, gentlemen?

    Re: “miracle as the super-natural action of God acting above & beyond natural laws.” Perhaps it would be helpful to compare ‘super-‘ and ‘supra’ wrt ‘nature’?

    A hint at what I’m suggesting here: you’ve got your ‘spiritual’ David Attenborough (“It never really occurred to me to believe in God,” while studying and reporting on ‘nature’ and earthly or aqua ‘creatures’), while Canadians have our ‘spiritual’ David Suzuki, who produced a t.v. show on Canada’s BBC called “THE NATURE OF THINGS”. Oh, wait, Suzuki is an atheist.


    Effects ‘on nature’ vs. design ‘in nature’ – doesn’t this change the so-called anthropic principle when discussing ‘human nature’?

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Just to clarify, Gregory.

    (a) I used “nature” in response to penman, in the sense of “those characteristics with which individual created things are endowed by God” rather than any sense of “what things are like apart from God.” That owes more to Plato or Aristotle than Suzuki or Attenborough. Though as I mentioned in a previous post, I’ll settle for the common English translation of φυσις.

    (b) Actually in using λογος I was exploring the common ground between TE/EC and (specifically Christian) ID, by straying tentatively into Roger Sawtelle’s territory. The idea of of Jesus as Logos very much includes the concept of Jesus as the word, or wisdom, or reason of God, and Scripture says the world was created through him and for him. So I was really inviting people to suggest how Jesus as Logos actually relates to the created order.

    Can you expand on your last sentence a bit?

  7. Avatar photo penman says:

    Hi folks

    I hope I didn’t stir up needless muddy waters of contention. Jon’s blog is the only place to think out loud like this.

    My view of “nature” isn’t meant to be philosophical (Plato, Aristotle) but catholic & patristic. It’s enshrined in the ecumenical creeds, especially but not solely Chalcedon, & is the substance (no pun intended) of the orthodox two-nature Christology of Christendom. Of course, it can be & has been argued that the early church baptized Platonic and/or Aristotelian concepts into its theology. I don’t mind if they did! It’s the end product for me that matters, viz. ecumenical creedal Christology.

    As I said, the patristic view of nature means that entities function according their own “logos” (inbuilt law) in order to achieve their “telos” (goal). Since God has created the universe this way, we expect things to work naturally, according to the laws of their own natures. And that’s a key factor enabling us to recognize a miracle, when a nature functions beyond its natural capacity – I instanced Christ walking on the water, changing water into wine, etc, things beyond the natural capacity of human nature.

    In terms of evolutionary science, my view is that we should positively look for natural explanations – seek evidence that “evolvability” is a natural capacity. Of course, our search for evidence & mechanisms may ultimately prove fruitless. I’m not competent to pronounce, being a theologian & historian, not a scientist. But my methodology would predispose me to think there is probably a natural explanation – & to invoke supernatural action only if natural explanations fail. As I commented earlier, I think this is how we actually treat life in a common-sense, everyday way, & I think it comports with patristic theology. Things are natural unless they can be proved supernatural. Don’t we all assume this?

    But I reiterate my willingness to admit supernatural action. A Christian can do no less without playing false to the essentials of scripture & the catholic faith. And I myself assert it at at least two places, the creation of the universe & the emergence of divine-image humanity, although confessedly my basis of assertion is scripture not science.

    Hope this doesn’t muddy any waters….!

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hope this doesn’t muddy any waters….!

    Not at all – discussion starting from agreed common ground, without using weasel-words or mockery, helps us all towards the light. I conclude a couple of things from your approach here.

    Firstly – it makes the created order inherently teleological. One assumes that, apart from conscious, volitional agents (ie us) the “telos” of these “logoi” is the purpose implanted in them by God. Granting the reality of evolution, its telos is the unfolding of whatever outcome God has invested in it.

    Secondly – the scientific enterprise is freed to ask factual, yet theologically rich, questions: “How did God do this? By the nature of what we are investigating, which should be capable of unravelling (as the physical capabilities of man are), or failing that by some kind of external act of God?” Scientifically, the question is “does this theory work” rather than the all-too-common “this is all we have apart from ‘Goddidit’ so it must be true.”

    Moving to consideration of ID, I can think of two relevant strands. Those like Behe are saying “the theory doesn’t work to explain the phenomenon”. I understand he’s open to the idea of front-loading at the creation, which takes the phenomenon of irreducible complexity back to your first miracle.

    Those who are interested in information theory are, in essence, concerned only with the presence of identifiable information and the inadequacy of current theory to explain it. Is it, then, (apart from miracle) the result of some unknown scientific process (that is, are the logoi of created things more complex than we imagine), or is the information inherent in creation from the start (like the fine-tuning of the cosmological forces)? One could argue that the answer amounts to the same thing – the implication of the Logos behind the logoi.

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