On distinguishing miracles from providence

In my recent piece about Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, I mentioned how Bacon, supposedly the staunch supporter of methodological naturalism, included both a scientificcally detectable miracle and a providential answer to prayer in an apologetic for the new science that is only 22 pages long. He would appear to cut the world-cake rather differently from many of a scientific bent now, who divide the world sharply between the “natural” and the “miraculous.” In God’s Good Earth I explore how the biblical account of God’s relationship to nature is that of a householder to a servant. The natural world obeys God’s contingent direction to govern his world, both human and non-human, to its proper ends.

It would be rather neat to regard “natural” as that which is regular or reproducible, and the contingent as the component attributable to God, but whilst regularity and reproducibility is a useful definition of natural, it does not really delineate divine action within nature that clearly. For allthat¬† we can really say about regularity, empirically, is that it is regular.

The commonest metaphysical assumption since Aristotle has been that “physical secondary causes” are created independent of God in some way. But that understanding has always existed alongside ideas that God acts directly, but faithfully, in the lawlike aspects of nature. For example, see the modern version of occasionalism called divine compositionalism, which actually originated with scientists, not metaphysicians.

Another respectable metaphysical alternative to “independent matter” is that of George Berkeley, who (like others more recently, including William Dembski) saw “matter” as an unnecessary and un-proveable hypothetical construct, seeing all events as mind-dependent, and nature as reliable because it is a thought in the utterly reliable mind of God. That is not easy to refute, and explains reality rather better than pure materialism (it is realtively easy to envisage the sensation of matter as a “simulation” of mind, but far harder to explain mind as an epiphenomenon of matter) .

On the other hand, contingent events may be irregular because of the choices of “minds” other than God’s. Human actions, according to orthodox Christian teaching, are subordinate to the will of God, but are free acts nonetheless. The same appears to be true, to a degree, for the activities of at least the higher animals. The world, from this perspective, is a subtle interaction between the wills of God and real secondary agents, a responsive and relational thing.

But such mutuality between God and creatures, meaning that God changes the world freely (as do the creatures, in their varying degrees), is not miraculous. It is simply how God created the world to work. It is not restricted to the human realm, though clearly rational relationship in the form of Bacon’s protagonists’ answered prayer, for example, is a heightened example. God governed his world hands-on long before humanity came on the scene, whether we understand that in terms of his original and ongoing creative acts (aka evolutionary contingencies), in world-changing providences like the KT asteroid event, or in the individual care for each creature to fulfil its appointed ends. We really ought to perceive the last if the world’s Creator and Governor is, as Scripture asserts,¬† the same eternal and unchanging Son who loved us and gave himself for us.

I think it possible that the special role of “miracle” is easier to understand and distinguish under the pattern of biblical theology I began to consider a year or two ago, which turns out to be very close to that proposed at length by Greg Beale in his New Testament Biblical Theology. That pattern is to see the Bible, from the 2nd chapter of Genesis onwards, as the unfolding (against opposition) of God’s plan to transform his original creation, through man, to a new creation in which his own glory fills all things. The whole Bible, in other words, is about the new creation.

In human terms, that has been (and still is) a slow and tortuous process, encompassing the failure of Adam, the whole saga of Israel, and the “inaugurated eschatology” of the gospel, whose fulfilment in the renewing of all things is still in the future, but is the core content of the Christian hope.

It’s something of a commonplace of theology that “mracles and signs,” both in the Old and New Testaments (and in the world beyond the Bible, such as the here and now), are intended to serve the agenda of salvation. They are signs of the age to come, whether that be in the form of healings and raising of the dead, the subduing of nature as in Jesus’s calming of the storm, the overcoming of evil in the form of exorcisms or (say) Peter’s miraculous release form prison, or any other miracle.

But perhaps, given the focus the Bible has on new creation, miracles might be seen not so much as signs of power for salvation, but as the breaking in of the new creation’s modus operandi into that of the old creation. What would then make them wondrous is not so much a display of special divine power, but a demonstration, ahead of time, of the coming new normality.

Such a view makes miracles as “natural”, in the loose understanding of the word as “normal”, as the usual events of our world, so long as we recognise them as a future kind of nature and normality. Conversely, once we factor a caring providence into the orginal created order in which we live, suddenly even the ordinary world becomes a whole lot more “supernatural.”

In both cases, God is present and active, and discernible to those with eyes to see.

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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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