An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 10 September 2005

Science and miracles

Miracle is a slippery concept. The popular conception of a miracle is threefold: it is a violation of a natural law, it is a divine intervention and it is a supernatural event. All are inadequate.

Many philosophers of religion define a miracle as a violation or transgression of a law of nature. This notion is a left-over from the 18th century when deism was at its peak. Walther Eichrodt (1890-1978) points out that it certainly would not

occur to the devout Old Testament believer to make a breach of the Laws of Nature a condicio sine qua non of the miraculous character of an event. (Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 2, London: SCM, p.163)

God does not violate his own laws, but works with and through them; he is faithful to the creation order, which had its origin in him. This is not to say that God is subject to his laws. Perhaps Augustine (354- 430) was near to the truth when he described a portent (miracle) as an event that ‘happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature’ (De Civitate Dei XII.8). Many scientists would objects to such a definition because it may mean, scientific advances permitting, that we will know so much about nature that there will be no place for miracle. The objection is ill-founded.

It is likewise a mistake to describe miracles as divine interventions. An intervention implies that the intervener is absent prior to the intervention. God is present in all of creation, it therefore illogical to describe his action in the creation as an intervention.

Can we describe miracles as a supernatural phenomenon? The idea that miracles are supernatural events has its origin in rationalism, not in the scriptures. God is the God of the laws of nature: he does not violate his own principles to work a miracle Miracles are natural events. Eichrodt, again, points out that ‘ever the course of Nature itself counts as a miracle’ (p. 162). Nature is not autonomous: all things are held together by Christ. He is both the source and sustainer of all things. Fallen nature is not normal, as rationalism assumes, and supernaturalism, with its nature/ supernature dualism, need not be invoked to explain that which rationalism cannot. As J. H. Diemer puts it:

The fundamental fault of supernaturalism is that it begins with a rationalistic and deistic theory of nature in which only a nature torn loose from its moorings and impoverished is reckoned with... . As long as rationalism exists, supernaturalism will not disappear. Supernaturalism fills the vacuum that rationalism creates. (‘Miracles happen: toward a biblical view of nature’, Toronto: ICS (mimeo) nd, p. 17.)

How then are we to explain miracles? John Polkinghorne suggests that the fundamental problem of miracles is

how these strange events can be set within a consistent overall pattern of God’s reliable activity; how can we accept them without subscribing to a capricious interventionist God, who is a concept of paganism rather than Christianity. (Science and Providence, London: SPCK, 1989 p. 51.)

To this we might add: ‘and without subscribing to an unbiblical supernaturalism’.

Miracles are part of the created order. In performing miraculous events Jesus was restoring the creation to its original order. They are glimpses of the consummated kingdom of God, signposts to the kingdom, or, as Polkinghorne has it, ‘transparent moments in which the Kingdom is found to be manifestly present’; they are restoring humans and the creation to their proper relationships.

Aspects of the fall are temporarily halted: sickness and death are robbed of their dominion. The ultimate example, of course, is of Jesus’ resurrection: he is the firstfruits of what it will be to have a transformed resurrection body; we like him will be raised to immortality.

This means that scientific descriptions of miracles are permissible but they are not the whole truth. They may be able to explain them in certain cases, but as has often been said, ‘explanation is not explaining away’. Hence, scientific explanations will not mean that there will be no place for miracles.


Martin LaBar said...

It is not an accident that simple-minded people, however spiritual, should blend the ideas of God and Heaven and the blue sky. It is a fact, not a fiction, that light and life-giving heat do come down
from the sky to Earth. The analogy of the sky's role to begetting and of the Earth's role to bearing is sound as far as it goes. The huge dome of the sky is of all things sensuously perceived the most like infinity. And when God made space and worlds that move in space, and clothed our world with air, and gave us such eyes and such imaginations as those we have, He knew what the sky would mean to us. And since nothing in His work is accidental, if He knew, He
intended. We cannot be certain that this was not indeed one of the chief purposes for which Nature was created.
~C.S. Lewis,
Miracles, chapter 16 (1947) As
in The Window in the Garden Wall - A Daily C.S. Lewis Blog

Lyn said...

Also note that in the Gospel of John a miracle is a "signpost" to the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. And if miracles are "natural" in this sense, then when the Kingdom is fully consumated we'll live "super"-natural lives forever. Thanks for your post. Lyn from Thought Renewal