GOD, SCIENCE AND EVOLUTION PART 5 February 25, 2012
GOD, SCIENCE AND EVOLUTION, PART 5.
GOD IN MIRACLE AND PROVIDENCE
This article is an edited version of the original chapter 4 of my 1980 and out-of-print book. Earlier chapters can be found on this website as Parts 1 through 4.
Is God actively involved in nature and in history? The very expressions ‘miracle’ and ‘providence’ imply an affirmative answer. But how can miracles occur in a universe ruled by natural law? How can the ‘blind forces’ of nature be manipulated by a non-physical Deity to bring about specific events in history and human experience? How can the spiritual realm interact with the physical world without introducing chaos in the latter? These are some of the questions tackled in this second address at the British Evangelical Council Conference in 1979.
Our task here is to show how the direct involvement of God with our ‘real’ world may be seen as a fitting and natural consequence of the relationship between God and His creation considered in chapter 3 [Part 4] rather than as an arbitrary meddling or, even worse, the superstitious invention of simple minds.
God in miracle and providence
The main theme of the previous chapter was the subject or doctrine of the ex nihilo creation, the idea that all the physical and visible universe sprang from the fiat of a God who is pure spirit. From that primary doctrine we derived the secondary doctrine of universal sustenance, that is, the idea that God upholds all things by the word of His power and that in Him (the Second Person of the Trinity) all things consist or hold together (Colossians 1:17). We saw that this doctrine flows naturally from the concept of an ex nihilo creation, but that it is also separately and independently stated in Scripture. We looked at this doctrine of universal sustenance and saw that it provides a biblical view of the nature and character of science.
We now want to move on to see how the idea of universal sustenance legitimizes the concept of miracle, how it undergirds the doctrine of providence and how it points to the doctrine of human accountability (and thus prepares the way for the gospel). Previously, universal sustenance showed us the way to a biblical view of science. Now that same doctrine may help us see how miracles and providence can be understood in the context of a scientifically characterized universe.
First of all then, let us consider the subject of miracles. At the outset let it be clear that the miraculous is absolutely fundamental to Christian theology and the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no way that we can banish the miraculous from our Bible without sacrificing the gospel itself. The interaction of God and the spiritual realm with our material universe is fundamental because Christianity is based upon historical facts — the incarnation and resurrection of Christ and the future general resurrection and judgement. All these were, or will be, miraculous events. It has always seemed rather inconsistent to me that some Christians should do everything possible to avoid invoking the miraculous in the discussion of creation, because they must admit it in discussing the gospel.
On the other hand it is essential to have a proper theological approach to the miraculous, a theology of miracles. It is not sufficient merely to say that miracles happened because the Bible says so. The people to whom we are preaching in this scientific age demand a fuller explanation. Therefore my purpose is to examine the concept of miracles in the context of the scientific and materialistic culture in which we find ourselves.
Let me then define what I mean by a miracle. My definition is as follows: ‘A miracle is an event consequent upon a localized change in the laws of nature’. You may recognize that this definition relates to what I wrote in chapter 3 [Part 4] about the character of scientific law, namely, that it is something which has an immediate spiritual origin and cause, and which can be represented in biblical terms as ‘the word of God’s power’ (Hebrews 1:3).
Let us see where this definition of miracles takes us. Firstly, it excludes some biblical events which we normally and loosely refer to as miraculous. For example, the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites is plainly ascribed in Scripture to natural causes. There was a strong wind which forced back the waters and held them in place. There is no indication that we are dealing there with a miracle in the sense that I have defined it, requiring an alteration in the laws of nature. Because natural causes were employed (albeit by God Himself) this event falls under the heading of providence rather than miracle, as we shall see presently. Thus this definition of miracles is somewhat restrictive in relation to what I might call a ‘popular’ view. It is also clear, I think, that I am only concerned here with events in the material world and not those occurring solely within the spiritual realm, such as the ‘new birth’ (John 3:1-8) which we often refer to as miraculous since it is a direct and humanly inexplicable work of the Spirit of God.
The second point to notice is that a miracle involves a change in natural law. This is an uncompromising statement, because it forbids any scientific ‘explanation’ of the miraculous. This follows because science is the study and codification of natural law, that is, those laws which habitually, normally and universally control the working of the world in which we live. If those natural laws are, for a time, changed, then what happens during that period of change cannot be comprehended under the heading of ‘science’. Science can make no comment whatsoever about events which involve a change in the laws of nature. You notice that I say ‘a change’ rather than a ‘suspension’ of natural laws. A suspension suggests a void, an absence of law. We are not, however, proposing an absence of law but rather the replacement of one set of laws by different ones.
Although our definition forbids any scientific account of miracles, it does not follow that science can in any way disprove miracles or demonstrate that they cannot happen. This is a common fallacy, to think that science states or implies that miracles cannot occur. The truth of the matter is, of course, that miracles lie outside of the terms of reference of science so that science can, in and of itself, make no contribution to an understanding of the miraculous. Remember that science does not create natural law. Rather the reverse is true, namely, that natural law is the cause of, and justification for, science. It is because the laws exist that science can also exist. Science studies that which already exists in this universe and must concern itself with the habitual and universal behaviour exhibited by nature. It cannot consider any fundamentally altered behaviour that might take place.
Having said this, let me state what should be obvious from the previous chapter, namely that the alteration of natural law that occurs when miracles happen is an intellectually acceptable idea. For if natural law is, as I have maintained, the moment-by-moment will of God — the instantaneous ‘word of His power’ — then any change in the hierarchy of natural law is brought about by a momentary change in the ‘instructions’ that God ‘issues’ to His created universe. Because natural law is His immediate will, then a departure from that law must equally be His will for that moment of space and time. This is the key to the legitimization of the miraculous. That is, a proper understanding of the source of natural law allows us to say that the miraculous is just as ‘natural’, just as rational, as the normative laws of nature.
Let me use an illustration which may help to clarify this point. I habitually travel from my home to my office in London by train. An observer, like the scientist observing the natural world, would quickly discover the rules or ‘laws’ which control my travelling habits. He would find that five days each week I leave my home and travel by train, then that I miss two days before recommencing the cycle. But very occasionally I find that I need a car in London and therefore travel by road instead of by rail. To the observer that would appear to be a breach or alteration in my ‘laws’ of travel. But although this is an infrequent occurrence, and therefore exceptional, my journey by car is no less a deliberate act of my will than is my habitual choice of train as a means of transport. Thus in the matter of God’s control of the universe there is a natural and habitual control, designated in Scripture as the ‘word of His power’ and designated by science as natural law. But there is also an unusual, infrequent and limited exercise of the divine will in what we describe as miracle — in which the ‘normal’ is superseded by the ‘special’ in a deliberate act of God carried out for a particular reason. Miracles are thus just a different manifestation of the divine will from that which we regard as ‘normal’ in nature; but both nature and miracle share the common characteristic of being the will of God in moment-by-moment action.
Let us move on to the second aspect of my definition of the miraculous, namely that it involves a localized change in the laws of nature. It is self-evident that miracles are normally localized in space and time. Even the ex nihilo creation itself was localized in that it involved the origin of time and space. In Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana, it was only the water in the stone jars that turned into wine, not the contents of the local well! Nor did the water which constitutes so much of the human body change into wine in those who stood by. The results might have been interesting had it done so! When Mary conceived as a virgin, it was a unique event which did not involve parthenogenesis in all the unmarried women of Judea. Miracles are thus demonstrably localized in space and time, and this does raise a possible problem concerning the explanation of miracles that I advanced earlier. The problem is this: if God’s normal will, which we observe as natural law, is universal, how can any change in that law be local? There is an asymmetry here in God’s behaviour towards the universe. The ‘word of His power’ appears to be a universal operation. The laws are the same on earth, on Mars and, as far as we know, in the remotest galaxy. They were the same yesterday as they are today and will be tomorrow. But this change in natural law which we call miracle, is localized, introducing an asymmetry. Let it be said immediately that the concept that all the workings of nature are the moment-by-moment activity of God allows us total freedom to accept such an asymmetry, simply because God possesses the freedom to act as He pleases. However, there is perhaps something of a moral dilemma in this idea of asymmetry between the normal and the miraculous. I have been trying to establish that they are essentially the same thing, namely the expression of God’s immediate will, and this asymmetry seems to weaken this idea.
One possible approach to this problem is as follows. Given that God desires to interact with His physical creation in a way that would be manifest to men, the alternative to a localized change would be wholly destructive. A universal change in the laws of nature, even though it were for a moment of time only, would be destructive of the kind of universe in which we live. Miracles are not a necessary consequence of the existence of God. It is conceivable that God could have remained in that general relationship with creation that is expressed in natural law and described by science. There needed to be no inevitable employment of miracles in God’s dealings with the physical world. But had He adopted that approach, it would have been very difficult for man to deduce God’s activity from this general ‘background’ behaviour of the universe. This is not to ignore the teaching of Romans 1:18-21 that man ought to deduce God’s existence and power from just this evidence but fails to do so. Nevertheless, given that God desires to manifest Himself and demonstrate unmistakably His existence and His interest in the world, how could He rationally go about it? The localized change, giving rise to what we observe as a miracle, seems to me to be the only possible manner in which God could achieve these purposes without a total disruption of the fabric of the universe. Thus the asymmetry we noticed in God’s dealings with the physical world is not the stumbling-block that it first appears to be. It is (anthropomorphically speaking) God’s only option if He wishes to make His presence known physically to men who are blind to the evidence of nature itself concerning His ‘power and Godhead’.
Miracle in creation
We have now finished with our definition and must move on to our second topic, namely, miracle in creation. Firstly, all Christians, as far as I am aware, agree that a miracle occurred at the beginning of creation. That is, the creatio ex nihilo was a miracle falling within my definition, with the special feature that the ‘change’ in the laws of nature involved was the actual origination of those laws. It is interesting to note that the concept of an ex nihilo creation is peculiarly Judaeo-Christian. Although there are many creation myths from different ancient cultures, the idea of a creation from nothing is exclusively biblical in origin. Indeed, even most non-Christians are normally forced to admit that the origin of the universe was a miracle in the sense that it can never be explained by science. [Attempts to do so, such as the 2010 book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, fail miserably to do so, at both a scientific and philosophical level]. However, having agreed on that starting-point, Christians, and specially Bible-believing Christians, then take very different courses. They differ as to the subsequent incidence of the miraculous in the formation of the earth and universe as we know it today. Some are theistic evolutionists, not only in the restricted sense of Darwinian evolution but in the global sense of believing that after the original creation, the whole history of the universe can be described scientifically (non-miraculously) and in evolutionary terms. Thus the original ‘big bang’ origin was followed by an expansion of the universe (still observable today by means of the galactic ‘red shift’). Clouds of gas cooled and condensed into stars and galaxies. Heavier elements came into being as a result of stellar explosions, planets like earth condensed from the debris, and everything that has occurred subsequently on earth, including the origin and development of life, can be explained by appeal only to the outworking of natural processes describable by science. Let me make it clear that many of these natural processes are compatible with a belief in the historicity of the opening chapters of Genesis. But those of whom I am speaking, rigorously exclude as a matter of philosophical principle, any miraculous element. They are, of course, inconsistent if, as Christians, they accept the miracles of the New Testament and look forward to a miraculous end to this present age — while denying that miracle could have had any role in the post-creation formation of our present world and the life that inhabits it.
It is interesting to speculate why some Christians who accept the Bible as God’s revealed Word do adopt this position. I believe that they unwittingly read into the Bible philosophical presuppositions that are themselves extra-biblical. For example, they read in a false view of natural law, namely that these laws are somehow independent of God. They admit that He created them at the beginning, but then somehow left them with an independent existence. As long as one holds this erroneous view, it is quite natural to claim that those laws must have operated inexorably from the beginning of time and that any exception to their operation is inadmissible — because it would violate the very rules that God has made. If, however, natural law is understood in the biblical sense, that is, as the immediate expression of the mind of God, then this problem vanishes and the biblical account of creation can be studied without the burden of extra-biblical philosophical constraints.
Thus we come to the question: ‘Does the Bible teach that miracles were involved in the formation of the worlds subsequent to the ex nihilo creation?’ This is not such a straightforward issue as may appear at first sight. I would maintain, however, that the Bible does teach that such miracles occurred, and the three main arguments in favour of this view are as follows. The first is that the events recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis could not possibly have taken place on the time-scale permitted by a straightforward reading of these chapters, if they were caused solely by natural process. There must have been transformations or changes in natural law for these things to have happened in the time allowed by the record. Many seek to introduce long periods of elapsed time into the Genesis narrative, either by allowing that the ‘days’ were in fact eras of time, or by such artificial devices as the ‘gap theory’. And, of course, the ‘day-age’ theory is followed by some respected evangelical commentators. But if we read these early chapters of Genesis with a mind innocent of preconceptions, it seems inescapable that things were happening at a rate and in a manner that is unknown to science today. It seems to me, therefore, that these passages of Scripture contain a miraculous dimension that can only be bypassed by special pleading as to the interpretation of the passages.
My second reason for believing that the ‘subsequent creation’ involved miraculous stages is the repetition in Genesis 1 of the refrain, ‘And God said “let there be”.’ It seems to me that if the processes described were simply natural, the repetition of this expression would be superfluous. If all that is being described in this chapter are successive steps in a completely natural process, one would expect the refrain to introduce many other significant events (as distinct from teachings) in Genesis and elsewhere in Scripture, but this is not what we find. The very fact that a fresh pronouncement from God is associated with each stage of the creation implies that a non-natural, or miraculous event was about to occur. If this is not the case, I can see no purpose for the use, almost uniquely in this narrative, of the language employed.
Thirdly, Genesis states plainly that the work of creation was completed on the seventh day. ‘Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made’ (Gen.2:1-2). If the creation had been accomplished by the outworkings of natural law it seems inconceivable that such a claim could be made, for natural process continues uninterrupted. The forces which shaped the continents and oceans in Genesis 1 would be the same as those that shape them now. The evolution of the biosphere in the biblical record would be one and the same process as is, allegedly, at work today. There could have been no termination of the work of creation if it were simply the product of natural process. There must have been something distinctive about the six days of creation for them to be represented as a separate era with a distinct end. I suggest that the singularity of that period lay in the performance by God of miraculous creative acts.
What, then, are our alternatives as we regard creation from the viewpoint of miracles? Firstly, there is the global evolutionary approach in which the entire universe as we know it today is attributed to the operation of natural process. You may feel that what I have said about the spiritual origin of natural law makes the evolutionary viewpoint more acceptable to the Christian rather than less, since it leaves God as the prime mover behind all process even though it be natural rather than miraculous. I must accept that this is the case. But while this is philosophically acceptable I am forced to reject theistic evolution purely on biblical grounds, since as I have just argued, Scripture implies that that creation subsequent to the ex nihilo beginning involved miraculous acts on the part of God.
The next alternative to theistic evolution — the opposite pole of interpretation — is the concept of ‘mature creation’, namely, that the universe was created largely in the form that we know it today, with the exception that the Noachic flood wrought dramatic changes in the geology and climate of the earth. On this view the galaxies and stars, the earth and the moon, the entire biosphere (life in all its forms) and man himself, were created in a period of six literal days as described in Genesis 1 and have undergone no significant change since that time. It does not deny modern cosmological observation; it does not imply, for example, that nuclear processes do not operate in stars or that supernovae do not occur in remote galaxies. It does not mean that certain changes and adaptations do not take place among living species or that genetic mutations do not occur. But these are seen as small variations within the initial creation. According to ‘mature creation’ the heavens were created ready-made, together with the light trains which span the immense distances between the stars and earth and by which the former are made visible to us. This implies, of course, that we only seem to be seeing cosmic events that took place millions of years ago, but this is a natural consequence of the creation of light en route, together with any variations in wavelength and intensity that we may (wrongly) interpret in terms of extremely ancient events.
But in my view, ‘mature creation’ fails in its declared purpose of reconciling biblical testimony with modern scientific observation. To begin with, there is a basic philosophical difficulty, namely, that mature creation may be an essentially empty concept. I can put this most dramatically in the following way. You do not know it, and I do not know it, but the universe was, in fact, created at 6.00 a.m. this morning! The fact that we are all unaware of this is because our memories were created in a mature form along with ourselves. You think that yesterday you did certain things and met certain people. But you are wrong. You think that was the case because your memories came into existence this morning complete with a store of ‘recollections’ which bear no relation to real events. This is, of course, a reductio ad absurdum, yet it represents a valid philosophical objection to the doctrine of mature creation.
Of course, Christians could argue in reply that the 6.00 a.m. creation is inadmissible because it would make God a liar, since our Bible purports to record real historical events stretching back somewhat earlier than six o’clock this morning. This would impugn the character of God and we may therefore legitimately distinguish between ‘mature creation’ and the 6.00 a.m. hypothesis. But we must appreciate that the world of unbelief has no such inhibitions and can fairly claim that the concept of mature creation, because it can never be disproved (any more than the six o’clock creation) adds nothing to our understanding and is thus an empty concept.
The second problem with mature creation is that it is too exclusive of natural process. It so denigrates ‘process’ as a participating mechanism in the formation of the universe that it becomes unbiblical, suggesting that everything happened in a flash, in a puff of blue smoke as it were, without the lapse of time. But the Bible is quite clear that process was involved in creation. However we regard the six days of creation, it took time to bring into being the earth and all that it contains. We cannot eliminate time and process from the creation for the simple reason that the Bible does not eliminate them. A simplistic view of mature creation is thus unbiblical because its rejection of process leads it to deny the clear teaching of Scripture.
We must not allow our reaction against the excesses of evolutionary thinking to drive us to an untenable opposite view in which process is treated as a ‘dirty word’. Such an overly simplistic approach leads to absurdity as well as a denial of Scripture. Some of its supporters imply, for example, that matter once existed without coexisting natural laws such as the second law of thermodynamics. But you cannot have matter and energy, space and time, without all the rules that describe their behaviour. Yet some authors almost suggest that the whole period before the seventh day of creation was so miraculous as to be beyond discussion or imagination and we should not allow natural process to intrude into that era in any shape or form. For example, the statement that the earth was ‘without form and void’ is taken to mean that there was no such thing as gravity at that time, and that the earth was shapeless. It is much more likely to understand this quotation as meaning that there was no geographical form (the whole surface of the earth being covered in water) and empty of life. There is a real danger that under the banner of mature creation some go so far out on a limb as to become both irrational and unbiblical.
A middle way
There is a ‘middle way’, avoiding these problems and remaining true to the actual record of the Bible. I do not use ‘middle’ to signify a compromise between evolution and creation, but rather a rational approach which can be justified intellectually as well as remaining true to the belief that Genesis should be read as sober history. In my view, what I have said about the character of scientific law makes it rational (and even necessary) to believe that process (the normal operation of natural law) and miracle can and did coexist. The existence of one does not exclude the other. We do not have to think of a six-day miraculous creation when no natural process was permitted, followed by a post-creation era in which all occurrence can be described by science.
To dramatize this somewhat, it is perfectly possible, and consistent with the biblical account of the creation, that fish were created de novo in an aqueous environment that obeyed all the natural laws of hydrodynamics and hydrostatics — that is, in a perfectly normal sea such as we know today. That within this completely natural medium, obeying natural laws, a change in the laws of nature occurred by which God brought into being, by miraculous fiat, the hosts of sea-dwelling creatures. An atheist will scoff, of course, but before he or she does so let me point out that atheism requires that just such a ‘miracle’ occurred when, within some wholly natural environment, the first living entity sprang into existence by pure chance. And if, as some evolutionists have speculated, life originated on earth more than once, the parallel would be even closer. Either way, we must invoke either God or chance to account for events that are beyond the capacity of science to explain.
The miraculous origin of various life-forms is entirely consistent with the miracles of the New Testament. To return for a moment to Cana, the wine that was created in the stone jars was produced in vessels which behaved in all respects as natural objects obeying natural law. Everything associated with the miracle, with the sole exception of the water itself, was obeying natural law at the time the transformation took place. Thus the coexistence in the creation record of miracle and process seems to me to be a necessary deduction from Scripture.
This means, of course, that many of the processes with which biology, geology, physics and chemistry deal, can be associated with the creation, from the ex nihilo origin of the universe to the completion of the work of creation on the seventh day. It is vital to a proper understanding of Genesis that we allow miraculous fiat to occur as and when stated in the record but it is highly likely that natural processes were also simultaneously involved throughout the events recorded in the creation narrative.
No one is in a position to be dogmatic at this point. We have to accept that none of our ideas, in so far as they are not confirmed explicitly by Scripture, can be said to be final and complete. It is quite possible, by way of example, that the original creation ex nihilo lay at some time of unspecified duration prior to the dawning of light on earth. In Exodus 20:11 this earlier period would be comprehended in the first day, which, unlike the subsequent days which were delimited by morning and evening, could thus have been of indefinite backward duration. This view would permit the acceptance of a ‘big bang’ origin of the universe as currently . favoured by cosmologists. On the other hand, the succession of night and day which delineates the remaining days of creation seems to me to provide no scriptural authority for the ‘day-age’ theory. The other days can only be understood as periods of the rotation of the earth upon its axis.
So then, I believe there is something of a middle way. What we must avoid (and this is the key to the whole matter) is an imposition upon Scripture of foreign philosophical principles, whether the principle involved is called ‘evolution’ or ‘mature creation’. Let Scripture speak.
Let me move on to the third and final point of my lecture, namely ‘providence’. This is, of course, an enormous subject and I hope you will understand that I am dealing with it in the limited context of the natural world and our view of science. My treatment is therefore of a somewhat clinical nature. Providence is one of the most glorious doctrines of the Christian faith and of the Bible, and although we shall see something of its anatomy, we shall see little of its true loveliness in this brief consideration.
What do we mean by ‘providence’? As we defined the miraculous, so we now need to define providence. My definition is as follows: ‘Providence is God’s manipulation of natural processes and events to fulfil His purposes.’ Thus I draw a clear distinction between miracle and providence in that miracle involves the alteration or change of natural law, whereas providence involves God’s use of natural law and process to bring about His designs. I also see three different kinds of providence, at least, that we may recognize in Scripture. The first is what I will call the overall scheme of God’s beneficence. Many Scriptures point to this, for example, Psalm 145:16: ‘You open your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing.’ Psalms 65 and 104 are other clear examples: You visit the earth, and water it: you greatly enrich it with the river of God . . . you prepare them corn.’ ‘He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.’ Admittedly, these statements are highly poetical, but we must beware of thinking that because something is poetical it is somehow less true. These are true and valid statements of fact. The things referred to in the psalms, such as the hydrological cycle of evaporation and rainfall, the cycle of life and death in nature, springtime and harvest, are the consequences of natural law, and thus can properly be described in scientific or naturalistic terms. But since natural law is the word of God’s power, and since the natural universe is upheld on an instantaneous basis by the will and mind of God, it is also perfectly proper to do what the psalms do, namely to ascribe to the beneficence of God all the functions of natural process and their due results.
It is a direct consequence of the doctrine of universal sustenance that these processes may both be described by science and ascribed to the providence of God. There is no contradiction or ‘double-think’ involved. So let us not be ashamed of the Bible when, in our scientific age, it speaks of God watering the earth and causing the grass to grow. Let us not dismiss these words as merely poetical and lacking in scientific credibility. In a most profound sense these ‘poetical’ statements are highly scientific because they take us beyond science to the ground of all being — the spiritual reality that lies beneath science, namely, the being and the mind of God. These biblical claims, far from being sub-scientific, are valid in a more fundamental sense than any purely scientific statement could ever be.
We come secondly to something I will call ‘special providence’ in the realm of nature. We are still thinking about nature but we now consider particular instances of providential care or action on the part of God. An example of this is the crossing of the Red Sea which I earlier deliberately excluded from the realm of the miraculous. This event falls into my definition of special providence. Here we have a sequence of events that, as far as we can tell, took place by natural process but the timing of which was ‘miraculous’ in the more general sense of that word. These happenings were clearly not just coincidences; they were ‘miracles of timing’. Natural events conspired in an extraordinary way to fulfil God’s purpose at that moment of history. The provision of quails in the wilderness for the starving Israelites and the earthquake that wrecked the gaol at Philippi provide further instances of natural events which occurred at just the right moment and in just the right manner to give rise to the desired effects in the purposes of God. Jonah’s storm is a further case in point. None of these events can be placed in the realm of the miraculous as I have defined that term. They are rather instances of the manipulation of natural, non-miraculous causes by God with a view to achieving certain definite results in the affairs of men and nations.
This brief description of ‘special providence’ does raise some problems. How, may we ask, does God so direct natural process? In one sense there is more difficulty with this concept than there is with the idea of the miraculous. In the latter we simply say that God ‘changed the rules’ of nature, so that things took place that could not otherwise have done so. That is quite an easy concept to grasp. But now we are saying that God somehow manipulates the laws of nature without changing them; that He acts to produce specific desired effects within the constraints of natural law. How can this be? How can the rules of nature be manipulated without being altered?
I am not sure that I can provide a complete answer to this particular philosophical difficulty, but I will attempt to point the way to a solution. The first thing to grasp is that natural law, as understood today by scientists, is based upon statistical concepts. In the nineteenth century the climate of opinion among scientists was essentially deterministic. People believed that if it were possible to know the momentum and position of every particle in the universe, it would in principle be possible to predict completely the future course of events, because these would follow as rigorous consequences of the laws of cause and effect. On this view the only bar to a complete prediction of the future was our ignorance of the present!
Such determinism is, of course, contrary both to our instincts (which lead us to believe that we do possess at least a measure of freedom to determine our own destinies) and to the teaching of Scripture. But it is more germane to my present argument that this nineteenth-century determinism was routed, in the first quarter of our present century, by the introduction into science of quantum mechanical theory. Einstein, as a matter of interest, never did fully accept the idea that all natural law is ultimately based upon statistical processes. Nevertheless, it is today accepted that on the macroscopic level the laws of mechanics, electro-magnetism, chemistry and so forth derive from the statistical outcome of innumerable microscopical (atomic scale) events. To give a simple example, the pressure inside a motor tyre, which appears macroscopically to be a constant measurable quantity, actually arises from the continual bombardment of the inner walls of the tyre by the molecules of gas that it contains, moving in a totally random fashion which can only be described by statistics. So the pressure is not in fact constant. It is subject to tiny variations or fluctuations which can indeed be measured with sufficiently sensitive instruments.
Once we let go of determinism in science, and allow that macroscopic laws in nature are the outcome of averaging effects over a vast number of microscopically random events, you will recognize that there is room for indeterminism; for a variable outcome. And there is therefore room in natural science for the involvement of God in determining the precise outcome in nature of the operation of natural law. There is room for the manipulation of the infinitely complex interactions to produce, for example, an earthquake in one place rather than another, at a set time rather than a different one, and of an intensity calculated to achieve a particular effect. I do not pretend to have answered completely this profound problem of how the providence of God works on a physical and natural plane, but I hope these thoughts may point the way to its solution.
The third type of providence I want to mention can be described as God’s providence mediated through human behaviour. The first two classes of providential action are, as we have seen, concerned with the physical world, not necessarily involving human participation. But there is clearly a third kind of providence that is mediated through human behaviour. There are many examples in Scripture. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and this gave rise to certain important consequences in the histories of both Egypt and Israel. God stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia, so that he was instrumental in the restoration of Jerusalem under Zerubbabel. Nebuchadnezzar was taught that the ‘Most High rules in the kingdoms of men’ and that He does so by manipulating the minds and hearts of men. This kind of providence presents no difficulty at all, because as we saw previously, God is spirit and mind and it is therefore a logical consequence that God has total freedom and capacity to act upon the minds of men — to sway and direct them so that they become His agents whether willingly or not. Clearly this applies not only to men like Pharaoh and Cyrus, but even more so to the believer, who is concerned from the outset to discover and obey the will of God. I shall not dwell upon this aspect of providence further since it seems to present no difficulty to the rational mind and fits in very simply to the theological and scientific world-view that I have tried to present in these lectures.
So we come finally and briefly to the subject of human accountability to God. Let me repeat what I said earlier, that my treatment of the subject of providence in this lecture has of necessity been a somewhat clinical one and one in which the true glory of God in providence has been implicit rather than explicit. But in this final section, as we approach the subject of accountability, we do begin to close with the more human and personal aspects of our theme.
I hope that in the course of these lectures, whatever else we have or have not seen, we have grasped something of the immediacy of God. This is the thread which has run throughout my remarks, whether concerning the ex nihilo creation, miracles or providence. God is here. God is present and at work in all things at all times. ‘In all life Thou livest, the true life of all’ runs the hymn, and this concept of the immediacy of God has the capacity to transform all I have said from mere theology and philosophy into the warmth and reality of an awareness of God. The immediacy of God is the lodestone that can infuse all our meditation with the glory of the living God.
The whole burden of what I have said leads to the conclusion of the apostle Paul, namely, that ‘God is not far from every one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being’. We have seen the immediacy of God in the doctrine of universal sustenance, in our concept of the miraculous, in general providence, in special providence and in providence mediated through human behaviour. And even as we contemplate these things from a scientific and philosophical viewpoint, God closes in upon us. He does so to such a degree that we may well begin to tremble , even by virtue of the unvarnished philosophical ideas we have considered in this lecture. Jesus Christ said of the Father, ‘Fear Him who is able to destroy …’. If I may truncate this Scripture even further, we might say ‘Fear Him who is able’ — who has ultimate power and authority; who holds the breath of every living creature in His hand; whose presence and will alone uphold the fabric of the physical universe in which we live; who is the invisible Reality that lies behind and within the visible world.
Let us order our priorities aright and with the apostle ‘look not at the things which are seen but at the things which are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporal but the things which are not seen are eternal’. These unseen things represent the ultimate spiritual reality that we call God and, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, Father.
The immediacy of God, it seems to me, lays upon all people the responsibility to seek to know Him. Paul declares, ‘God … has made of one blood all nations of men … and has determined the times … and the bounds of their habitations — that they should seek the Lord … and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us’ (Acts 17:26-28). Our life is so grounded in the life of God that to neglect to seek Him is a denial of our human nature. If we do neglect to do so we shall surely be called to account for it is the duty of every creature to know and recognise its Creator. The concept of duty is, of course, a moral one and stems from the fact that God and man alike have moral natures. Yet human moral responsibility is only another manifestation of the unity that God imposes on the universe, a unity we have examined in the context of science. We are morally responsible to God because we are made in the image of a moral Deity.