Providence and miracle November 23, 2016

Miracles and the hypothesis of God

(An extract from Ch.11 of “Who made God? Searching for a theory of everything”)

Let me try to clarify matters by making an important distinction— between miracles and providence. The biblical hypothesis of God makes the difference very plain. Providence is God’s sovereign control of nature (and human history) to bring about certain ends, and involves no suspension or violation of natural law. I have already cited St Paul’s classic statement of the doctrine of providence in Acts 17:24–28: ‘God, who made the world and everything in it … gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings … for in Him we live and move and have our being.’ In like manner Paul also states that ‘all things work together for good to those who love God…’13 Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, declared: ‘[God] does according to His will in the army of heaven [i.e. the heavenly bodies] and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, “What have You done?”’14 A further example is the way Joseph forgave his brothers who sold him into slavery: ‘…you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good … to save many people alive.’15 God’s providential control over nature is emphasized constantly in the Psalms; for example:

You visit the earth and water it, You greatly enrich it;

The river of God is full of water;

You provide their grain,

For so You have prepared it.

You water its ridges abundantly,

You settle its furrows;

You make it soft with showers,

You bless its growth. You crown the year with

Your goodness.16

Some well-known biblical ‘miracles’ should really be classified as providence, a prime example being the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites as they fled from Egypt. The book of Exodus records that ‘the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided’.17 The wind in question must have been a most unusual phenomenon, but nevertheless it offers a natural explanation for the dividing of the waters—though not, of course, for the timing of the ‘miracle’. Clearly, any attempt to understand supernatural miracles in terms of the hypothesis of God needs to take into account God’s providential control of natural processes.

Real miracles

So, what does the Bible mean when it refers to miracles? The Hebrew Old Testament uses words that mean literally ‘signs’ or ‘wonders’, while the Greek New Testament refers to ‘acts of power’ and ‘signs’. The Bible, therefore, emphasizes the ‘sign meaning’ or significance of the event, together with the evident power displayed and the wonder evoked in those who witness it. In most cases, the power referred to is the power of God rather than that of any human agent who may be involved, and the ‘sign meaning’ usually relates to God’s testimony to (or approval of) some teaching or person. For example, we read of the ‘salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord [Jesus Christ], and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will’ (emphasis added).18 It is clear that biblical miracles are identified in terms of their effects on the observer rather than their causation. A miracle of healing, for example, is not specifically labelled ‘supernatural’—a fact that provides some wriggle-room for the Augustinian idea of unknown natural causes. However, when the Bible attributes a miracle to the direct action of God it can only intend supernatural causation, the first and greatest such miracle being the ex nihilo creation of the universe itself. Other examples abound, including the resurrection of Christ from the dead (‘whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that [Christ] should be held by it’19) and the healing of the lame man at the temple gate (‘let it be known … that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole [i.e. restored to health]’20).

The biblical hypothesis of God does, therefore, provide for events to occur, albeit rarely and for a specific purpose, in which supernatural causation replaces natural causation. In other words, natural law can be augmented or overruled by divine fiat. Such supernatural involvement with the physical realm is intrinsic to the biblical record and therefore to the historic Christian faith. As C. S. Lewis points out: ‘The mind which asks for a non-miraculous Christianity is a mind in process of relapsing from Christianity into mere “religion”.’21 Only a sanitized non-biblical ‘Christianity’ can dispense with this miraculous dimension, and such a faith lacks both pedigree and plausibility. Furthermore, to be internally consistent, this bowdlerized religion must deny many other biblical claims—such as the ex nihilo creation; the divine creation of life; the special creation of man; the resurrection, ascension and return of Christ; and every other eschatological teaching of Scripture including a coming day of judgement. There really would be little left to believe. How, then, does our biblical hypothesis of God reconcile the pervasive operation of natural laws established by God, with miraculous events in which those laws are superseded by divine fiat? The answer lies in the Bible’s view of natural law.

 The word of God’s power

 When I first visited the USA in the early 1960s, I stayed with an American family. One morning my host remarked in passing that the central heating system had just switched itself on for the first time that autumn. I had never before come across a heating system that worked automatically and I was suitably impressed! ‘You mean you didn’t have to switch it on yourself?’ I asked. Now, of course, we take it for granted that many systems work automatically. When I turn on the ignition of my new car on a frosty morning, it automatically activates front and rear window heaters, wing mirror heaters, air conditioning, windscreen wipers and icy road alert—all of which is quite disconcerting when you first encounter it. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that even theists tend to think of the laws of nature as a self-actuating, stand-alone control system—originally set up by God, perhaps, but somehow subsequently independent of him. But that is not how the Bible views the matter. Our brief consideration of providence should alert us to the idea that natural law operates in such a way as to give expression to the purposes of God—suggesting that this law does not enjoy the hands-off independence that we often ascribe to it but rather is subject to the will of God. This principle is stated plainly in a key Bible passage where Christ, as God, is said to ‘uphold all things by the word of His power’. The statement is found in Hebrews 1:1–3 and reads as follows: ‘God … has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.’

The ‘cosmic’ nature of this statement is self-evident and the conclusion unavoidable—it teaches that the physical universe was first created by God in Christ and is now sustained in the same way. And if this aspect of the hypothesis of God is true, it means that we must equate the system of natural law that upholds the cosmos with the real-time, present-tense ‘word’ of Christ. The concept is supported by St Paul, who states that, ‘All things were created through [Christ] and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.’22 The Greek verb translated ‘consist’ means ‘put together’ or ‘hold together’ and, when linked (as it is here) to the act and purpose of creation, can only refer to the structural and functional integrity of the physical universe. Notice specially the contrast between the past event of creating (‘were created’) and the present tense phenomenon of holding together (‘consist’). Since, scientifically speaking, this ongoing integrity derives from the laws of nature, we again find natural law equated in some way to the power of Christ. One way to understand this is to say that the divine will is immanent in nature. While the God of the Bible necessarily transcends nature as its creator, he also pervades nature as (1) the upholder of all things; and (2) the provider of all things. As regards (1) he ordains and maintains the laws of nature through the moment-by-moment action of his mind and will, while as regards (2) he employs these same laws providentially to bring about his purposes in the material world. However, the point to grasp here is that because of (1) he is not limited to (2)! If the laws of nature are indeed the present tense expression of the mind of God, as opposed to some system independent of God, there is no reason why he should not override them locally in space and time to cause a miracle to occur.

Let me illustrate. When I worked in London I commuted daily from my home in Hertfordshire. Suppose a visitor from outer space was sent secretly to study human behaviour and allotted the task of discovering what rules governed my movements day by day. The hidden observer would soon see that I left my house at a given time, walked to the railway station a mile away and boarded a train to London. However, this only happened for five days in succession and then for two days I did not travel. This pattern was repeated in a cyclic fashion and could be written down as a formula. Happy with his findings, the alien sociologist is about to report his results when, unexpectedly and without warning, I get into my car one day and drive to London instead. A ‘miracle’ has occurred—a deviation from the established and well-documented ‘law’. But that is only in the perception of the observer. In my own mind both rail travel and car travel are conscious decisions made daily in the light of circumstances; they are not qualitatively different. Normally the hassle of heavy traffic made rail travel preferable, but if I had to haul home a heavy load of books or papers it made sense to use door-to-door transport. In the same way, it normally suits God’s purpose, as ‘Lord of heaven and earth’23 to work providentially by employing his own natural laws. Why should he bother to do so if he is in moment-by-moment control of everything? Because there is much benefit in this mode of operation.

As we have seen, the consistency and elegance of these laws testifies to the existence, intelligence, power and orderly nature of God as creator. Romans 1:20 states: ‘For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that [unbelieving men] are without excuse.’ Furthermore, the laws of nature also serve mankind because their predictability allows civilization and technology to flourish, to name but one benefit. On rare occasions, however, God perceives that a departure from normality is needed and he overrides natural law to effect a non-natural or miraculous event. In either case, however, whether events occur by natural process or by miraculous fiat, it is the present-tense mind and will of God that operates. The miracle is real but differs from a natural event only in the eyes of the observer, not of the ever-immanent God. The biblical hypothesis of God thus predicts three things. Firstly, it leads us to expect the cosmos to be ‘ruled’ by consistent, rational and universal laws of nature—because the universe is the product of a rational, omnipresent and almighty creator whose nature ‘do[es] not change’.24

Secondly, it posits that these laws of nature are not selfstanding independent principles that exist apart from their originator, but are rather the moment-by-moment expression of his mind and will. As a result, in providence, he causes these laws to ‘work together’ in such a way that his purposes are fulfilled through them. But, thirdly, our hypothesis also allows that while God normally directs the laws of nature to accomplish his ends providentially, he nevertheless has complete freedom to ‘change his mind’ and operate within the natural world in a different mode, namely miraculously.

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