Against Miracles

What are miracles? If by “miracle” we mean an instance in which God overrules or violates the laws of nature for some greater end of His, a common enough definition, it is unclear whether we have any solid biblical grounds for believing that such things take place.

Of course, to say that is probably a headscratcher to most of you. Doesn’t the Bible obviously teach miracles? Isn’t it full of them? Perhaps so, but perhaps not. The key question is with respect to the idea of a “violation” of the natural order. Is it actually the case that, to accomplish certain things, God breaks, temporarily suspends, or simply overrides the order which He wrote into the fabric of creation? This would seem in a certain light to be quite problematic. After all, if God is the one who upholds and energizes the natural order by the power of His Word, then why would He also be the one who contradicts that order on a few scattered occasions? Could He not, in His omnipotent wisdom, have designed the natural order so that it would do His bidding in all circumstances without the introduction of cheats and exceptions? To put it more simply, why should God have to contradict His own rules? Could He even do so, since it is impossible for God to be unfaithful to Himself?

It is largely this question which raises doubts about the commonly understand nature of miracles as interruptions of the natural order. Yet there is another relevant issue involved, namely the second (or, more properly, first) sphere of creation, the heavens. While it is often forgotten, “heaven” as the domain of God and the angels was created in the beginning alongside the earth. So it, and its angelic inhabitants, can in a certain sense be considered part of the natural order. This modifies what can be legitimately considered a violation of the natural order. If angels and their doings are, in this larger creational sense, natural, then the scope of possible violations of the natural order narrows considerably.

A final consideration is, well, the nature of the natural order itself. Just what are, for example, the laws of physics? In modern times, we tend to think of them as autonomous mechanics, an independent set of gears behind the universe. In such a picture, God’s action must take the form of distinct interruption, a suspension of the ongoing system. But the Bible doesn’t speak of nature that way. In the Bible, the natural order is the ongoing creative work of God. It says of rain, “He makes waterdrops evaporate; they distill the rain into its mist” (Job 36:27), and of plants, “He causes grass to grow for the livestock and provides crops for man to cultivate, producing food from the earth, wine that makes man’s heart glad” (Psalm 104:14). In the biblical view, the ways of nature are the works of God’s own hand. So the laws of nature, to use a term I believe comes from James Jordan, are basically divine habits. The regularity with which the cosmos operates on every level is simply a matter of how God habitually energizes all things, how He usually governs the forces and masses of creation. So for God to do something different, say, bring a dead man back to life, is not an interruption or violation of any mechanism outside of God, but rather God playing a suddenly different tune, as it were, on the instrument on nature.

Of course, we don’t want to erase the Creator/creature distinction here, either. God opens up the clouds and pours rain upon the earth, but it is equally true that water vapor in the atmosphere condenses according to basic chemistry and physics and is pulled by gravity onto the surface of the planet. On this level, in accord with what was said just above, we should understand that even what we call the “laws” of nature are many orders of magnitude more complex than we like to think. We don’t understand the physical universe half as well as we think we do, and this also leaves room for questioning the supposed overriding nature of miracles. Some miraculous events which we think are naturally impossible may simply be possible by some aspect to the world which we currently know nothing about. After all, just in the last several decades we’ve discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, which has radically modified our ideas about what’s possible. Quantum mechanics alone seems to make nearly anything possible (I’m not entirely serious, but close enough).

The sum of all this is to simply offer a suggestion: maybe the way we normally think about miracles is wrong. If a miracle is an interruption or violation of fixed natural laws, then maybe they don’t exist. But this is, obviously, not to say that biblical miracles never happened. On the contrary, everything the Bible says happened most certainly did. The only questions here are what kind of events they were and precisely how they came to be. Maybe the line between the natural and the supernatural isn’t as clear cut as we tend to think.

And on the other hand, maybe not.

Against Miracles

Theory and Doctrine: Interpretations in Scripture and Nature

Science vs Scripture. Reason vs faith. Why is it that these things are so frequently pitted against each other? Well, it’s not really a mystery. Doctrines of old oppose new scientific theories. Faith holds to things which are often difficult to understand. So of course these conflicts will arise. Yet I want to hopefully add some clarity to issues like this. I will use a simple case study to explain my thoughts.

The perfect example of the science-vs-religion mentality is the debate between evolution and creationism. Science, they say, teaches evolution, and the Bible teaches special creation. One must be wrong. The Christians who agree with this embrace creation and say that science is wrong,  while the skeptics who agree with this embrace evolution and say that the Bible is wrong. The problem with this is that “science says” and “the Bible says” are both completely wrong ways of framing the issue.

I want to put before you the thought that scientific theories are to the natural world what doctrine is to Scripture. The natural world is a great part of reality, and Scripture is a collection of writings which claim to accurately represent reality. So the natural world is real and cannot be wrong in any meaningful way. Scripture could be wrong in theory, since it is not the reality itself but describes it. Scientific theories and doctrines are interpretations of nature and Scripture respectively, and they can easily be wrong. Let me elaborate on this a bit.

What is “science?” Science is defined as “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” The term is also used to refer to the entire body of knowledge which results from this enterprise. Now, evolution is a scientific theory. So let me be clear on something:

In science, “theory” does not mean “idea,” “guess,” or even “educated guess.”

To explain what a scientific theory actually is, I cite About.com:

A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven. Basically, if evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of a phenomenon. One definition of a theory is to say it’s an accepted hypothesis.

Evolution summarizes several hypotheses about genetics, speciation, and related topics. It has been supported with repeated testing that has accumulated supporting evidence. So it is a scientific theory. Now, the question still stands whether enough evidence has also accumulated to disprove it, so it might be an invalid theory (as I tend to think), but that’s not certain.

Now to move on to what “the Bible says.” See, what “the Bible says” must be interpreted. There are different interpretations of various issues in Scripture, and collected interpretations and the reasoning behind them are called “doctrine.” Of course, there are correct interpretations and wrong ones. So correct doctrine is what the Bible actually says, while if a doctrine is incorrect it is not what the Bible actually says. And since there is always the possibility that we have made a mistake, saying “the Bible says” on controversial issues isn’t always helpful. Instead, we can better judge issues by saying, “This doctrine says” and clarifying that there are good reason to believe this doctrine is an accurate understanding of Scripture.

Did all that make sense? I hope so, because I felt like I rambled a bit. Now, moving on. To nuance the controversy of evolution and creation, we have to speak in this way: “The scientific theory of evolution and the Biblical doctrine of creation are in disagreement.” (Also, when I say refer to the doctrine of creation here, I am including all Biblical doctrines which reject evolution, regardless of the earth’s age or other details.) From here, there are four major possibilities.

Possibility #1: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

In this case, since nature is simply part of reality and Scripture describes reality, Scripture must be wrong. This is the view of most atheists and other skeptics, along with some liberal Christians, but those of us who believe in the inerrancy (or even infallibility) of Scripture reject this option.

Possibility #2: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

With this position, evolution is true, and it is compatible with Scripture. It is simply interpretations of Scripture which forbid evolution which are wrong. This view is popular among liberal Protestants, most Catholics, and a handful of Evangelicals.

Possibility #3: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

Most Evangelicals and all fundamentalists (but basically no one else) agree with this view, in which case evolution is entirely false and the Bible teaches creationism, which is true.

Possibility #4: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

This is a novel possibility in which the prevailing understanding of evolution is wrong, but so is the traditional doctrine of creation. Instead, some other theory/doctrine is true. I don’t know of anyone in particular who believes this.

I should point out now that out of these four possibilities, only #1 actually denies the truthfulness of Scripture. All three of the other options allow for the authority of Scripture to speak. A lot of people are uncomfortable with #2, but it is still a legitimate possibility. I myself find #3 the most likely, though I admit #4 is a very interesting (if pretty unsubstantial) possibility.

Now, the point of all this isn’t mainly about creation and evolution. Like I said before, this is a case study for how we should look at these issues. Any time some element of science, history, or philosophy seems to oppose Christianity, we need to think this way. Identify the interpretations, lay out the possibilities, and figure out which one is most likely. Don’t be afraid to examine your doctrine, and don’t be afraid to challenge theories. Either could be right or wrong in any given debate. So be rational. That’s why God gave us brains, after all.

Theory and Doctrine: Interpretations in Scripture and Nature