October 28, 2020

Miracles and Science, Part 3 by Ard Louis

Miracles and Science, Part 3 by Ard Louis

We are continuing our reflections on Miracles and Science based on a series of blog posts by Ard Louis of BioLogos.  The blog posts can be found on the BioLogos web site archives here.   The blog posts are based on a scholarly essay Louis did for BioLogos in 2007 which can be found here .

Commenting on last week’s post, frequent commenter Stephen said, “The real philosophical problem is not ‘what is science’ but ‘what is a miracle?’”  So  in this post, Ard Louis takes a shot at answering that question.  He notes that in modern English, the word “miracle” has taken on a lot of different meanings.  So first he examines the Bible’s use of the word.

The New Testament predominantly uses three words for miracle:

  • teras: a wonder
  • dunamis: an act of power
  • semeion: a sign

In Acts 2:22 it has all three usages:

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles (dunamis), wonders (teras) and signs (semeion), which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

Louis then states:

The word teras (wonder) is almost always used together with one of the other words, emphasizing that the main point of biblical miracles is not to merely elicit amazement but rather to serve a higher theological purpose. For this reason, biblical miracles cannot be understood outside of the theological context within which they occur. They are not anomalous events. This principle provides a key to the proper assessment of their validity.

Louis then notes that the biblical authors often did not make a sharp distinction between the “works of God” and what we moderns now call the “works of nature”.  For example, in Psalm 104:10, the psalmist says, “He makes springs pour water into the ravines, it flows between the mountains.”  The first part of the verse seems to refer to God’s direct action while the second part of the verse seems to refer to the natural course of water flow.  In fact, the whole Psalm fluidly switches back and forth between each view.

The New Testament is even more explicit:  “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).  And: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17).  The idea here is that everything is held together by God’s Word, and if He stopped holding it together it would fly apart, or cease to exist.  The Bible easily switches perspectives depending on whether it is emphasizing the regular behavior of natural phenomena, or their origin in God’s providential sustenance.  That led Augustine to say, “Nature is what God does” (Literal Commentary on Genesis, c AD 391). I don’t believe (nor does Louis) that Augustine was meaning some kind of pantheism.  God and nature are not the same thing.  The opposite error is the Enlightenment notion of some intrinsic causal power to the laws of nature.  The late Stephen Hawking was a big proponent of this notion, nevertheless, it is essentially deism and not Christian theism.

Louis then points out that Christian thinkers throughout the Middle Ages wrestled with the questions of miracles and God’s action in the world.  From that wrestling the following ideas emerged:

  1. If the regularities of nature are a manifestation of the sustenance of God then one would expect them to be trustworthy and consistent, rather than capricious.
  2. The regular behavior of nature could be viewed as the “customs of the Creator” as it were.
  3. Christians glorify God by studying these “laws of nature.”

I have heard numerous historians of science argue that such realizations helped pave the way for the rise of modern science. As the Enlightenment dawned and modern science developed there was increasingly a move away from “God-of-the-gaps” type arguments.

One of the most famous exchanges where God-of-the-gaps was challenged is the exchange between Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton over the discovery that the orbits of the planets did not appear to be stable when calculated over long periods of time.  Newton proposed that the solar system needed occasional “reformation” or tinkering by God.  Leibniz’s famous objection was:

“…if God had to remedy the defects of His creation, this was surely to demean his craftsmanship.” (John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion, CUP, Cambridge (1991), p147.)

In other words, the regular sustaining activity of God, as evidenced by natural laws, should be sufficient to explain the regular behavior of the solar system, without the need for additional ad-hoc interventions.

Leibniz also emphasized the theological nature of miracles:

And I hold, that when God works miracles, he does not do it in order to supply the wants of nature, but those of grace. Whoever thinks otherwise, must needs have a very mean notion of the wisdom and power of God. (Leibniz, as quoted by C. Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, (Paternoster, Exeter, 1984), p 75.)

Louis then notes that a more modern version of Leibniz’s general objection can be found in a famous statement by Charles Coulson, the first Oxford professor of Theoretical Chemistry who wrote:

“When we come to the scientifically unknown, our correct policy is not to rejoice because we have found God; it is to become better scientists.” [Charles Coulson, Christianity in an Age of Science, 25th Riddell Memorial Lecture Series, Oxford University Press, Oxford, (1953).]

Coulson was the one who popularized the term, “God-of-the-gaps”.  This has represented my long-standing problem with Old Earth Creationists and Discovery-Institute-type Intelligent Design proponents.  Sure, God could have used a series of miracles that are above the natural laws of the universe to create life on this planet.  It’s an especially tempting argument to make at the level of abiogenesis.  How did organic molecules organize themselves into living beings, and why, if it was so predisposed to have happened, can we not easily replicate the process.  Jumbo jets, tornados, and junkyards… But, like Leibniz, I have a theological problem with God as “divine tinkerer”.  I believe it “demean(s) his craftsmanship” and lessens his glory as Creator.  It portrays him as a demiurge rather than the God Almighty who is “upholding all things by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3 KJV)  I suppose YMMV.

Louis then proposes to divide miracles into two categories.  Type (i) are examples of providential timing while type (ii) are those that can only be viewed as directly violating physical cause-effect relationships.  As an example of type (i) he cites Israel crossing the Jordan into the promised land (Joshua 3:15,16).  Louis says:

Crossing the Jordan

Colin Humphreys, Cambridge professor of material science, has studied this miracle in great detail [Colin Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories, (Harper Collins, San Francisco, 2003).] and notes that the text supplies a number of unusual clues, including the fact that the water was blocked up a great distance away at a particular town. He has identified this with a location where the Jordan has been known to temporarily dam up when strong earthquakes cause mudslides (most recently in 1927). For many scientists, the fact that God is working through natural processes makes the miracle more palatable…

Of course, this doesn’t take away from the fact that there was remarkable timing involved. Perhaps the attraction of this description comes in part because there is a direct corollary with the very common experience of “providential timing” of events, which believers attribute to God’s working. [One could argue that God must nevertheless employ divine action to set up the conditions necessary for a type (i) miracle to occur at the right time. In that sense both kinds of miracles may involve violations of normal physical cause-effect relations, but in type (i) this is more hidden. Note that I am not arguing that miracles break ultimate cause-effect relationships. Within a divine economy, they may make perfect causal sense. Language like “violation of physical cause-effect” reflects our limited access to the mind of God.]

Of course the ultimate example of a type (ii) miracle is the resurrection of Jesus.  Here Louis asserts that science can be used (in part) to help rule out a type (i) miracle.  For example, in John 19:34 we read: “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” Louis says:

Modern medicine suggests that this is clear evidence that the pericardium, a membrane around the heart, was pierced, confirming that he was in fact dead. The more we know about the processes of decay that set in after death, the less likely it appears that Jesus could have risen from the dead by any natural means. Rather, science strengthens the case that if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, the event must have occurred through a direct injection of supernatural power into the web of cause and effect that undergirds our physical world – it was a type (ii) miracle.

I like the point he then makes that almost every great Christian thinker in history has emphasized the fact that miracles must be understood within the context of a theological purpose, then one could invert that argument and say that it is not surprising that the central event in history would be miraculous.  That has a beautiful symmetry within the tapestry of life that I find very emotionally and intellectually satisfying.


  1. Wow! There’s a lot here to mull on! Thanks, Mike, for presenting this material.

  2. Christiane says

    “Louis then notes that the biblical authors often did not make a sharp distinction between the “works of God” and what we moderns now call the “works of nature”.
    For example, in Psalm 104:10, the psalmist says, “He makes springs pour water into the ravines, it flows between the mountains.”
    The first part of the verse seems to refer to God’s direct action while the second part of the verse seems to refer to the natural course of water flow. In fact, the whole Psalm fluidly switches back and forth between each view.”

    Brings to mind this confluence of miracle and the law of gravity in the natural world (as observed by the Orthodox):

    ““God descends to the humble
    as waters flow down from the hills into the valleys.”

  3. Despite having just turned 77 this past Sunday and now being perfectly perfect by any right-thinking biblical numerologist’s perspective, I was nevertheless non-plussed to discover that I am less than au courant in the social-media abbreviations department. Translation: I had to google YMMV (your mileage may vary).

    I have decided that YHWH is still (a) the ultimate Tetragrammaton and (b) very much in charge of things both miraculous and natural, except perhaps for tornadoes and hurricanes, which logically fall under the domain of our archenemy, TPOTPOTA (the prince of the power of the air), although IDK for sure. Still, only one could pay the MSRP and that is Jesus IMHO.

    john barry, how’m I doin’?

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Of course the ultimate example of a type (ii) miracle is the resurrection of Jesus. Here Louis asserts that science can be used (in part) to help rule out a type (i) miracle.

    Problem is, the YECs force a one-to-one link between the Resurrection and Six-Day-Creation 6000 years ago.

    Both or Nothing, Package Deal, Take It Or Leave It.

  5. I once heard a seminary professor wax on at length about how God was consciously actively holding the atoms in the universe together, and that the end of days will be when he chooses to let those things collapse. Thus, premillennialism and rapture etc were true.

    I might have side eyed him hard.

    • –> “…God was consciously actively holding the atoms in the universe together…”

      Wow! How would he have any time for some fun? Or to create stuff?

      • There’s a weird subset of people who think God can’t build systems that operate independently of him. That God must always be actively in control, otherwise he’s not powerful and we should all be atheists.

        • Iain Lovejoy says

          “There’s a weird subset of people who think God can’t build systems that operate independently of him.”

          They’re called “Christians”.

          Without the snark, it has indeed been standard Christian theology from the beginning that God’s creative act is ongoing, that he didn’t just start the universe up and leave it to run, bu tsustains the universe from moment to moment and acts as the fundamental driving force of natural laws.

          Speaking personally, if God isn’t to be identified with fundamental operating principle of the universe he isn’t God and us not worthy of worship.

          • I think the difference Stuart is alluding to is a God who sets things in motion (using the laws of physics he’s established) as opposed to actively pushing things around like pawns on a chessboard. Some view him as a pawn-pushing chess-master, which I’m not too keen on worshipping myself.

            • Iain Lovejoy says

              Yeah I’m not on board with God the micro-manager in that sense either. The standard Christian idea is that God does indeed move and sustain everything directly, but in accordance with their own internal processes and logic (bar miracles etc) so as to preserve its free will.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Didn’t 13th-Century Islamic theologian Mohammed abu-Hamid al-Ghazali make the exact same point regarding “In’shal’lah”?

          And Islam’s been feeling the fallout ever since.

  6. john barry says

    rhymeswithplague, Congratulations on turning 77 yo (years old) I. I share your non-plussness about being up to date in the abbreviations department.
    Oscar , the messy one, in the Odd Couple, summed up the problem using abr. (abbreviations) that others may not know. Felix Unger, the neat one , left him a note ” Oscar, when you finish all the cereal, leave me a note to buy more, no cereal this AM, FU” Oscar told Felix to sign his full name it took him 15 minutes to figure out FU really meant Felix Unger.

    Of course people in their prime of life (pol) like u (you) and eye (I) remember the great Smokey Robinson and the Teras, Dunamis on 34th Street and Patty Duke in the Semeion Worker.

    As you can tell I try to come up with my own hip replacement (common where I live) abbreviations to show I am hip. I am not good at it, my recent flop was my abbreviation for the Big Mac, people were alarmed when I told them I was going to McDonald for a BM, only place I can have one.

    You are doing great and a great post in IMWO. My wife makes me use that as she says people will know it means worthy not worthless and people already know I should be very humble so the h is not needed. She does not understand abbr. like me but she has the Tony Danza role. It is my special abbr, In My Worthy Opinion. I even like to type it. .

    Also appreciate it as I thought Tetragammation was the head transformer. So correct , Jesus paid the MSRP, all we have to do is accept the already purchased gift. I like how you kept it surely simple (KISS for me)

  7. It’s gratifying to be part of the conversation. A good post. Not sure I can add anything except to say that my personal itch to scratch is this difference between the way the ancients thought and the way we moderns think. (And let’s not be fooled; even our fundamentalists don’t think the way the ancients thought.)

    To see a “miracle” as a supernatural violation of the laws of nature requires you first to have a concept of the laws of nature. If you don’t have a concept of the laws of nature then the idea of a violation is simply incoherent. But if you don’t have a concept of the laws of nature then how do you distinguish between a miracle and an event whose cause is simply not understood? (Which for the ancients would have been most everything.)

    So here’s what I see as the nub of the problem. The system of ideas and concepts which we call “Christianity” sprang from an age whose people didn’t think the way we think. How can we share their ideas and concepts if we don’t think the way they thought? Must we think that way? Can we? Have we just changed all the definitions of all the words without realizing we’ve done so?

    I’m probably not explaining it very well. Many may simply not see it as a problem at all. But I do.

    • Ronald Avra says

      Good observations, Stephen.

    • I continue to disagree with the idea you present in this comment, and have in previous ones, that there is a marked distinction between ancient and modern modes of consciousness. It reminds me of Bultmann’s contention in the first half of the twentieth century that, in the era of electricity and the radio, it is impossible for “modern man” to believe in a angels, demons, miracles, or the two-story universe. Yet, despite your and Bultmann’s contention, and even apart from Christianity, many people throughout the world and even in the secular West do believe in such things, even as they continue to turn on the radio and operate highly sophisticated communication technology as a matter of routine: they believe in angels, demons, miracles, reiki, horoscope, reincarnation, karma, astral projection, ritual magic, spirit guides, prayer, you name it, they believe in it, and simultaneously have real if rudimentary belief in laws of nature. Sometimes they even believe that the rules of their own particular metaphysical beliefs are correlative on the “spiritual plane” with scientific laws on the material one. Such beliefs are in fact as widespread now as at any time in history, and exist quite nicely beside acceptance of the validity of science.

      • Ronald Avra says

        Robert, I’m late getting back to you on this, but I feel that in one respect that Stephen is correct in that the ancients had a unified concept of reality. I agree that many moderns hold the beliefs you noted, but it appears to me that they hold these views of reality in distinct compartments that they alternate between. I have in clear view a certain fundamentalist Baptist I know, who moves between faith and grace on Sunday,and business, Monday through Friday.

        • I don’t really accept that most ancients had a single view of reality. I think it was a lot more variegated than that, not only across cultures but even within them from one class to another, and from one subculture of a society to another. And there have always been highly educated skeptics for as long as civilization has existed, people who did not have the scientific facts straight, but who held an essentially pragmatic and materialistic view of reality; they were a minority then, and they are now.

        • And human beings have always compartmentalized different ways of knowing and understanding existence, and moved with great facility across the boundaries between them as the occasion required. For instance, in fifth century CE China, it was not at all unusual for people to be Confucians on some occasions, Buddhists on others, and then again polytheists when needed, notwithstanding the very different metaphysics involved in these different understandings of existence. It’s not so different today.

    • And speaking for myself as a Christian believer in the reality of miracles, I don’t think of miracles as “supernatural violations” of the laws of nature. What we call the laws of nature are not absolute, unchanging laws; they are temporary and local physical dynamics that did not hold at the Big Bang, according to physicists like Stephen Hawking, and do not operate in phenomenon like black holes the way science observes them to operate in our quotidian physical world. God does not violate the laws of nature in the miraculous, but fulfills the telos of the laws of nature and the creation, which are both on a journey toward their ultimate goal, which is Jesus Christ. In the miraculous, a foretaste of the completion of creation, and its physical dynamics, manifests in time as a sign of hope and healing that is yet to be fully realized. No violations of laws are involved.

    • I’m with you Stephen. I’ve read a couple of books in recent years by Owen Barfield, a friend of C. S. Lewis, who claims we actively create our perception of the world through a process called figuration, and our contemporary figuration is much different from our medieval forbears. I don’t understand a lot of what he is getting at but accept the basic point. Then there is Marshall McLuhan who knew of Barfield’s work and took it further. Our consciousness is affected, even formed, by the type of communication and transportation technology that is prevalent in our era. The Millenium Matrix by M. Rex Miller and writings by Phyllis Tickle are recent writers who incorporate this into their Christian outlook. The printing press made possible the Reformation because the ability and practice of reading changed how people thought. In our time, I think there are differences between my parents generation who grew up on radio and those of us who grew up on TV and differences between my generation and those who’ve grown up with social media. How we think, how we feel, how we see the world all affect our inner conscious world. When I attempt to read the church fathers and other ancient writings, even scripture, I try in my limited way to take this into account.

  8. john barry says

    CNN NewBreak CNN NewsBreak, just found out wife has misled me with lack of candor, KISS is keep it simple stupid, why she would use that in reference to me is one of the mysteries of life. I am just as shocked as when I was in the service and found out the slang abbr. FIGMO, was not for Forget It Got My Orders but the F is not for Forget but actually another F word, I am shocked and surprised like Claude Raines in Casablanca. FIGMO was a great feeling.