October 20, 2020

Miracles and Science, Part 4 by Ard Louis

Miracles and Science, Part 4 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 .

Louis begins this post by recalling his skeptical unbelieving colleague Martin and noting that if they continued their conversation he might have raised the 4-fold objection to miracles raised by Hume:

  • Witness testimony is often suspect.
  • Stories get exaggerated in the retelling.
  • Miracles are chiefly seen among ignorant and barbarous people.
  • Rival religions also have miracle stories, so they cancel each other out.

Of course, these arguments are substantial and have inspired voluminous volumes of voluble discourse, some of which is footnoted in Louis’ part 1 blog post .  Louis is going to take a stab at the first two.  He says:

It is true that witness testimony cannot always be trusted and that stories change with time. But these are the same problems that face legal systems and historians. Nonetheless, we can employ the tools of these professions to examine biblical miracles. Take, for example, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is significant extra biblical historical evidence that he indeed lived. Much has been written about the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. For example, there is much internal evidence, in both the style and content of the narratives, that the writers themselves were convinced that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Tradition holds that 11 of the 12 original apostles were martyred for this belief that turned a group of cowards into a people who “turned the world upside down.” Although it is well beyond the scope of this essay, a very strong case for the plausibility of the resurrection can be made.  Similar analysis can be brought to bear on other miracle claims, including those of other religions. After all, every meaningful system of thought must be open to careful scrutiny.

Now we Imonkers have been down this road a time or two, most recently with your humble interlocutor’s post on Chapter 7 of John Polkinghorne’s book, “Testing Scripture” .  Frequent commenter, Numo, who has some experience with historical studies, took me to task and pointed out:

 Mike, no offense intended, but there is no other documentation to support the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. I personally believe that it happened. But, as one who trained as a historian, the Gospels and other NT documents are not and never were intended to be assertions of objective truth *as we understand that now*… Most of us automatically default to a journalistic mindset whenever we think of accounts of events. The resurrection accounts are meant to *bear witness,* and not as reports of objective facts as we understand that today. The Gospels themselves are pretty clearly aimed at “having faith in his name…”

They are incredibly important *historic* documents of faith, but the way you are using the word “historical” is misleading. Because there just aren’t any other contemporary documents that can be correlated with the resurrection accounts of the Gospels.

I replied defensively (and pompously) with some argle-bargle about “a narrow technical and academic standpoint of the professional historian”, “using the term ‘historical’ in a more popular sense”, and “employing rhetoric”.  Commenter RDavid tried to bail me out with:

In regards to the gospels as history, I think Mike is simply saying they are presented as such in their context, and that we need to be careful that we are reading them in that light, reading them properly, and not trying to throw them out simply because they do not conform to present day communication methods.

Which I could have said with a tenth of the argle and just a soupçon of the bargle.  Numo replied to me with:

Mike, I don’t have time for a longer response just now, but have to say that I’m bafgled by your use of both “narrow” and “technical” to describe the approach I outlined, which is the basic methodology of historical studies and *so* many other disciplines, the sciences included.

Well, “bafgled” is what happens to you when you’re fed a bunch of bargle.  (You know the old saying, “if you can’t blind them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit”.)  She concluded, in part, with:

I think the Gospels are about what is “true,” was true for those who passed on the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to those who finally wrote them down, collated and edited them. I think the writers would be utterly baffled by people in our day trying to use their work to “prove” anything, vis-a-vis apologetics. They wrote what they wrote for entirely different reasons than that, and if they could, they would likely tell us to stop doing those things and pay attention.

Well, a good time was had by all.  And Numo’s point is well taken, and shared by Ard Louis as well, I believe.

Louis thinks the third objection is the strongest one to moderns who are so impressed with… well… their modernity.  I think he has a strong point here, because modern science has been so successful with its technological applications.  The New Atheists are fond of asking Christians to name one thing theology has produced that compares to our modern technology.  Louis quotes the famous Rudolf Bultmann edict:

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.

He notes that Bultmann and his followers hoped to make the Christian story more palatable to modern man by getting rid of the miracle stories in the Bible.  But that viewpoint is simply not intellectually consistent.  Maybe some miracle stories could be excised from the Bible without doing damage to the overarching narrative, but the resurrection of Jesus is not one of them.  The New Testament asserts that Jesus’ resurrection is foundational to the “Christian story” as a fact that took place within space-time.  As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19:

14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.  15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.  16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: 17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.  18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.  19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

Although Louis has asserted that there was a unity of quality in ancient thought between “natural” and “supernatural” and that modernity makes a much sharper distinction between them; nevertheless, it is chronological snobbery to think that all ancients were gullible rubes and all moderns are skeptical sophisticates.  The ancients weren’t stupid; they knew very well dead men stay dead.  In fact, they’re experience with death was probably more explicit than your average modern American.  And as far as Bultmann and the myth-dispelling power of modern technology, I think frequent commenter Robert F put it very well in a comment in last week’s post:

 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 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.

Louis tries to take a closer analytical look at some basic presuppositions and quotes Polkinghorne:

If we are to understand the nature of reality, we have only two possible starting points: either the brute fact of the physical world or the brute fact of a divine will and purpose behind that physical world.

To judge those presuppositions we have to see where the worldview so constructed is going to take us as we consider, “what kind of sense does it make of experience, morality, truth, beauty, and our place in the world?”  He returns to the tapestry analogy and asks, “does our tapestry possess those qualities of coherence and (surprising) fruitfulness that characterize the best scientific tapestries?”

As David Bentley Hart said, “the question of being cannot be answered by a theory that applies only to physical realities” (The Experience of God, Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Yale University Press, 2013).  A tapestry woven of only the “brute facts of nature” is unable to be both rigorous and rich enough to make sufficient sense of the world.  But if you start by assuming a divine will and purpose you can construct a much more compelling tapestry that incorporates all of the threads of human existence.  Within a purposeful world, the case for Christianity is much more persuasive.  Louis quotes C. S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen-not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.

Louis says, “It is the sum total of all those arguments that convinces me of the veracity of biblical miracles.”  He then finishes with the analogy of the master artist or composer.  The master follows the rules, but now and then you see the rule broken, but always in a way that illuminates the whole and makes the whole painting or musical composition that much more complete and satisfying.  He quotes Colin Humphreys:

If he is a great composer, the accidentals will never be used capriciously: they will always make better music. It is the accidentals which contribute to making the piece of music great. The analogy with how God operates is clear: God created and upholds the universe but, like the great composer, he is free to override his own rules. However, if he is a consistent God, it must make more sense than less for him to override his rules.

I think that is the best argument that can be made.


  1. The last quote, by Colin Humphreys, is the most intriguing to me. I like the idea of God as His own rule-breaker. Let’s face it: allowing for life after death is a significant broken rule and one I think most of us would agree that He’ll break for us, or one that we believe Jesus has already broken for us forever.

  2. Re: Polkinghorne – reminds me of a Lesslie Newbigin, an author respected and quoted by iMonk Michael Spencer:

    “It has been seriously argued that a monkey with a typewriter could – given time – produce by chance all the great plays of Shakespeare. I have not yet heard a scientist saying th monkey could have manufactured the typewriter by chance…
    The machine… is precisely that which can never be explained without invoking the concept of purpose. A complete mechancial, chemical, and physical analysis of the parts of a machine and the interrelation between them in not an explanation of the machine. It is inexplicable without some concept of purpose for which those pieces of metal were put together this way. A machine which creates itself and exists for no purpose is something which in most periods of human history would have been thought to exceed the imagination of even the most credulous. Yet it is widely diffused and is still given credence by respected scientists.

    It is this concept of a cosmos without purpose which provides the validation for the division of our world into two – –
    a world of facts with no value and a world of values which have no basis in facts.”

    (quote from The Gospel In A Pluralist Society)

    • Christiane says

      “It has been seriously argued that a monkey with a typewriter could – given time – produce by chance all the great plays of Shakespeare.”

      we have used monkeys to do medical experiments on and to lock up into cages for human entertainment or as ‘circus’ acts . . . . the usual abuse of humankind towards those with no ‘voice’,
      but occasionally an animal WILL DO something out of the ordinary and we are taken aback when we see it. A monkey is no exception:

      (skip the ad, sorry)

      • Mike the Geologist says

        This made may day, thanks, Christiane

      • Yes, I don’t think Newbigin was arguing about the talent of monkeys, or of the odds of them typing something significant. If you believe that the universe is in an infinitely recurring cycle, then a monkeys will not only create the great works of Shakespeare at least once, they will create it an infinite number of times. The question is, how will we know an infinitely recurring random act will mean anything?

        Newbigin’s point is that not just the product (writing), but also the machine (typewriter) is recognized as invoking PURPOSE, and therefore has VALUE: first to recognize we might create literary works with the machine, then to recognize whether the literary works themselves are of importance.

        Put another way: Newbigin was also fond of borrowing (via Polanyni) from Einstein’s thought that that there is no advance in science without intuitive insight. In other words, in order to hypothesize a newer, more elegant theory of how the world works (e.g. quantum mechanics), you first have to be dissatisfied with the sufficiency of the current explanation (e.g. Newtonian physics).
        That idea (“I think I have a better explanation”) is, by necessity, a spark of intuition that cannot be derived *solely* from what is presently known. The intuition itself is a leap of faith, and faith is not objective; it is based in seeking meaning and purpose.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Has anyone considered that miracles are a subset of Paranormal/Fortean Phenomena?

    And almost by definition, anomalous/Fortean phenomena happen rarely, at random (no discernable pattern), and often leave no physical evidence of their ever happening. Like a stranger version of a rare ephemeral natural phenomenon.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      If i were a thoroughgoing materialist, I would be forced to adopt this viewpoint had I subsequently experienced a miracle.

  4. john barry says

    Headless Unicorn Guy, I must admit I have never considered miracles are a subset of P/F phenomena because I have absolutely no idea what it is. I live in bliss for the of often stated reason.

    I love your post as it is written in English but yet somehow it is all Greek to me. To take it to my level of comprehension would it similar to the plot line of the movie Ghost or Sixth Sense? Just for the record I have never witnessed an anomalous?Fortean phenomena , that I am aware of so they must be rare.

    I do enjoy your comments and your point of view.

  5. Christiane says

    are some miracles occurrences where it seems as though ‘time’ had been manipulated? or as though ‘time’ had been reverse?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      What’s commonly called a “Time Slip” among aficionados of the weird?

  6. Just for the record I’m the “you” to whom Robert was responding in his quoted comment in this post. Sorry Robert I missed your post. My original point, however, that the ancients didn’t think the way moderns think, should not be conflated with Bultmann’s ideas. That completely distorts my original point. I’m not saying that modern consciousness has no precursors in the ancient world or that ancient consciousness doesn’t have any survivals in our modern world. It’s not like one day in the 16th century everything changed. But change it has. Evolution not revolution.

    I think you can make a convincing historical case that Jesus’ disciples believed he was raised from the dead. What you cannot do is make a convincing historical case that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Why argue with Hume? He’s right. History deals with probabilities. A miracle cannot be the most probable explanation for any occurrence because by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a miracle!

    Belief in the Resurrection is a non-rational act of faith. Frankly it makes me scratch my head to hear apologists like Mike Licona and William Lane Craig try to “prove” the Resurrection as a historical event like Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492.

    • Stephen,
      The disciples believed in the resurrection; others among their contemporaries didn’t believe in it, and some of those didn’t believe in it for essentially the same reason that Hume gives in his argument against miracles on the basis of probability, though they might not have been able to put it in so many words. Hume expressed the argument, but he didn’t invent the thinking that it was based on; that has existed among skeptics from perhaps the beginning of human cogitation.

      It is highly improbable that my wife should love me, yet I believe she does, and almost everything in my life hangs on my admittedly non-rational trust that in this case the possible has occurred against tremendous odds; no historian is capable of establishing the veracity of my trust, but it’s far more existentially vital to me than anything I could learn from bare history. Such is the Resurrection, quite apart from the concerns of Licona and Craig.

  7. Susan Dumbrell says

    They, John’s extended family promised to turn up and see my husband today, we would have afternoon tea at the Nursing Home together, I hoped for 7 of his family.
    I should have know better. I have had such hopes for family support.
    Only one couple came.

    The family had supposedly come from far afield for this and that also some Dinner in a Park. Sorry, you are also here to see John. He longs for much love and hugs and soothing words, He and I did a quick dance to ABBA he sitting in his chair and crying and mouthing the words in the sunlight. I hoped the rest of the family could have been could have been there.

    He cried and I cried as we danced and waved to the music.

    Where were his visiting family. I do not know. I am feeling bereft at my husband’s loss of family contact. Are they embarrassed to see their senior relative like this in his decline?

    He may only remember them today and they will be but wisps of the wind for him tomorrow
    Feeling a bit disconsolate.