The Miracles of Creation? (RJS)

There have been a number of interesting posts on the Biologos blog recently; a series of three posts by Ard Louis on Miracles and Science (Part 3 here) extracted from his scholarly essay, and a post just yesterday by Pete Enns, Jesus and the Sea.

No matter how we look at it the question of miracles is a key one as we consider faith, worldview and science. Certainly I have been asked many times on this blog how I can dismiss a miraculous creation (I don’t – but we’ll get to that), yet accept (apparently arbitrarily) the miracles performed by Jesus and, of course, the resurrection. Isn’t it all or nothing?  How can we pick and choose?

On the science side, of course, acceptance of miracles is met with complete incredulity. Ard Louis begins his essay with a typical encounter:

Unbelievable, isn’t it, that there are still students at this university who believe in stories from the Bible, said Martin, an older colleague, at one of the formal dinners around which the traditional life of Oxford University revolves. But Martin, I answered, their faith probably doesn’t differ much from mine. I can still see his face go pale while he nearly choked on his glass of St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé: How can you believe in such things nowadays – Walking on water, a resurrection from the dead? Those are miracles, and aren’t you a scientist?

If miracles are arbitrary acts of imaginative supernatural showmanship the incredulity of Martin is understandable. But they are not.  And this connects with the essay by Pete Enns, looking at the incidents in the ministry of Jesus where he rebuked or calmed the sea. These were not arbitrary acts, magic tricks, or acts of convenience to make life easier. These were miracles with a purpose – where the impact could not be missed. The essay concludes:

The theological power of these episodes is more fully appreciated when we keep before us the Old Testament “taming the water” theme they echo. This helps us see that the purpose of these two episodes was not simply to calm a storm for its own sake or to help the disciples get to the other side of the lake safely. It was to show the disciples what kind of messiah Jesus was. Israel’s God–the chaos tamer who rebukes the water–was here among them. The long-awaited messianic age has dawned, with more power and authority than anyone had expected. As Jesus says in John 8:46-47, to listen to him is to belong to God. Controlling the water shows his disciples–and us–that Jesus is worthy of our attention.

These are both excellent essays – well worth reading and pondering. They ask important questions:

When and why does God work miracles? How are miracles to be understood?

And connect with another important question:

What does this have to do with creation and our understanding of science? Is creation miraculous or natural?

Following on with these thoughts, I would like to put forward an idea considering creation, miracles, and acts of God. These are nascent thoughts, only in the process of formation. I open it up for discussion.

In most of the miracles described in scripture, perhaps all, there is a purpose and a meaning behind the miracle. The purpose is to reveal the power of God, to further his mission in relationship with his people created in his image, to redeem mankind, to inaugurate the kingdom. But everyday life of cause and effect, normal events, human relationships, dominate the scripture. I rather expect creation is much the same – ordinary evolution of time, ordinary cause and effect. Where might we expect exceptions? Alister McGrath in his book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (see post here) notes that Augustine suggested that God created by potencies and process. Augustine’s interpretation of scripture led him to conclude that God created not by producing ready-made plants and animals but by potencies and process. He uses the analogy of seeds  – not as literal objects but as a way to wrestle with “the theologically difficult notion of a hidden force within nature through which latent things are enacted (p. 102).”  Following up on Augustine’s ideas, I think the acts of God in creation are tied up in events from which the stages of creation emerge to bring about his plan.

My daughter and I went to see fireworks a couple of weeks ago. A small town near us puts on an impressive display July 3. This year the weather was great – and so was the show. My favorite displays are layered with one blast from which a larger emerges, and finally an enormous spray from the first two.

When I think about creation as an act of God the image of such a firework display comes to mind. We have a series of events from which something bigger and better, with more potential emerges. Following this image and the ideas of Augustine, perhaps there are places in creation where something new, with greater potential and purpose emerges from what came before. Here we may see the hand of God, the act of God; in the big bang setting up a universe finely tuned for life; in the emergence of life from atoms and molecules; in the creation of humans in the image of God, for a purpose.

I don’t expect to see gaps with an absence of cause and effect. I don’t expect empirical proof amenable to scientific investigation. An absence of cause and effect within a chain of events isn’t the case in most, perhaps all, of the miracles of scripture. The miracle is evident only to those who are present to observe the act in the context of its purpose.

Ard Louis concludes his scholarly essay concerning miracles:

… let me resort to a musical analogy borrowed from Colin Humphreys. Suppose you are watching a pianist play a classical piece. You will notice that there are certain notes that he plays, and certain ones that he never does. The choice of notes is constrained because the music is being played in a particular key signature. But then, occasionally he may break this rule and play an unusual note. Musicians call these accidentals, and a composer can put them in wherever she likes (although if there are too many the music would sound strange). As Humphreys puts it,

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.(Quote from C. Humphreys)

Miracles serve a purpose to further the mission of God. They are significant in relationship between God and his people. They must make sense in the context of the overall story.

What do you think?

If you wish you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]

  • Scot McKnight

    Good one. I like the discussion of miracles because there’s too much pop-apologetics that convinces people God did miracles in order prove our faith right. Miracles have apologetical value but I see it as apologetical impact more than purpose.
    Still, thinking of miracles within the purpose of God is a great idea. Here’s what comes to mind for me: miracles unleash and reveal the inner powers and energies of God that are present but to which we are mostly blind. Then suddenly the fullness of what is at work in the simplest of things is seen for what it really is … hence potencies. Miracles reveal matter itself as a “thin place” through which we can see God at work.

  • RJS

    Thin place is a good way of thinking about it – especially with respect to the kinds of miracles discussed in Pete’s essay.
    In other places it seems to me that they are acts of mission.
    These blur together of course.
    But they all hold together in a grand narrative that makes sense of the story we see revealed in scripture. Considering miracles as simple ‘apologetics’, or corrections, or almost play (arts and crafts) just doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Jim

    Thank you for addressing this topic. One thing that strikes me is how we think about miracles post Enlightenment…that nature is a closed system that operates according to certain laws, etc. In that view, a miracle is an intervention that somehow disrupts natural law.
    It seems to me that scripture never presents God vis a vis creation in that way. God is always involved in creation so that even our use of the word “intervention” seems overdrawn. Or, to put it from the ‘science’ side, one must always keep in mind that there is ‘ a freedom’ or ‘a will’ at loose in the world. (Of course, no scientist is going to say that when donning the science hat)
    I don’t think that view distracts from the transcendence of God but acknowledges what scripture asserts on almost every page. As I telling someone the other day, every story in the Bible implies: “This is the kind of world we live in!” It’s a world where these kinds of things happen because it is a world where God is afoot.

  • T

    Good thoughts, including Scot’s comment. I would explicitly add what is implicit with “mission” that miracles grow out of God’s love as much as his power. It is worth mentioning that Jesus’ most prevalent miracle, by far, was healing people, unless we want to count his miraculous prophetic ability to hear God’s voice. These miracles, then and now, reveal the character of God and his mission as well as the power to accomplish his mission.

  • RJS

    Healing was the most prevalent miracle – then and perhaps today.
    But – and this is an important realization – both then and today it was/is the exception, not the norm. And bodily healing was/is a temporary respite in a ‘normal’ progression.

  • Ray Ingles

    Interesting that Lois quotes – apparently approvingly – Charles Coulson saying “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.”
    (He also claims that “Newton was a good enough
    theologian not to turn the alleged instability of the planets into a God of the gaps argument” – even though Newton in Principia wrote, “But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions… This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”)
    But the ‘musical accidental’ metaphor seems to be a dodge. If we shouldn’t leap to a (in his words) “type ii miracle” explanation for bird migration, why should we posit a ‘type ii’ explanation for the Resurrection?

  • pds

    The Design Spectrum
    Your analogy of fireworks for creation made me think of the Ediacara Explosion and the Cambrian Explosion. Explosion, relative stasis, bigger explosion. Fireworks indeed.

  • Scot McKnight

    RJS and others,
    Not to toss sand in the eyes, but I wonder though if we are in danger at times of making everything “miracle” and therefore the word “miracle” is emptied of meaning.
    It is common to define “miracle” as an event, occurrence, etc, for which there is no common empirical explanation. Let me ask if you think the word “extraordinary” must be part of anything called “miracle.”

  • T

    Yes and no. I don’t know if it’s as simple as healing or other miracles as being not the norm or the exception. What do we do, for instance, with the “miracle” of God speaking to us, in large and small ways? Certainly the audible voice variety is not the norm, but is communication from him that is more routine less “miraculous?” Are we saying that anything without physical cause is in the miraculous camp? What about any action by any spirit, including God’s? Is all of that therefore, “the exception” and something we shouldn’t expect? I’m concerned that too much of the Spirit’s work can be lumped together and dismissed without a much more nuanced view of “normal.”
    Also, who is our community for determining “normal?” The community of the saints across time? Jesus and the apostles? The NT churches? Our local church? Our denomination? Today’s global church? Our professional, largely atheist/agnostic circles? These groups have very different answers to what’s “normal” on this question. My concern is that our “norms” on this front are largely shaped by communities that, frankly, have little faith in Christ’s love and power, let alone his Spirit’s ongoing work. This lack of faith (for what to expect from God or otherwise) isn’t exactly praised by Christ in the NT, and the kind of faith Jesus praises is the opposite on this point. I have a hard time based on those passages concluding that Jesus would praise or criticize faith differently today.
    For all these reasons and more, I don’t think taking all things “miraculous” and saying “this is the exception; we shouldn’t expect these things” is very helpful. It seems to be the opposite of what Jesus himself encouraged, not to mention Paul in his teachings on the subject.

  • pds

    Scot #8,
    My thought too. We need to define “miracle” for this discussion to make sense. My understanding is that the NT speaks of “signs” and “wonders.” I think it may be more fruitful to understand the underlying Greek words that the NT actually uses, than to dissect the English word “miracle.”

  • RJS

    I largely agree with what you wrote – particularly in the context of voice, and relationship, and the Spirit.
    But you brought up healings … and here, at least from bodily ills, I have a question. I mean, it is clear that healing is significant but it clearly isn’t the norm and isn’t permanent. What do we make of that?

  • David

    Enjoyed the article and appreciate your ideas on the miraculous and science. This being my first time here, however, I’m not sure I understand fully your position on creation. I agree that miracles were the exception, not the norm, in the Bible as well as in today’s world. And surely God’s world operates by processes that can in many ways be understood and even scientifically proven.
    You mentioned that God’s intervention is always for a purpose, and again I agree. So, does a literal 6 day creation culminating with creation of the 1st man & woman not meet the criteria that would be acceptable as “purposeful”?
    Jesus used the creation of man and woman as evidentiary proof that God intended life-long, monogamous relationships. If there were a process by which homo sapiens evolved over time from lower creatures with a fine line between pre-human/human, where would be the distinction in some random couple of early humans being THE definitive example for marriage? Jesus clearly said that “in (or from) the beginning of creation, God made them male and female…” and then uses that as proof of God’s perfect plan for marriage.
    As for Augustine, would he have said the egg predated the chicken? Not sure the extent of his aforementioned views on the subject, but just yesterday (7/14/10) reports of a scientific study showed that chicken eggs require a protein only found in chickens to fully develop. “Somehow” a chicken had to be on the scene to produce said original egg.
    Again, I appreciate your position on miracles greatly, but wonder about any differences that would preclude holding to a literal view of creation. Can’t wait to hear from you & hope you have a great day.

  • RJS

    Signs and wonders are better words than miracle. But signs and wonders are in relationship with humans, created in the image of God. They are for the benefit of an observer and a mission.
    How does this relate to our understanding of creative work such as the issues of origins, origin of the universe, life, and humans.

  • T

    I think the question of “what’s the norm?” deserves considerable nuance, but yes, we have to recognize that Lazarus died (again). I know lots of people who have experienced divine physical healings, some just this last weekend, but none of them have thereby been immune to later sickness, injury or death. But that’s not to say that the effects of their healing were just “temporary.” We grossly underestimate divine healings and the role God intends for them if we assume that their value is limited to our bodies. The faith of the people involved, both vehicle and recipient, is radically changed forever by them.

  • DRT

    RJS – Thanks for this, this is fun…
    I take it from the extreme that the existence of all that we see is an ongoing miracle. That we are eventually going to be able to explain the mechanism by which all the biblical miracles happened in terms of the mechanics, but we will still be left with the impact that RJS is talking about. Does it make it any less miraculous that the sunrise inspires people when we know how it works?
    God is holding us in his hand, now and always, and we feel the presence of his hand in our spirit and we describe his hand by the language of our science.
    I feel that the miracles happened (and do happen) and it will not take away from their majesty and effect if we were to know how they happened. It is not the fact that they happened that makes them miraculous, it is the effect.
    Isn’t it the greatest miracle that he can take a bunch of dust and chemicals and have it start to walk around, grow, think and relate to other bunches of chemicals? Even though life is staring us in the face it is still pretty much unexplained.

  • Jim

    As to “extraordinary”…I wonder if we would be hard pressed to agree as what constitutes ‘ordinary’ & in what world that definition holds.
    If we assume that God is afoot in the world, interacting on a daily basis, then what would ‘ordinary’ mean if not an order in which many unanticipated things happen…which would then mean that ordinary would have to contain “unanticipated.”

  • T

    Yes. I say this as a person who teaches folks to ask for and do “signs & wonders” with God: any relationship with God that doesn’t develop a sense of sincere gratitude and even awe for the so-called “ordinary” and “natural” things that God does, provides and works through isn’t very mature. Praise God from whom ALL blessings flow . . .

  • Justin Topp

    I’m really resonating with what you are saying Jim. We tend to focus more on the transcendence of God then we do the immanence, at least as it relates to his interaction with all of the created world. A God who is imminent does not have to necessarily break the laws of nature, but can use them to do His bidding. Of course, this doesn’t alleviate the issue of why God doesn’t heal me when God healed the other person. But it certainly redefines what we think of as a “miracle”. Good stuff, Jim.
    This all moves towards panentheism, which is where I’m currently headed in terms of how God relates to the world. Whether I’ll anchor there I’m not sure.

  • T

    On your “how does this relate to origins?” question: For me it opens me up to a lot of possibilities for the “how” of creation. Once it is established that we are dealing with a God for whom nothing is impossible, who continues to surprise in nature and beyond it, I start to develop a posture of expecting to be surprised in one way or another. Also, seeing how visions and dreams work both in the scriptures and in my own experience, it makes me wonder if the successive “days” of creation and even the fall were given initially to Israel in that kind of way–as a series of visions which were transcribed. I wonder if we would be better served by approaching Genesis 1-3 more similarly to how we approach Revelation, or similar prophetic visions in the scriptures.
    In this vein, Mohler (and even our own dopderbeck) have argued that the question of how we arrived in our fallen state is a question that Christianity must answer as part of its larger narrative. While I agree with this to an extent, I don’t see why our view of the beginning has to be any sharper or less mysterious than our view of the end. God is the only witness to them both in the present.

  • RD

    With regard to the purpose of Christ’s miracles, I’ve always found it interesting that in the earlier gospel accounts that Jesus is almost reluctant to perform certain miracles and in many cases insists that those who receive a miracle not tell anyone about it. The Gospel of John pretty much does a complete reversal of this and has Jesus performing many miracles, signs and wonders as proof that he is who he says he is.
    I like Scot’s thoughts about miracles being “thin places” where we can get a glimpse of God in ways that we might not otherwise. I’ve read Polkinhorne on this and he seems to think that physics may actually show us these thin places when we study chaos theory. I’m no scientist and this is where it all gets away from me, but I do think that there is a level of the cosmos that is chaotic and open to “intervention” while also being cohesive and controlled by natural laws. Perhaps in the same way that light can be both a wave and a particle.
    Good discussion all!

  • RD

    I also think RJS makes a very good distinction that we must realize that all the miracles were temporary. I think we often tend to think that all those folks who received a miracle were never again plagued with the troubles of living. I like to examine the other side of the miracles. For instance, the miracle of Lazarus being raised from the dead has two sides to the story. The side we always focus on is his obvious return to life. But John’s gospel goes on to give us an account that many people were coming in droves to see both Jesus and Lazarus after word got out that he’d been raised to life. The plotting priests decided that they not only had to do Jesus in, but they also referenced Lazarus in their plan. Did Lazarus end up dying a horrible death as the result of being raised from his earlier death? Could this have been the reason that Jesus wept prior to raising Lazarus? Did he know what worse fate awaited Lazarus?

  • Greg Clark

    This is very good. The most helpful discussion of miracles I know of is by Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, Pt II. Introduction “On the Possibility of Experiencing Miracles. His view is largely in agreement with the account you have posted. pp. 103ff in the link

  • Ted M. Gossard

    I like the point that N.T. Wright brings out, something like this: Heaven and earth were created to be one and like all else this occurs through the Creator, through Jesus. Heaven and earth end up being one through Jesus (end of Revelation, and Ephesians 1).
    So I would suppose that this alleged harmony could issue in events in the here and now which point to the source and goal of all things. And I would suppose that the congruency found would be a harmonious fitting together in fulfilling what otherwise might seem while good, rather disappointing, or a blip or accident on the screen of reality (for lack of a better word).

  • RJS

    This is an interesting conversation – from Scot in 8, T in 9, Jim, T, Justin in 16,17,18.
    There is the extraordinary and the ordinary – but even God in his interaction with us usually works in ordinary ways. I don’t think of the normal ways of God working as “miracle.” Even our relationship can be ordinary. Prayer can be answered in ordinary ways, God speaks to us in ordinary ways. There are thin places, and occasional displays of extraordinary power with a purpose.
    I don’t think we see extraordinary displays of power in creation – but God’s ordinary creativity. Perhaps we have a special guidance in emergence of potential at times – but not leaps over chasms of impossibility.
    T, Perhaps we would be better served if we approached Genesis 1-3 like we approach Revelation, or similar prophetic visions. After all, even in the traditional reading of the church it is such a revelation to Moses.

  • RJS

    David (#12)
    The problem I have with a six day creation, while theoretically possible, is that the evidence doesn’t agree with the interpretation. The discussion on the last post about appearance of age says more about what I mean. The section I refer to is toward the end of this post.
    The chicken and egg question is an old one – Stephen C. Meyer brings up a similar point in his book The Signature in the Cell. But is it a false conundrum because the need is to look for a connected pathway to get to the current state of affair. The problem doesn’t start with chicken and egg, it ends there. A good (but not perfect) analogy would be a natural bridge, or the arches at Arches National Park in Utah. Natural bridges didn’t form by miraculously spanning a gap – rather ground underneath eroded away.

  • Erwin

    Great essay and comments, but let me focus on another thing: miracles in the face of the inexorable laws of science. Here’s my take: Miracles in the Bible literally happened, but they were not violation or suspension of the laws of physics. (Whether the term “law” is appropriate is irrelevant at this point.) God acts through the laws of nature he has created. If God could create or configure the laws of physics in any way he wants, why would he do it in such a way that he has to violate those very laws whenever he wants to act in his creation? The only thing that makes us believe that miracles are a violation is that it is impossible for us to perform the same miracles. But such belief is indicative only of our limits and ignorance, rather than of God’s power. The biblical phrase “signs and wonders” does not indicate the relation between miracles and science. But, fortunately, our scientific knowledge has advanced to the point where we can rationally believe in God’s actions that do concur with the laws of physics. Take, for example, the collapse of the wave function in quantum mechanics. Some physicists and philosophers have argued it is the causal joint where God acts immediately, both in his ordinary acts and in his extraordinary (miraculous) acts. Deterministic mathematical chaos may amplify those effects and/or may suggest global indeterminism. (See Russell, et. al., “Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action: Twenty Years of Challenge and Progress” [2008], The more we know about the universe, the more we’ll come to understand that God has made this universe a place where he is always and everywhere immanently at work through its very laws (and that does NOT suggest panentheism). Of course, whatever we hypothesize regarding noninterventionist divine action, it does not mean that God does actually act in that way, because he may be doing it in some other way we don’t know. But it gives us the confidence that God acts in the face of scientific knowledge. Isn’t that the purpose of miracles, to point us to the power of God to use even scientific laws to accomplish his will without violating or destroying them? Didn’t he use Saul of Tarsus without destroying him?

  • Jim

    A couple of the problems I’ve had with appeals to the “laws of nature” is that we talk as if we know what they are- or what all of them are. @Erwin I like your appeal to quantum mechanics. Whatever might be going on “down there” in the sub-atomic level, it certainly begs the question of what constitutes a “law of nature’!
    I’m not saying that we haven’t identified some of the laws of nature, but, especially when you factor in new developments in physics, it’s just not as easy saying what the laws of nature are…at least not in some foreclosed sense.
    As to signs and wonders…one of the things that strikes me about them is that in most cases signs do what signs do…they point beyond themselves to something larger yet something of which they are a piece. A sign says something like: “What you are witnessing here is of a piece with the God who is making this happen.” God is the kind of God who restores, who makes whole, who reassures.
    Piaget, in his theories of cognitive epistemology, drew a distinction between ‘signs’ and ‘symbols’. A sign can be anything that points beyond itself to something else but does not resemble the thing to which it points. So, the word ‘write’ points to the action of writing but it doesn’t look like writing. A symbol looks like the thing to which it points. Gesturing with my hand on a chalkboard even though I am not writing anything looks like the thing I’m pointing to. In that way, the symbol participates in the thing toward which it points.
    A sign in scripture, for me, is like Piaget’s symbol. It is an event that points beyond itself yet participates in the thing toward which it points. e.g. the church is a such a is what we call a ‘miracle.’
    Perhaps we could think of creation as a kind of symbol…as something that points beyond itself but, in some way, participates in the very Being to which it points. So, the life of God is somehow bound up in the life of an apple seed, which contains within it not simply the next apple but orchards upon orchards upon orchards.
    Sorry for the long post… I got on a roll.

  • T

    That’s really good, Jim. I agree.

  • pds

    It strikes me that many of these comments show a fair amount of over-thinking, which leads to missing the basic meaning of the texts that talk about signs and wonders in the NT. Wish I had time to elaborate, but I just thought I’d mention it.

  • Justin Topp

    Over-thinking? I’ve never been so offended in my life. :-)
    I know I can’t help it. I’m fascinated with how God interacts with the world and as a scientist I’m ultimately concerned with mechanisms. Can’t escape it.
    captcha: administration celt (um, Danny Ainge?)

  • GPLeague

    This may be a dumb question, but who, or what, is RJS? I am new here, thanks!

  • Mike

    Jesus I know, and Scot McKnight I recognize, but who is RJS?

  • RJS

    Definitely a who not a what. Those are initials (akin to GPL I suppose).
    E-mail me at the address at the bottom of the post.