Miracles and Science, Part 3
Miracles and the Bible
How can we then judge whether or not the miracles of the Bible are reliable? Since the word miracle has taken on so many different meanings, it is important to first examine the biblical language.
The New Testament predominantly uses three words for miracle:
teras, a wonder
dunamis, an act of power
semeion, a sign
Sometimes it combines all three, as in Acts 2:22:
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.
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.
Nature is what God does
Miracles happen against a backdrop. In this context, it is illuminating to see how the Bible describes God’s action in the natural world. For example in Psalm 104, that great poem about nature, we read,
He makes springs pour water into the ravines, it flows between the mountains
The first part of this verse refers to God’s direct action while the second part suggests that water flows through its own natural properties. Read the Psalm for yourself and notice how fluidly the point of view changes back and forth between what we might call the laws of nature and the direct action of God. Such dual descriptions can be found throughout the Bible. 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)
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:17)
In other words, if God were to stop sustaining all things by his powerful word, the world would stop existing. That is why, when describing nature, the Bible so easily switches perspectives depending on whether it is emphasizing the regular behavior of natural phenomena, or their origin in God’s providential sustenance. So, as St. Augustine might say,
Nature is what [God] does.
Augustine doesn’t mean that nature is the same as God (pantheism), for, as he also argued, God operates outside of space and time. Nevertheless, and this is a very subtle point, a case can be made for ascribing some independent causal power to the laws of nature. On the other hand, there is no room within a robust biblical theism for the opposite deistic notion that God started the world and then left it to run on its own, completely independently, because descriptions of God’s continuous care for creation are found throughout Scripture:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:29,30)
As Christian thinkers throughout the Middle Ages wrestled with the questions of miracles and God’s action in the world, the following ideas emerged: 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. The regular behavior of nature could be viewed as the “customs of the Creator” as it were. Christians glorify God by studying these “laws of nature.” A strong case can be made that such theological realizations helped pave the way for the rise of modern science (see my essay for sources).
By the time the Royal Society of London, the world’s first scientific society, was founded in 1660, Christian thinkers like the metaphysical poet John Donne, then dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, could write:
the ordinary things in Nature, would be greater miracles than the extraordinary, which we admire most, if they were done but once... only the daily doing takes off the admiration.
God of the gaps
A similar sentiment lies behind a famous exchange between those old adversaries, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton. The latter noticed that the orbits of the planets did not appear to be stable when calculated over long periods, and postulated that the solar system needed occasional “reformation” by God. Leibniz objected that,
if God had to remedy the defects of His creation, this was surely to demean his craftsmanship.
In other words, the regular sustaining activity of God, as evidenced by natural laws, should be sufficient to explain the regular behaviour of the solar system, without the need for additional ad-hoc interventions. Making it right the first time is more glorious than having to fix it later.
In the same context, 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.
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.
He popularized the phrase “God of the gaps” for those who, perhaps like John and Ruth, think that God is found primarily in the lacunas of our scientific understanding.
Louis' series continues here.
Ard Louis is a Reader in Theoretical Physics and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, where he leads a research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology. He is also the International Secretary for Christians in Science, an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and served on the board of advisors for the John Templeton Foundation.