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Miracles and Science, Part 4

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July 17, 2010 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
Miracles and Science, Part 4

Today's entry was written by Ard Louis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the fourth blog in a series (see Part 1 here) by Ard Louis, taken from his recently-posted scholarly essay.

Two sorts of miracles

Science, as well as tools from historical disciplines, can be brought to bear on biblical miracles. For example they can be split into those that are examples of providential timing (type i miracles) and those that can only be viewed as directly violating physical cause-effect relationships (type ii miracles).

An example of a possible type i miracle would be the crossing of the river Jordan by the people of Israel:

Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water's edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. (Joshua 3:15,16)

Colin Humphreys, Cambridge professor of material science, has studied this miracle in great detail 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. Writes Reijer Hooykaas,

The scientist, even when he is a believer, is bound to try as far as possible to reduce miracles to regularities: the believer, even when he is a scientist, discovers miracles in the most familiar things.

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.

The Resurrection: beyond science?

There are also miracles in the Bible that defy description in terms of current science. Perhaps the most significant of these is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If anything, science has strengthened the case for this not being 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.

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. Of course the resurrection is central to Christian teaching:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (I Corinthians 15:14)

Given that almost every great Christian thinker in history has emphasized the fact that miracles must be understood within the context of a theological purpose, perhaps one could invert this argument and say that it is not surprising that the central event in history would be miraculous.

So where has this argument brought us? I have argued that the precise relationship between miracles and science has been the subject of a long and unresolved debate with strands reaching back to the early Church fathers. Theologians wrestle with questions that concern the differences between God’s regular sustaining action and His special non-repeating actions, i.e. miracles, and how these fit in with redemptive purpose. There is a link to the question of demarcation in science, since within a robust biblical theism the regular working of God’s action, the “customs of the Creator” (or natural laws) are, almost by design, amenable to scientific analysis. Biblical miracles, in contrast, are always linked to special theological purpose and are therefore, almost by definition, non-repeatable and a-scientific.

The decisive significance of worldviews

If my colleague Martin and I would have time to get this far in conversation, I’m sure we would have swiftly passed the red herring of natural science being the touchstone upon which to examine biblical miracles. But Martin could point out that Hume made a number of other arguments against miracles, namely:

  • 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.

These arguments are substantial, and I refer to footnote 3 in my essay for an introduction to the voluminous literature they have inspired. However, we can take a little stab at the first two objections. 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 blog series, 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.

But I suspect that often, underneath the surface, it is really the third argument that carries the most persuasive force. In my next post, we will address this argument and draw some conclusions.

Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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Papalinton - #22399

July 19th 2010

Hi Ard Louis

Reijer Hooykaas writes,
“The scientist, even when he is a believer, is bound to try as far as possible to reduce miracles to regularities: the believer, even when he is a scientist, discovers miracles in the most familiar things.”

No, a scientist would not do this.  The operative word here is ‘believer’.  It is when he is wearing his believer’s hat that miracles occur.  When wearing his scientist’s hat he would characterise the circumstances of such an event as a positively-skewed and beneficial series of coincidences, as yet inexplicable and perhaps worthy of investigation.  He would do one or either, but not both.  It is a semantic error to suggest otherwise as both aspects function necessarily in differing spheres of conceptual thought.  The reason for this semantic error, and there are so many where concepts interchange inappropriately, are subsumed into one or the other, or simply misinterpreted [sometimes deliberately, mostly inadvertently], is that religion over the centuries appropriated a vocabulary of words in various languages as a means of laying the groundwork for a theistic interpretation of the natural world.  (to be cont.)

Papalinton - #22401

July 19th 2010


In fact,  through this process, religion pervaded and commandeered everyday English as part of its comprehensive colonization of the human experience. Words such as spirit, spiritual, love, transcendent, prayer, worship, soul, sacred and so on and so on, have been appropriated and constrained to reflect only religious meaning, all that is so human [and the best part of human] attributed to the non-human [the supernatural world of a deity]. 

Miracles as a concept are, and can only be, a theological construct. As theology, they work fine.  The only other area where miracles are an integral element in in the study of mythology.  It is anathema to science.  That is not to say scientists cannot be believers or believers cannot be scientists, it is simply a case of having to make the decision which is the most important aspect one is engaging in at any one time, and not making the mistake of attempting to shoehorn one into the other.  That is a fundamental mistake.


merv - #22405

July 19th 2010

Hi, Papalinton.  I know you addressed Ard, but I am trying to understand your last post here (and failing).  You speak of words like spirit, soul, or sacred ...  as being inappropriately appropriated by religion over history.  Can you elaborate on this?  What would it mean e.g. let’s say in a an imaginary historical world that played out as it would or should have according to Papalinton without this ‘appropriation’ taking place.  What would that world be like?


conrad - #22412

July 19th 2010

Greg I think the sun BECAME VISIBLE after the Big Splat because the atmosphere of earth which was 90 times as dense as now BEFORE THE SPLAT, was blown away. so the people on earth saw the sun as a “light in the sky”.
From a geo centrist point of view the sun, moon and stars,..... all of the “lights in the sky” appeared subsequent to the same big event.

The life in day 3 is another PUZZLING matter. It may have consisted of extremophiles.

I think AFTER the Day 4 event,.. light reached the earth’s surface and photosynthesis began to dominate THROUGH CYANOBACTERIA leading to the “oxygen catastrophe”  AND PREPARING THE WAY FOR DAY 5,....

Life on day 3 is a puzzle
Archaea may be part of the answer.
And the smokers at the mid-oceanic rifts may have been their home.



It shows that you are reading your Bible more closely and actually picked up on the Day 3 mention of life.

If you keep reading I expect you to ask how it survived the magma oceans after the splat.

conrad - #22415

July 19th 2010

BTW ....... I mention “the people on earth” foolishly.
I know there were no people on earth until day 6.
People like Adam didn’t appear until much later.

Spencer Wells now places Adam as living about 60,000 years ago,..


[And what is even more amazing,... HE DID THIS WITHOUT ANY SPECIAL PLEADING FROM ME!!!] HA-HA!

And folks, if you re not familiar with Spencer Wells… DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND LOOK AT HIS WORK WITH NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.

Alan Fox - #22418

July 19th 2010

Conrad, great wotk. Best illustration of Poe’s law I’ve seen in a while.

Zane - #22483

July 19th 2010

I find many of your ideas about the fourth day intriguing, and would agree that the big splat and related events were indeed miraculous (though i’m not sure if type i or ii). I think that you may have misunderstood the concept of Y-chromosomal Adam (I assume this is what you were referring to?).

First, Adam is the most recent male-line ancestor of the human race, but he was not the only human male alive at the time. He likely had thousands of contemporaries, who simply no longer have any male-line descendants.

Second, he is not the sole source of all human genetic code. He is only the most recent source of our Y-chromosomes. Mitochondrial DNA is descended from Mitochondrial Eve, living thousands of years before Adam.

Third, this Y-chromosomal Adam is not constant. In the past, one of the current Adam’s ancestors was the Y-chromosomal Adam. Since then, the Y-gene of some of his cousins has died out, making him the sole remaining source of Y-chromosomes for the human race. Many years in the future, one of Adam’s descendants will likely usurp his role as Y-chromosomal Adam.

And last, your statement about only humans having a Y-chromosomal Adam is erroneous. All species can be traced back to a single male-line ancestor.

R Hampton - #22487

July 19th 2010

According to Gary Byers, Staff Archaeologist & President on the Associates for Bible Research* Board of Directors, “There is general agreement among scholars today, both liberal and conservative, that yam suph means ‘Reed Sea.’” I mention this because his theory is that “the miracle took place in the northeastern corner of the Suez Isthmus. The Reed Sea that was crossed would most likely have been the ancient Ballah Lake, a large body of water that is no longer there, since it was drained during construction of the Suez Canal.” So if there is a consensus on the “Sea of Reeds”, there is no shortage of proposed locations.

*ABR is an “evangelical organization founded for the purpose of research and fieldwork in Biblical archaeology, in order to demonstrate the historical reliability and accuracy of the Scriptures and to propagate the Christian faith.”

Papalinton - #22581

July 20th 2010

Hi Merv

I don’t know what the world would look like without this ‘appropriation’ taking place. And yes such speculation would entail an imaginary world, a hypothetical.  As mundane as it is [my contribution that is], I can only substantiate my premise within the observable natural order of the world.  Such words as, “ spirit, soul, or sacred” can and do express those very emotionally charged and cathartic moments experienced by all humans regardless of worldview.  When I say, whether to myself, or to someone, ‘I’m thinking of you’,  it is a prayer and it invokes that deep personal bond between me and that which I am thinking.  It is an expressed declaration, as strong and as powerful, equally, among those of no-faith as for believers. For believers, it is the personal experience [personal revelation], the experiential domain where a lot of emotional stuff happens; Charismatic,  Mystics, Miracles, Signs and Wonders. This is where Christians feel led by God.  And without doubt, the pull of religion is enormously powerful. It is also incredibly appealing in its simplicity. All you have to do is ‘believe’.

Papalinton - #22582

July 20th 2010

(cont.)  It must be recognised though, that ‘experiential’ is an argument from personal conviction. And as you know personal conviction may or may not be bound by any evidence or fact or truth whatsoever, as much as one would like it to be so. Personal experiences can be truly revelatory. Both the theist and the non-theist can experience them in equal measure. In fact the waterfall that divided into three crystalline streams before Francis Collins, that which triggered his belief in God, is probably something that I could easily have joined Collins, fallen on my knees, clasped my hands and transcendently marveled at the incredible beauty of the moment. But the next bit, the attribution to God, would have been unlikely. That is not to say I did not feel that spiritual, transcendent, deeply stirring emotion about what I was experiencing inside me, it is simply that I would not have made that additional attribution.  And this deeply emotive and heartfelt moment would have been for me truly transcendent.

Papalinton - #22584

July 20th 2010

(cont.)  Spirituality’, as theology uses it, is the alienation of humanity: the human [and the best part of being human] attributed to the non-human [to a supernatural entity].  I cannot speak this word without bringing to mind a direct religious mind-state.
My description and experience of the event alongside Dr Collins, use the same words, but I cannot speak these words without theistic connotation as they have over many centuries come to describe the set of naturally occurring human emotions ostensibly bestowed by divine providence.
Once religion [in this case christianity] became the official state religion during Constantine’s reign, it was party to all the strength, power and judicial might to establish its position deep within the machinations of government.  This been so for the past two millennia.  Christianity was able to embed itself deeply into the language of the victors, first Latin, then French, Spanish, and you know the rest.  For the first 1500 years many countries of Europe had one dominant religion, Catholicism;  and its domain was ferociously protected [by whatever means available: think of the Inquisition, the Albigensians]

Papalinton - #22585

July 20th 2010

(cont.)  You know the words that distinguished people:  ‘heathen’, ‘devil worshipper’, ‘doing Satan’s work’, ‘false prophet’, ‘heretic’, ‘blasphemer’, ‘idolator’,  words that performed the powerful [ and as history informs us today] role of control and not always for just and fair reasons.  The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation saw only an exchange of ideas but not the premise of scripture.  The languages continued to evoke universally theistic connotation.

I contend the theist and non-theist share identical human experiences. It is how we interpret them that makes the distinction.  And interpretation is a function of language. It is all in the interpretation which in itself is influenced by the cultural constructs of our upbringing and life experiences.

I appreciate the beautiful sensibility in religion, but not its analysis of human nature nor its propensity to take it away and attribute it elsewhere.  It’s a forced theory, too narrow, and probably unfalsifiable too. To me the divinest attribute is understanding, complete understanding.  And understanding is largely transmitted though language.


merv - #22638

July 20th 2010

Your last sentences above reminded me of a story I like:  “The Christmas Angel” by Henry Van Dyke. 

It’s an old tale (published about 1908 or so) but it is a tale written from a Christian perspective.  Angels on a hillside in heaven are discussing various options for dealing with the evil that is so powerful on the earth.  One of the angels lifts up wisdom and understanding as the answer, and the angels discuss Solomon and what became of him as they continue their discussion.

I think I understand your position a little better.  Religion has “over-monopolized” some of these concepts that are really more universal in their human scope.  At least that’s what I’m hearing from you.


Papalinton - #22715

July 20th 2010

Hi Merv
Yes, your take above is a pretty reasonable reflection of my position.  As I read through many of the BioLogos commentaries, I at times am a little confused and find it difficult to make sense of some of them due to their ambivalence. It is theospeak, for want of a better word.  I read them a couple of times, even in the context of the discussion, and am none the wiser.  It makes for understanding to be a little more difficult and for misinterpretation a little prevalent.


Papalinton - #22716

July 20th 2010

...misinterpretation a little more prevalent.

conrad - #22738

July 20th 2010


A few months ago he and some of his “homeys” went in and gave DNA samples to the Spencer Well project.
He is one of the few surviving people NOT tracing his male ancestry to the “Adam” of Wells’s project.

And Tutu is a pretty nice guy.
So maybe the answer to the question “where did Cain and able get their wives” is not such a puzzler after all.

merv - #22801

July 21st 2010

Papalinton, one of the possible reasons for your frustration is that the Biologos mission (while it can encompass issues that touch on other faiths or faith in general) focuses mostly on the theist, and even specifically Christian issues that are largely publicized and visible in the U.S.A.

If you are not a part of any of those sets or subsets above I can understand why you would feel a bit of a disconnect.  They certainly don’t exclude people of any faith or no religious faith.  All may participate here, but having said that, it would seem that this dialog is mostly among Christians or those with an interest in Christian faith (even if it is just to counter it).  I can sympathize with the feeling of others that it may seem to them like they are outsiders looking in on something.  I don’t think Biologos is trying to “draw people in”.  They are trying to build solid understandings and correct misunderstandings among the large body of folks who already hearken from within the diverse Christian umbrella.  At least that is my take on their mission statement.


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