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Miracles and Science, Part 5

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July 24, 2010 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose

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

Miracles and Science, Part 5

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

David Hume argued that miracles are chiefly seen among ignorant and barbarous people and are thus not to be believed. Is this a valid argument?

In part because history is littered with claims for the miraculous that seem bizarre, or smack of superstition, and in part because the incredible advances of modern science and technology inspire awe, we can intensely feel the attraction of identifying with the latter and not the former. This disposition is exemplified in the following quote by the theologian Rudolph Bultmann, a man famous for his attempts to de-mythologize the New Testament:

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.

By getting rid of the miracle stories in the Bible, Bultmann and his followers hoped to make the Christian story more palatable to modern man. Although I recognize the emotional weight of this sentiment, I am not convinced that it is an intellectually coherent approach, mainly for reasons of self-consistency. If the New Testamentitself asserts, both directly and indirectly, that the historicity of the resurrection is foundational to Christianity, then it would seem to stand or fall by that fact.

The importance of presuppositions

As a physicist, I have a natural penchant for wanting to see how an idea relates to more basic principles. And to analyze the validity of a quote like the one above, we must take a cold hard look at our fundamental presuppositions. In the words of John 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

Where does each of those two fundamental starting points take us? When we use them to construct a worldview, what kind of sense does it make of experience, morality, truth, beauty, and our place in the world? These are not easy questions. There is so much mystery around us. Perhaps the best way to move forward would be to borrow Mermin’s tapestry analogy and carefully investigate whether the different threads of historical evidence, philosophical consistency, and personal knowledge can be woven together into a worldview that is robust.

In particular, does our tapestry posses those qualities of coherence and (surprising) fruitfulness that characterise the best scientific tapestries?

If I start from the brute facts of nature, I personally am unable to construct a tapestry that is both rigorous and rich enough to make sufficient sense of the world. By contrast, if I assume a divine will and purpose behind the world I believe that I can construct a much more compelling tapestry that incorporates all of the threads of human existence. Within that purposeful world, the case for Christianity is much more persuasive. To use a famous quote from C.S. Lewis:

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.

It is the sum total of all those arguments that convinces me of the veracity of biblical miracles.

Nevertheless, I recognize that no matter how cogent, say, the historical evidence for the resurrection is, if I start from a different worldview, as Martin and Rudolph Bultmann do, then it will be virtually impossible to accept the existence of biblical miracles. (In the end I think this is what Hume is really saying). Miracles cannot be interpreted independently from the theological context in which they function. They are part of a package deal.

I don’t know what Martin would make of all that. We would surely need more than one glass of wine to complete this discussion (but wouldn’t it be fun?).


Finally, what would I say to John and Ruth? If they are like many Christians I know, they might feel a slight uneasiness with science, a subconscious fear fed by the pontifications of some popularizers such as Richard Dawkins who seem keen to equate science with atheism. So perhaps I would first point out the obvious limits of science. But then I might tell the story of Leibniz and Newton’s exchange, and point out that Newton was a good enough theologian not to turn the alleged instability of the planets into a God of the gaps argument. Similarly, if it is true that we don’t yet understand how birds can navigate so accurately over large distances, then surely it would bring more glory to God to search for the mechanisms by which such remarkable feats are accomplished:

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.

-Proverbs 25:2

Perhaps because evolution has been a particularly favorite bludgeon of the science = atheism cabal, a Christian mini-industry has sprung up to debunk it. Unfortunately, this only feeds the public misperception that the core of the conflict between science and faith concerns scientific mechanism (evolution did or did not occur) rather than one of the philosophy and interpretation of science.

God could, of course, have regularly used miracles to create throughout the time-span of natural history. He is free. But whether he did so in natural history is fundamentally a question of biblical interpretation. (We don’t have direct access to the mind of God. We therefore need special revelation to know when, for his own redemptive purposes, God performed miracles in the past.) Surely it is even more glorious if God could design a physical system that creates itself through the regularities of his sustaining action. Like many of my Christian scientific colleagues who hold to a high view of Scripture, I believe the biblical text allows itself to be interpreted in this way, that sentient beings arose primarily through the ordinary “customs of the Creator,” and that moreover it glorifies God to seek to understand these patterns.

John and Ruth might then ask: if I emphasize the integrity of the regular action of God in sustaining the universe, and even in creating us, then why should miracles occur at all? Can they occur today? Rather than answer that theological question directly, 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.

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.

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merv - #23283

July 24th 2010

This has been one of my favorite essay series in the entire Biologos blog, and that is saying a lot since I have great appreciation for many others too.  Thank you, Mr. Louis.

Categorizing miracles (from our perspective) as type 1 and type 2 lends a very helpful structure to all related discussions.  Your contribution here makes (or at least traces out) a strong thread in the tapestry of our experience.


sy g. - #23287

July 24th 2010

Thank you for a wonderful and very useful series. I love the musical analogy. If the accidentals are the deliberate miracles, then perhaps harmony is that part of the world that has a natural explanation, but still appears to be miraculous to us. I would include modern physics, love, the dawn, and the brilliance of well stated philosophy in that category.

conrad - #23289

July 24th 2010

Sy g,..... if you like the “musical analogy” hang on to your hats because YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET,


All of the quarks are just little string loops.
and the only reason they SEEM different is because they are vibrating in different ways.

I was pondering string theory in church last Sunday when a beautiful young girl got up and played the violin.
[She is the choir director’s granddaughter and that entire family is composed of nothing but musical geniuses.]

And after her two performances I thought to myself,......“all I really heard was 6 strings,.... but they were…..... vibrating in different ways”

Now soon the atheists will be back at their old game telling us it is foolish to believe in God.


And that is when YOU must remember to ask,.....” well Who is playing the instrument?”

Bilbo - #23295

July 24th 2010

I don’t know anything about string theory, Conrad, but you’ve got me curious about it, now.  I like the musical analogy, also.  I would say there is good reason to believe that events in natural history, such as the origin of life are “accidentals.”

beaglelady - #23296

July 24th 2010


violins have 4 strings (E A D G)

gingoro - #23384

July 25th 2010

Ard good set of posts and well expressed and thought out. 

I like your comparison of accidentals and miracles.  In the past I have known people who talk as if almost everything in their lives is an immediate miracle.  Others who talk much more cautiously and point to a few sparing occurrences in their lives that seem best accounted for with a miracle.  I find the second class of individuals much more convincing. 

A question I wonder about. How do we know it is possible to produce a material world that totally thereafter produces life by the ordinary actions of God’s providence?  Yes in the past we have filled in the gaps but is that a guarantee that it will be in all cases?  Sure a betting man would take the bet but IMO we still need to be humble in our approach and not assume a totally natural scenario prior to demonstrating that scenario.  The glib answer of course is that God is omnipotent and anything we can imagine is possible for him, but I find that answer very unsatisfying and unhelpful.  As an engineer I expect to find a robust functional economy at base but that is only an assumption that has to date been proven out many times. I fail to find justification in scripture for such a view of omnipotence.
Dave W

HornSpiel - #23417

July 25th 2010

Dave aka gingoro,

How do we know it is possible to produce a material world that totally thereafter produces life by the ordinary actions of God’s providence?

I don’t think we do. I do not think that is what Ard is saying either. He said to him such a world would be more glorious than one where God regularly intervened.

Moreover science cannot ever give a definitive answer to your question as there will always be gaps in our knowledge.

As Ard says:
God could, of course, have regularly used miracles to create… But whether he did so in natural history is fundamentally a question of biblical interpretation.

So I agree we must be humble in our approach. By taking a naturalistic approach to science we must be clear that we are not saying science will be able to explain everything, or that miracles are impossible, or that God never intervened.

In other words, because science assumes a completely naturalistic scenario (methodologically) it will never be able to demonstrate if it is true or false.

I hope this helps.

Headless Unicorn Guy - #23482

July 26th 2010

A bit of a caveat, from the recent “Creation Week” knock-down-drag-out over at Internet Monk.

One of the most common in-your-face arguments from the Young Earth Creationism Uber Alles crowd was claiming:
1)  The Resurrection of Christ was a big-M Miracle.
2)  So was Six-Day Creation as recorded in Genesis 1.
3)  Anything other than Genesis 1 as a literal science text (six 24-hour days 6014 years ago) is the same as Denying the Resurrection.  Both were Miracles, both stand or fall together.

And one of the most vocal YECs on the IMonk comment threads, a “Nedbrek”, has also surfaced on this blog.

nedbrek - #23486

July 26th 2010

I need a HUG

You can also use the contra-positive, if you accept the miracle of the resurrection, a miracle in creation is a short leap.

R Hampton - #23501

July 26th 2010

Similarly, if it is true that we don’t yet understand how birds can navigate so accurately over large distances…

Coincidentally, last week I read that researchers led by Katrin Stapput of Goethe-Universitat found that some birds [the experiments used robins] can see the Earth’s magnetic field with their right eye. The magnetic images - shades of light and dark that change as the head turns - are integrated with normal vision and act as a visual compass.

Chip - #23518

July 26th 2010

Hello Ard,

Surely it is even more glorious if God could design a physical system that creates itself through the regularities of his sustaining action.

Not sure how the level of glory between these competing models can be objectively measured, but presumably, you’re not just speaking about hypotheticals here:  You really do believe that God has designed a physical system through his sustaining action. 

If we leave aside the particular mechanism(s) he may have used to accomplish this (which is where most of the disputes live), I’m very interested in how this conclusion has been informed by the scientific warp—as opposed to the theological woof—of your particular tapestry.  What particular lines of scientific evidence best support your claim that God—as opposed to undirected natural law—has designed and sustains us? 


Justin - #23591

July 26th 2010

This series and my reading of Polkinghorne has led me to see that miracles seemingly are not explainable to us.  As Ard wrote, we believe them as part of our theology a priori.  We have faith in a personal God and seek to then go and explain that.  Of course we are limited in our explanations.  I do not love this dilemma but I am growing to appreciate that it’s where I am.

The “evidence” that is there for the truth of miracles has to rely on the tradition of the Church.  I think that there is historical evidence that comes from the founding and then growth of the early Christian church.  But I cannot use this as an apologetic.  It’s simply the best explanation that I have as a Christian (which is the best explanation I have of life, overall).  A tension to say the least.

josjo80 - #23817

July 29th 2010

I’ve enjoyed this series as well but find that I’m challenged by Ard’s question, “Can [miracles] occur today?” I believe that a major theme of Scripture is that of “trusting” or “having faith” in God, not only for our spiritual salvation but also for our physical needs. And yet, we now live in a society where it is “easier” to trust in the structures of the world than to trust that God would meet our needs supernaturally. I believe that God’s natural laws are good and that means the discoveries of his natural order are good as well. In effect, this means that medicine is good and that technology in general is good but at what point have I now started to replace a direct dependency on God to meet my needs with a dependency on his creation? In effect, when do I create “idols” by trusting in “the created rather than the Creator?” What does it mean to really trust God today when I can buy insurance, take my pills, invest in my retirement fund, etc.? All things which may be good, but do I allow God to intervene? Do I ask him to perform a miracle - not because I want evidence, but because he wants to show himself faithful? I admit I don’t, but I’m interested to hear from others how God has “intervened” in your life.

Jon Garvey - #23830

July 29th 2010

@josjo80 - #23817

I think your last sentence is the wrong question. From a Biblical perspective, everything that happens in life is God’s intervention at one level or other. Scripture tells us to trust God to meet our needs - can you say where it tells us to trust him to do it supernaturally?

At the same time you are right that we put the secondary causes before God, which is blasphemous. King Asa was criticised in the Bible not because he got the doctors in to cure his feet, but because he didn’t call on the Lord as well. It’s not so much wrong that, if something remarkable happens we fail to call it a miracle, but that we fail to pray to/thank God for the ordinary stuff day by day. We fail to attribute our waking each morning to God, we fail to thank him when the supermarket is full of food, we fail to thank him that the paracetamol cures our migraine. And when we fail to do that, we’re going to miss his hand in stuff that happens in more remarkable ways.

josjo80 - #23953

July 29th 2010

  Thanks for your comment.  I think the King Asa example is a good one.  It seems that this story as well as other places in Scripture (i.e. “lean not on your own understanding…”) appear to imply that we should be going to God as our primary source of life - spiritual and physical.  I think what I’m trying to get at is this - when we read Scripture we can’t help but see God at work supernaturally.  Stories of God delivering Daniel from lions, of God parting the Red Sea, of God healing the crippled, etc.  The fact is that I come away from reading these stories wondering if such things can happen today.  And if they can, why don’t we see more of them?  Is it because we don’t ask?  (“Ask and ye shall receive”).  Is it because we don’t believe? (“but when he asks, he must believe and not doubt”).  Or is it because God assumes that we’ll depend on his natural order?  I’m just trying to grapple with the proper role of trusting God and/or his creation.  Perhaps, it is this - Be willing to go against conventional wisdom and trust the calling of God, otherwise act according to that conventional wisdom.  In doing so, we don’t miss opportunities of allowing God into our lives to do extraordinary things - even miracles!

Jon Garvey - #23996

July 30th 2010

@josjo80 - #23953

We’ve had 30 or 40 years when the Charismatic Movement has tested the “miracles if you only believe hard enough” theology, and it may be significant that the people who seem to do it best are those tele-evangelists with the biggest publicity machines and budgets (and law-suits from the tax people, etc).

Conversely, I’ve had the experience of praying for illness in services (with the element of skepticism that being a working doctor gives) and finding people got better in ways I would not expect professionally. I got a lot less stressed when I stopped worrying about whether these were natural, supernatural, psychological or whatever and just thanked God that a sick person’s need was met.

There’s nothing to prove - Christians are just living in the world where we trust in God, communicate by prayer, and thank him in both good and bad times. Spiritual gifts are just the Christian’s working tools to help get the job done.

Most Bible miracles occurred at historically important points.

Scripturally the biggest, and most common, miracle is for hardened sinners to come to faith. That really is supernatural, as is the fact that their faith survives whatever life throws at it.

matt - #24542

August 5th 2010

I appreciate how you put your opinion - I think that reflects my opinion for the most part, except that I think an evolutionary theory doesn’t naturally fit what is in the Bible.

For instance, the pre-flood lifespans, the flood itself, the changes in creation (animals only fearing man after the flood), etc. The biblical story doesn’t seem to me to fit a view that includes a very long time and gradual changes.

I am thinking in the long run God will establish the reliability of his word.

But I’ve decided evolution is possible, even if it is unlikely. There are a lot of things in creation that don’t seem ‘likely’.

Jon Garvey - #24578

August 5th 2010

I believe God has already established the reliability of his Word - but down the centuries has also showed the repeated unreliability of his people in understanding it aright.

To answer the paragraph I disparaged in my first reply to you, the clearest intervention in my own life was a sudden and transforming experience of the Bible “coming alive” to me. I has made some kind of commitment in the context of an Evangelical Bible class, and in accordance with the (rightly) expected norms I started reading the Bible through, and keenly taking notes. It was definitely a duty, and seldom seemed to gain me much insight. After my “experience”, not only did I find what I read wonderfully true, but re-read my old notes and found those a blessing too.

However, down the years, whilst understanding has grown, a lot of my thinking has changed, I trust by the Spirit. I think at the heart of the Spirit’s work in this area is to make us say “I am reading God’s words - what is he really saying?”

At the same time, if I look at the Universe (which is what Science is, using a specifically careful method) , the Bible encourages me to say, “These are God’s works.” If they don’t fit together, my understanding of one or both is flawed. (...)

Jon Garvey - #24580

August 5th 2010

The temptation is to make life easier by fudging. You can fudge the science to fit the Bible (or your existing understanding), or fudge the Bible to fit the science. It seems to me that YEC fudges both, by reading scientific speculations into the Bible (vapour canopies, immutable “kinds”, precisew chronologies) and playing fast and loose with the science.

Other positions do the same to varying extents. It is more honest to hold things in tension and admit some ignorance, whilst feeling a way forward, than to start pitching the two sources of truth against each other (eg “since the Bible’s true, scientists must be deliberately distorting the evidence).

It matters to salvation because, particularly in parts of the USA, rejecting scientific evidence (and even scientists themselves) and toeing one interpretive party line becomes almost a credal test.  A wavering believer is very likely in such circumstances to see the Bible and the interpretation as inseparable and reject both. Woe to him who causes one of these little ones to stumble, etc.

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