Re: God and nature; miracles

From: Robert Schneider (
Date: Wed May 14 2003 - 09:07:36 EDT

  • Next message: Howard J. Van Till: "Re: God and nature; miracles"

    Ted, here are the first four chapters of book XXVI of Augustine's _Contra
    Faustum Manichaeum_. In the first two chapters Faustus is conceding that
    Jesus might have died but, but good Docetist that he is, argues that Jesus
    did not. Augustine answers in three and four.

                                                                Book XXVI.
      Faustus insists that Jesus might have died though not born, by the
    exercise of divine power, yet he rejects birth and death alike. Augustin
    maintains that there are some things that even god cannot do, one of which
    is to die. He refutes the docetism of the Manichaeans.

    1. Faustus said: You ask, If Jesus was not born, how did He die? Well this
    is a probability, such as one makes use of in want of proofs. We will,
    however, answer the question by examples taken from what you generally
    believe. If they are true, they will prove our case; if they are false, they
    will help you no more than they will us. You say then, How could Jesus die,
    if He were not man? In return, I ask you, How did Elias not die, though he
    was a man? Could a mortal encroach upon the limits of immortality, and could
    not Christ add to His immortality whatever experience of death was required?
    If Elias, contrary to nature, lives for ever, why not allow that Jesus, with
    no greater contrariety to nature, could remain in death for three days?
    Besides that, it is not only Elias, but Moses and Enoch you believe to be
    immortal, and to have been taken up with their bodies to heaven.
    Accordingly, if it is a good argument that Jesus was a man because He died,
    it is an equally good argument that Elias was not a man because he did not
    die. But as it is false that Elias was not a man, notwithstanding his
    supposed immortality, so it is false that Jesus was a man, though He is
    considered to have died. The truth is, if you will believe it, that the
    Hebrews were in a mistake regarding both the death of Jesus and the
    immortality of Elias. For it is equally untrue that Jesus died and that
    Elias did not die. But you believe whatever you please; and for the rest,
    you appeal to nature. And, allowing this appeal, nature is against both the
    death of the immortal and the immortality of the mortal. And if we refer to
    the power of effecting their purpose as possessed by God and by man, it
    seems more possible for Jesus to die than for Elias not to die; for the
    power of Jesus is greater than that of Elias. But if you exalt the weaker to
    heaven, though nature is against it, and, forgetting his condition as a
    mortal, endow him with eternal felicity, why should I not admit that Jesus
    could die if He pleased, even though I were to grant His death to have been
    real, and not a mere semblance? For, as from the outset of His taking the
    likeness of man He underwent in appearance all the experiences of humanity,
    it was quite consistent that He should complete the system by appearing to

    2. Moreover, it is to be remembered that this reference to what nature
    grants as possible, should be made in connection with all the history of
    Jesus, and not only with His death. According to nature, it is impossible
    that a man blind from his birth should see the light; and yet Jesus appears
    to have performed a miracle of this kind, so that the Jews themselves
    exclaimed that from the beginning of the world it was not seen that one
    opened the eyes of a man born blind.1 So also healing a withered hand,
    giving the power of utterance and expression to those born dumb, restoring
    animation to the dead, with the recovery of their bodily frame after
    dissolution had begun, produce a feeling of amazement, and must seem utterly
    incredible in view of what is naturally possible and impossible. And yet, as
    Christians, we believe all the things to have been done by the same person;
    for we regard not the law of nature, but the powerful operation of God.
    There is a story, too, of Jesus having been cast from the brow of a hill,
    and having escaped unhurt. If, then, when thrown down from a height He did
    not die, simply because He chose not to die, why should He not have had the
    power to die when He pleased? We take this way of answering you because you
    have a fancy for discussion, and affect to use logical weapons not properly
    belonging to you. As regards our own belief, it is no more true that Jesus
    died than that Elias is immortal.

    3. Augustin replied: As to Enoch and Elias and Moses, our belief is
    determined not by Faustus' suppositions, but by the declarations of
    Scripture, resting as they do on foundations of the strongest and surest
    evidence. People in error, as you are, are unfit to decide what is natural,
    and what contrary to nature. We admit that what is contrary to the ordinary
    course of human experience is commonly spoken of as contrary to nature. Thus
    the apostle uses the words, "If thou art cut out of the wild olive, and
    engrafted contrary to nature in the good olive."2 Contrary to nature is here
    used in the sense of contrary to human experience of the course of nature;
    as that a wild olive engrafted in a good olive should bring forth the
    fatness of the olive instead of wild berries. But God, the Author and
    Creator of all natures, does nothing contrary to nature; for whatever is
    done by Him who appoints all natural order and measure and proportion must
    be natural in every case. And man himself acts contrary to nature only when
    he sins; and then by punishment he is brought back to nature again. The
    natural order of justice requires either that sin should not be committed or
    that it should not go unpunished. In either case, the natural order is
    preserved, if not by the soul, at least by God. For sin pains the
    conscience, and brings grief on the mind of the sinner, by the loss of the
    light of justice, even should no physical sufferings follow, which are
    inflicted for correction, or are reserved for the incorrigible. There is,
    however, no impropriety in saying that God does a thing contrary to nature,
    when it is contrary to what we know of nature. For we give the name nature
    to the usual common course of nature; and whatever God does contrary to
    this, we call a prodigy, or a miracle. But against the supreme law of
    nature, which is beyond the knowledge both of the ungodly and of weak
    believers, God never acts, any more than He acts against Himself. As regards
    spiritual and rational beings, to which class the human soul belongs, the
    more they partake of this unchangeable law and light, the more clearly they
    see what is possible, and what impossible; and again, the greater their
    distance from it, the less their perception of the future, and the more
    frequent their surprise at strange occurrences.

    4. Thus of what happened to Elias we are ignorant; but still we believe the
    truthful declarations of Scripture regarding him. Of one thing we are
    certain, that what God willed happened, and that except by God's will
    nothing can happen to any one. So, if I am told that it is possible that the
    flesh of a certain man shall be changed into a celestial body, I allow the
    possibility, but I cannot tell whether it will be done; and the reason of my
    ignorance is, that I am not acquainted with the will of God in the matter.
    That it will be done if it is God's will, is perfectly clear and
    indubitable. Again, if I am told that something would happen if God did not
    prevent it from happening, I reply confidently that what is to happen is the
    action of God, not the event which might otherwise have happened. For God
    knows His own future action, and therefore He knows also the effect of that
    action in preventing the happening of what would otherwise have happened;
    and, beyond all question, what God knows is more certain than what man
    thinks. Hence it is as impossible for what is future not to happen, as for
    what is past not to have happened; for it can never be God's will that
    anything should, in the same sense, be both true and false. Therefore all
    that is properly future cannot but happen; what does not happen never was
    future; even as all things which are properly in the past did indubitably
    take place.


        Bob's comment: In chapter three Augustine seems to be arguing that what
    appears to be contrary to nature according to human experience is not
    contrary to nature as God knows nature, being the Author of nature. To
    repeat Augustine:

        "There is, however, no impropriety in saying that God does a thing
    contrary to nature, when it is contrary to what we know of nature. For we
    give the name nature to the usual common course of nature; and whatever God
    does contrary to this, we call a prodigy, or a miracle. But against the
    supreme law of nature, which is beyond the knowledge both of the ungodly and
    of weak believers, God never acts, any more than He acts against Himself."

        So, could God have stopped the rotation of the earth without tidal
    forces tearing it and us apart, just as Christ turned water into wine? I
    suppose one could argue theoretically (or theologically) that in general God
    as omnipotent can do anything. But, to repeat your point, *did* such a
    thing happen? I'm much more ready to believe, as I do believe, that Christ
    oversaw the transformation of six jars of water into the best wine at the
    wedding feast, than I am that God suspended a whole passel of natural laws
    to enable the Israelites to defeat the Amorites in battle. Christ did not
    move mountains, but with the power of God he did perform small acts of great
    purpose--of healings that restored nature, or acts that pre-enacted the
    messianic banquet. Perhaps where this conversation ought to go is, Can
    acceptance of miraculous acts recorded in Scripture be judged to be
    historical events or symbolic stories, on the basis of what appears to be
    their purpose?


    ----- Original Message -----
    From: "Ted Davis" <>
    To: <>
    Sent: Wednesday, May 14, 2003 10:36 PM
    Subject: God and nature; miracles

    > Something seems a bit fishy, in the quotation Bob gave us from Augustine
    > about God and nature. I suspect it may be rolled up in the meaning of
    > "nature," which would have to be understood in terms of the "natures" of
    > things as well as in terms of the "natural" order. I can't quite flesh
    > out with confidence, but I have my doubts that Augustine would intend to
    > that God never acts in ways that would be "outside" the "ordinary course
    > nature," as Boyle would have put it.
    > In any event, I think God does sometimes act in extraordinary ways, ways
    > that simply cannot be fully described with natural categories. For
    > I believe that Jesus was conceived without a human father; that the women
    > and the disciples went to the right tomb and found it empty; that our Lord
    > made real wine from real water in a trice; and that (for lack of better
    > language) there was a time when there was no time, before the world was
    > brought into being by an inscrutable act of divine power and will. None
    > these things, IMO, is unscientific, for genuine science cannot proscribe
    > events it cannot describe--contrary to David Hume, whose own principle of
    > the uniformity of nature rested precariously on his own faith in the
    > validity of induction, whose validity he himself doubted.
    > The question is always, *did* such and such take place, not *could* it
    > happen. And those who would make God a constitutional monarch, who
    > break his own laws," do not understand (IMO) what it means to be "maker of
    > heaven and earth."
    > ted davis

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