RE: Response to Howard on Tillich & Bultmann

From: Rich Blinne (
Date: Thu May 22 2003 - 13:22:32 EDT

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    > -----Original Message-----
    > From: Howard J. Van Till []
    > Sent: Thursday, May 22, 2003 6:36 AM
    > To: Rich Blinne;
    > Subject: Re: Response to Howard on Tillich & Bultmann
    > First reminder: "To be candid, I don't have carefully crafted answers to
    > all of these good questions, and that's OK with me. It means that my
    > spiritual odyssey will continue to be a challenging and
    > adventurous journey
    > of discovery."
    > >From: "Rich Blinne" <>
    > > This whole situation begs a precise definition of supernatural and
    > > particularly miracles. John Locke's definition is as good as any:
    > >
    > > To discourse of miracles without defining what one means by the word
    > > miracle, is to make a show, but in effect to talk of nothing. A
    > miracle then
    > > I take to be a sensible operation, which, being above the
    > comprehension of
    > > the spectator, and in his opinion contrary to the established course of
    > > nature, is taken by him to be divine.
    > Second reminder. I spoke only of my inclination to move from traditional
    > supernaturalism toward naturalistic theism. Rich now introduces the term
    > "miracle."
    > Brief comment on miracles: Locke's definition appears to define miracle
    > entirely in terms of human perception and judgment -- a miracle
    > is an event
    > that: a) can be empirically detected, b) is beyond the
    > comprehension of the
    > observer, c) is judged by the observer to be contrary to the
    > usual course of
    > natural phenomena, and d) is therefore taken by the observer to be divine.
    > (Interestingly, this reminds me very much of the way in which most
    > proponents of ID argue their case for the need of non-natural
    > form-conferring action by an unidentified & unembodied
    > choice-making agent.
    > At the same time, however, Dembski insists that this ID action is not
    > necessarily miraculous. Curious indeed)

    Locke defined miracles in terms of human perception given his philosophical
    school of empiricism. Those who hold to his basic definition may not also
    hold to his empiricism. Sorry for the confusion here. I am sure that you
    could craft a definition that is not necessarily tied to Locke's school of
    thinking. My own definition would include a claim of Divine imprimatur
    coordinated with the unexplainable and that according to universal judgment.
    The source of my definition comes from what the Bible calls signs and
    wonders. The sign part is important because their is an implicit message of
    the supernatural event. Content-free supernatural events don't qualify.
    Dembski may also hold to this technical definition and since bacteria have
    yet to claim to be messengers of God :-) it would make ID non-miraculous.

    The reason I brought up miracles is that miracles and not
    supernatural-in-general is the bottom line for evangelicals such as myself.
    Thus naturalistic theism per se is not a threat. More on that below.

    > But my concern was not to explore the topic of miracles, although
    > that would
    > be an interesting exercise. My concern was on the distinction between
    > traditional supernaturalism and naturalistic theism. Let me try
    > to get that
    > distinction in place.
    > 1. I find it fruitful to distinguish two categories of divine action; a)
    > coercive or "supernatural" and b) non-coercive or "persuasive."

    I would use similar but more traditional categories, namely first and second
    causes. What I mean by this may be best shown by a quote from the
    Westminster Confession:

    God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own
    will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as
    thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the
    will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes
    taken away, but rather established.

    First causes are by the direct action of God. Second causes are causes
    indirectly through means. These means include both human action and natural
    laws. What the confession is saying is that those means I just mentioned
    are not a threat to Divine sovereignty but are fully in accord with it. Or,
    to use the language of the confession God estabishes those means as part of
    his providential care of creation.

    > 2. A coercive or supernatural divine action would be an action in
    > which God
    > exercises forceful power "over nature," an intervention that
    > interrupts the
    > world's most fundamental pattern of causal relations.
    > 3. A non-coercive divine action is a divine action that can variably
    > influence outcomes of creaturely events but yet entails no forcible
    > interruptions of the world's fundamental causal relations. A
    > common analogy
    > is made to persuasive human action -- action that can be effective without
    > being forcible or overpowering.

    The reason why I reject the coercive and non-coercive distinction is that
    without the divine message mentioned above it would be (almost?) impossible
    to distinguish them. This is at the core to my opposition to ID. In my
    thinking, second causes are just as coercive as first causes. Further, this
    distinction tends to put God sub lego (below the law of nature) rather than
    ex lex (above it). The natural order flows out of God's character which is
    ordered. God is not limited to a human-understood order, however. Whether
    God is doing that or not is at best difficult to discern unless, of course,
    there is some special revelation associated with the alleged miraculous

    > Using these terms, then, we scan say a number of things that might help to
    > focus our conversation.
    > 4. Not all divine action need be considered as supernatural.

    Agreed. In fact, the distinction may be less than helpful and is why I
    focused on the more technical term, miracle.

    > 5. If "miracle" is defined in terms of human perception (as in Locke's
    > approach) them miracles need not be supernatural either. They can
    > be events
    > within the natural system that are, for various sorts of reasons,
    > exceptionally significant to perceptive humans.

    The reason why miracles necessarily must be supernatural is their purpose.
    If an alleged miracle can be explained by the natural order, the messenger
    whose message is benefited by the miracle may not have the Divine
    accreditation that he claims. Furthermore, when miracles are rejected that
    rejection is used to reject the event described in Scripture. For example,
    the Bible claims Jesus rose from the dead and that violates the laws of
    nature. If the supernatural does not exist then the account either has no
    meaning or a purely subjective or symbolic one. To be honest, I have more
    respect for someone who says the account is just plain wrong than one who
    claims that this was some myth that I should base my life on.

    To sum up, all miracles must necessarily be detectably supernatural but
    there is no other act of God that necessarily must be detectably
    supernatural. Conversion is a corner case in the sense that is supernatural
    because of the agency of the Holy Spirit but is not detectable as
    supernatural, particularly by third parties. It must be supernatural but it
    may not be detectably so.

    > 6. Naturalistic theism rejects the concept supernatural divine action, but
    > at the same time enriches the concept of "natural" action to include
    > non-coercive divine action as an essential element in all events
    > that occur
    > in the world.

    So, would your naturalistic theism include rejecting the possibility of
    miracles as I have defined above? If what you mean is that we should have a
    healthy skepticism for any particular alleged miracle then that is not what
    I am talking about. I might be even more skeptical than you because of my
    cessationist leanings. Rather, I am talking about a universal dismisal of
    all miracles. During the fundamentalist/modernist controversy of the early
    20th Century it was miracles and not the supernatural which was at issue.
    An example from that time period that best illustrates this is B.B.
    Warfield. Warfield saw no problem with evolution since God might act by
    second causes here. On the other hand, he vigorously defended miracles such
    as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.

    If you as scientist solely pursue natural explanation for things then we
    agree. If you expand your naturalism to include a denial of miracles, then
    we disagree. I think it is important to understand that evangelicals like
    myself have a different line in the sand than others. Again, your denial of
    the supernatural particularly in the realm of science while a threat to some
    evangelicals is not a threat to all evangelicals. But, we all close ranks
    with respect to miracles. I hope this helps you understand where we are
    coming from and I hope I haven't misrepresented your position. If I have,
    feel free to correct me.

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