Re: [asa] on miracles

From: Stephen Matheson <>
Date: Sun Mar 08 2009 - 15:09:53 EDT

Ted, it seems to me that your exhortation below can be paraphrased, at least in part, by: "Don't put limits on what God can do. He's free to act as he wishes. If this weren't the case, he wouldn't be God." Leaving aside certain limits that seem to arise from his unchangeable nature (cf. Hebrews 6:18), I would strongly affirm this. Since Keith wrote "nothing prohibits God from doing whatever God wants to do," I take it he would affirm this as well.

But then Keith considers the proposal that "God never acts in a way that violates the created capacities of the creation." (It's not clear that he means to defend that particular assertion to the extent you seem to believe, but that's another matter.) And unless I have misunderstood, all of your subsequent comments aim to counter a particular view that you see underlying this proposal. Specifically, you suggest that his comments are an example of science "reigning unchallenged in an inappropriate way."

I'm surprised by this response. It seems to be an overreaction. I'm commenting here from my own perspective, not Keith's.

First, I seems to me that the proposal itself isn't "scientific." It's a proposal about God, not about science or about the creation. No matter what one may think about the difference between "science" and "religion," one should be wary of attaching ideas about God's action in the world specifically to "science." The proposal may be wrong, and it may have been motivated to some extent by observations made by "science," but it should be considered on its merits. Shifting the blame/emphasis onto "science" doesn't get us anywhere, in my opinion.

Second, the proposal (as I see it) doesn't suggest that God *can't* or even *shouldn't* do this or that, but that he *never* does this or that. I seems to me that someone who postulates that God has never done X need not conclude that he cannot or should not do X. He could just as reasonably postulate that God prefers not to do X and that, being God, he's managed to avoid just that.

Finally, while I don't personally prefer a lot of speculation about God's "character" as revealed in the creation, I do think that it is quite reasonable for Christians to discuss what we might *expect* regarding God's action in the world. *Can* God perform actions that "violate the created capacities of the creation?" Sure, I say. Do we *expect* him to do that? Do we *expect* that the uplifting of mountains, or the knitting together of a human fetus, or the unfolding of the living world through earth's history, will be found to have involved such "violations"? Different questions, don't you think?

I strongly agree with your warning about entertaining the notion that God can't or shouldn't act in particular ways, but I think there is another risk to worry about here: the pervasive and corrosive idea that the operation of "the created capacities of the creation" is fundamentally distinct from the action of the Creator. (I thought it was clear that this was Keith's point.) When this false distinction is erased, the questions look different, and some of them look pretty silly. (The "science" vs. "religion" distinction changes too, IMO.) I suggest, then, that we should worry less about whether some people expect more or fewer "miracles" than you or I do. And we should worry more about whether those people attach their preferences to the faith or to its Author and Finisher. Keith didn't do that, and I'm not happy about the suggestion that he did.

Steve Matheson

>>> "Ted Davis" <> 03/07/09 8:47 AM >>>
I've said a lot of things in the past about miracles, including the
resurrection (the miracle that literally created the church out of a group
of trembling and downcast disciples), and I really can't repeat all of that
here. The conversation here about Jesus walking on water (or "the sea")
does IMO illustrate some of the ways in which the modern "dialogue" of
science and religion can come very close to becoming a monologue, in which
science reigns unchallenged in an inappropriate way. Keith's point here
could be seen as an example:

<Nothing prohibits God from doing whatever God wants to do. The issue
seems to me to be one of our understanding of God's character, not of
God's capability. So one question would be why would God create the
physical universe in such a way that God had to break chains of cause-
and effect in order to accomplish God's will? Why would God create
in such a way as to frustrate God's creative will.

Another perspective is that God never acts in a way that violates the
created capacities of the creation. MORE snipped>

Keith is right that questions about the character of God and the "created
capacities of creation" come up in this connection. I certainly agree that,
for someone who wants to engage the "miracle" question at a high level they
can't be ignored. The danger of course is that the opening sentences of the
two paragraphs quoted above are not simply in tension; the second, IMO, is
rationalistic in the extreme and flatly contradicts the first. The second
is pure David Hume, though I doubt that Hume would have put it that way
since I doubt that Hume believed in God at all. The first is both biblical
and orthodox, and IMO it is the first that ought to be the stated or
unstated background assumption of Christians who approach this issue. The
rest of that first paragraph could be seen as an inquiry into that
assumption, since many thoughtful Christians would not want to say that
"whatever God wants to do" extends to putting on circus side shows of
pointless miracles, such as some of those in the non-canonical stories of
Jesus. However, IMO, the latter part of that paragraph starts to employ too
many implicit assumptions about the amount of confidence we ought to place
in our understanding of what Calvin (perhaps a greater theologian than any
alive at the moment) would have called the mysterious counsel of God. I
spent several years working on "rationalist" and "voluntarist" theologies of
creation (those might or might not be the best terms to use, but they are
the terms most often used by the relevant scholars), and I admit that I fall
squarely on the "voluntarist" side of this. Both are involved, of course,
but the definition of voluntarism is essentially that God's will is not
wholly conformable to God's reason--or, more to the point practically, what
God wants to do and actually does is not wholly conformable to our reason.

The position I just articulated, let me point out, is pretty much the
official position of the ASA. I don't declare that as ASA V-P; I have no
authority to make any such declarations. Rather I state it on the basis of
the official ASA statement of faith, which all regular members and fellows
affirm, and my expertise in science/religion. The third plank in our
platform states, "We believe that in creating and preserving the universe
God has endowed it with contingent order and intelligibility, the basis of
scientific investigation." The explicit reference here to "contingent
order" is undoubtedly a reference to what I just said at the end of the
previous paragraph above. The term comes from Thomas Torrance, and the
theology comes from the best parts (IMO) of the classical doctrine of
creation, in turn based on biblical theology. This does not shut the door
to reason--the "order" part of that term is a direct reference to our
intelligence, made in the image of God, which enables us to comprehend quite
deeply a great deal of the magnificent and subtle creative acts of God. But
the "contingent" part means, as Keith said, that God does whatever God
wants--and that (here I am drawing on my work as an historian of
"contingency" in the relevant sense) our minds aren't going to be able to
limit what God wants. As in, we won't be able to do it, b/c we aren't
omniscient; but also, we won't be able to do it, b/c God can and does do
things that lie utterly and entirely outside our ability to know them. That
is precisely what is meant by "contingent" in this context.

To summarize: go slowly here. It's not hard to understand why one might
raise questions about the authenticity of any given "miracle" report,
whether in the Bible or anywhere else. It's not hard to understand why a
careful theologian might need to develop a coherent set of criteria for
affirming the likelihood that God did act "miraculously" in a given instance
(the resurrection would be simply one such instance, IMO, and many more
could be added). At the same time, we must take appropriate care not to
raise our limited intellects over God's freedom. Most of us probably
believe that, without freedom, we wouldn't be human; some go further and say
that, without freedom (in the sense of being a creature whose integrity is
respected by the creator), the creation would be a genuine creation; I am
stressing the essential point that, without freedom (in the sense explained
above), God would not be God--and, I would add, if God isn't free then you
can pretty much give up any illusion that you are, yourself.

I had a detailed, lengthy exchange about this very point--that God would not
be God, if certain theological assumptions were not challenged--several
years ago with Howard Van Till, on this list. The archives should contain
it, for anyone who wants to read more about this crucial issue.


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Received on Sun Mar 8 15:10:46 2009

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