Re: [asa] on miracles

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Sun Mar 08 2009 - 16:07:56 EDT

If I seem to be beating the same old drum I don't apologize at all because it's the essential instrument in the theological orchestra. We learn nothing at all about God's character from a study of the universe by itself. Even if one thinks that we can conclude from such study that there is a God who created the world, we can say nothing about who that God is. Where we learn about the character of God is from God's historical revelation, & most importantly from the character & history of Jesus. God's kenotic self-limitation in the Incarnation & the hiddenness of God even in his central self-revelation in the cross, are the fundamental clues that ought to be followed in considering how God acts in the world.

But didn't Jesus do a lot of miracles? Yes, but as I've argued here recently the primary importance of those miracles for us is their sign value. (Of course they had other values as well for the people who immmediately benefited from them.) They were pointers to the presence of the one who is working all the time in the world in non-miraculous ways & do not provide any basis for thinking that we ought to see God working miraculously in the world in general.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Stephen Matheson
  Sent: Sunday, March 08, 2009 3:09 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] on miracles

  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.


  To unsubscribe, send a message to with

  "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Sun Mar 8 16:09:16 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Sun Mar 08 2009 - 16:09:16 EDT