What About Miracles?

Quarks ds2John Polkinghorne has written an excellent little book Quarks, Chaos & Christianity ruminating on questions related to science and religion. Polkinghorne is a theoretical physicist and an Anglican priest – and his thoughts are always worth considering. Today I would like to look at the chapter in this book on miracles. This discussion, I think, has bearing on the issues related to evolution, creation, and Intelligent Design.

Should we expect the effects of God’s intelligent design of creation to be empirically discernible? Did God use natural or miraculous means?

First we must consider what is meant by “miracle.” Polkinghorne considers three kinds of miracles in scripture. Miracles arising from normal human abilities possessed to an extraordinary degree, miracles involving the timing or occurrence of natural events, and miracles involving events contrary to nature.

Polkinghorne suggests that some of the miracles of Jesus – some of his healings for example – may reflect the fact that Jesus possessed a human power to the highest degree. Thus some of these events may provoke astonishment and gratitude – but do not require an action contrary to nature.

Some miracles of Jesus center on the possibility of meaningful coincidences. This could include some healings and some of the nature miracles.

Two things happen together, each perfectly ordinary in the way it comes about, but carrying significance and causing amazement because of their simultaneity. Some of the nature miracles in the Gospel are open to this sort of interpretation. An example could be the stilling of the storm. … It is perfectly possible for faith to discover the hand of God in the event, because it could well be that divine providence brings about the end of the storm … I believe we are right to take them seriously, but they do not necessarily imply that the course of nature has been violently interrupted to bring them about. (p.98-99)

Some miracles, however, appear to be contrary to nature. Examples include changing water to wine at the wedding at Cana. There is no natural way to turn water (relatively pure H2O) into a a mixture of ethanol, water and various other chemical compounds that make wine – and the best wine at that. Another key example is, of course, the resurrection. Resurrection is intrinsically contrary to nature.

The significance of a miracle is not scientific but theological. Miracles contrary to nature are not simply capricious events demonstrating the power of God. Miracles have theological significance. This is true of all miracles – but most importantly it is true of those contrary to God’s divine laws of nature.

Science cannot exclude the possibility that, on particular occasions, God does particular unprecedented things. After all, God is the ordainer of the laws of nature, not someone who is subjected to them. However, precisely because they are divine laws, simply to overturn them would be for God to act against God, which is absurd. The theological question is, does it make sense to suppose that God has acted in a new way? … God can’t be capricious, but must be utterly consistent. However, consistency is not the same as dreary unifomity. In unprecedented circumstances, God can do unexpected things. Yet there will always have to be a deep underlying consistency which makes it intelligible, … The search for this consistency is the theological challenge of miracle. (p. 100)

The resurrection is the prototypical test case here. First, as NT Wright has argued at great length, the case for the historicity of the resurrection is strong (an excellent lecture and after dinner discussion where Wright summarizes his arguments can be found here). Paul tells us on eyewitness report that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1. Cor. 15:3-4). But in the normal course of events dead men stay dead – resurrection involves a change in natural law. We must ask if it make sense that God has acted in this fashion, outside of his natural law. Is there a theological reason to believe that God acted in this unprecedented and extraordinary way? Polkinghorne asks Can we see a deep consistency beneath the surface of this surprise event? The answer is yes – this is not a capricoius act, but an act with deep theological meaning that inaugurates a new regime.

Now what about creation? Many try to connect belief in miracles, especially belief in the resurrection, to belief in miraculous creation. But is creation a miracle of the second type or the third type? It is perfectly possible for faith to discover the hand of God in the creation of the universe and even in the evolution of the human species. It could well be that divine providence brought about the appropriate modifications and mutations required for the evolution of mankind – in fact I believe this to be true. But all of the evidence we have suggests that God used natural means to reach a desired end – not supernatural means to inaugurate a new regime (after the big bang anyway). If God used natural means in creation, the search for empirical demonstration of design will not find evidence capable of convincing the skeptic. Coincidences and probabilities are capable of natural explanation.

This leads to a question I think we would do well to consider.

Why should we expect to see the Hand of God in creation in a manner capable of empirical scientific demonstration? For what theological reason would God step outside of his divinely ordained and instituted laws of nature in the process of creation?

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