In response to my first essay, Hans asked whether there is a special category of God’s way of interacting with the world known as ‘special providence?’ It is hard to know exactly what this means. The biblical literature clearly knows of ‘miracles,’ without which there would be no Christian faith. Three words in particular are used most frequently in Scripture which are translated as ‘miracle’ in English.
The Greek word teras and its Hebrew equivalent mopheth, translated as ‘wonders,’ are used to draw attention to events which are so remarkable that they are remembered. The term focuses more on the amazement produced in the witnesses of the event rather than on the specific purpose of the event. The Greek word dunamis, from which we derive our word ‘dynamite,’ is translated as ‘acts of power’ or ‘mighty works’ and emphasizes the biblical conception of miracles as the result of the operation of the power (dunamis) of God, who is perceived to be the source of all power. Whereas the word teras points to the impact the miracle made on the observer, dunamis points to its cause. The third word which is most critical of all in understanding how the Bible views miracles is ‘sign:’ ’ot in Hebrew and semeion in Greek (hence ‘semiotics’). The plagues described in Exodus 3–10 are each described as an ’ot (sign). ‘Sign’ is the main word used in John’s Gospel when describing the miracles of Jesus. Miracles are only meaningful in a particular context as they point to something beyond the event itself. A semeion emphasizes the ethical end and purpose of a miracle. The intention of a semeion is to reveal aspects of God’s character—especially his power and love. As Monden comments: “Miracles are set apart from natural happenings not by the fact that they demonstrate a manifestation of power, but rather because their unusual nature makes them better fitted to be signs.”Cited by Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 217.
What’s So Special?
All these various descriptions of biblical miracles are in the context of “signs of God’s special grace” to his people “in a particular historical-religious context.”Denis Alexander, “Miracles and Science,” Faraday Paper 20 (2017): 3. From the biblical perspective, the take-home message is “No people, no miracles.” The language of ‘miracle’ in the Bible is not used as a description of God’s non-human creation for the simple reason that God’s non-human creation in the biblical worldview is the orderly and reproducible ‘back-cloth’ against which God’s miracles appear as the remarkable events that they are. Without that ‘orderly material backcloth’ there would be less reason to call them miracles.
So if ‘special providence’ is being used as a synonym for ‘miracle,’ then these points would apply to ‘special providence’ as much as they do to ‘miracle.’ On the other hand, if ‘special providence’ is referring, for example, to God’s answering prayer in the life of the believer, or to some other kind of special intervention in the life of the believer, then clearly there are hundreds of such examples in the Bible, but these are with reference to human believers, not to the non-human created order.
So it’s hard not to think that the term ‘special providence’ is redundant and does no ‘extra work’ over and above commonly used terms such as ‘creation,’ ‘providence,’ and ‘miracle’ that have clear biblical meanings. Of course God can do whatever he likes, so we can never formally exclude the possibility that God acts in some unusual way on occasion in the created order—and indeed he clearly does precisely that in the course of miracles (water does not normally turn into wine), but the biblical literature does not give us any grounds for thinking that God acts in this way outside of his special grace to his people in particular historical circumstances. And since our planet has only had people on it for a tiny portion of its history, and processes such as the origin of life happened long before there were people around, this point also is clearly relevant to the discussion.
So, Hans asked:
“Is it appropriate for Christians to talk of special, supernatural divine action?”
Absolutely. God intervenes in the lives of his people all the time—to guide them, to help them, to heal them, to deliver them from evil (as we pray in the Lord’s prayer), to sanctify them and make them more like Christ. That’s the biblical picture. But we notice that this is God in interaction with His people on a daily basis. What about the ‘back-cloth material created order?’ Well clearly the whole created order is supernaturally created, upheld and sustained by God at every moment. Is it ‘special?’ Surely it is at every moment of every day. Without God’s special divine action nothing would exist. That’s what it means to live in a Christological creation.
We Are Not Naturalists
Hopefully all this helps to explain my allergy to the phrase “methodological naturalism.” I cannot see any way in which Christian believers could be “methodological naturalists.” The word ‘naturalism’ in philosophy has a very clear meaning. It is defined as the “view of the world that excludes the supernatural or spiritual.”Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “naturalism.” Now we understand what some Christians wish to say when they refer to science as providing ‘methodologically naturalistic explanations.’ They simply wish to point out that we don’t invoke God in our scientific explanations for rather obvious reasons—God is the author of the whole created order—the whole ‘book of creation,’ not some ‘rival explanation’ to scientific explanations (and therefore reduced to looking like part of the created order rather than its author). But I would like to suggest that the use of the adjective ‘naturalistic’ in this context is quite inappropriate.The absence of specific references to God does not render our lives suddenly ‘naturalistic.’ When I walk into my laboratory I do not suddenly stop believing in God—far from it, I go in as the Christian explorer looking forward to uncovering more of the wonders of God’s world. The more we discover, the more we glorify God by revealing his thoughts in the created order.
We don’t call Christian accountants ‘naturalistic’ because of the absence of theological terminology as they check the company accounts, any more than we expect our doctor to use theological language when she tells us that we’ve got the flu, or the mechanic to refer to biblical texts when servicing our car. The absence of specific references to God does not render our lives suddenly ‘naturalistic.’ Quite the opposite: Christians walking with God in the power of the Spirit will be only too aware of God’s presence and leading, permeating every aspect of their daily lives. Naturalism is the philosophy that there is no God in the first place, so only an atheist can provide truly naturalistic explanations for anything. So I would not myself use the term ‘methodological naturalism’ to refer to what scientists do in their scientific research, irrespective of their own personal beliefs. The idea is fine, it is just the terminology which is quite unnecessary, for the unstated implication is that the Christian will somehow leave their faith in God behind at the laboratory door, whereas precisely the opposite is the case. I would therefore suggest simply dropping the term ‘methodological naturalism’ as being misleading. Why not just talk about ‘scientific explanations’ for things? That does the job just as well and retains neutrality about the personal worldview of the scientist involved in providing the explanations.
The Greater Miracles
“Why is it so important that there be no special providence in evolutionary history?”
If we take the term ‘special providence’ as a synonym for ‘miracle’—as otherwise it is hard to know what the term means—then the answer is that it’s not particularly important, because God can do anything he likes any which way, and the task of scientists is to find out how he does things. However, having said that, if God’s ‘unusual way of working’ happened too often, then science itself would become impossible, given that it depends on the reproducibility of experiments. And in any case, Christians look to revelation in the Bible to understand something about God’s divine interaction with his creation, and as far as the normal material backcloth of the created order is concerned, which evolutionary biology seeks to describe, the Bible provides us with no expectation at all that God“The ordinary things in nature would be greater miracles than the extraordinary.” operates otherwise than in an orderly fashion. Reading Psalm 104 provides us with a wonderful picture of the way that God produces order out of disorder (Genesis 1).
In fact, the Christian might wonder what might be the motivation of those who seek to invoke God’s created order as involving a succession of processes so special that they would become inaccessible to normal scientific enquiry. Clearly the biblical literature could not provide the motivation for such a quest. So that leaves one with a puzzling question. A useful approach in this context could involve a systematic study of all the various historical contexts in which the language of ‘miracle’ is utilized in both the Old and New Testaments. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, made a good point on this topic in a sermon given on March 25, 1627: “There is nothing that God hath established in a constant course of nature, and which therefore is done every day, but would seeme a Miracle and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once; Nay, the ordinary things in Nature, would be greater miracles than the extraordinary, which we admire most, if they were done but once . . . and onely the daily doing takes off the admiration.”John Donne, Eighty Sermons (1640), n. XXII, March 25, 1627.