A protégé of Elisha witnessed an axe head floating in water (2 Kgs 6:1–7). On Mount Carmel, Elijah trounced the prophets of Baal in a breathtaking display of Yahweh’s omnipotence (1 Kgs 18). God fed the nomadic Israelites with manna at dawn, quail at dusk. “Then you will know that I am the LORD your God” (Exod 16:12). The Bible is awash with such miracles, signs and wonders of God redeeming his people, culminating in the death and resurrection of God incarnate.
But should modern people take such miracles at face value given what we know about the inner scientific workings of creation? In the Western cultural milieu, people tend to perceive reality through a naturalistic lens and assume that physical causes undergird everything that we experience in the world. The word “miracle” is a euphemism for unusual or improbable circumstances, but such usage has little bearing on signs and wonders in Scripture. Even serious Christians often treat testimonies to miracles as charismatic shenanigans for gullible people. Miracles are guilty until proven innocent.
Christians confess that the triune God is providentially present and active throughout the universe. This sort of “general” divine action is not difficultMiracles are guilty until proven innocent. for modern Christians to fathom conceptually. The difficulty relates to special divine action, the idea that God truly acts within our world, within history and our individual lives, to bring about events that otherwise would not have occurred. If we believe that God does act in such ways, how should we conceptualize such divine activity? In the dialogue between science and theology, the question of special divine action is a longstanding area of debate.
Occasionalists, for example, think that God is the one and only cause of everything that happens. Any talk of direct vs. indirect divine action is moot since all divine action is direct. Laws of nature are really just an expression of God’s direct activity—“what appear to be instances of causal interaction in the world are, in reality, occasions of the exercise of direct divine agency.”Robert Larmer, The Legitimacy of Miracle (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014), 8–9. By these lights, creatures have no causal power. Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715), the famous occasionalist, argued that there is no relation between my will to move my arm and the movement of my arm. “It is true that they are moved when we will it,” he concedes, “and that thus we are the natural cause of the movement of our arms. But natural causes are not true causes; they are only occasional causes that act only through the force and efficacy of the will of God.”Nicolas Malebranche, The Search after Truth, trans. Thomas Lennon and Paul Olscamp (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1980), 449. Despite this striking theocentrism, occasionalism is counterintuitive because it denies that created things have natures and causes.
On the other hand, deists affirm the causal agency of created things. The god of deism never intervenes in the natural order but achieves his purposes through secondary causes. Ironically, many Christians today seem to live as functional deists. They believe that God acted directly in some distant past, but no longer does. The events that we are caught up in happen by natural forces alone, except on rare occasions when God intervenes miraculously.
Classical Christianity agrees with occasionalists that the created order is absolutely dependent on God moment-by-moment, and with deists that creatures have their own causal agency. But unlike occasionalism or deism, biblical Christianity affirms special divine action.Does God break the laws of nature when he acts in the world? Over and above his ordinary sustaining providence, God sometimes acts in extraordinary ways. He parted the Red Sea. He became incarnate. He raises the dead.
This traditional interventionist understanding of divine action has been challenged in recent decades.Nicholas Saunders, Divine Action and Modern Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). See also Wesley J. Wildman, “The Divine Action Project, 1988-2003,” Theology and Science 2 (2004), 31–75. Some scholars, like Robert Russell, worry that this view requires the belief that God contravenes the laws of nature. Russell has instead developed a non-interventionist account of divine action, one in which God’s activity goes beyond the limits of natural laws but without ever breaking any of those laws. According to Russell, since nature is indeterministic, there are no scientific “laws” for God to violate.Robert J. Russell, Cosmology from Alpha to Omega: The Creative Mutual Interaction of Theology and Science (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2008). Others have tried to offer similar non-interventionist accounts of divine action in light of modern science.E.g., see Robert J. Russell, Nancey Murphy, and William R. Stoeger, eds., Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action: Twenty Years of Challenge and Progress (Berkeley, CA: CTNS, 2008).
Incidentally, it was Thomas Aquinas who once said, “divine power can sometimes produce an effect, without prejudice to its providence, apart from the order implanted in natural things by God. In fact, He does this at times to manifest His power. For it can be manifested in no better way, that the whole of nature is subject to the divine will, than by the fact that sometimes He does something outside the order of nature.”Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 3.99.9, in On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, Book III, Pt. II, trans. Vernon J. Bourke (New York: Doubleday, 1956), 79. Although the angelic doctor was merely reflecting the ubiquitous supernaturalism of Christian tradition, was he right? And if so, how do we communicate these ideas intelligibly today?
We might put the question this way: Does God break the laws of nature when he acts in the world? The question is simple enough, but complexities lurk beneath. I’m grateful for the international lineup of scholars who will shed light on these important matters in this Areopagite.