I want to wrap a bow on the conversation I had with Jim Stump last week. First, let me say that I am greatly appreciative of Jim’s willingness to engage in a lengthy dialogue, and that he went to great effort to unpack his views and answer various questions. In this sense, it was clarifying and informative.
In that vein, let me say that I was relieved to see just how much Jim (and BioLogos) affirms, particularly in the New Testament (see below). For example, for every time that I have asked if BioLogos accepts or believes miracles like Jesus’s resurrection, or the healings he performed, the answer is an unequivocal yes. However, this does raise some other interesting things that need to be addressed.
Given the theistic evolutionist’s (TEists)—though they prefer evolutionary creationist (ECist)—reliance on secondary natural causes in the creation of the world, I had asked Jim if he believed God ever violated natural laws to work “miraculously.” He responded:
“I wholeheartedly affirm (and sign) the BioLogos belief statement, ‘we also affirm that God works outside of natural law in supernatural events, including the miracles described in Scripture.’…so I affirm it. But it is not the way I would write it if I were writing for philosophers. So here are two qualifications and nuances I’d want to add:
- I think it is better to understand ‘natural laws’ as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Natural laws are our best descriptions of the regularities we have discovered nature. In that sense, I don’t think God set up, say, the inverse square law of gravitation before all time (like he was fiddling with some celestial dial), and that it somehow constrains what he will do from now on. It would seem strange to me that God would set up a prescriptive situation, and then proceed to violate that by performing miracles. I think it is better to understand natural laws as describing how God normally acts in preserving and sustaining the natural order; and it is totally fine for God to act in different ways than he normally does.”
This is theologically deep water. As I wrote in my book, the theistic evolutionist seems to conflate the creation with the Creator. The actions of the creation are the actions of the Creator. So, if a chance-based process is at work (as in Darwinian evolution), science will not see intentionality in the actions or outcomes. Nonetheless, God is doing it. Just to flesh this out a bit more, Jim also said,
“I find the glory of God more fully on display when we understand the secondary causes… I look at nature and see that God did lots of stuff: he created mountains and seas and animals and plants.”
Elsewhere Jim has written: “At BioLogos, we believe that God created the Hawaiian Islands too, and yet there is a process involved that science can describe comprehensively.”
In fact, at least to date, the folks at BioLogos more or less see “comprehensive” naturalistic explanations for everything from the Big Bang to the 12th chapter of Genesis (the establishment of Abraham). But, these explanations do not require agency. They show no signs of intelligent design. In fact, biological evolution is constructed to be dysteleological, meaning it is blind, pitiless, unguided, etc. As Jim did earlier in this conversation, the ECist will often rhetorically ask the Christian skeptical of Darwinian evolution, “Are you saying God did it?” Of course, the flip-side is that the ECist is effectively saying God didn’t do it! Or, more precisely, there’s no evidence that an intelligence has acted on the system.
The conversation got a little muddy when Jim tried to walk the tightrope on what we mean by “violating natural law,”
“So in that sense, it is not a violation of the ‘law of nature’ for God to act to resurrect Jesus from the dead (which I believe he did). It certainly goes against how we’ve observed the natural order to work, but our observations are drastically limited by space and time. I believe God will act differently in the future than he has in the past, by resurrecting all dead bodies. The scientists of the future (if there are such in the Kingdom of God in its fullness!) will develop different laws for how things normally operate, because dead bodies resurrecting will be an observed regularity.”
While ECists routinely appeal to “consensus” in the scientific community on the past, they seem more than willing to buck the consensus elsewhere.
But let’s revisit a couple of items on the table. If the BioLogian assumes that God is literally doing all actions at all times (remember, natural laws are descriptive, not prescriptive or causal), why doesn’t the BioLogian say, “When ice falls from a roof top and kills a little old lady, God did it”? “When a tire blows out on the highway, and a bus full of kids perish in an accident, God did that.” God did everything. Notice the subtle difference here. It’s not that God allows, permits, or simply sustains the workings of creation. God is the workings of creation.
(There is some flexibility among theistic evolutionists on this point. Polkinghorne has written, “An evolutionary universe is theologically understood as creation allowed to make itself,” and guys like Ayala have said, “I prefer to see this as natural selection, rather than [as] a consequence of design by an intelligent designer, the Creator. . . I don’t want the God of benevolence and the omnipotent God to be given the credit for having made that creation.”)
The second thing I want to further investigate is what appears to be a dichotomous grouping of things that science is free to explain, and things that science can never explain. When asked if God violated natural law to perform other miracles in the Bible, Jim answered,
“Yes, that is exactly what I think actually happened in water miraculously turning to wine: you would see water, and then ‘poof’ there would be wine. In that case there would be no scientific explanation of the process. You start with a positive affirmation from Scripture, and you have a robust theological underpinning for an event like that (or even more so, for the resurrection), which seems to remove it from the ordinary sequence of events for which science tries to give explanations.”
In contradistinction to the move of affirming a miracle based on its necessity in the Bible, Jim feels,
“God of the gaps explanations (at least the way I understand them) start from the opposite direction: you’re working in an arena for which the expectation is that these are the ordinary workings of nature, and you can’t figure out how it could have worked that way, so you invoke a miraculous intervention.”
So, as long as you begin with a positive affirmation from Scripture, science cannot, in principle, explain the miracle. If however, we don’t find it necessary to believe a miracle actually violated natural law, we are free to let science attempt to explain it.
I understand that folks at BioLogos have different views, but this move (I just mentioned above) stood out to me when reading a blog at BioLogos by Kathryn Applegate. She wrote,
“Many Christians accept evolution of plants and animals but draw the line at humans. Why don’t I? Because I have encountered compelling evidence from multiple scientific disciplines that supports common ancestry of humans with other animals. While it might be convenient in church circles to dismiss or downplay this evidence, to do so would violate my integrity.”
But then, literally two sentences later, she wrote,
“If accepting evolution meant I had to reject core doctrines of the Christian faith, or deny the authority of Scripture, I wouldn’t do it.”
So, it seems like there’s a weird cognitive dissonance at play here. It would be intellectually dishonest to deny scientific description just to hold onto a biblical claim of a miracle. But, if a core doctrine in the Bible is out of step with scientific description, then you can reject the scientific description.
To look at a gap or failing in scientific explanation (as they put it), and suppose that an intelligent agent (even God) is more likely than a natural cause, is a god-of-the-gaps move. But, to assume that science can’t explain a miracle in principle (like water to wine, or the resurrection) is not. Cool huh?
I would say, the honest view is to begin with the idea that none of the miracles have to be actual supernatural events, because, at least in principle, Christianity could be wrong (and could be disproved, given appropriate scientific explanation). BioLogians seem to have made a category of “up for scientific explanation” items and “not up for scientific explanation” items, which feels biased to me.