The Doctrine of Creation (part 16)

December 14, 2008     Time: 00:31:19



Today we want to continue our discussion of the doctrine of creation by turning from the subject of providence to the subject of divine miracles.

In terms of the biblical data, it is obvious, I think, that the Christian religion as well as the Jewish religion is a religion of miracles. Throughout the Old Testament you find Israel’s history punctuated with God’s great acts of deliverance, principally in the Exodus with the ten plagues brought upon Egypt and God’s miraculous deliverance of the people into the Promised Land out of Egypt. In the New Testament as well you have another flurry of miraculous activity surrounding the life of Jesus of Nazareth as he heals the sick, casts out demons, raises the dead, and of course the central miracle of the New Testament is Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Clearly, biblical Christianity is a religion which believes in miracles – in God’s actions in the world.

This, however, is an extremely unpopular view today both in the scientific community as well as in the mainline theological community. Today, God’s providential activity in the world tends to be limited to his mere conservation of the world in being. Beyond that, modern day theologians are very reluctant to say that God actually causes effects in the world that are miraculous and cannot be explained by scientific means in terms of natural causes.

This collapse in the belief of miracles actually occurred during the 19th century as modern liberal theology was born. The miracles of the Bible were first of all explained away through various natural explanations. For example, the German theologian Heinrich Paulus explained the miracles of Jesus through all sorts of ingenious explanations. For example, Jesus walking on the water was effected by a floating wooden platform just beneath the surface of the waves. His feeding of the five thousand with the loaves and fishes was done by having a secrete cache of loaves and fish in a cave which someone inside was handing out to the disciples as they then distributed them to the crowd. Jesus’ own resurrection was really the result of his apparent death on the cross. He was not really dead but was taken down alive, placed in the tomb where he revived, and escaped somehow and convinced the disciples he was risen from the dead.

Paulus’ and others’ explanations, however, were so contrived and so implausible that it took more faith to believe in them than it did to believe in the miracles. His natural explanations of the miracles failed in the end to win the consensus of scholarship. That didn’t mean that liberal scholars were therefore ready to embrace the miracles of the Bible. Rather, they adopted the view of David Strauss, a German biblical critic whose book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined in 1835 was really a watershed in the criticism of the Bible. In his Life of Jesus, Strauss rejected Paulus’ concocted and contrived natural explanations of the miracles and instead argued the miracles are merely the result of mythology and legend which had accumulated around the man Jesus of Nazareth who was himself an ordinary human being and it is only as a result of this long process of oral transmission of the traditions about Jesus that the miracle-working, divine figure was born.

This is pretty much the attitude that is still adopted by biblical critics today. Not that they would try to explain away the miracles, but that they would say the miracles are not genuinely historical in the sense of supernaturally caused events.[1]

Interestingly enough, in very recent scholarship, biblical critics have really come to reject Strauss’ view that the miracles of Jesus were the product of just legend and mythology. More recently, biblical critics have come to acknowledge that the historical Jesus did think of himself at least as a miracle worker and an exorcist, and that Jesus did conduct a ministry of miracle-working and exorcism. But they would typically not agree that these were the result of divine supernatural activity. Rather, these were either psychosomatic healings or in the case that they can’t be psychosomatically explained away there they will revert to Strauss’ view that these are just the product of theology and myth.

Although the collapse in the belief of biblical miracles occurred during the 19th century, the roots of this skepticism actually go much further back. I want to highlight two important figures in the history of Western thought that you should be aware of who were the progenitors of this contemporary skepticism concerning miracles. The first was the Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza who wrote a treatise in 1670 entitled Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, or A Theological-Political Treatise. In this work, Spinoza attacks vehemently the biblical conception of miracles. He argued indeed that miracles are impossible. I am not going to discuss all of his arguments against miracles, but simply the two most influential ones.

The first argument against miracles that he proposed is that nothing happens contrary to the eternal and unchangeable order of nature. Spinoza here argues that since God is the creator of the natural laws in the universe and since everything that God wills is characterized by eternal necessity and truth that there must be an eternal necessity about the laws of nature that God has decreed. Therefore, the laws of nature flow from the being of God by a necessity of his own perfection and divine nature. For God to will that something happen contrary to the laws of nature would be for God to will that something happen contrary to his own nature. Since the laws of nature are necessary expressions of God’s own perfect and unchangeable being, he cannot will anything contrary to the laws of nature and therefore cannot do miracles. For God to do miracles would be to say that God does something contrary to his own nature which is absurd. Therefore, everything that happens in the world flows from an eternal necessity of the nature of God expressed in the laws of nature. What we call a miracle, Spinoza says, is merely an event that happens according to an unknown law of nature. We just don’t understand the laws that are in play when some supposedly miraculous event occurs. So we say it is a miracle when in fact it is just a reflection of our limited knowledge. If we had complete knowledge of natural law we would see that the miracle was entirely naturally explicable.

Second argument, he says, is that miracles could not in any case suffice to prove God’s existence. Spinoza was a rationalist. He attempted to deduce all of his conclusions with a sort of mathematical certainty. Therefore he believed that a proof of God’s existence has to be absolutely certain.[2] But, he says, if miracles could occur in the world, they would overthrow the laws of nature. Then nothing would be certain anymore because we would never know when something might occur that was contrary to the laws of nature. Therefore we would be reduced to skepticism. Miracles, Spinoza thinks, are actually counter-productive. Far from leading to belief in God, he says they will actually land us into the arms of atheism because they undercut the natural laws on which we infer God’s existence as the designer and creator of the universe. Therefore by rendering God’s existence uncertain it actually fosters atheism.

At any rate, he also goes on to say that an event which is contrary to the laws of nature wouldn’t warrant the conclusion that God exists. Maybe some lesser being did it – like an angel or a demon or something of that sort. It wouldn’t prove the existence of God.

Finally, Spinoza says a miracle is just a work of nature that is beyond our understanding. Just because some event can’t be explained by us doesn’t mean that it is a miracle. That just is a reflection of our ignorance of nature’s laws. It doesn’t mean that God is the cause of these events in any supernatural sense.

Those are the two main arguments against miracles that Spinoza propounded. First that nothing can happen contrary to the unchangeable and eternal laws of nature because these are a reflection of God himself. Secondly, miracles in any case wouldn’t prove the existence of God.

Spinoza, as we’ve just seen, attacked the possibility of miracles. If he is right, miracles are not even possible. Miracles are impossible. By contrast, the 18th century skeptic David Hume attacked not the possibility of miracles, but rather he attacked the possibility of the identification of a miracle. He did this in his essay Of Miracles which was written in 1738. This is the tenth chapter of a later book called The Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding which Hume wrote. In this chapter he launches a two-pronged attack upon the possibility of identifying any event as a miracle. His argument has the form of an if-then-but-in-fact sort of argument. If something is the case then this, but in fact (as we’ll see) something else is the case.

What I mean to say is in the first part of the argument (the “if” part of the argument) he’ll argue that even if the evidence for miracles is completely decisive and convincing, it is still irrational to believe in miracles. But then in the second part of his argument (the “in fact” part) he will argue that the evidence for miracles is, in fact, negligible and insignificant. We can refer to these two parts of his argument as his in-principle argument and his in-fact argument. The in-principle argument will argue that miracles cannot be identified even granting certain concessions. The in-fact part of the argument will try to show that miracles cannot, in fact, be identified given the evidence that we actually have.

To begin, Hume says, a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. In order to decide between two competing hypotheses, the wise man will weigh the evidence for each one against the other. Then he will make up his mind based upon the preponderance of the evidence. If the evidence makes one conclusion virtually certain then, Hume says, he’ll speak of a proof in that case.[3] A wise man will give his whole-hearted assent to that conclusion. On the other hand, if the evidence just makes the hypothesis, say, slightly more probable than not then the wise man will accept that conclusion tentatively with a certain reserve. He will speak only of a probability in that case, rather than of a proof. He will proportion his belief to the evidence. In the case of a full proof, he will give whole-hearted assent; in the case of a probability he will only give such assent as the probability warrants. High probability would warrant stronger assent than weak probability.

He says when it comes to human testimony to events in the past one will weigh the reports of these witnesses with their conformity with the usual course of nature that we have around us. The more unusual the event reported, the more testimony it is going to take in order to establish that event. Hume says let’s suppose if the evidence for some miraculous unusual event amounts to a full proof – that is to say, we have absolutely decisive evidence in favor of a particular event as a miracle – nevertheless, Hume says, standing opposed to this proof is another equally full proof that the event did not happen, namely the testimony of all the people of all the ages that such events do not happen because it is against the unchangeable laws of nature. The evidence for the regularity of the laws of nature, by definition, stands against the evidence for any violation of those laws in the form of a miracle. So Hume says,

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience as can be imagined.[4]

What Hume is saying is the testimony of all mankind of all the ages for the uniformity of the laws of nature stands on one side of the scale against the evidence for the miracle on the other side of the scale. Even if the evidence for the miracle amounts to a full proof, you have proof balanced against proof and the two sides of the scale are equally balanced. Therefore the evidence does not incline in either direction, therefore the wise man cannot believe in a miracle with any degree of confidence. In fact, Hume says no testimony could establish that a miracle has taken place unless the falsehood of the testimony would be a greater miracle than the fact that it tries to establish. That is the first part of the argument – the “even-if” part of the argument. Even if the evidence for a miracle were a full proof, we shouldn’t believe in miracles.

But then comes the in-fact part of the argument that in fact the evidence for miracles does not amount to a full proof. What Hume claims here is the evidence for miracles is so weak it doesn’t even amount to a probability. Therefore, the decisive weight must fall on the side of the scales containing the evidence for the laws of nature.

Hume gives four reasons as to why in fact the evidence for miracles is not very good. These are a sort of the typical catalog of deist objections to miracles in the 18th century. First he says no miracle in history is attested by a sufficient number of people of good sense and education, of unimpeachable integrity so as to preclude their being deceivers, and of being in such good standing in reputation that they would have a good deal to lose by lying and in a sufficiently public manner. The evidence for miracles just isn’t that good.

Secondly, Hume says, people crave the miraculous and they will believe all sorts of absurd stories as the multitude of false miracle stories attests.[5] I think we could all think of cases where people have believed in all sorts of weeping statues and other sorts of fanciful miracles. Hume would say people are just credulous when it comes to believing in miracles.

Thirdly, he points out miracles only occur among barbarous peoples, not in Enlightened Europe.

Four, all religions have their miracles and therefore they cancel each other out. He gives examples of non-Christian miracles, for example, a miracle related by the historian Tacitus of the Emperor Vespasian healing a man, or some miracles that took place near to Hume’s own day in Paris that seemed to be the result of enthusiasm and fanaticism. So he says all religions all have their own miracles and therefore they all cancel each other out.

Therefore the evidence for miracles does not amount to a full proof. He says it doesn’t even amount to a probability. Therefore the decisive weight of the evidence falls on the side of the scale containing evidence for the laws of nature.

What might we say in response to Spinoza and Hume? First of all, I think it needs to be kept in mind that the backdrop to this whole debate over miracles was the conception of a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. Voltaire, for example, said that a miracle by definition is a violation of the mathematical laws of nature and as such is a contradiction in terms. What I think that Voltaire is right about is if you do think of miracles as violations of the laws of nature then it probably is a contradiction in terms because the laws of nature are just summaries of what happens in the world. Therefore they would have to take account of any purported law of nature. That ought to have led Voltaire, I think, to have thought perhaps this isn’t the best definition of what a miracle is – a violation of the laws of nature.

This, after all, is a very prejudicial definition psychologically. A violation of nature’s laws sounds very much like a violation of a criminal law or a civil law or a kind of divine rape of mother nature – violating nature. So the whole definition is very psychologically prejudicial, I think, as well as, I think, contradictory in the end, as Voltaire says, since the laws of nature simply summarize whatever takes place in nature.

Rather, it seems to me that we ought not to define miracles as violations of the laws of nature, but rather we should define miracles as events which lie beyond the productive capacity of the natural causes at any time and place. A miracle, on this definition, is an event which cannot be produced by the relevant natural causes at the time and place of the event. In other words, a miracle exceeds the causal capacities of the natural causes that exist at the time and place in question. What this means is that a miracle will be relative to a certain time and place. For example, rain is not in and of itself miraculous. Rain can be produced by natural causes if the relevant causes are there at a time and place. But if the natural causes are not there at a certain time and place then indeed the production of rain would be miraculous. If the water vapor and temperature and pressure are not appropriate then rain would be miraculous were it to occur at that time and place because it would be beyond the capacity of the relevant natural causes.[6] So a miracle, on this definition, will be relative to the time and place at which it occurs and the causal factors which exist at that time and place. Of course, some events might be so beyond the productive capacity of the natural causes that they would be miraculous wherever they were to occur. One thinks of creation out of nothing as a candidate for such a miraculous event. Or the resurrection of Jesus, I think again would be something that is so far beyond the productive capacities of nature that no matter when and where such an event were to occur it would have to be judged miraculous because it exceeds the productive powers of the natural causes. So a miracle is not a violation of the laws of nature per se. Rather it is an event which lies beyond the productive capacity of the natural causes at the time and place.

Natural laws have within them what are called ceteris paribus conditions. What that means is “all things being equal.” They have implicit in them certain clauses “all things being equal.” The laws of nature are idealizations of what will happen all things being equal. So, for example, it is a law of nature that sodium and potassium, if brought into contact with each other, will combust. But I have both of these elements in my body and I don’t internally combust. Why? Because not all things are equal. There are interfering factors that prevent such a combustion. Therefore the laws of nature have implicit in them this condition that there are not other factors interfering with the operation of the natural laws. Similarly, not only would these ceteris paribus conditions have to include that there are no natural factors interfering with the operation of the law, but that there are no supernatural factors interfering as well. If God were to prevent something from occurring, that would not be a violation of the law of nature because the law of nature holds only all things being equal. That is to say, assuming that there is no interference from some natural or supernatural agent. Therefore the laws of nature are not violated when a miracle takes place because the laws of nature have within them these ceteris paribus conditions that all things are equal.

I think this is extremely important. I just want to pause to underline this because this conception of miracles as violations of the laws of nature is, I think, what has prompted so many people to be skeptical about miracles. They think, like Spinoza, that God is somehow overriding nature or violating nature or he is doing things contrary to the laws of nature when miracles occur, and that seems somehow unseemly or impossible. Or, with Hume’s argument, you have this tremendous evidence for the laws of nature that somehow stands against the occurrence of a miracle because miracles are conceived as violations of those laws. But I think when we properly understand the laws of nature having these all things being equal conditions being attached to them then we can see we can just get rid of this notion of miracles as a violation of nature’s laws and instead think of miracles as something that is beyond the productive capacity of the natural causes at the time and place of the event.

The question would be: if miracles are events which are naturally impossible at a time and place (if we can summarize it that way) what could bring about the occurrence of a miracle if it is naturally impossible? The obvious answer is the supernatural God of classical theism – the God of the Bible. Given the existence of a God who transcends the universe, who brought the universe into being with all of its productive powers and capacities, very clearly such an omnipotent and sovereign God could produce events in the universe that are beyond the productive capacity of the secondary causes in the universe.[7] Of course it is precisely to such a God that Christians appeal to justify belief in miracles. It seems to me that the whole debate over the possibility of miracles really comes back to the question of the existence of God. Do you believe in the existence of a personal being who is distinct from the universe and who has created the universe and conserves it in being? If you do then I think it is immediately evident that such a being would have the power to produce events in the world that lie beyond the productive capacity of natural causes in the world. It will really be the question of whether or not God exists that will determine, I think, whether or not we believe in the possibility of miracles.

That is a good place to break. What we will come back next time and do is look more closely at the arguments of Spinoza and David Hume and respond to those.[8]

[1] 5:06

[2] 10:04

[3] 15:06

[4] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “Of Miracles”, Part I

[5] 20:02

[6] 25:11

[7] 30:11

[8] Total Running Time: 31:19 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)