Doctrine of Creation (Part 17)

December 23, 2012     Time: 00:34:17

In our lesson we have been talking about the problem of miracles and I discussed the challenge of the Newtonian World Machine and the concept of miracle that accompanied it. You will remember that I argued that miracles ought properly to be understood not as violations of the laws of nature but more simply as naturally impossible events; that is to say, events which could not happen given the natural causes which are operative at any time and place. What would make miracles possible would obviously be the God of classical theism who is the Creator and Designer of the universe.

Contra Spinoza

We want to turn to an examination of Benedict Spinoza’s objection to miracles which we surveyed in a previous class and give some response to them.

You will remember that his first objection was based upon the immutability of nature. Since nature is an expression of God’s will and God’s will and his knowledge are identical, God’s will must be just as necessary as his knowledge and therefore the laws of nature are immutable and inviolable. To break the laws of nature would be to contradict God’s own nature.

It might be tempting to dismiss Spinoza’s objections simply on the grounds that Spinoza was a pantheist for whom God and nature were interchangeable terms. In Spinoza’s pantheism, God and nature were identical. So of course, on pantheism, a violation of nature’s laws would be a violation of God’s nature because God and nature are identical. The question we might say is not whether miracles are possible on pantheism; the question is whether miracles are possible on theism. So Spinoza’s objections might seem easily dismissed. But I think that this sort of refutation would be far too easy. The work in which Spinoza raises the objections to miracles, namely his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, is not a pantheistic work. Pantheism was characteristic of Spinoza’s later work, like his Ethics. The Tractatus is, by contrast, a deistic work and it thinks of God as distinct from, and the creator of, the world. In particular Spinoza’s argument in the Tractatus is based upon the classic traditional doctrine of divine simplicity which says that all of God’s attributes are really identical. God’s knowledge, his will, his goodness, and his power are all really just one single attribute and are identical with his essence. So the question that Spinoza is raising, in effect, is how can God’s knowledge be necessary and yet his will be contingent if these are identical – if they are the same thing?

Contrary to Spinoza, classical Christian theology did not claim, in fact, that God’s knowledge is necessary. Since creation is a free act of God, God could have created a different world and hence had different knowledge than the knowledge that he has. For example, God has the knowledge that the universe exists. That is a truth which is known to God. But suppose God had decided not to create anything at all and to just remain alone? Then that truth would not have been a truth – that proposition would not have been true and would not have been known to God. According to Christian theology, since God is free to create any sort of universe he wants – or even no universe at all – it follows that the content of God’s knowledge is not necessary to him. It is necessary that God know any and all truths that there are but the content of what he knows is not necessary. If God had chosen to create a different universe or no universe at all then the content of his knowledge would have been different than what it is.[1] So, in fact, God is perfectly able to have different knowledge than the knowledge that he has. God is free to create a different world and hence he is also free to have different knowledge than he has.

So it follows then that the laws of nature are not known by God necessarily because they depend upon God’s will. If God had created a different universe with different laws of nature then he would have had different knowledge of nature’s laws than what he has. So God could have created a universe operating according to totally different laws of nature by creating things that have different natures than they do. Similarly, miracles could be part of God’s eternal and immutable decree just as much as the laws – just as he has decreed the laws that hold from eternity, he could have decreed the miracles that will occur from eternity past. So there is just no reason to think that when God chooses, or wills, to bring about a naturally impossible event that God’s knowledge and will somehow come into conflict.

Having said that, I do think Spinoza’s objection does raise one important point. Namely, it is very difficult to see how God’s knowledge and will can be contingent and yet be identical with his essence which includes necessary existence. How can God be utterly simple if he is in some respects contingent and in other respects necessary? For example, his existence is necessary but as we have seen his knowledge and will are not necessary – they are contingent. So how could God be utterly simple if certain features of his being are contingent and others are necessary? I think what this calls into question is not, however, the possibility of miracles. What this calls into question is the doctrine of divine simplicity. This is a doctrine which is, frankly, extra-biblical and one which is, I think, rejected by the vast majority of Christian philosophers and theologians today. Therefore, it need not trouble us to simply give up the doctrine of divine simplicity and to maintain that God has both necessary properties as well as contingent properties and therefore there simply is no difficulty about him willing to bring about different events and so knowing differently that he in fact knows.


Question: So God could contingently create something for a temporal period or he could also create something for eternity?

Answer: Well, that is a good point. I wasn’t speaking to that but you are quite right that he could create a universe that exists only temporarily so that the laws of nature would only hold temporarily and then they would cease to hold once the universe was annihilated. That is true. But what I am suggesting is even if God has created an eternal universe operating according to eternal laws of nature that he could have refrained from that. He could have created no world at all, or he could have created a universe operating by different laws of nature and in that case he would have different content of his knowledge.

Followup: Could he also do one creation eternal, and then add to it and change it?

Answer: I don’t see any reason to think that that wouldn’t be possible either. He could create this world, annihilate it and then create another world after that that might have different laws of nature. Indeed, there has been some cosmological speculation about models of the universe like that.

Followup: I guess what I am saying is he created an eternal world but then he could modify it and add to it and partially seal things.

Answer: Yes, I think that is true as well. Since the laws of nature are freely willed, God could actually alter the laws of nature in the sense that he says, “Alright, up until now, I have made gravity attractive but from this point on it is going to be repulsive” and completely turn things around. Indeed, the whole idea in the book of Revelation of God creating a new heaven and a new earth which will be immortal suggests that the new heavens and new earth would involve different laws of nature than the present ones. So the overriding point of all of this is that the content of what God knows and what he wills is not necessary. God is sovereign and therefore these are contingent and based upon his free discretion.[2]

Let’s turn to Spinoza’s second objection which was based upon the insufficiency of miracles to prove God. You will remember Spinoza’s second objection was that miracles are, in any case, insufficient to prove God’s existence. As the objection is stated, it was simply irrelevant to classical Christian apologetics because Christian apologists didn’t use miracles to try to prove God’s existence. Rather, miracles were part of Christian evidences for showing God’s intervention in the world in the person of Jesus or in the Old Testament. But they weren’t used to prove God’s existence. The arguments of Natural Theology, like the Cosmological Argument, the Ontological Argument and the Teleological Argument – those were proofs of God’s existence. Then Christian evidences like miracles, fulfilled prophesy and so forth were then used to show that a Christian form of theism was true. So Spinoza’s objection really was aimed at a straw man.

Nevertheless, the supporting reasons that Spinoza gave for the objection I think is relevant to the Christian position. You will remember that Spinoza’s main point was that a proof of God’s existence must be absolutely certain. To prove God’s existence you must have absolute, demonstrative certainty. And, he said, since we infer God’s existence from the immutable laws of nature, anything that would call into question those laws would cast doubt upon God’s existence. Miracles, by casting doubts upon the laws of nature, would therefore promote atheism.

Two assumptions, I think, underlie Spinoza’s reasoning. First, notice that he assumes that a proof of God’s existence must be demonstrative – that a good argument for God’s existence must be absolutely certain. Then secondly he assumes that God’s existence is inferred from natural laws. The problem is that Christian apologists denied both of those assumptions. With regard to the first one, the more empirically minded among the Christian apologists were quite willing to say the arguments for God’s existence might not be demonstratively certain but nevertheless they were adequate to justify belief in God’s existence. Think, for example, of the famous watchmaker argument of William Paley for the existence of a divine Designer.[3] Paley didn’t claim that the argument made it absolutely certain that a Designer exists but he said it made it more plausible than not to believe that there is a Designer of the universe. I think contemporary philosophers would agree that if we were justified in accepting only conclusions that were proven with absolute certainty then we would be reduced to near skepticism. We would know very, very little indeed.

The second assumption – that God’s existence is inferred from the laws of nature – also fails to take account of the fact that there are other arguments for God’s existence not based upon the laws of nature. For example, the 18th century British natural theologian Samuel Clark shared Spinoza’s concern to have a demonstrative argument for God’s existence but Clark held to versions of the Cosmological and Ontological Arguments for God’s existence. So even if natural law were utterly uncertain, that wouldn’t even faze Clark because he had quite independent reasons for believing in God’s existence.

So it seems to me that Spinoza’s objection is based upon two critical assumptions, both of which are, I think, very plausibly false. But even given those assumptions, is Spinoza’s objection in fact a good one?[4] He seems to think that the admission of a miracle as an event of history would overthrow the law of nature which is violated by that miracle. If the miracle is admitted then you have to throw out the law of nature which is violated by that miracle. I have already argued that, properly defined, miracles are not violations of nature’s laws. Nature’s laws have implicit in them certain ceteris paribus conditions stating “all things being equal” this is what will happen. So the laws of nature are idealizations that assume that no natural or supernatural factors are interfering. Therefore, miracles properly defined do not violate nature’s laws and so do not cast doubt upon the truth of those laws.

Maybe Spinoza would retort at this point, “But if you were to prove that a naturally impossible event has actually occurred then we should simply revise natural law so that that event is naturally possible.” If you admit that this event has actually occurred then you should say it is not naturally impossible that such an event occurred. You should revise the laws of nature so that that event becomes purely natural. Thus it would force us to simply revise the laws of nature rather than admit that a miracle has occurred. But I think that Richard Swinburne, who is a philosopher at Oxford University, has responded properly that a natural law is not, in fact, abolished just because of one exception. The exception must occur repeatedly whenever the conditions for it are present. If the event will not occur again under identical circumstances then the law will not be abandoned. Natural law will not be abandoned or reformulated unless a new version of the law will yield better predictability than the old law without being more complicated than the original. But if the new version doesn’t do any better in predicting future phenomena or explaining the event in question then the natural law will not be revised just because of one exception. Rather, the event in question will simply be regarded as an anomaly – simply a circumstance that is not explained by that natural law. So I think Spinoza’s fear that the admission of miracles would overthrow the fabric of the laws of nature is really quite unjustified. The laws of nature are not going to be revised and abandoned unless these events were to be recurring all the time under identical circumstances. So rather than lead us into the arms of atheism, it seems to me the admission that a genuine miracle has occurred might instead lead us to discern the action of a supernatural agent in that case who is doing something that the natural causes at that time and place are not capable of bringing it about.

You will remember Spinoza also had a sub-point here. He said that miracles would not prove the existence of God; they would at most prove the existence of a lesser being, like an angel or a demon. How do you know God did the miracle rather than an angel or a demon? But again this objection just doesn’t strike against classical Christian apologetics because miracles aren’t used to prove the existence of God. One isn’t trying to prove God’s existence by miracles. Rather, having proved God’s existence through the arguments of Natural Theology or just presupposing God’s existence, the Christian apologist would use miracles to show that a Christian version of theism was likely true.

Still, the Christian apologists of that era were very concerned to show that the source of a miracle was divine rather than demonic.[5] They did want to distinguish between divine and demonic miracles. I think that their answer to this question constitutes one of their most enduring and important contributions to the discussion of miracles. What they held is that the doctrinal context of the event provides the clue to the interpretation of the miracle. It will be the doctrinal context of the event that would be the tip off whether the source of the miracle is divine or demonic. In so saying they drew our attention to the religio-historical context in which an alleged miracle occurs. And this is absolutely vital. An event without a context is inherently ambiguous. Without a context we have no way of knowing whether the event is just a freak of nature or is an act of God or is the result of some demonic influence. Therefore, it is critical that we look to the religio-historical context of the alleged miracle as the key to its interpretation. This is why I think the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are so significant. His miracles and his resurrection occur in the context of, and as the climax to, his own unparalleled life and teachings whereby he asserted divine authority and put himself in the very place of God himself. And if this man has done miracles or had been raised from the dead, that religio-historical context provides good grounds for thinking that, indeed, this is a divine miracle.

I don’t think Spinoza’s concern with lesser spiritual beings like angels and demons would probably trouble many modern thinkers because angels and demons are really just part of a broader theistic worldview. Atheists don’t believe in the reality of angels and demons. So nobody would seriously say today that the miracles and resurrection of Jesus were historical events but they were brought about by angels or demons rather than God. So I don’t think it would be unwarranted to infer that the miracles of the Gospels, if genuine and historical, were in fact divinely wrought by God.

Finally, Spinoza’s last sub-point was that a supposed miracle might really just be the effect of an unknown law of nature. We don’t have a full acquaintance with nature’s laws and therefore what we think looks miraculous might be really a natural event according to some unknown law of nature. Now, notice that this is not an objection really to the possibility of miracles. This is rather an objection to the identification of miracles. How could you ever identify an event as a miracle? Given that miracles are possible, how could you know that one has actually occurred? This problem has been persuasively formulated in our own day by the late philosopher Antony Flew, at least during his atheistic period. This is what Flew wrote:

We simply do not have, and could not have, any natural (as opposed to revealed) criterion which enables us to say, when faced with something which is found to have actually happened, that here we have an achievement which nature, left to her own unaided devices, could never encompass. The natural scientist, confronted with some occurrence inconsistent with a proposition previously believed to express a law of nature, can find in this disturbing inconsistency no ground whatever for proclaiming that the particular law of nature has been supernaturally overridden.[6]

So Flew is saying that, confronted with a purported miracle, you can never be justified in saying that this event is really miraculous rather than that it has an unknown natural cause or a cause according to some unknown law of nature.[7]

What response might we give to this objection? The Christian apologists of Spinoza’s day, I think, argued correctly by saying:

1. When miracles occur at a momentous time (for example, a man’s leprosy vanishes when Jesus says the words “Be clean!”) . . .

2. When the miracles do not recur regularly in history (when these are singular events that don’t keep happening over and over again) . . .

3. When the miracles in question are numerous (when there are lots of them) . . .

4. When the miracles are of various types (different kinds of miracles as you have in the Gospels) . . .

Then the chances of their all being the result of unknown natural causes is pretty minimal. Therefore, I think, since most critics now do agree that Jesus did perform what we today would call miracles, this answer to Spinoza and to Flew, I think, seems to be a cogent defense of the supernatural origin of the Gospel miracles. They occurred at momentous times, they don’t recur regularly in history, they are numerous and they are various.

But even if you leave Jesus’ miracles aside and focus our attention just on his resurrection alone, I think that a very good case can be made for saying that this event is a miracle. First of all, notice that we are not asking whether or not the evidence for the resurrection can be explained away by some alternative hypothesis to Jesus rising from the dead. What we are asking here is: if Jesus did actually rise from the dead then was that a miracle? Would you be justified in inferring a supernatural cause for such an event? Here the overwhelming majority of people, including scholars, would say obviously yes. Those who argue against the resurrection try to explain away the facts of the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances and so forth without resorting to saying Jesus rose from the dead. But I do not know of any scholar who says that Jesus of Nazareth did rise from the dead but nevertheless that was a purely natural event – it wasn’t miraculous. That would be a rather desperate obstinacy to admit the resurrection of Jesus and say, “but it wasn’t miraculous.”

I think there are two factors that undergird this response. First of all, the resurrection so exceeds what we know of natural causes that it seems most reasonable to attribute it to a supernatural cause. We have a good knowledge, medically, of what happens to bodies and to cells when they die. It has never been heard of in the history of the world that a truly dead man, in Jesus’ case someone who had been dead for a night, a day and a night, has been risen from the dead. Given the length of time involved in Jesus’ case it would be idle to compare this to the resuscitation of people in the hospital whose heart has stopped and then they are brought back to life. More than that though – the resurrection wasn’t just a return to the earthly life. It wasn’t just a resuscitation of a corpse. Rather, it was the transformation of Jesus’ body to a new mode of existence which Paul described as powerful, glorious, imperishable and spirit directed in 1 Corinthians 15. It is just inconceivable that an event like that could be the result of purely natural causes. We can ask again, if this is just the result of ordinary natural causes then why hasn’t it happened again in the history of mankind? Its singular nature in the history of mankind would be inexplicable if this were due to simply natural causes. So in the two thousand years since that event took place, nothing uncovered by biology or medical science has been discovered that would suggest that this could be a natural event.[8] On the contrary, the advance of science only goes to confirm that such an event is naturally impossible. But secondly, the supernatural explanation is given immediately in the religio-historical context in which the event occurred. Jesus’ resurrection was not just the resurrection of anybody without a context. It was the resurrection of this man who had been crucified for his allegedly blasphemous claims. As Wolfhart Pannenberg has written:

The resurrection of Jesus acquires such decisive meaning, not merely because someone or anyone has been raised from the dead, but because it is Jesus of Nazareth, whose execution was instigated by the Jews because he had blasphemed against God.

Jesus' claim to authority, through which he put himself in God's place, was . . . blasphemous for Jewish ears. Because of this Jesus was then also slandered before the Roman Governor as a rebel. If Jesus really has been raised, this claim has been visibly and unambiguously confirmed by the God of Israel, who was allegedly blasphemed by Jesus.[9]

So I think the religio-historical context here provides the key to the supernatural character of that event.


Question: If you took Spinoza and Flew’s point of view then you would be hard put to describe what is natural law, especially if you consider quantum states. What constitutes a natural occurrence and what constitutes as inexplicable except by some yet undefined natural law. I think you could push that back to almost any natural occurrence.

Answer: I spoke to that when we talked about the Newtonian World Machine and I am really reluctant to go that route – to say that, in quantum physics, because of indeterminacy anything can happen. I think that really would undermine an argument for miracles because then you could never know whether an event was a miracle or just a freak of nature brought about by some quantum indeterminacy. And as I shared earlier, events which are genuinely miraculous would be, even on quantum physics, so incomprehensibly improbable that I think most folks would say that these are naturally impossible and therefore if they occurred it would be justifiable to point to a supernatural cause of the event rather than to say this is just a result of a quantum freak of nature.

Followup: I agree but I was just pushing it back the other way. In the context of Spinoza and Flew, you would be hard put to define what is natural if this were the case.

Answer: I would not go that route. I think that we do, even on quantum physics, have a good idea, for example, that people don’t rise naturally from the dead. That is naturally impossible to occur – its likelihood of happening is so incomprehensibly improbable that I don’t think we’d ever be justified in thinking that something like that, if it occurred, was due to some unknown law of nature.

Next time we will look at Hume’s objections to the identification of a miracle and see what response we can give to him.[10]

[1] 5:04

[2] 10:15

[3] See William Paley’s Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, first published in 1802.

[4] 15:02

[5] 19:57

[6] Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. 'Miracles,' by Antony Flew.

[7] 25:01

[8] 29:59

[9] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man, trans. L. L. Wilkins and D. A. Priebe (London: SCM, 1968), p. 67.

[10] Total Running Time: 34:16 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)