So what might a true Christian understanding of “the laws of nature and nature’s God” look like? Perhaps the most common approach to these issues is to stress the gap between certain tenets of the faith and various scientific findings in order to demonstrate their inherent incompatibility. But as we have seen, while there are indeed legitimate differences between a full acceptance of modern science and a strong faith in God’s word, there is also an inherent biblical balance between faith and reason, nature and super-nature, providence and miracles.
These truths point to the inherent agreement between a contextual reading of Scripture and God’s self-revelation in nature (Psa 19; Rom 1:20; Acts 14:17). Since God is the Author of both the Bible and nature, interpreting each requires understanding their unique ways of knowing and allowing each field to inform the other. As Oden points out, “Christian faith in God the Creator relies primarily on Scripture’s witness to divine revelation. Partial insight into the truth of revelation may also occur through scientific investigation and rational inquiry” (1.1.6). In other words, reasonable faith and God’s creativity point to both religion and science as ways of coming to know the one true God of the Bible. And though science could never provide such a conclusion on its own, neither should this undermine its place within a Christian worldview.
Perhaps the best way to bring together science and religion is to understand how each enables us to perceive the inherent wonder and meaning of the world around us. Einstein glimpsed this in his understanding of order and mystery, but many thinkers through the ages have referred to it as the telos (Greek) or purpose of the universe. So while our understanding of God’s ends and means will at times require “modification in the light of the empirical evidence,” understanding the overriding and undergirding role of divine power in the universe allows us to see how the “concept of teleology can be mapped onto a Christian framework of understanding, shaped by the core notion of divine providence” (McGrath, ch. 10).
As Lewis remarks, what we need, then, is “a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the ‘natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view [from a particular perspective], and always correcting the abstraction” through the tools provided by methodological naturalism (Abolition 78-79, emphasis added). Lewis continues along much the same line that Einstein began, noting that this “regenerate science” is possible only through personal humility and prudent epistemology: “When [such a science] explained it would not explain away. When it spoke in parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose . . . the Thou-situation” (Abolition 79). Unfortunately, this is a balance that modern science has yet to strike. As McGrath laments, “The curse of the scientific age is that human beings are reduced to genetic and social stereotypes. Individual identity has become a matter of an impersonal genetic code” (McGrath 13). We have lost a sense of Thou, both toward our fellow man, and to the One whose image we bear.
So while science deals with those subjects that are accessed directly through observation and experimentation, religion (or rather, biblical religion) deals with those subjects accessed directly through the special revelation of God through his Son and Scriptures. Or in the words of the apostle Paul: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17 ESV). The question, then, is how to handle apparent disparities between science and the Bible. On one hand, many would like to begin by assuming that the scientific consensus is correct and then search the Bible for clues to validate it. Such an approach, however, clearly reverses the priority given in Scripture.
While it is important to point out when “truths found in Scripture converge with those found in our observations of the world around us,” we should instead  identify “what the Bible’s authoritative claims are,”  “examine those places where people might insist that the Bible . . . is in conflict with science . . .  decide whether it does or does not” and  rely first and finally on what the Scriptures teach (Walton). After all, as J.I. Packer reminds us, while “no article of Christian faith admits of full rational demonstration, that should not daunt, nor even surprise us; for it is the very nature of Christian faith to believe, on the authority of God, truths which may neither be rationally demonstrated nor exhaustively understood.”
A biblical reading of the Bible therefore requires accepting what God has said, and knowing that no “scientific facts are inconsistent with the true meaning of any passage of Scripture” (Hermeneutics XXI). Of course, as fallible human beings, we may very well have misinterpreted the biblical or scientific evidence and ‘created’ a contradiction of our own, but this doesn’t mean we should ignore evidence against our position—it means we need to become better students of God’s Word and God’s world. Far from being threatened by science, then, sound biblical teaching requires a careful and faithful interaction with a scientific understanding of the natural world.
I would like to propose, then, the following as a Model for the New Natural Philosophy (see too, What We Believe):
Of course, as you may have noticed, this model is not really new at all. In fact, Christians recognized this biblical relationship between science and faith long before the advent of modern science. For example, Augustine sets forth these same principles in his fourth-century work, The Literal Meaning of Genesis. There, he states that, “Nature is what [God] does,” and therefore we must remain open to learning of him through both Scripture and nature (quoted in Louis 6). And when “we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received . . . we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that . . . we too fall,” when that particular view is demonstrated to be false (Literal 1.51). As always, then, our faith follows the evidence God has given (Heb 11:1).
The Christian view of nature, then, is not an either/or proposition. It involves a balance of faith and reason, nature and super-nature, science and religion, providence and miracles. So while it will not always agree with the scientific consensus, biblical Christianity will find much support from what students of nature have discovered. As Chesterton once wrote, “It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence [whether scientific or biblical]—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed” (Chesterton 159). Unfortunately, many believers today commit the same fallacy by rejecting this same evidence, when what requires correction are their own views on natural theology.
So to borrow the words of Jack Collins, “I will not deceive you by making myself out to be neutral: my sympathies are with the harmonizers. But I hope that I am honest enough to change my mind if the evidence leads elsewhere. The only way [for Christians] to proceed is to keep our focus on the grammar [of the Bible] and to keep the hermeneutical issues in plain sight” (Collins, locations 1387-1389). Such is only possible, however, when we recognize that our faith should always be in taking God at his word, and not our own rational capacities. So that, in the end, we might all fall down at the feet of our Creator, singing, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev 4:11). Amen.
Understanding why God works miracles, and how he brings them about also leads us to perhaps the most shocking aspect of biblical miracles: that miracles don’t occur far more often than they do. As Everett Ferguson points out, “It is easy to gain the impression that the Bible is a book of miracles. A closer examination reveals that miracles came only at particular times in biblical history. The miracles cluster at significant moments of revelation and crisis in the history of God’s saving deeds” (Church 1520).
As Lewis once mused, we have a greater chance of being “present when a peace-treaty is signed, when a great scientific discovery is made, [or] when a dictator commits suicide” than we do of seeing a miracle (Miracles 273). Not because God doesn’t care, but that he simply doesn’t often act that way. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, God’s providential grace is, far more often than not, all we need (2Co 12:9). But regardless of how God chooses to respond to our situation, the way we access that grace is through prayer.
One of the greatest blessings we enjoy through fellowship with God is the honor of approaching him—anytime, anywhere—in prayer. Even when exiled to the wilderness, David was not alone, but could exult in his deliverance and communion with God: “The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. . . . When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles” (Psa 34:15, 17 ESV). And through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus prayer’s power has only increased. As Christ himself said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:12-14).
But how are we to do “greater works” than those of the Lord? Christ connects the power of believers not to any inherent miraculous abilities, nor even to the indwelling of his Spirit, but to the power of prayer. But how can we compare answered prayers to the great miracles of the Bible: the Ten Plagues, the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, Mount Carmel, miraculous healing, the casting out of demons, or the raising of the dead? The first clue to solving this mystery is simply a matter of perspective: the power of prayer comes not from the one praying, or even from what is being prayed, but from the One to whom we pray.
The second clue comes when we realize that our prayers are being used by God to providentially reign his creation through his people. Consider this: many of our prayers ask for something to be undone that has already been done; to wind back (or wind forward) the clock to restore someone’s health, or to help us pass a test even after we’ve already studied for it. On one hand, our prayers often assume that God has already been at work in the situation to bring about the most beneficial effects, but on the other we also believe that by praying we are somehow participating in what God has already started. Notice how Paul weaves together the themes of prayer and providence:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:26-28)
God’s love therefore provides, calling us to respond to him in faith and communion; to participate, by the power of his own Spirit, in his own providential will for the world.
As Lewis further explains, understanding the power of prayer begins by understanding the timelessness of God. “God’s creative act is timeless and timelessly adapted to the ‘free’ elements within it: but this timeless adaptation meets our consciousness as a sequence of prayer and answer” (Miracles 290). So while we experience God’s answer to our prayers only after we pray them, in his transcendence he begins to answer our prayers before we pray them. Our works are “greater” than Christ’s, then, not because of the works themselves (because in both his case and ours, God is the one working), but because of the surprising fact that God wraps up the myopic prayers of sinful man into his own cosmic plan of redemption. As Lewis wonders with excitement, “My free act contributes to the cosmic shape. That contribution is made in eternity or ‘before all worlds’; but my consciousness of contributing reaches me at a particular point in the time-series” (Miracles 292).
Most answered prayers, then, may be classified as Level 1 Involvements, in which God is bringing about what nature could have done left to itself, but at a particular time or in a particular way that makes it clear that God is the one at work. Consider, for example, Elijah’s prayer for rain:
And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. (1Ki 18:42-46)
Reading the account, one can almost hear skeptics (both then and now) scoffing, “But it rains all the time; that’s just the water cycle!” or, “That’s just a coincidence!” But as the Bible tells us, what is remarkable about the event is not that it happened or happened in that place, but that it happened at that time--“the seventh time.” God had promised Elijah rain even before he began praying (18:1), but God, in his foreknowledge and omnipotence brought about the rain only after Elijah devoted himself to prayer. What makes the event divine is that God knew exactly when this moment would occur and providentially prepared the weather to coincide with Elijah’s petition.
And as James later points out, it is this same power that is accessible to the people of God in every generation, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (Jam 5:17-18, emphasis added). In essence, a Level 1 Involvement means that even when God is working in a way that appears to be through an exclusively natural process, it is still fundamentally a work of God, and should be viewed as such by his people.
Because of this, we should also be careful in the way we discuss times when God has said Yes to one of our prayers. Biblical prayers are easier to categorize than ours today because in the Bible we have God’s own account of what happened. But our prayers and their fulfillment are both intensely personal and emotional matters, and therefore subject to various individual interpretations. As Lewis cautions, then, “It is never possible to prove empirically that a given, nonmiraculous event was or was not an answer to prayer,” much less whether God’s work involved an interruption of natural laws (Miracles 293).
Nor should we appeal to gaps in our scientific understanding of God’s providence as evidence of God and his power. As Henry Drummond cautions, “If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the disorders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process” (The Ascent of Man in McGrath, ch. 7). In other words, if we appeal to every unexplainable event as an argument for divine intervention, we will quickly find that when we discover the natural explanations for such events we have also explained away God.
God, however, is not a god of the gaps (present only when there is not an explanation); he is the God of all truth, and his power and love is manifested even when he has shown us his hand through natural (and therefore providential) causes. In the context of a discussion of miraculous healing in the early church, Everett Ferguson therefore writes:
Where to draw the line, if one is disposed to draw such a line, between healing that occurs from natural causes or through natural means and healing that is immediate or direct without an obvious natural explanation is often difficult to determine. Modern medicine is recognizing the spiritual, emotional, and mental dimensions of health care. The Christian conviction is that all healing ultimately comes from God, whatever the means. (ECS2 128-129)
But understanding answered prayers as matters of providence rather than miracles should by no means constrain our faith. Instead, our “belief in efficacious prayer” should help us understand that “all events are equally providential. If God directed the course of events at all then he directs the movements of every atom at every moment; ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground’ without that direction” (Lewis, Miracles 284; see Mat 10:29). And just as with Miracles of the Old and New Creation, these works of God are no less divine and reflect his own originating, sustaining, and directing creativity.
Nothing in the world around us is therefore devoid of wonder, meaning, or purpose. “Rather, reality is seen in the light of the glorious Christian vision of God as Father, Son, and Spirit: a God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies; a God who is present with us at this moment, while remaining the transcendent ground of order and existence within the universe” (McGrath 7). And it is this Everlasting God that Christians have the honor of calling upon as our Father.
When we speak of miracles, it is important to realize that not every miracle is miraculous in the same way or to the same degree as every other miracle. Instead, we see a variety of activities throughout the Bible described as a work of God, enacted through a variety of mediums, and with differing levels of his involvement. So while all miracles are performed through the will and power of God, many miracles are done by God himself (Father, Son, or Spirit) and others are performed through human representatives—some demonstrate power over nature, while others power over the supernatural. And, as we have seen, though the Bible uses various terms for these acts (signs, wonders, and mighty works), it does not use them in a technical sense to differentiate the extent to which God is going above and beyond natural forces.
It becomes the responsibility of Christians, then (and especially those who teach), to organize and present these events in a way that reflects their own internal order. For example, Ard Louis divides miracles into two types: “those that are examples of providential timing (type i miracles) and those that can only be viewed as directly violating physical cause-effect relationships (type ii miracles)” (Louis 7). Similarly, C.S. Lewis speaks of miracles of the Old and New Creation: “When [God’s acts] reproduce operations we have already seen [but] on the large scale they are miracles of the Old Creation: when they [bring into] focus those [operations] which are still to come they are miracles of the New” (Miracles 219).
Both approaches have their strengths, but they also have their weaknesses, primarily where providence falls on these spectrums. Taken together, though, if we conflate their four categories and add another type for providential events, we might say there are three ways (or levels) in which God’s acts might be understood:
To see how these categories aid our understanding, we’ll consider the two central miracles in the gospel of Christ—the Incarnation and the Resurrection—and then follow up next week (Lord willing) with some additional thoughts on prayer and providence.
The prophet Isaiah had recorded centuries before Christ that a Chosen One—a Messiah—was coming to deliver God’s people from their oppressors, and as evidence of his coming, the Lord would do something that had never been done before: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” which means God with us (Isa 7:14 ESV). As if his name was not enough indication, Isaiah says he would also be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). But the prophecies of old go back even further: the Messiah would be the Offspring of Eve (Gen 3:15), the son of Judah to whom all would owe their obedience (49:10); he would sit in Moses’ seat (Deu 18:15-20) and would reign from David’s throne (2Sa 7:14).
But when Joseph found out that his fiancee, Mary, was pregnant, the Messiah was not the first thought that came to his mind. Instead, “unwilling to put her to shame” (assuming fornication and its public punishment) “he resolved to divorce her quietly” (Mat 1:19). But Joseph was soon set aright: “behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus [from the Hebrew, meaning Yahweh Saves], for he will save his people from their sins’” (1:20-21). And so the couple weds, and Mary and Joseph abstained from sex “until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (1:25).
And so throughout the gospels Jesus is clearly portrayed as a human being like you and me. He has a human body that can hunger, thirst and die (John 19:28-30; Luke 24:36-43); a human mind that can grow in knowledge and wisdom (Luke 2:52; Heb 5:8-9); and he fulfills human responsibilities both at home and in the world (Luke 2:51; 4:1-2, 16; 1Pe 2:22-23). As Paul sings, Christ “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:7-8).
Surprisingly, then, after the virgin birth, God allows nature to resume her course, even “to the point of death.” In the Incarnation, Jesus entered into the Old Creation from outside, dwelling within it according to the same natural laws he had himself created (John 1:1-4, 14). The miracles he performed in his ministry pointed to his divinity (like the Transfiguration and the casting out of demons; Mark 9:3; 16:9), but his physical life itself confirmed his humanity. The Incarnation is therefore best understood as a Level 2 Involvement, or a Miracle of the Old Creation. As Lewis writes, “Once the great glove of Nature was taken off [God’s] hand” (Miracles 225). In Christ, God did something new by becoming man, but man as we were always meant to be.
But the gospel of Christ doesn’t end at the cross; it is the story of a conquest—when the gates of Hades itself were torn asunder. As Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, [and] that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1Co 15:3-4). Later, he even writes that to deny the Resurrection is to deny the faith entirely (15:13-14). The Bible, of course, teaches us that others have been brought back from the grave: a widow’s son in Zarephath (1Ki 17:17-24), another widow’s son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17), Jesus’ friend Lazarus (John 11), as well as many others (Mat 11:5; 28:52-53). But with Jesus, something is different, he does not just come back as he was before his Passion; he has been changed.
As Oden points out, “In Jesus’ resurrection . . . the resurrected one lives on. The same body is transformed into a glorified body for which there is no future death.” Christ did not merely rejoin the land of the living as one of “a few resuscitated individuals who were themselves again bound to die;” he would go on living, forever changed (Oden 2.13.5). So while he is the same person with the same scarred body and bodily functions (Luke 24:36-43) he is now somehow unrecognizable to even his closest disciples (Luke 24:16, 31; John 20:14-16; 21:4-12). And though he remains in the flesh, he can now appear and vanish anywhere, despite physical barriers (John 20:5-7, 19; 26). All of which seem to foreshadow further changes after his ascension (20:17).
Nor was the Resurrection without witnesses who could be queried about what happened. The gospel accounts relate each encounter with increasing amazement: The guards are scared stiff as an earthquake announces that Jesus has been raised. Peter, John, and at least four women see the empty tomb. Jesus appears to the women as they cry, believing his body to be stolen. He then walks and eats with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. These all bear witness to the apostles but they don’t believe them, so Jesus appears to ten of the apostles later that night and shares their meal. And when Thomas (who had been absent before) refuses to believe their testimony, Jesus comes back again so Thomas can feel the wounds in his hands and feet. Later, he appears again to seven of the disciples as they fish, preparing breakfast for them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And finally, he appears one last time to promise the Spirit and issue the Great Commission.
As Paul summarizes, “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1Co 15:5-8). And despite its best efforts, science and historiography have only strengthened the case for Christ’s miraculous return from the grave:
Modern medicine suggests that [John 19:34] is clear evidence that the pericardium, a membrane around the heart, was pierced, confirming that [Jesus] was in fact dead. The more we know about the processes of decay that set in after death, the less likely it appears that Jesus could have risen from the dead by any natural means. Rather, science strengthens the case that if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, the event must have occurred through a direct injection of supernatural power into the web of cause and effect that undergirds our physical world. (Louis 8)
The Resurrection of Christ therefore serves as the best example of a Level 3 Involvement or Miracle of the New Creation. As Lewis writes, “If the story is true [and it is], then a wholly new mode of being has arisen in the universe” (Miracles 241).
It is impossible to understand Christianity, much less accept it without the deity and humanity of Christ: Jesus was begotten from eternity and supernaturally conceived; his growth, birth, life and death were all perfectly natural; and his resurrection and ascension verified supernaturally what was declared from before his birth—that Jesus, the son of Mary was, and is, the Son of the Living God. Though some might wish it otherwise, then, Christianity cannot be divorced from its supernatural elements because miracles are an extension of God’s beneficent rule through Jesus Christ. In fact, as Lewis points out, Christianity “is precisely the story of a great Miracle. A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian” (Miracles 107-108). So while Christians at times disagree on whether a biblical act of God constitutes a Level 1, 2 or 3 Involvement, the most important thing to remember is that God is the One working and the One in control, therefore his people have nothing to fear.