“In nine passages, the Hebrew Bible pictures the land groaning under the weight of sin, longing for redemption (Amos 1:2; Hosea 4:1-4; Jer. 4:23-28; 12:7-13; 23:9-12; Isa. 24:1-24; 33:7-9; Joel 1:5-20).”
— John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine & Mark Wilson,
Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, p. 73
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good
for his mercy endures forever!
Sing to the Lord, all the earth
saving news from day to day!
For great is the Lord, and great in our praise,
for the Lord made heavens and earth.
In his image God made man,
male and female created them.
God blessed them both and said,
“Bear fruit and flourish, fill the earth,
subdue, and rule all that lives,
fulfill my form in the flesh.”
Thus Lord formed man of dust from ground
and breathed in him life’s breath,
and man became a living soul.
Then Lord planted garden facing dawn,
there he put them he formed.
And from the ground trees sprang and sang.
The tree of life was in their midst,
and tree knowing good and evil.
A river there flowed to water all,
and he called all he made, Very Good.
There the Lord put the man he made
to tend and keep it safe.
Remember his covenant forever,
O seed of Abram his friend,
the promise he spoke
for a thousand births,
saying, “The land is yours,
roped off and gifted.”
When you were few in number,
mere strangers in the land,
he gave no room for injustice;
for you he counseled kings,
“Touch not my anointed;
do my prophets no harm!”
But I looked on earth, and lo,
without form, and all void;
and the heavens above, alas,
were black, for they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo,
they trembled, to and fro.
The earth is utterly broken,
his surface rent asunder,
the earth is violently shaken,
he staggers like a drunk.
Transgression lies heavy upon him.
If he falls, will he rise again?
The earth mourns and fades;
and all earth’s people wither.
The world lies polluted, stained;
for laws they transgressed,
changed judgment, broke faith.
Their curse devours the earth.
“They trampled down my portion;
made delight a desolation.
She mourns to me,
but none takes heart.”
So the sword of the Lord devours;
no flesh finds Sabbath rest.
Be ashamed, O farmers;
wail, O vinedressers.
Is not food cut off from our eyes,
joy and gladness from his house?
Lament like a virgin in sackcloth
for the husband of her youth.
How the beast groans, bewildered!
With no pasture sheep suffers need.
For fire eats at open field,
and flames burn all the trees.
Even beasts out grazing thirst for you;
their brooks run only dry.
Cursed is ground because of you,
in pain you eat all your days.
Thorns and thistles earth brings forth,
plants of field you eat,
by sweat of face seeking daily bread,
till back to dust you turn.
The field is destroyed,
the ground groans,
the seed shrivels under clods.
The storehouse is vain,
the granary in ruins,
the grain itself dries up.
The new wine mourns,
the vine withers,
the trees in grove sing no more--
pomegranate, palm, and apple.
No joy for Adam’s sons,
all merry-hearted sigh.
The Lord roars from Zion’s Mount,
his voice pours forth from Salem;
the shepherds’ pastures wither,
and Carmel’s springs dry up.
There is no faith or mercy,
no knowledge of God in the land.
Rather cursing, lying, killing,
thieving and perverting;
broken bounds and bloodstains abound.
Thus beasts of the field
and heavens’ birds,
even fish in the sea flee away.
“Shepherds destroyed my vineyard;
both prophet and priest polluted.
Thus their way shall be
slippery paths in the dark,
into which they shall drive and fall
in the year of disaster.”
Put on sackcloth and wail, O priests;
Come, pass the night in tears.
Set a fast, call around,
gather all who inhabit the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
and cry aloud to his name.
For it shall be, as with people, so priest;
as with worker, so watcher;
as with buyer, so seller;
as with debtor, so lender;
The land shall be emptied and plundered;
for the Lord has spoken his word:
“I have forsaken my house,
my love is in enemy hands.
My home is but a hyena’s lair;
vultures loiter with greed.
Go, gather the beasts of the field;
bring them to devour!”
Dread and pit and snare upon you,
O kings who rule the earth!
He who flees the voice of dread
shall fall into the pit,
and he who climbs the walls of pit
shall be taken in the snare.
For windows high are opened wide,
and earth’s foundations tremble.
Moon will stare confounded
and sun will sulk in shame,
for the Lord Sabaoth reigns on high
in glory, before his saints.
Behold, the Lord empties and ruins,
twists surface and scatters squatters.
The city of chaos lies broken;
each house shut up so none enter.
In the city Death moves in,
the gate is battered to ruin.
Behold, on the corners heroes cry;
brokers of peace weep bitterly.
Highways lie waste;
and traveler ceases.
Their course is evil,
and might is not right.
Alas for the day!
The mirth of timbrels ceases,
the sounds of Jubilee fail,
the mirth of lyres is stilled.
All joy, like night, has fallen;
the world’s gladness is exiled.
But for you, O Lord, they wait with longing,
lift up their voice and sing.
Your majesty they shout o’er waves of sea,
and glory in your name at dawn.
From earth’s end we hear the songs
of praise to the Righteous One.
Let heavens rejoice, and earth shout out,
say to the world, “He reigns!”
Let sea thunder, and all its fullness;
and field burst forth from chains!
Then shall the trees of forest sing
to the Lord, for he comes to judge.
And saints embodied give an ode, newly sung,
“Worthy are you to take scroll and seals,
you were slain and your blood paid the price.
From natives’ tribes and peoples’ tongues,
you have made royal priests unto God,
and they shall reign on earth.”
Then seventh angel trumpet sounds,
and voices loud in heaven say,
“The world’s kingdom is Christ’s,
he reigns evermore.”
And twenty-four elders enthroned on high
fell on face and worshiped in song:
“To you we give thanks, O Lord our God,
who was, and is, and will be,
for you have taken up your reign.
Nations raged, but your wrath came,
and the time for the dead to be judged,
to destroy the wicked who destroy the earth.”
Then heaven and earth I saw remade
for first heaven and earth passed away,
and the sea separates no more.
But holy city I saw, New Peace,
led down from heaven above,
adorned as a bride for her groom.
And I heard a voice out of throne say:
“Behold, God tabernacles with man.
To him who conquers this garden comes,
their God will he be, he adopts them.
He will wipe every tear and Death shall die,
without mourning and crying and pain.”
And he who sat enthroned spoke out,
“Behold, I make all things new.” And,
“Write these words, faith and truth.”
And yet again, “It is finished!
Alpha and Zed, Beginning and End.
To the thirsty I give without pay.
“As for cowards and faithless,
loathed murderers, fakes,
loving sex and self and stone,
their portion will be in the lake that burns
with fire and brimstone--
Then angel showed me waters of life,
flowing brightly from the throne
through the midst of Salem’ street;
and on either shore of river wide
the tree of life sings with joy,
yielding leaves and fruits that heal.
No longer any trace of curse,
for God and Lamb are there.
When all his servants see his face,
not by light of lamp or sun,
but by splendor of his gaze.
Where righteousness at last is home.
“Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.”
— 1 Chronicles 16:33 ESV
While preparing the Big Picture I did my best to keep things as accessible and brief as possible. Which means that if you’re a teacher or other leader, you probably have a few more questions. So here are the works I drew on while preparing our material. If you have any other questions, feel free to hit me up at www.inearthenvessels.com/contact.
+ WORKS THAT SHAPED THIS STUDY
+ THREE BIG QUESTIONS
+ A STORY WORTH SHARING
+ IN THE BEGINNING & THE IMAGE OF GOD
+ COVENANTS OF PROMISE & FOLLOW ME
+ WATCH “The Image of God” from the Bible Project
+ PRAY for open hearts and minds, especially yours.
+ READ Genesis 2:4-3:24 (ESV)
Every story has a cast of characters, and the bigger the story, the bigger the cast. But in the Big Picture of the Bible, it is always God who speaks and acts first. And since he is the Author of this story that means you only make it in if he writes you into it. So God creates this world and fills it with his creatures, but something is missing. Things are “good,” but not yet “very good.” And so God does something surprising. He pours out even more of his goodness into a creature that will reflect and represent who he is.
If I were to ask you to close your eyes and try to picture God, one of two images would probably pop into your mind. On one hand there might be a bright, ethereal light from heaven, which speaks in a booming voice. On the other, you might see a gentle or even grandfatherly figure clothed in white robes, with eyes that know your every thought. And if I were to ask you to imagine who God would create in his own image, you would probably think of spiritual beings that match one of those two images—like angels. After all, even the Bible calls angels “sons of God.” But that’s not who God crowns as the kings and queens of his creation. Listen:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)
Say what!? Yep. If you want to know who God created to reflect and represent who he is, you can’t look up, you have to look down to the Bible, and then look within your own heart. The person whose face you see in the mirror every day is created in God’s own image. The person you love to be with more than any other person is God’s image-bearer. And even that person whom you can’t stand at work or at school was created to image that same God. That means everything about your life—your looks, your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your gender, your relationships—all of these are gifts from the One who made you. He’s handed you a first draft of your own story, and invites you to finish it; to become his own co-author.
Of course, you may not feel that way about it at all. When you look into your heart—or into the face of your enemy—you don’t see how that can be true. But that’s part of the human story too. Adam and Eve were the first to discover it, but we all know it by experience (even if we don’t know what to call it). We’re not that good at imaging God. In fact, as the Bible says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). What we need is to be rescued; a new way to be human. Not just from the evil without, but from the evil within. Adam failed God, but God wasn’t done yet. Instead, he sent forth a Son of Adam, “the offspring of Eve.”
+ ASK Three Big Questions
+ DIG DEEPER with slides for group discussion.
+ WATCH “How Did God Create the Ingredients for Life?” from the BioLogos Foundation
+ PRAY for open hearts and minds, especially yours.
+ READ Genesis 1:1-2:4 (ESV). If you’re in a group of four or more divide the reading amongst four people (A, B, C & D), like Slide 3 (see below for attachment).
Every story has a beginning, but the Big Picture of the Bible is a little bit different. To see what I mean, listen to the very first words, on the very first page, in the very first chapter of the Bible:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)
“In the beginning.” The Bible isn’t just an ordinary story, it’s the true story of the whole world, and so the Bible doesn’t start just anywhere. Its beginning is THE beginning; where all things find their origin, when time itself springs into being, and every effect finds its ultimate cause.
“In the beginning, God.” But that ultimate cause isn’t just another physical phenomenon in a long chain of physical phenomena. That cause is personal and spiritual, and he has a name: Elohim, The-Great-and-Mighty—God. Before anything or anyone else, there is simply… HIM.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In this opening prologue to the whole biblical narrative only God speaks, only God acts; and creation--everything else—simply flows from his Word, and is shaped by his hand. Before he speaks and shapes there was nothing, but because of him, everything simply is. Our cosmic home is radically dependent on a radically independent Creator—the Great I AM.
“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” When God creates, he begins with his own blank canvas: no particular shape, just an empty, fluid darkness. Over the course of three days he fashions the physical world (light & dark; sea & sky; land & vegetation) and then he returns to these places to fill them with their inhabitants, one day at a time (lights of day & night; fish & birds; land animals & humans). And everything was just so; not just “good,” but “very good.”
“And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Just as God is our beginning, he is also our end; the first one to be and do, and the last one to take up his proper residence (on day 7). He is the end-all and be-all, the goal, the one “in whom all things hold together.” These heavens and earth are not ours, but his. This is HIS story; we belong to him.
Here is beauty. Here is order. Here is the melody and harmony of creation. As David knew, the stars sing, and their words call out for discovery. So we look and listen. We ponder the intricate dance of electromagnetism and gravity, weak and strong nuclear forces, and gravitational binding and rest-mass energy. We live in a universe in which only one less quark per billion antiquarks would have tipped the balance against everything but radiation—even us. But why is that so? Why that extra quark? Why those perfect ratios? Why the interconnectedness of all matter, or the intelligibility of the universe? Why? Because, “In the beginning, God created…”
+ ASK Three Big Questions
+ DIG DEEPER with slides for group discussion.
+ PRAY for open hearts and minds, especially yours.
+ READ Psalm 19 (ESV)
One of the best ways to get into a story is to sing about it. And when it comes to the Big Picture of the Bible, the song that comes to my mind is Psalm 19. It was written about 3,000 years ago by a guy named David. Throughout his life, David did a little bit of everything. He was a shepherd, a songwriter, a giant-slayer, a soldier, and the one God handpicked to become Israel’s second king. And so his songs reflect the full range of human emotions; everything from worship and wonder, to doubt and despair. The scribes called this particular song a mizmor or “song of praise,” and in it David does three simple things…
Look up. Look down. Look within.
It’s not hard to imagine David as a stargazer. Shepherding was a 24-hour job. And though I’m sure he got plenty of rest along the way, it also seems he watched more than sheep. So he begins his song: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). When David looked up to the vast expanse above him he saw more than light; he saw the splendor of Someone greater than himself. And that Someone has a voice, a voice the stars themselves echo; inaudible, and yet flowing forth to the ends of the earth, renewing its intensity with every sunrise and softening its tones as the day wanes.
But the stars can only get us so far. Space is cold. But since the one who stretched it out has broken into that space with his Word, we find a place we can call home. So David talks more about that Word; the very voice speaking through him at that moment: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7). When we look down into the Bible we discover not man’s witness but the Lord’s, not man’s ways but the Way of Christ, and not man’s words but the words of the Spirit. And for that reason—and only that reason—we find in the world joy despite sorrow, light despite the darkness, and justice despite all the wrongs around us.
And yet those wrongs remain. Not only around us, but inside us. And by trying to separate those wrongs within from the wrongs without, we humans get confused on who’s really to blame for the breakdown of our world. You see, in some fundamental way, each of us shares in that brokenness. And so David sings, “Who can discern his errors?” (Psalm 19:12). The answer? No one. When we look within we find not only brokenness, but blindness to just how broken we really are—our wounds run deep. And this means we need help that no mere human can give. We need to be clean, forgiven, freed, pardoned. No word we speak or thought we think can do it. We depend on Someone Else’s strength. Someone Else must pay the price.
As we work through the Big Picture of the Bible, try not to get too distracted by the details. Take a step back from the story to see how it all fits together, and why it all matters. In each lesson, try to think about these Three Big Questions: How is God revealing himself? How does this make sense of us? Where do I stand in this story? And remember David: Look up. Look down. Look within. So let’s start with this: why this story, why this book?
+ DIG DEEPER with slides for group discussion.
Why Creation Matters to God, and to Us
Katherine Gould, The Christian Chronicle
Reclaiming the Center on Climate Change
John Murdock, First Things
Creation: What the World Is
Paul Julienne, BioLogos
How Science Points to Creation, and our Creator
Katharine & Douglas Hayhoe, BioLogos
5 Things You Can Do Now
Tricia Escobedo, CNN
Save the Coffee!
Nancy Coleman, CNN
Is Science "Awe"some for Christians?
Jeff Hardin, BioLogos
Antibiotic Resistance and How Mutations Develop New Genetic Information
Joel Duff, BioLogos
Serving God in the Struggle Against Cancer: An Interview with Larry Kwak
The Editors, BioLogos
Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change
Justin Gillis, The New York Times
8 Books on Caring for Creation
Byron Borger, Hearts & Minds Books
A Belated Happy Birthday to our National Parks
The Conservative Reform Network
Peter, the Hebrew Bible & The Hope of the World (2 Peter 3:1-13)
Bobby Valentine, Stoned-Campbell Disciple
10 Things You Should Know About Apologetics
Mitch Stokes, Crossway
Divine Action: Naturalism & Incarnation
Christopher C. Knight, BioLogos
More on Divine Action: Uncontrolling Love
Thomas Jay Oord, BioLogos
Failure is Moving Science Forward
Christie Aschwanden, FiveThirtyEight
How Not to Critique Evolution: An Intelligent Design Perspective
Vincent Torley, Uncommon Descent
I Am More than My Genes: Faith, Identity & DNA
Praveen Sethupathy, The Veritas Forum
The Joy of Science
Adam D. Hincks, America Magazine
Laboratory Limits That Are Not Limits
Chuck Donovan, First Things
What US Religious Groups Think About Science Issues
Cary Funk & Becka A. Alper, Pew Research Center
Nonreligious Americans See Evidence of Creator
Lisa Cannon Green, Lifeway Research
Religious Americans See Less Conflict with Science
Deborah Haarsma, BioLogos
Religious or Not, Many Americans See a Creator's Hand
Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service
Rethinking the Origins Debate
Jonathan Hill, Christianity Today
What the New Pew Study Actually Reveals
Jonathan P. Hill, BioLogos
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.
Many of today’s materialists would be open to this holistic view of providence in that they could employ the same language without speaking of miracles, which they view as impossible. Yet such a view grossly misunderstands the biblical Creator. As Lewis points out, the problem is not that miracles are irrational, but because we have incorrect views on God. “The popular ‘religion’ [which for most people today functions as a form of deism] excludes miracles because it excludes the ‘living God’ of Christianity and believes instead in a kind of God who obviously would not do miracles, or indeed anything else” (Lewis, Miracles 130). Materialists can’t reconcile what the Bible claims about God and his work with their own materialist ideas, so they reject him.
Einstein is not the only one, then, who can’t seem to grasp what it means for God to be both our Everlasting Creator and our Loving Redeemer, especially in the shadow of the Enlightenment. For example, in 1748 David Hume wrote that, “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 can possibly be imagined” (from his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, quoted in Louis 1). In other words, if miracles are defined as violations of natural laws, and natural laws are defined as absolute, then miracles are simply impossible. Many have therefore accepted the evidence for the historical life of Jesus, the beauty and goodness of his teachings, and even the power of his self-sacrifice, but reject his miraculous ministry, and especially his resurrection.
Rudolph Bultmann was another such scholar. In his aptly-titled work, Kerygma and Myth, he claimed that, “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” (quoted in Louis 8). But while this reflects well the “historical Jesus” of The Jefferson Bible, Bart Ehrmann, and the ironically-named “Jesus Movement,” it is not the incarnate Christ we find in the Scriptures, “who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4 ESV, emphasis added throughout).
But believing in miracles does not mean believing everything said about miracles in the religious world today. In fact, there are two equally problematic strains in Christian thought. The first strain essentially adopts the same view as Hume, viewing miracles as something wholly unnatural; while the second sees a miracle in everything seemingly unexplainable. Both, however, fail to understand the integral connection between nature and super-nature. We’ll proceed with the former strain first, and then work our way to the latter.
First of all (contra Hume), a miracle is not a rejection or violation of natural law. As we have discussed previously, the Bible teaches us that God creates, sustains and directs all creation providentially through natural laws (Psa 19; 104; Col 1:15-17). You cannot therefore believe in the biblical God of miracles and reject the biblical God of nature; he clearly works both ways. In fact, it is only when we accept natural laws that miracles become possible. “Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known” (Miracles 75).
So while God typically acts through his own natural laws, the Bible clearly claims that he acts miraculously as well—and Christians believe both of these claims are made on the highest authority. If God’s creative providence is the same power as his redeeming love, miracles reveal and fulfill the work he began in creation. As Lewis therefore points out, “miracles must of course interrupt the usual course of Nature; but if they are real they must . . . assert all the more unity and self-consistency of total reality at some deeper level” (Miracles 97).
In fact, the various words for miracles in the Bible point to this unity of effort among God’s activities. Our English word miracle derives from the Latin miraculum, referring to an “object of wonder,” but the Bible uses other terms for these events that tell us just why God acts in these ways. For example, Moses repeatedly reminded the sons of Israel of “the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the LORD your God brought you out” of Egypt (Deu 7:19). And as Peter preached in the first gospel sermon, God raised Jesus from the dead, “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22). The context of each of these passages (the Exodus and the Resurrection) points to miracles, not as a remedy for nature (as Hume, Einstein and others seem to assume), but for the redemption of a people. As the Hebrews writer points out, miracles “bear witness” to God as Savior by (1) highlighting his message and messengers (signs) and (2) cultivating a sense of reverent awe (wonders), (3) through demonstrations of his own power (powers or mighty works; Heb 2:4 ASV).
This brings us to another important point: since God alone has the power to create all things “both visible and invisible,” only he has the power to interrupt the usual course of nature by suspending his own laws (Col 1:16 ESV). Though Christ gave some of that power to prophets, apostles, and evangelists before and after his resurrection (Luke 10:1-20), these abilities were always given directly by Christ himself or one of the Twelve (Acts 8:14-17). Paul therefore brings together all three terms again in defense of his own ministry, reminding the church at Corinth that, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (2Co 12:12). But since Paul considered himself the last and least of the apostles (1Co 15:7-9), and we’re separated from the apostolic age by over 1,900 years, the ability to work miracles is once more limited to the providential prerogative of God himself.
This does not mean, though, that the church today is without miracles—we just have to know where to look: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). The miracles recounted in the Bible are therefore glimpses of God’s grand plan for the cosmos. Miracles “have occurred because they are the very thing this universal story is about. They are not exceptions (however rarely they occur) nor irrelevancies. They are precisely those chapters in this great story on which the plot turns” (Lewis, Miracles 157). Like nature, then, miracles serve as signs or pointers to God, that all might come to know him through the testimony of those whom he sent. And it is by weighing the testimony of these inspired writers that we have access to the mind of God himself (1Co 2:12-16).
The biblical balance between faith and reason is further explained by the close relationship between the Creator and his creation, between nature and super-nature. Psalm 19 provides a prime case in point. Verse one reads, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (19:1 ESV). But it is not the sky alone that speaks: day and night pour out speech and reveal knowledge (19:2-3), and “Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (19:4). Even the natural revolution of the earth around the sun declares the awesome fact that there is a Creator (19:4-6).
That being said, the Psalm also teaches us that God’s self-revelation through nature can only say so much on its own. But since Yahweh has also revealed himself through his word (law, testimony, precepts, fear and judgments) and it is worthy of our trust (perfect, sure, right, pure, clean and true), we can also know and experience him personally as our Redeemer (revival, wisdom, joy, enlightenment, eternal life, righteousness, pleasure, reward, forgiveness, integrity, innocence and favor), which itself points back to his work in creation (soul, heart, eyes, gold and honey; 19:7-14). We can therefore sing with Asaph, that “The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge” (Psa 50:6)!
For this reason, statements of God’s creative work occur often and naturally throughout both Scripture and nature. Thus, as Paul writes to Corinth, “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth . . . yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1Co 8:5-6). So while it is by faith that we as believers “understand . . . the universe was created by the word of God” (Heb 11:3), it is also a fact accessible to all mankind. As Athanasius once wrote, God has created humanity in such a way that “by looking into the heights of heaven, and perceiving the harmony of creation, they might know its ruler, the Word of the Father, who, by his own providence over all things, makes the Father known to all” (De incarnatione 12, quoted in McGrath, ch. 7; see John 1:1, 18).
God’s creativity, though, is not confined to the beginning; his supernatural conservation of the cosmos continues alongside and empowers natural processes. “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). So just as “the universe was created by the word of God” (Heb 11:3), the Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (1:3), and “by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire” (2Pe 3:7). All creation is therefore radically dependent on the Voice who spoke in Genesis 1, became flesh in John 1, and that John turned to see in Revelation 1.
As Calvin would point out to the Einsteins of today, “to make God a momentary Creator, who once for all finished his work, would be cold and barren, and we must differ from profane men especially in that we see the presence of divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe as in its inception” (Institutes 1.16). And though Calvin took God’s creativity and omnipotence further than the Bible teaches, he is correct in seeing creation as the continuous out-working of God’s creativity. After all, it was Jesus who told the Jewish leaders, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). As Tillich stated, “The doctrine of creation is not the story of an event which took place ‘once upon a time.’ It is the basic description of the relation between God and the world” (141-142). Because of this, we should think of God’s creation as active through every phase of time—past, present and future—his originating creativity, sustaining creativity, and directing creativity.
For example, note the use of the present tense in Psalm 104: God himself stretches out the heavens, establishes the earth and seas, waters and feeds his creatures, causes vegetation to grow, and creates both darkness and light. And yet each of these is also an ongoing natural process governed by natural laws accessible to scientific inquiry: thermodynamics, gravity, strong and weak nuclear forces, the water cycle, photosynthesis, and the conservation of mass and energy. The Psalmist therefore attributes both causes—natural and supernatural—to the Lord: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Psa 104:30).
David sees these same forces at work in the special creation of each individual human being: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Psa 139:13-14). And though we understand much about the biological processes God uses to build our “frame . . . intricately woven in the depths of the earth,” it is still ultimately a “secret” of his sustaining and directing creativity manifested in his providential rule through nature: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (139:15-16).
Thus, even the regular operation of natural processes is a testament to the divine. Jeremiah could therefore speak of the Lord’s “covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth” (Jer 33:25). And as Paul told the people of Lystra, God “did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). Augustine therefore comments, “For, quite apart from the prophets, the very order, changes, and movements in the universe, the very beauty of form, in all that is visible, proclaim, however silently, both that the world was created and also that its Creator could be none other than God whose greatness and beauty are both ineffable and invisible” (The City of God 11).
So if God created the world and its natural processes, and even these natural processes are radically dependent upon a radically independent God, nature and super-nature are in perfect harmony. For this reason, “The ‘naturalness’ of natural events does not consist in being somehow outside God’s providence. It consists in their being interlocked with one another inside a common space-time in accordance with the fixed pattern of the ‘laws’” (Lewis, Miracles 284; see 291). Therefore, “All existential conditions are included in God’s directing creativity. They are not increased or decreased in their power, nor are they cancelled. Providence is not interference; it is creation. It uses all factors . . . in creatively directing everything toward its fulfillment” (Tillich 146). Paul agrees, and his words are rightfully more familiar to Christians today, “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Nature and super-nature are therefore in perfect harmony because both begin and end in God himself.
Perhaps most surprising to some, is that this same recognition of consistent natural laws and their self-evident design serves as the first condition for modern science. Methodological naturalism only works because the natural world has an in-built ordering principle allowing it to be interpreted through human reason. Simply put, nature does not lie, because God is the one who speaks through nature. In fact, as Lewis writes, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator” (Miracles 169).
Natural laws therefore point to design, and a Designer who works out his providential plan through nature (creation) and history (redemption). As Oden points out, “It is the one God who creates the world, permits its freedom to fall, acts to redeem what has fallen, and brings the whole story to fitting consummation” (1.1.6). Nature and super-nature are therefore in perfect harmony, because God’s own creativity and providence are the means by which he unites all things in him. For, “When all things are subjected to [God], then the Son himself will also be subjected to [God] who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1Co 15:28).
To many people today, like atheist Richard Dawkins, faith “means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence” (from The Selfish Gene, as quoted in McGrath’s Conclusion). But as we have seen the last few weeks, this view of faith is far removed from Einstein’s view of mystery, much less the ideal of faith as revealed in Scripture. To begin with, the harmony of faith and reason is self-evident throughout the Bible, though rarely stated in explicit terms.
In the Old Testament, for example, wisdom is integrally connected with a deep, personal knowledge of Yahweh as Creator and Redeemer: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Pro 9:10 ESV). As is often stated by students of Judaism, while ancient philosophy and mythology reflect a human search for the divine, the Hebrews knew the Lord and understood wisdom in relation to him. Thus, knowing him as Creator and Redeemer determines what is considered reasonable, even on spiritual matters, such as forgiveness: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa 1:18, all emphases added).
The New Testament maintains this same focus on reasonable faith by pointing to the objective, historical nature of revelation. As the Hebrews writer explains, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1 NKJV). So while faith requires the believer to take God at his word, it does not mean that all evidence is unavailable or unimportant. Instead, the evidence that exists is enough to convince a reasonable seeker that God tells the truth, and can therefore be trusted even when the thoughts of man have not caught up with the foreknowledge of God. As disciples of Christ, then, we are commanded not to accept whatever teaching comes our way, but instead to “test everything” by the standard of God’s word; and to “hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1Th 5:21-22 ESV; see Acts 17:11; 1Jo 4:1-3).
Luke draws on this principle of evidence twice in relation to Christ’s resurrection. In Acts 1:3, he states that Jesus, “presented himself alive to [the disciples] after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” And later, he recounts Paul’s use of the Greek word pistes (usually translated as faith) in the philosophical sense, declaring that God will judge the world through Christ, “and of this he has given assurance [pistes] to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Taken together, the apostles said neither, “You’ll just have to believe me,” nor “Seeing is believing,” but instead pointed to sound testimony: “We have seen these things; come and hear what we have seen.”
Paul therefore points to the veracity of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection: Christ “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time . . . . 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). Forty years later, John’s testimony is even more vivid: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life . . . that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you” (1Jo 1:1-3). Faith in the resurrection of Christ was a matter of sight for the first generation of disciples, but for all believers since, the Christian faith is a matter of weighing and accepting their accounts as valid and reasonable testimony.
But this connection between faith and reason cuts both ways: just as biblical faith is inherently reasonable, the thoroughgoing naturalism of the modern world fails to grasp the comprehensive nature of truth and persuasion. As C.S. Lewis writes, naturalism “offers what professes to be a full account of our mental behaviour; but . . . leaves no room for the acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking, as a means to truth, depends” (Miracles 27). So while reason is often appealed to these days as the final authority on everything, its own existence demands an explanation outside of visible nature. Lewis continues, “The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event, and that therefore something other than Nature exists” (Miracles 65).
As Lewis points out elsewhere, there is a Tao (or Way) that is accessible to all and serves as the basis for all human reasoning. “It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others are really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are” (Lewis, Abolition 18). And the Apostle Paul agrees, writing that even those who live without the benefit of Scripture can understand there is a God, reorient their lives toward him, and be judged for failing to do so: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom 1:20). So by living in a world that actually exists and among people actually capable of reason, man can utilize his common sense to recognize this Way and live by it.
So whether we refer to it as reasonable faith or common sense, or “Natural Law or Practical Reason or the First Platitudes,” truth exists and must be believed as true in order for reasoning to be possible (Abolition 43). Or as Lewis states earlier with even greater brevity, “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved” (Abolition 40). As Einstein himself knew, rationality itself depends on an objective reality and meaning outside of, and independent of, human thought. And if we cannot even agree on the fundamental facts of reality, reason becomes a mere exercise in futility. Rationalism aside, then, reason is not the beginning of true philosophy, but rather faith. As another theological great writes, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all” (Chesterton 29).
Understood and applied biblically, then, the Christian faith is not the irrational, unthinking thing that popular polemicists would like to make it. Instead, it starts with the exact same premise as modern science: that the world has a natural order built into it, which is itself intelligible to mankind, and is discernible through the careful application of reason. But Christianity also doesn’t stop here. It sees the order and intelligibility of the universe as a pointer to another world, or another plane of reality; to something—or rather Someone—else who is responsible for it all, and who transforms our understanding of even the mundane; where both faith and reason are raised to a higher level of thought and existence.
Einstein’s example also demonstrates how this religious appreciation of mystery can inform scientific endeavors, that is, when exercised with caution. The first lesson to learn from Einstein’s example is a positive one: lowliness of mind precedes greatness of thought. He reminds us that while observation is key to a complete understanding, observation alone cannot answer the greatest questions posed by the natural world.
As Kuhn later discussed, each form of measurement is developed within (and therefore influenced by) a certain system of previous findings, assumptions, and so on. So while the scientist may accurately describe his observations within the framework of his own spatial and chronological position in the universe, such observations may not hold true if seen from another vantage point (Einstein, Foundation 1201-1203). In a more general sense, then, the goal of a scientist is not merely to describe his observations and formulate his theories from his own perspective, but to state (or restate) natural laws in a way that makes them universally applicable, regardless of variables in space and time (Einstein, Foundation 1203-1206). This is, in a nutshell, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Though such a claim is bold, Einstein succeeds by the force of his own humility as well as the simple beauty of his geometry (Einstein, Foundation 1237). What is perhaps even more impressive, though, is that he admits toward the end of his work that while his theory is surely correct (humility, after all, does not mean assuming you are wrong) it requires further astronomical and gravitational observations in order to be fully vetted (Einstein, Cosmological 1257-1258). Thus Einstein’s work combined an appreciation for the beauty and simplicity of good math with “the humble recognition that the ultimate word in science belongs to the facts, that is, to the observational verification of theories” (Jaki 36).
At its best, then, science is a continuing conversation on the cosmos that depends upon both personal humility and the willingness to accept that even the best theories are only potentialities in the absence of further verification. So while the universe will be and do what the universe is and does, the scientist must be ever mindful of his own finite nature and remember that his perspective is not the only valid vantage point. Einstein’s theory of relativity thus removes the self from the center of science, just as Copernicus moved the earth from the center of the universe. Humility, then, is the chief virtue for both the saint and the scientist, and begins to explain why scientists need something like methodological naturalism. Quite simply: scientists seek a comprehensive understanding of nature that is held accountable to the facts of nature itself.
But there is another side to this methodological naturalism that Einstein had more trouble with, which brings us to the second lesson we learn from his sense of mystery. While Einstein is still popularly regarded as the world’s favorite scientist, many within the scientific community have questioned his genius (even in his own time) due to his rejection of modern quantum theory. Though Einstein had several reasons for this rejection, the chief of these was that “it was probabilistic” (see Natarajan 660). At the core of this theory is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that, “The more precisely the position of something is defined, the less precisely its speed can be defined, and vice versa” (Hawking). So while we can measure the position and speed of an object with a fair degree of accuracy, we cannot always measure both at the same time, especially in situations where the very tools we use to measure can affect the outcome of the measurement.
Rarely does this principle affect us on a day-to-day basis, where approximation reigns, but on the micro level in a laboratory or the macro level in the heavens, such approximation must be recognized and understood before making far-reaching conclusions. Newtonian physics, though, did not understand this and therefore believed humanity capable of perfectly knowing the natural world. Coupled with the existence of immutable natural laws, Newtonian physics led to a worldview (modernism) in which certainty was not only possible in the present, but also in the past and future. If we know where an object is now and what rules govern its behavior, it was thought, we can find out where it was and where it is going.
In quantum theory, however, such is simply not the case: “The Uncertainty Principle . . . implies that even if one had all the information there is to be had about a physical system, its future behavior cannot be predicted exactly, only probabilistically” (Barr, Faith). Or as we have stated before, precision does not eliminate mystery—mystery moves in and around it.
Einstein’s rejection of quantum theory, however, was not due as much to its lack of mathematical or explanatory power (since it had both on its side), as to his own commitment to absolute determinism. As (in my view) a deist, “Einstein denounced positivism, endorsed a realist metaphysics [what you see is what you get], and professed his belief in the objectivity of physical reality” (Jaki 30). In fact, it was in part because of this pre-commitment to determinism that he could not bring himself to believe in a personal God:
If this Being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an Almighty Being? In giving out punishments and rewards he would to a certain extent be passing judgement on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to him? (Einstein, quoted in Brooke 946)
In other words, if all power belongs to God, then all we see happening around us is His work, everything good and everything evil. To Einstein, then, a personal God is either all-powerful or all-goodness, but cannot be both, and a God without all power is no God at all. Einstein therefore chose to believe in a non-personal, all-powerful God who knew and worked all things.
So while in theory he understood that individuals only possess a relative, partial view of the cosmos, he failed to realize that his own reliance on a “model of reality which shall represent events themselves” rather than probabilities, was itself the product of an isolated, dogmatic individualism rooted in post-Enlightenment rationalism (Brooke 950). Quantum theory, however, though silent on determinism per se, threatened to discredit both his personal and professional views on the subject. If precise measurement and understanding is unlikely, it required a modification of Newtonian science and Einstein’s own deistic interpretation of the world’s predictability. And though no quantum physicist would deny the knowability or predictability of science, Einstein simply could not bring himself to accept even this qualified approach to the world.
In other words, although Einstein’s general theory of relativity challenged Newton’s concept of time, Einstein dismissed these implications in order to maintain his own conception of God as an impersonal, self-sustaining and all-powerful being par excellence. As Barr points out, if true, quantum theory would be of the greatest “philosophical and theological importance” in that, “It would spell the doom of determinism” and eventually bring an end to purely materialist conceptions of human thought and action (Barr, Faith).
So while mystery was of utmost importance to the direction of Einstein’s thought, it points us to some very un-Einsteinian conclusions: “that the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory . . . makes the most sense” and that its logical end may very well be the end of “physical determinism” and a renewed appreciation for the “special ontological status” of “the mind of the human observer” (Barr, Faith). So while the universe is self-evidently ordered, it is also dynamic—and therefore so is our understanding of the universe.
We conclude, then, with two observations about what Einstein’s example means for us today. First, science and religion have nothing to fear from one another when methodological naturalism is understood as the way scientists make authoritative claims about nature. On the side of science, this means science is accountable to what nature itself teaches, and we have nothing to fear from what they find there. On the side of faith, it also means that while we often want science to say something more than it does or even something different, that too will require additional research and verification. Einstein understood the first lesson well, but his incorrect views on God led him to reject the more accurate perspective provided by quantum theory, and we should learn from his example in both cases.
Good science and its inbuilt sense of mystery point to the rationality of faith, and our faith can and should inspire our views of nature, but where faith and science appear to disagree we should carefully examine the evidence on both sides to ensure we stand on the side of truth and the God who is truth. So whether we are studying the laws of nature or nature’s God, we ought to be continually impressed with the order of our world, the strong sense of mystery that surrounds it, and the unimaginable fortune we have in being part of it all. Einstein, of course, falls short of a fully Christian view of God or faith, but the mystery he discovered in nature points beyond the merely unknowable to the One whose wisdom and knowledge surpass all depths; whose judgments are unsearchable and whose ways are past finding out (Rom 11:33).
Albert Einstein is the quintessential scientist, at least in the eyes of most scientific laymen. We continue to be impressed with the sheer brilliance and originality of his work, while at the same time reminding ourselves that in the end he was just another guy who could care less about his reflection in the mirror. For those of us outside scientific circles, we remember him primarily for his famous equation, E=mc2, but the deeper we dig, we realize that this is only a glimpse at the depth of his thought, and not even the labor of love that won him his Nobel Prize in Physics. And for all these reasons (and others) we feel drawn to him both as an individual and as a thinker.
Of particular interest to many of Einstein’s students are his views on God, religion, and the relationship these maintain with the natural world and our study of it. Unfortunately, as with most treatments of another’s faith, specific interpretations reveal as much about us as they do about the thinker in question. More often than not, Einstein is painted as a militant atheist who disdained faith and preferred instead the certainty of cold, hard facts, and many would prefer us to maintain this view. As one writer points out, Einstein referred to the idea of a personal God as “an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously” (quoted in Brooke 946). And in a letter Einstein wrote a year before his death, he “described belief in God as ‘childish superstition,’ and ridiculed the belief that Jews are ‘the chosen people,’” a claim that as an ethnic Jew he had heard throughout his life (quoted in Natarajan 661).
So, according to this view, while some have sought to prove Einstein’s belief, “Nothing could be further from the truth; indeed, Einstein can be described more accurately as an outright atheist” (Natarajan 655). So while Einstein used the words ‘God’ and ‘religion’ frequently, he did so as a conventional way to express the orderliness of nature. So when he says things like, “God does not play dice” or “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” we should not read these as confessions of faith.
Yet Einstein’s own statements concerning atheism and revealed religion seem to militate against this dominant narrative. In his writings he refers to “fanatical atheists” as “slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle . . . who—in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’—cannot hear the music of the spheres” (Einstein, quoted in Rose). Though Einstein certainly had reservations about what he viewed as the mythical elements in revealed religion, it was not a wholesale rejection. So while he could never bring himself to see revelation as the antidote to “intellectual ignorance” (Bussey 20), he was not unimpressed with biblical ethics, as he himself pointed out: “If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions . . . one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity” (Einstein, quoted in Brooke 952).
Thus while it is important to remember his “dismissal of religion and of a belief in a personal God,” we should also recognize that this is not the whole story (Jaki 31). In fact, though Einstein did not refer to himself as a theist, he did think of himself as religious in his own way, identifying with the views of Spinoza: “admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly” (Brooke 947). He even described this admiration as a “cosmic religious feeling,” which served as the primary inspiration and motivation for doing good science (Brooke 948).
Einstein began working this out in what became the special theory of relativity, which taught him to look for the order behind the seemingly random phenomena he studied. Taken together, these efforts taught him to see the universe as a unified whole accessible through theories that connected as many ‘dots’ in our understanding as possible, and which led ultimately to his work in unified field theory (Brooke 950). And so, as he expanded relativity to the more general form we recognize today, he developed a vision of the cosmos, “fully coherent, unified and simple, existing independently of the observer, that is, not relative to him, and yielding its secrets in the measure in which the mathematical formulae through which it was investigated, embodied unifying power and simplicity” (Jaki 33). In other words, though our perceptions of nature are relative, nature itself is not, and is accessible through sound reasoning and good math.
To Einstein, then, science was more than pure rationalism; his childlike sense of awe led him to value “the role of aesthetic judgment in the evaluation of scientific theories”—quite simply, if a view seemed ugly or quirky, it didn’t pass muster (Brooke 950). As even his more dogmatic disciples concur, then, Einstein “saw the hand of God in the precise nature of physical laws, in their mathematical beauty and elegance, and in their simplicity” and took our recognition of such laws as “evidence of a God, not a God who superseded these laws but one who created them” (Natarajan 656).
And in this regard, Einstein found himself in good company, following in the footsteps of others, “such as Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, and Newton, who were devoutly religious and saw themselves as uncovering these ordinances of divine reason” (though Einstein and Newton were by no means orthodox Christians; Barr, “God”). Einstein, then, was not an atheist (God certainly exists), a theist (he did not see Him as a personal being), or an agnostic (His laws imply His existence), but a deist (witnessing design but denying revelation and divine intervention). To Einstein religion was not ruled out, but was interpreted as a sense of awe in the face of the natural order rather than a personal relationship with a personal deity.
Understanding Einstein’s deistic views raises two important questions. First, can religious faith coexist with rational science? And, if so, how does a faith in God inform our efforts to seek natural causes for natural phenomenon—what scientists refer to as methodological naturalism? Einstein’s example is instructive in both cases, and relies on an appreciation of the concept of mystery. In an age dominated by various forms of rationalism, this is not a word that we use frequently, much less take seriously. To our modern minds, mystery is merely a synonym for ignorance, stupidity or irrationality. We live in a world that denies any “reliance on intuition, tradition, faith, authority or mystery,” and especially when these are informed by religion (Bussey 8). Thus mystery is viewed as manifestly ridiculous. But this may say more about the modern conception of reason than anything else.
Our modern view of things misses an important distinction: ignorance “is an absence of knowledge where knowledge can in principle be obtained,” while mystery (rightly understood) refers to “something that is not amenable to intellectual knowledge or is inexpressible in words” (Bussey 3). This means that one is ignorant when one doesn’t know but can, while a mystery is not merely unknown but unknowable. Mystery affects us in two very similar but nonetheless distinct ways. In the course of our everyday lives we are forever experiencing new things, and though they occasionally amaze us, we do not seek to understand them. This weaker, ordinary sense of mystery may interest us for a time, but our mind soon moves on to other things.
Yet the strong (one may even say transcendent) sense of mystery is much more than this. It is not merely interested in a new phenomenon, but brings us to question how it works. “Overall, one might say that strong mystery tends to lie ‘beyond’ our rational understandings, while everyday mystery lies in and around them, although the two categories are not completely separate” (Bussey 7). It is not what we know that motivates us, but what we don’t. “Mystery is not opposed to reason and should not be despised as ‘unreason’. It extends beyond and around human reason” (Bussey 10). So while the realm of ignorance shrinks by increases in knowledge, each new discovery poses as many questions as it answers. Discovery does not destroy mystery; discovery requires it and deepens it.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is that it is this ‘strong’ sense in which Einstein understood and employed the word:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science . . . . A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. (Einstein in Bussey 4)
Natural beauty and understanding are therefore integrally connected both with one another and the personal wonder we experience as participants in them. “Like all other aspects of the created order, laws of nature are capable of evoking wonder and a sense of mystery, while being at the same time supremely rational” (Bussey 20).
While this in and of itself is probably not difficult to accept, Einstein goes further: human thought (including science itself) is impossible without this strong sense of mystery. So while our potential for knowledge is ever-increasing due to progress in both technology and observation, the likelihood of figuring it all it out remains slim. We simply don’t know what we don’t know; and the more we discover, the more we realize how much we don’t know. Even more discomfiting for many, is that Einstein identifies this as “the truly religious attitude,” and claims it as his own.