Nov 14 2012

Ordinary Miracles

According to Bill Gates, we need a miracle to fight global warming. Specifically, we need an energy miracle.  Gates quickly explains: “When I use the term ‘miracle,’ I don’t mean something impossible. The microprocessor is a miracle. The personal computer is a miracle.”[1]

Like any good speaker, Gates knows what his audience is thinking when he uses the term ‘miracle.’ They will naturally think that the Nerd-in-Charge has thrown up his hands in defeat. A technological solution would require a miracle and, as everyone knows, miracles are impossible. But not to fear: if we think of “miracles” as solutions to difficult problems then, all of a sudden, the impossible becomes possible.

Clean energy is a long way from Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus turning water into wine. Apparently, if we want to borrow quaint religious words from the Bible then we have to lower our sights, a lot. We have to start thinking in terms of perfectly ordinary miracles.

The modern attack on miracles can be traced to an obscure Jewish philosopher by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1688). According to Spinoza, all of nature is God, and so the laws of nature are as fixed and unchangeable as God himself. As Spinoza put it, “nature cannot be contravened.”[2] If anything, claims of miracles distract us from our faith because they point beyond nature, and hence, beyond God.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish skeptic, gave us the version that most college students are forced to read and adopt today: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”[3] Hume had no time for Spinoza’s pantheism, but the line of reasoning was the same: the laws of nature cannot be broken; miracles, if they happen, would have to break the laws of nature; therefore, miracles cannot happen.

We know we are in trouble when apologists buy into the same underlying premise. Sure, an unbreakable law of nature cannot be broken, these guys will concede, but God is the great lawgiver. He “can make or break it” as He sees fit.[4]

This takes us into a dangerous rhetorical minefield. Do we really want to insist that the great lawmaker is also the great law breaker?

And then there is the whole problem of God decreeing the laws of nature. Unlike Spinoza and Hume, we no longer view the laws of science as fixed and unchangeable, and we no longer view the universe as a mechanical clock. Newtonian gravity and other laws have been replaced or modified over the years. With some humility we have come to realize that the laws of science are our best attempts at describing the observed regularities of God’s amazingly complex and often surprising creation.[5] Miracles are exceptions to these regularities, not violations of immutable natural laws. Every law of nature includes the possibility of God’s intervention, but intervention is not the same as contravention.

Besides all of that, the Spinoza-Hume approach begs the question. One way to beg the question is to restate in your conclusion what you already stated in your premises. In this case, by claiming that miracles break the unbreakable the skeptics already have their conclusion, namely, that miracles are impossible.

Before the skeptics came along and told us what our own words should mean, theists had a pretty good understanding of miracles. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) offered the following definition: “Those things must properly be called miraculous which are done by divine power apart from the order generally followed in things.”[6] The keyword is ‘generally.’  A law of nature is a generality, and no more.

So let us not speak of the miraculous when we really mean to speak of the pleasantly wonderful: of spontaneous cancer remissions, of lone survivors and, of all things, microprocessors. The miracles of the Bible were neither ordinary nor quaint. They communicated a clear message, were consistent with God’s character, and always had a sound theological footing.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, November 2012, p. 7.]


[1] “Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!,” TED video, February 2010, 7:10-7:28. [Online]  http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

[2] Baruch Spinoza, “Of Miracles,” Theological-Political Treatise, 6:5.

[3] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10:1:90.

[4] Paul Little, Know Why You Believe, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, p. 139.

[5] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008, p. 262.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, “Of Miracles,” Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.101.


Jul 1 2012

Slaughter of the Innocents

Almost every system of values has its supreme goal or highest good. Depending on the ethical theory, this could be something like happiness, or self-interest, or tolerance, or the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people. From a Biblical standpoint, the highest good is to love God and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6; 1 John 5:2). On this view, my actions are morally right if they demonstrate a love for God and are consistent with what God wants me to do. In ethical circles this is often dubbed the Divine Command Theory (DCT).

A long-standing criticism of the DCT is that it could end up condoning acts of horrific cruelty. We might have to accept, for instance, that torturing animals for fun and profit is right and good if God commands it. As a matter of fact, the God of the Bible has condoned no such thing, but that’s not the point. If God told me to torture animals then I, as a dutiful servant of God, would have to agree that it was the right thing to do. If I don’t agree, then I would have to concede that right and wrong depend on something other than God.

Atheists are fond of this argument because it follows a similar line of reasoning developed by Plato in his Euthyphro dialogue.[1] But the gods in Plato’s sights – the Olympian gods of popular Greek religion – were notoriously cruel and arbitrary. Plato never knew the God of the Bible. He never knew a God who was both all-powerful and all-good. From the standpoint of Biblical morality, it is right to obey a divine command, not because it comes from a God who happens to like the idea, but because it comes from a God who is just and loving.

This is a more nuanced version of the Divine Command Theory, but critics still see chinks in the armor. The problem now is not what a supremely powerful being might command, but of what the God of the Bible actually did command. If God is a just and loving God then why, for instance, did He order the slaughter of innocent children?

We cannot paper over this problem. As the Israelites were preparing to enter Canaan, God ordered the “complete destruction” of its existing inhabitants (Deuteronomy 7:2). It wasn’t long before they put this plan into effect at Jericho: “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old” (Joshua 6:21). And it was still in effect when Saul attacked the Amalekites. “Do not spare them,” God says, “but kill both man and woman, child and infant” (1 Samuel 15:3).

How do we respond? First, it was a case of kill or be killed. This might offend our modern sensibilities, but the Israelites faced overwhelming numerical odds (Deuteronomy 7:1). Their opponents would give them no quarter, and the Israelites could afford to give no quarter in return. Like it or not, these were the rules of engagement. But why was it so important to win at all costs? This brings us to the second and most significant point: if the Israelites failed to survive as a covenant people, then there would be no Christ, no Lion of the tribe of Judah, no Root of David, to win a final victory over sin and death (Revelation 5:5).

In rehearsing some of these same points, William Lane Craig reminds his skeptical readers that they are the beneficiaries of an ethical tradition that values human life.[2] Their squeamishness over the treatment of non-combatants would not be possible without the final and full revelation of the Biblical worldview. When Richard Dawkins subsequently denounced Craig as an apologist for genocide,[3] we have to assume that Dawkins has a low opinion of genocide, and then we have to wonder how he arrived at that opinion. It didn’t come from nature or evolution, and it certainly didn’t come from the Bronze Age Canaanites.

The broad sweep of redemptive history reveals a God who is loving and just (Romans 3:21-26). When this same God ordered His own people to destroy or be destroyed then perhaps, and only perhaps, can we begin to understand how desperately we needed His plan to succeed.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, July 2012, p. 8.]



[1] Louise M. Anthony, “Good minus God,” The New York Times, December 18, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/good-minus-god/

[2] William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites.” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites

[3] Richard Dawkins, “Why I refuse to debate William Lane Craig,” The Guardian, October 20, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/richard-dawkins-william-lane-craig

 


Sep 8 2011

Conspiring with Truth

For skeptics like Bart Ehrman, the key to undermining the Christian faith is to undermine the Christian text. After all, faith “comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”[1] But what if we are not really hearing the word of Christ? What if we are really hearing the word of power-hungry men who conspired in later centuries to give us their particular spin on the person and nature of Jesus Christ?

Peter famously confessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”[2] Christians make that same confession today. In the greater context of the New Testament, we come to understand that Christ’s sonship is tied inextricably to His deity.[3] God the Father sent His Son into the world so that we could believe what Peter and the rest of the apostles believed.[4] But what, exactly, did Peter believe?

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Oct 26 2009

Breakfast with an All-Knowing God

It is an old conundrum. If God knows my future, do I still have the freedom to choose? Let us say, for the sake of argument, that God knows that I will eat porridge tomorrow for breakfast. Is it possible for me to do otherwise? Could I make myself a bowl of grits instead? If the answer is “no,” then it seems I lack the freedom to choose: God’s foreknowledge trumps my free will. If the answer is “yes,” then God does not know everything after all: He is something less than the God of theism.

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May 18 2009

This Ferocious Doctrine

[tab:Introduction]

Introduction

“The predestination of saints,” Augustine of Hippo wrote, refers to the “foreknowledge and the preparation of God’s kindnesses, whereby they are most certainly delivered, whoever they are that are delivered.”[1] The unpalatable corollary is that those who are not so chosen remain in their sin and are eternally lost. This “ferocious doctrine,” as Bertrand Russell called it, would form the basis for Calvin’s decrees of divine election and rejection.

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