Miracles and Science: A Third Way (Part 2)

The initial question @Argon is how God interacts with His creation - but the discussion inevitably moves to questions on free will, how we as humans may choose good or evil - a discussion that has gone on for many years. I think that ‘mixing’ insights from science with questions of free will (or predetermination that to some negates free will) greatly complicates the discussion.

I prefer to consider the creation (nature) as determined by God in toto - we may argue probabilities and possibilities, and consider causality as one way to account for our observations, and harmonise such considerations with faith (God has created nature). I also prefer to consider free will as uniquely granted to human beings by God and this is not directly observed in nature. I refer this approach because it means we may begin to consider and frame such questions in a way that can be discussed in a reasoned manner. If we decide that we can approach things in nature as a measure of free will, we will end up with endless discussions with little hope of reaching a reasonable end point.

I understand that the creation of humanity with the capacity to choose and differentiate good from evil may not be the central issue in this discussion - but the interesting discussions between @Jon_Garvey and @jstump encompass actions related to nature, and predestination (which deals with humanity).

I agree with many of the points made by @Argon in this discussion and I actually further increase the criticism to point out that it is dangerous to presuppose that we have “found the key” to God’s mechanism of special divine intervention in quantum mechanics. Trying to “box” God’s interventions into the background of probability distributions is nearly as poor an argument as it is for ID proponents to claim that the flagellum or any other irreducible complex mechanism is “proof” of intelligent design.

What if Russel’s theory was ever to become a dominant paradigm and one day we were to discover that quantum mechanics is actually deterministic on variables or laws that we still don’t understand today? Then the whole thought process would clearly be exposed for what it actually is - using gaps in our knowledge to try to claim that “this is where God is”.

Once again building on @Argon’s good point that:

I would also take it one step further and note that even if an event is distinguishable from the null hypothesis (e.g., by having an extremely low p-value under the null), that would still not change things much when it comes to detecting or “proving” divine intervention. As any ID proponent would be quick to point out, the emergence of the first living organism, the first cell or the values of the cosmological constants all have extremely low probabilities under all known models for possible mechanistic explanations. And yet these are (correctly) considered insufficient to “prove” divine intervention.

@jstump - I probably missed some nuances of your exchange with @Jon_Garvey but I am curious as to whether you see an irresolvable conflict between free will and God’s front-loading of the universe? It would appear to me that we can have our free will at the same that God knows exactly what we will do in every possible circumstance and thus still be able to enforce His will no matter what choices we make. A simple illustration of this that I particularly like is from Esther 4:13-14:

13 Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”


I’m slightly tempted to use weasel words and say I thoroughly agree with the Thomistic understanding of “first cause” - but that would be because, from my own reading of Aquinas, he put a lot more specific content into it (and into words like “governance”) than is apparent from your “ground of being” summary. Specifically (without starting to cite references) he included God as the ground of being for events, specifying his active and universal involvement even in “singulars”, ie individual events (see discussion of Providence in de Veritate.)

GD’s comment puts my viewpoint well from an Orthodox perspective: “creation determined by God in toto” - ie the whole of the cosmos in space-time as a single act of volition. The context of the discussion on Russell being nature, I regard the introduction of autonomy into that as confusing. It would be nice for someone who believes in it to explain what reality they envisage behind the emotive metaphors. Then maybe I, too, will “cease and desist.” If, in nature, secondary causes depend on the First Cause, God is indeed the “ultimate Author of every event”, which was my exact phrase.

That said, most of the theological heavy lifting over the centuries has been done in the place where “autonomy” has some real meaning - in the human sphere where “autos” (self) and “nomos” (law) might conceivably collide with God’s sovereignty (a fear first addressed directly by Paul in Romans). On that issue I agree with those who have resolved the question at the level of God’s non-univocity, because that’s the explanation that, to me, best fits the Scriptural witness after half a century of studying it.

So, in terms of events generally, when Jesus says no single sparrow falls apart from God’s will, that is in the context of specific assurances to believers of God’s providential government of comparable events in their own lives (like how many hairs are left on their heads).

In terms of the interface between human will and divine governance, “You meant it for harm, but God intended it for good.” “This turn of events was from the Lord.” “This happened to fulfil the word of the Lord.” “They (conspiring leaders) did what the Lord had determined in advance should happen.” Etc.

McCann’s discussion in Stanford makes the case better than I could, and examines the strengths and weaknesses of the alternative views. So now we can agree to disagree, but hopefully having aired the matter that governance of every event is not simply a mark of Calvinism, but of a major and continuous stream of Christian theology since New Testament times. Which was all I wanted to say.

But as a quid pro quo, perhaps you’d be willing to explain how, in your view, God “governs” events which occur autonomously of him, whether quantum or otherwise. How does God being “the ground of being” cash out in terms of “governance” - after all, parents are the source of being for children, but may be totally out of control of them.

If quantum events are actually ontologically random, then by definition they are ungoverned, and the outcomes thereof likewise. God’s “governance” would then mean relininquishing governance by placing a thing called chance outside his providence.

If, on the other hand, quantum events are secondary causes governed by “laws”, then one is simply saying in legalese that they are obeying God’s government - he is the author of the events via his logos of command. Incidentally “autonomy” there has a sense I’m happy with - quantum events follow a law of God that’s specific and appropriate to them.

As a third alternative, one could say that quantum events happen because they are literally autonomous - they are the free, self-willed acts of quantum particles, in an absolute libertarian sense. It’s necessary to cover that, because some of the most influential thinkers in modern theistic evolution were process theologians, to whom that made sense. To them, God’s governance seems restricted to some kind of dialogue with creaturely volition - not (thank God) covered in Russell’s hypothesis.

But maybe I’ve missed something, and there’s another way in which God can achieve his will without determining what is achieved. Or to put it another way, creating the future without also creating the present.

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Your final comment captures some of the (genuine) paradox of this question, via what I would tend to call a “soft Arminian” separation of God’s foreknowledge from his determining will. In other words, God has no influence on the autonomous free choice Esther makes (other than via Mordecai’s persuasion), but in some mysterious way God will find someone to get the job done.

The weakness (as I see it) of that is that it’s quite conceivable that God will find nobody willing to do the job, and be frustrated in his aims (and proved a liar). But it’s a view well within the mainstream of current theology, and as you perceive has no real bearing on God’s goverment of nature.

I reply to you mainly to flag that, to many, even God’s bare foreknowledge is a scandalous curtailment of our freedom - evidence that events are, in the end, determined (or God wouldn’t be able to know them). For God to out-manouevre an unwilling Esther and get his way anyhow is seen as his “calling all the shots” - God the master Machiavellian power broker.

That has been one of the major factors in the rise of Open Theism, in which God’s knowledge of the future is limited, and his will is frequently frustrated, the future being indeterminate.

When applied to theistic evolution by some quite major players in the discussion, that indeterminacy has been applied to natural events too, on the grounds that nature, too, must have freedom or be a mere puppet. On that understanding, the degree of “frontloading” in creation would be directly proportional to God’s “despotism”. That’s why I think the theology should be clearly spelled out - one can’t simply assume that ones basic understandings are shared.

Incidentally, I’ve just noticed the additional paradox in your Esther quote: in the last sentence Mordecai asks if, perhaps, the events of Esther’s birth and elevation to royalty were themselves determined by God, and uses that as an argument to guide her will. I don’t think that would mean that Esther’s parents didn’t choose to have her, nor that no genuine choices were involved in her becoming queen.

Thanks for the comment!


I agree with many of your points and share your dislike for this sense that somehow there are “truly random” processes that would be beyond God’s ability to control and determine events, thereby requiring constant “fixes” in the form of interventions that (some claim) we could potentially be able to detect.

This perceived weakness seems to stem from an underlying assumption that somehow God would “get Himself into a bind” by not having foreseen that possibility and thus being “caught off-guard”. However, since God is not constrained by our limited perception of time, our (free will) choices and actions would be as predictable to God as the past is determined to us. As such, ending up with “nobody willing to do the job” would not be a possibility because that would not be the universe that God would choose to create.

Redundant as it may be given the quotes in your response to Jim, I would only add Romans 9:17-18 as a point of reflection for those “many” you mention in your point above - to question that God could have such control of his creation seems to me to question his sovereignty over nature in general and over us in particular:

17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

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As such, ending up with “nobody willing to do the job” would not be a possibility because that would not be the universe that God would choose to create.

True indeed - a variation would be to go Molinist and say that God knows what every creature he makes would do given Esther’s recalcitrance, and then make the world where the right people make the right choices. But then he could have saved himself the trouble of creating a rebellious Esther and arguing with her.

Our skeptics would, of course, reply that creating the exact universe you know will deliver the goods is still Machiavellian loading of the dice. In the end, I think, one simply has to sit humbly with the idea that God created the universe he freely chose, and simultaneously accept by the same faith that are choices are real and accountable - that Pharaoh’s hardening by God and his willing disobedience are not (to parrot McCann) separate causally related events, but a single creative act.

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Quite so Eddie - I guess the “Arminian” Russell (I seem to remember he’s actually from the Reformed tradition) might say “God determines all quantum events… of course, we need to exempt the special case of man’s rational spiritual nature: perhaps free will is itself the delegation of quantum choices to the human mind and will.”

That wouldn’t solve the global issues of God’s sovereignty, omnipotence and omniscience, but nicely defuses throwing Russell’s baby out with the bathwater.

By the way, I share your skepticim about Russell’s apparent attempt to fit God into the gaps in received science. It should be noted that his “tone” in that is very much in keeping with the whole “divine action project” involving Peacocke, Polkinghorne, Van Till and so on.

Too much was granted by that whole project to a heirachy of knowledge that placed physics at the top and human sciences (including theology) well down the scale. Revelation, of course, was highly relativised by all - after all, science rules, OK?

Poor Robert! His spirit lacks poetry.


Good points and elaborations.

I agree with these points too. I see value in harmonizing scientific theories with Christian belief to the extent that God could be working through means that science can observe and maybe could one day explain (e.g., stochastic models in physics and biology, including the examples you gave). But these efforts do go too far when they (even remotely) commit to the idea that God does act in specific ways. That is where proposing an acronym that joins a specific mechanism (QM) with a particular type of divine intervention (NIODA) becomes a dangerous unsubstantiated proposition.

No, I don’t have a huge problem here as long as your “front loading” is epistemological. I’m happy to accept that God has some sort of sui generis ability to know the future outcomes of freely chosen events. I say no “huge problem”, because there are still some problems in understanding this. It’s complicated by one’s view of time, which I won’t pretend to have clear and compelling view on. I’m not sure how to talk about what makes propositions about the future true.

Do you say that God is the ultimate author of sin? I continue to say that it appears to me that you do affirm this. And if so, we really can’t go any further on this topic.

“Author” is what concerns me here, as that implies responsibility. “Ground of being” is different in that regard. It is that which makes possible. God can make possible all that exists without determining all that exists.

Now, @Eddie is right to ask whether there is a difference in God’s action with respect to non-human creation. But I’m going to take the rest of the weekend off. Please don’t add this to the list of grievances you all keep about BL staff running away when the questioning gets tough! I’d like to enjoy the beautiful weather and my family for a couple days instead of sitting in front of the computer. I’ll be back on Monday. Christopher Knight’s post then will certainly stir some more conversation.

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To which I must reply, do you say that Augustine, Aquinas, Arminius and Calvin believed God was the author of sin when they argued that God governs all events through his providence, including the actions of sinful men? They carefully distinguished the event from the sin, as do I, and have said and cited nothing to the contrary.

I haven’t been able to spend the weekend in the sun, as it’s pouring with rain here. But I did get to go to the wedding of some octogenarian friends of mine and have a jam session on saxophone with the gentleman (Tequila went down a storm). He’s also doing a Masters in Philosophy currently, which is a bit inspirational!

Addition after a night’s sleep:

Jim, I have repeatedly tried to keep my contribution here on track, by returning to its origin, which was merely to dispute your contention that accepting Russell’s hypothesis in a universal sense would be tantamount to rigid determinism, which would entail (horrors!) Calvinism.

I have given you Augustine, Aquinas, Arminius, the Catholic Catechism, modern Catholic philosophers, the Orthodox tradition and a number of biblical examples. You have not interacted with these to correct the original point, but persisted in trying to press me to confess that I think God ordains evil so you can cease to have anything to say to me. Maybe that would prove I am a Calvinist, and would only go to confirm what all right-thinking people say about them, etc. I don’t find it helpful.

So let’s take another tack. Back in 2010 BioLogos commissioned an entire series on evolution and sin from George Murphy, from the Lutheran tradition. Unlike, say, Stephen Meyer’s article, it was issued without a spoiler, so presumably was considered a quite valid approach.

Murphy’s argument was:
(1) God created mankind through Darwinian evolution.
(2) Darwinian evolution is intrinsically selfish.
(3) Man is therefore bound to selfishness by his created nature.
(4) Selfishness is sin, and therefore mankind was bound constitutionally to sin .
(5) But it’s OK, because God brings from it the greater good of soul-making (after John Hick’s reworking of Irenaeus).

I found plenty to disagree with in all that at the time, but most crucially I disputed with him that he made God the direct author of sin as the creator of “selfish evolution”, and yet unjustly held it against mankind.

I opposed to it the traditional doctrine from Augustine and beyond that I have drawn on in this thread - that God created man with a nature possessing the ability to sin, but actually righteous. Sin, therefore, becomes a voluntary aberration against created nature, not a determined product of it. A soul-making theology can fit that easily, or not, according to theological taste.

At the same time the tradition teaches the entailment that God, in full foreknowledge and freedom, nevertheless created the world-with-its-sins rather than some other world, and furthermore did so with the eternal purpose of glorifying the Son through his sacrificial conquest of sin - “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”: “…in Christ before the foundation of the world.” In that sense, then, God ordained every sinful act in the very performance of creation, but in a metaphysically quite distinct way from Murphy’s physical determinism. His entails a physical inevitability for Adam to sin through evolution (though he actually denies Adam’s existence and puts Paul in error for believing in him): mine God’s mysterious counsel in the (eternal) moment of creation that foreseen sins would de eventu occur, but freely, and be subverted by God to the fulfilment of his good purpose. In that way, God is the author of all events, but man alone accountable for his voluntary sins.

Such an understanding is unavoidable in interpreting some clear biblical teachings, unless one wishes to preach “Lutheran” (:confused:) physical determinism (or maybe “Lutheran” recruitment of selective Scriptural error to ones cause.

In Luke 22.22 Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man “must go as it has been decreed” (horizo), but woe to the man who betrays him. In other words, God has firmly ordained the events of Jesus’s betrayal and death, but only Judas is accountable for his voluntary sin in being the agent of their fulfilment (see also Acts 1.16).

I previously cited Acts 4 (though you offered no counter-interpretation) in which the apostles’ prayer clearly discerns, and Luke endorses, that in the events of their sinful conspiracy against Jesus, the Jewish and gentile leaders did “what your power and will had decided beforehand (pro-orizo) should happen.” Yet it was their own “wickedness” that led them to do it.

To determine an event is to cause it (unless you have some better understanding), and the word “author”, biblically (aitios) means to be the “concrete and active” (Vine) cause of something.

Now I neither know (nor much care) how God’s creatio continua involving quantum events might have been involved in his determination of those biblical events, but I do know that it’s not Calvin’s teaching, but Luke’s. And it seems to me that it is far less likely to make God the author of sin than some non-Calvinistic evolutionary theologies I have mentioned.

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Yes, let’s stay on the topic of this thread: I’ll continue to claim that if God determines the outcome of every quantum event, then we’re left with determinism. It seems to me there are a few responses that can be made to this claim:

  1. Great! Determinism fits with the view of sovereignty we think is important to uphold. That seems to be the response you favor, and I don’t see much point in continuing to argue about it. Your “so you can cease to have anything to say to me” is putting the matter rather uncharitably, but after the amount of ink spilt on this issue over the centuries, I doubt you and I are going to solve it in the comments section of a blog. For every passage of scripture you cite that appears to affirm God’s total control of every situation, I can cite passages of scripture that appear to affirm that things happen that God is displeased with and did not intend. Scripture itself underdetermines this issue, and it is the systems of theology we place onto scripture that are so clear.

  2. Reductio ad absurdum. We’ve reached a conclusion that is not acceptable, so there must have been something in the premises that went awry. That’s what I’ve been claiming. I don’t think Russell’s quantum view (unless supplemented with something else) ultimately gives us what we’re looking for. Either we’re left with determinism (God determines all quantum events), or with episodic deism (God determines some but not all quantum events). It is not yet a model that explains God’s providential guidance of the created order.

  3. Bad science. It might be responded that the determination of the outcome of quantum events does not result in determinism. There is discussion about the amplifying effect of quantum events and whether it is sufficient to have macroscopic influence. I’m intrigued by these discussions, but I’m not really qualified to assess their merits.

I think that’s all I have to say about the issues related to Russell’s position. I propose we continue discussion of divine action in the comments of the next posts on the topic.

If God determines everything, then wouldn’t he be responsible for the writing of the Qur’an?

Reasonable non-interventionist explanations for the first three of the above Biblical stories have been presented by skeptics: (1) A steady wind might have opened a path through the shallow Reed Sea allowing passage on foot but not by the Egyptian chariots. Retelling this event through many generations exaggerated its physical nature so that it fits DeMille’s epic depiction in the movie. (2) The miracle of “feeding the five thousand” might be that Jesus’ appeal to brotherly love induced the minority of the crowd who had the foresight to bring along food to share it with those who had not. (3) Squalls come and go with great rapidity over Lake Genesereth, and this episode might have easily been just an against-the-odds coincidence. (4) Jesus’ resurrection has to be an instance of true intervention or else Christianity is meaningless.

The discussions on this ‘miracles thread’ are very interesting on a high philosophical/theological level, but I wonder if many in the BioLogos audience might like it brought more ‘down to earth’–with more examples that relate directly to our lives today. In my case I have wondered almost daily why, at the age of 19 in WWII, I survived two incidences that the doctors said were against all the odds–no breaking of the laws of nature, but that 19 yr. old kid’s body should have been in a military cemetery since 1945. And not too many years ago I took part in an event (which I described in a previous post as the ‘Miracle of the Panel Truck’) which again was miraculous in the sense that it was against the odds by many millions to one. I think that this ‘thread on the miraculous’ should focus more on God’s ability to ‘work against impossible odds’ to accomplish His objectives.
Al Leo

This reasoning is, for me, a strong impetus to favor evolution and replacing Original Sin with Original Blessing. Over millions of years animal evolution led steadily towards larger brains and greater consciousness. At the point that self-consciousness led to the formation of Mind from Brain, Homo sapiens could appreciate he was a creature among other creatures and that he owed homage to his Creator. At that point he had the choice of following his selfish instincts or attempting to discern and to follow what his Creator had planned for him; i.e. he was blessed with a conscience. Sin is an unavoidable consequence of being free to accept or reject that blessing.
Al Leo

Hi Al

I don’t fully agree with that, for a couple of reasons - the first being my main objection to George Murphy’s position - that if God created an evolutionary process (plus your “human” stages) in which sin is, by nature inevitable, then God is indeed the author of sin (but justifiably, to allow “freedom”). But disagreement aside, it underscores my point that seeing God as, somehow, “implicated” in sin creatorially is not simply the province of Calvinists. No theological scheme exists which, when thought through, doesn’t give at least some people cause to blame God for evil.

And that seemed to be Jim’s main reason for seeing Russell’s proposition as untenable - though there are some who would see nature’s “freedom” to be compromised if God determined events so that mankind would evolve with all the particular blessings you mention.

Incidentally, regarding my two other trifling disagreements the first is linked: sin cannot, surely, be an inevitable consequence of free will, if salvation finally brings us to the state where we are still free, but perfected from any possibility of sin. Likewise, Jesus was a man like us, but without sin. It must, then, depend on some additional individual propensity, or choice, to sin.

That leads to my other objection - and that is the assumption that evolution leads to “selfish instincts”. As I’ve written elsewhere, even Dawkins’ metaphorical selfish genes are just as likely to create selfless behaviour, if that’s what leads to survival (there are countless examples in nature, such that Conor Cunningam observes that cooperation is the norm, and competition only local and restricted, in evolution). Chimps may sometimes be aggressive (but lacking selves, not “selfish”), but we share as many genes with bonobos, which are seen as paradigms of selflessness and mutual cooperation (not to mention being poster children for the Woodstock generation’s concept of “love”!). Darwinian evolution depends on being luckily endowed, not selfish.

Additionally, sin, in the Bible, is not ontologically “selfishness”, but rebellion against God’s Lordship - is there really an evolutionary background to the concept of lordship, let alone disobedience?

Note to Beaglelady: The answer to your question is, “No, it was written by God’s wife,” for as any Muslim will tell you, for God to be responsible for producing a son entails his having a wife, were it not that you Christians insist on denying the obvious by metaphysical arguments. Your Bible even says, for instance, that God put a lying spirit in the mouth of a false prophet, and even your St Paul that “God sends [the disobedient] a powerful delusion, so that they will believe a lie” - which of course would make God the author of evil: unthinkable.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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