“Natural” and “Supernatural” are Modern Categories, Not Biblical Ones

(system) #1

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/archive/natural-and-supernatural-are-modern-categories-not-biblical-ones

(George Brooks) #2

After reading this essay, I have only one question:

If the thesis were true, I don’t think Abraham and Sarah would have laughed:

Gen 17:17
**Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?
Shall Sarah, who is

ninety years old,

bear a child?"**

(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

Having “natural” and “supernatural” conceptual categories is not a prerequisite for having “this is how things work” and “this is not how things normally work” categories.

I’m not an anthropologist, but I doubt the human culture ever existed that couldn’t be surprised by something. [i.e. every culture for survival reasons alone has to have a “this is how things normally work” category --the one they would in fact be living by!]

(Chris Falter) #4

What a wonderful essay! My favorite passages:

just as Adam is introduced to us as one formed from dust, so we understand that we are all formed from dust, designed to be mortal and frail (Ps. 103:14; 1 Cor. 15:47-48). The text is not trying to tell us how Adam is different, but to tell us how we are all the same. In Genesis we don’t learn that Adam’s creation was supernatural while the rest of us are born through a natural process. We learn that humankind from the very beginning was created with mortal bodies but that God was going to provide an antidote.

On the viability of distinguishing between natural and supernatural:

God’s activity is not limited to what scientifically describable cause and effect processes fail to explain; he is engaged in working through all processes.

On the message of Genesis for what it means to be human:

humans are not merely the result of scientifically describable processes. God has made us ontologically distinct beings, regardless of the material processes involved. We are more than dust; and we are more than any phylogenetic ancestor. Furthermore, this ontological uniqueness cannot be simplified to the imposition of a soul or to the assignment as God’s images. Unique human ontology can’t be reduced to anthropological components because it concerns the fundamental nature of our being. We are more than what we are made of, and God is responsible for that.

On the question of science:

Evolutionary creationism does not call for minimal or occasional divine attention. It does not intend to remove God from involvement in creation.

On the whole, Walton seems to be calling for us to recognize the “Logos” along with the “Bio.”

(George Brooks) #5

Interesting …
You learned your debating skills on the recreation of the Ark, yes?

The word “miracle” has the following origin:

Origin of miracle: circa 1125–75 CE;
Middle English miracle, miracul (< Old French: miracle)
< Latin mīrāculum,
< equivalent to mīrā(rī) to wonder at + (a suffix that means “diminutive” !) -culum -cle

Literally: “a thing to cause a little wonder”. In comparison, “Surprise” almost sounds like a

(Matthew Pevarnik) #6

Have you read Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science by Francesca Rochberg? I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve got with it when I have time but it has some nice perspectives on the perspectives of the ancient near east/cuneiform world. It certain notes in the ‘signs and wonders’ section that spells out some thoughts on signs, omens, anomalies, marvels and wonders noting that:

An entire omen series was devoted to anomalous births (Summa izbu). Anomalies were, however, not defined against nature, or as preternatural, but against certain patterns within which phenomena were observed to occur in an ordered world.

On a separate note, there also of course are demonstrations of divine power by manipulation of celestial bodies. Rochberg cites Joshua 10:12-14, Enuma Elis IV 19-26 and Enuma Elis VII 130-31- so clearly these were a separate category but no different than the first in a sense where the divine communicated through anomalies, omens, etc.

(George Brooks) #7


There are nuances here. Moderns interpret moving constellations around as miraculous, because we are raised to believe no mortal or immortal has the power or wants the power to move constellations around.

Whereas the ancients were perfectly content with the idea that Gods could move constellations around… since the ancients had no idea what was actually involved in doing such a thing.

In the case of a 90 year old woman bearing children … one might explain Sarah’s surprise as not being due to such a thing being beyond the normal scope of natural operations - - but that God would take notice of her situation to do something about it.

But as we saw in Mervin’s response, that was not his explanation. His explanation was that she was surprised that it could be done at all. Indeed, that is my explanation as well… but I interpret that to be the very “bread and butter” of miracles generally!

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

Here is a situation I would be curious about, George, and would push back to Dr. Walton if indeed he was around to interact on it. What about Gideon in Judges? He seems to be an example of at least one person who may have been thinking somewhat in the categories that a scientist might think in today. He proposed one test to make sure it was God he was hearing from. But then … when that test comes back positive, he seems to doubt that his test was adequate … perhaps it gave him a false positive? So he devises a further test to test that. And so forth.

I still push back, (as George and I have been on each other in a couple private exchanges), but if I were him --this is the biblical situation I would press forward as exhibit A.

-One other exhibit being where the locals actually acknowledge that ‘chance’ might be the competing role with God in terms of where some oxen will deliver one Ark. But perhaps these two incidents are more telling for their isolated nature than they are good indicators of how cultures generally thought back then.

(Chris Falter) #9

Hi Merv -

I like the way you’re thinking about the Biblical data. With regard to Gideon, it seems he has a concept of natural (both fleece and ground will be in same state) vs. supernatural (one is wet, the other dry). Does that seem plausible to you? Although here the distinction might be God’s doing His usual thing vs. God’s listening to my prayer.

The oxen pulling the cart is quite interesting. The Philistines essentially ran an experiment:

You must watch; if it [the ark] goes up by the way of its territory to Beth Shemesh, he [YHWH] has caused this great disaster to come on us. But if not, then we will know his hand has not struck us; it was by chance that this happened to us.

I have a couple of questions about this passage:

  • How accurate is this translation? I have no expertise in Hebrew.
  • Does the fact that the Philistines thought this way indicate that the Bible sanctions the distinction between chance and God’s action? This is not an easy question, because the speakers were, after all, Philistines, not Israelites.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

That seems to me to be a good response that heeds Walton’s warnings against imposing our categories on them.

One other thing I note about both Gideon and the Philistines sending the ark, is that probably is not an accident that in both cases their “experiments” consistently come back positive. In other words, we can rightly be suspicious (along with the religious skeptics) that the “chance” or the “wasn’t God” option never wins out. It always turns out to be God. Which is probably tells us more what the bible is about [God, after all!] than it does about daily life in the ancient world. Had Gideon’s fleece not turned out the way it did, we wouldn’t be reading about it. I don’t think any of us doubt that many times in history similar kinds of confirmations would have been sought and yet denied.

Maybe all this is to acknowledge that while we may agree with Walton that “Natural” and “Supernatural” were not categories of theirs, they nonetheless were not above making “tests”.

(Doug B) #11

I am a bit confused also by the implication that the Israelites had no conception of the miraculous. Did they expect fire to fall on a waterlogged pile of logs or a wall of water to stand up so they could pass dry-shod through the Red Sea. The beginnings of history, the remembrance of the past for its own sake, are the Israelites remembering this miraculous deliverance from Egypt (in addition to their relation to a “wandering Aramean”).

If anything, they would not have distinguished between facts and values (right/wrong) as we do in our culture. Your math is solid ground for knowing something, but your theology is a personal whim. That would be the stranger distinction, the Cartesian one, I believe.