Should we stop using the word 'supernatural'?

(Mark D.) #41

Of course we humans thought the same about aether at one time. Revision of definitions based on speculation sometimes becomes advisable. That structure implies design is one of those.

(Daniel Fisher) #42

Is that an ad hominem on both Lewis and me together? I feel honored to be in such good company at least!


It isn’t so much of suspending my own worldview, as much as I object to imposing on another worldview some absolute knowledge of what they didn’t conceive of, without very, very, very good evidence. I have similar suspicion when someone tells me, with some level of certainty, what Ancient Babylonians did or didn’t conceive of, unless such statements are clearly stated as such in their own documentation.

And when there are ample counter-examples to the contrary, I think it wise to refrain from passing some absolute judgment on another culture that “they just didn’t understand / conceive of this…”

N.B., Lewis was in a unique position to challenge such anthropological and cross-cultural assumptions and group-think, by the way. Steeped as he was in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he was very familiar with people saying, “well, back in the Middle Ages, people didn’t conceive of X.” Yet he was familiar with a dozen works of that time period where people did in fact say X. Hence his skepticism of the methods and assumptions of much cultural anthropology are not dissimilar to mine.

For when I can, just off the top of my head, think of two-dozen counter examples in the Bible where those involved most certainly recognized God’s direct activity as something categorically different, operating in direct contrast to the way he normally operates within and through his creation… my skepticism is heightened.

And when what is believed by some to be the oldest book in the Bible includes a song of praise about God establishing “statutes” for creation which must obey him, and refers to “statutes” that “rule” the way the world operates, then my skepticism is further enchrenched against the idea that these ancient people in no way conceived of “natural laws”.

(Daniel Fisher) #43

They didn’t understand pregnancy to the same degree that we do, but they certainly understood the basics well enough… one more observation from Lewis, which I find inescapable…

'Miracles," said my friend. 'Oh, come. Science has knocked the bottom out of all that. We know that Nature is governed by fixed laws.’
‘Didn’t people always know that?’ said I.
‘Good Lord, no,’ said he. ‘For instance, take a story like the Virgin Birth. We know now that such a thing couldn’t happen. We know there must be a male spermatozoon.’
‘But look here’, said I, ‘St Joseph —‘
‘Who’s he?’ asked my friend.
‘He was the husband of the Virgin Mary. If you’ll read the story in the Bible you’ll find that when he saw his fiancée was going to have a baby he decided to cry off the marriage. Why did he do that?’
‘Wouldn’t most men?’
‘Any man would’, said I, ‘provided he knew the laws of Nature — in other words, provided he knew that a girl doesn’t ordinarily have a baby unless she’s been sleeping with a man. But according to your theory people in the old days didn’t know that Nature was governed by fixed laws. I’m pointing out that the story shows that St Joseph knew that law just as well as you do.’
‘But he came to believe in the Virgin Birth afterwards, didn’t he?’
‘Quite. But he didn’t do so because he was under any illusion as to where babies came from in the ordinary course of Nature. He believed in the Virgin Birth as something supernatural. He knew Nature works in fixed, regular ways: but he also believed that there existed something beyond Nature which could interfere with her workings — from outside, so to speak.’

(David Heddle) #44

I think “supernatural” is a perfect word. It means something that cannot ever, even in principle, be explained by the laws of physics (1). Ever. (The word has meaning even if it represents the null set, which I personally do not think is the case.) What is interesting to me is that a miracle (if you are lucky to be near one) could be observed and recorded and analyzed, but a natural explanation would never be forthcoming. (2) Virgin birth is no longer uncommon, but Mary’s virgin birth is forever inexplicable.

(1) I use “laws of physics” because of my “it’s all physics or stamp collecting” chauvinism.
(2) Although a good (believing) scientist who happened to witness a miracle should go to his/her deathbed trying to find a natural explanation. The famous Sydney Harris cartoon should remain a cartoon.

(Christy Hemphill) #45

Daniel, the Bible scholars who write OT commentaries have spent years studying such documentation in the Bible and in extant literature. They don’t just make the stuff up, and it has nothing to do with thinking people in Bible times were ignorant. On the flip side, can you point to a single example from ancient literature or the Bible that gives definitive evidence that the construct “natural law” existed? It’s fine to be skeptical, but that’s why you should take an anthropology class.

Do you think you have provided these? You haven’t. All you have pointed out it that people could recognize the difference between ordinary events and extraordinary ones. Nobody is arguing they couldn’t. That doesn’t in any way prove that they had a supernatural/natural distinction in their worldview.

Lewis was steeped in modernism and did not have the post-modern paradigm of perspectivalism that we have today. You can be as skeptical as you want of cultural anthropology. But it’s kind of obvious your skepticism is rooted in a lack of awareness of how it is done.

“Natural laws” as a philosophical construct has nature operating without God. That is not how the world is presented in Psalms, where God is actively reigning over creation.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #46

Even if it cannot be explained, it is still no less natural. I’d think before calling it ‘perfect’.

(Shawn T Murphy) #47

Dear David,
Mary’s “virgin birth” is just an illogical byproduct of the trinity dogma. The physical body of Jesus was conceived naturally, with Joseph as his biological father. But the spirit that incarnated into that body was the King of Heaven, the Son of God. Jospeh and Mary had other children in the same way. Mary’s virginity was, and still is, her spiritual purity. She was an incarnated angel of God, sent to carry the most precious gift of God, but Jesus had to become human in every way.

The birth of Jesus is shaded in the same mystery created to disguise illogical doctrines. Nothing supernatural here, unless you want to count the human birth of a pure soul as supernatural. (This has happened many times.)

Ref: Jesus - Insights into His Mission

(Daniel Fisher) #48

There’s a difference between “ordinary vs extraordinary,” and “ordinary vs impossible.”

Quail being blown into the camp by a natural wind just when they needed it was extraordinary, but not particularly impossible or inconceivable by the regular events of nature. Of course they recognized it as God’s hand, but as his hand working “with” or “alongside” his very typical forces of nature. It even explicitly attributes this event to natural causes, that God used the wind to blow the quail into the camp.

Walking around unscathed in a blazing fire that roasted and killed the very people who threw you into it isn’t “extraordinary,” it is impossible. And everyone in scene at that time knew it, Hebrew, Babylonian, etc. They knew enough to know this just isn’t how the world works. In this case they saw God working “against” the way he set up the world to operate.

I’m afraid I will never be convinced that the ancients were unable to recognize a categorical difference between those two “extraordinary” events.

I have read much of that, and it is from those readings that much of my skepticism has been born. If interesting, read Lewis’s article “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.” He explains far better than I could what makes him (us) very skeptical of much of the claims of the very erudite and scholarly modern biblical scholars when dealing with “what those ancient people knew/taught/believed.” My own skepticism is very similar.

Well, touché. By your definition, I clearly cannot. If we define “natural laws” as “nature operating without God,” then of course I concede. I expect I will find nothing in the Bible about nature operating entirely on its own without being under the authority of God.

But for that matter, by that definition, I don’t believe in “Natural Laws” either.

(David Heddle) #49

You are doing nothing beyond redefining supernatural to be natural. And telling someone to “think” is very annoying. On top of that, you are quote mining. I did not say if it can’t be explained it is not natural. That would mean that dark matter is, at the moment, not natural. I said if it can not be explained even in principle then it is supernatural.

(David Heddle) #50

I have to admit you speculate with admirable certainty. No distracting “this is what I think” qualifiers.

(Shawn T Murphy) #51

I have added my references to the post. Funny how I get attacked on a Christian site with Logos in its name when I write logical postings.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #52

The word “miracle” is in the NT. It means “sign” from God. The word supernatural is not in the Bible.

I am reminded of this verse written by Paul. 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 (NIV2011)**
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…

Paul found that the Jews were looking for signs (miracles,) while the Greeks were looking for wisdom (philosophy or the love of wisdom.) All he had to offer was the crucified Savior, but for the Jews and Greeks, who believed, Jesus was the power and wisdom of God.

People who want to accept salvation on their own terms are disappointed. These who accept Jesus as Savior on His terms are saved. We need to judge Christianity on its own terms, not based on signs or philosophy.

(Mark D.) #53

What else can any of us do? At the very least we must all decide what if any sources to accept as authoritative. If we can agree on some then we can work on figuring out how to interpret them. If not, welcome to my world where it is speculation all the way down.

(Erik Nelson) #54

Supernatural is a Latin word
Is it in the Vulgate?


This intrigued me. It’s not that I’m entirely unsympathetic to this notion…but I’d be curious to hear more of your thoughts as to why this is so in your opinion,

(Christy Hemphill) #56


(Shawn T Murphy) #57

Dear Mark,
I am just offering a different solution than is posted on this thread, one that is consistent with the acceptance of evolution into Christianity and that natural laws can account for all that we see around us, while allowing the Bible’s spiritual meaning to remain untouched. Immaculate conception and the earth being created in seven days violate natural laws and we can find other, logical explanations for them as I posted above.

(Mark D.) #58

I think I may have misspoken if apologetics is understood to mean the defense of ones religious beliefs. I was responding to the apologetics I’ve actually encountered which have felt much more like strident argumentation that only the apologist’s beliefs could possibly be correct. I’ve certainly conversed with any number of Christians capable of giving a perfectly good rationale for their beliefs without becoming pushy or defensive. This site seems loaded with the ‘good’ kind.

(Daniel Fisher) #59

Sir, you are aware that the two independently attested historical accounts of the virgin birth were written long before the church had debated and established what we refer to as “trinitarian dogma”, and around a hundred years before the first recorded use of the term “trinity”?

(jason patterson) #60

I’ve had similar thoughts. The term has never really bothered me but I think of everything as supernatural. Even something as mundane as hot water cooling to room temperature is super natural to me. If we know how something works we label it natural… I’m no scientist but I don’t think hot water has been cooling to room temperature for all eternity. I could be wrong.