God, Miracles, and the Laws of Nature

By Beth Hyduke

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When we use terminology like "the laws of nature," it implies, to a certain extent, that nature and science operate autonomously and function independently, and that they exist as impersonal forces or laws that are immutably binding on all cosmic matter. You hear this particular dogma preached a lot, especially from the pulpits of the scientific community where Jesus' changing of water into wine or walking on water or being raised from the dead are all disallowed as each account violates multiple scientific and natural principles, including the laws of physics, hydrostatics, and biogenesis. Essentially, the modern-day scientific platform is that perceptible scientific data and the principles or "natural laws" they substantiate are inviolable to the point that everything else becomes subject to them. That which is supernatural has no place in a construct where science/nature is crowned as the supreme ruling cosmic force, so as a result, God and the miracles He claims to author are viewed with skepticism and ultimately rejected.

This concept is so universally accepted that it's even found in the trusty old Merriam-Webster dictionary. Under "Nature" this definition is given: "the natural forces that control what happens in the world." Wow, I wonder how Merriam-Webster defines "God." Like this, apparently: "a spirit or being that is worshiped as the one who created and rules the universe, has great power, strength, knowledge, etc. and that can affect nature and the lives of people." So according to the dictionary, while nature controls what happens in our world, God's scope of power and authority is limited to a merely influential role.

This concept in which nature, not God, is the sovereign force is so prevalent and pervasive in our culture that even many theists start out presupposing that the premise is valid. To reconcile this belief in nature with belief in God, theists usually end up adopting some version of the hybrid belief that God, like a Cosmic Tinker, started the universe, wound it up, and set it in motion, having created rules and laws for it by which it could govern itself and operate and function on its own. Once nature governs itself by means of its own intrinsic laws, there's no further need for an extrinsic Law-Giver so God steps out of the picture to let nature run its course, and only steps back in when some divine influence is seriously necessary.

Let's just assume for a moment that this premise is valid, and that the "laws of nature" are a major, if not ultimate, authority that governs and rules the natural universe. All atheists adopt this viewpoint. However, if we happen to be theists who make a similar basic assumption, we run smack into the immediate problem of what to do with a supernatural God who operates outside, and sometimes directly against, these perceived natural laws. To reasonably explain the supernatural from our working hypothesis that nature controls what happens in the world, we are limited to three options, and all three are problematic. The first explanation is that God breaks His own rules by going against the natural laws He created, established, and inaugurated to govern the world independently of Him. The second option is a little more polite, but roughly the same as the first: God doesn't break any of His laws, He merely bends them by somehow altering the fabric of science/nature itself to make special allowance for the miraculous. The third option is where it gets really desperate. This explanation postulates that miracles aren't miracles at all, but just God doing perfect science that is so advanced beyond our understanding that we can't recognize the natural processes God is harnessing behind the parlor trick. So because we don't understand it, we mistakenly attribute it to the supernatural rather than supreme, immutable forces of nature to which even God must submit and confine all His operations. (People bend over backwards trying to make this one fit. I read something on an internet forum once where a guy hypothesized that Jesus' turning water into wine was nothing more than an advanced science experiment Jesus successfully pulled off by tapping into complex, as-yet-unknown formulas to effect the formation of carbon molecules, and that by generating them in the water substrate, it resulted in a chemical compound that passed for wine. He concluded that as our knowledge of chemistry and physics grows, we will one day be able to reproduce this same result in a test tube.)
God's miracles don't break the "laws" of nature; the laws of nature move out of His way. tweet
Now, obviously, this third explanation is problematic for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. The miracles in the Bible are not presented as science experiments or magic tricks but as legitimate supernatural occurrences. As such, they are of a divine origin and are therefore indicative of God's supremacy over nature and the created realm, not His advanced knowledge and mastery of the machine of science which He claims to have created but to which He is also ludicrously subordinate. Throughout the Bible, miracles are always done in order to reveal God's divine identity and His supernatural authority. The first two explanations are also problematic though because they necessarily assume that God is inconsistent in His essential being and character. If God created nature and its laws, then in order for Him to work a miracle that, by popular definition, defies natural law, He must therefore be guilty of breaking or subverting the very laws which He established, and which proceeded from His own character. This is obviously a significant problem as it would mean that God has violated His own character and providence in self-contradiction by overturning laws He formerly authored and ordained.

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Published 4-12-16