Thursday, October 27, 2016

Miracles and the Laws of Science

In his famous essay “Of Miracles,” Hume defines a miracle as a “transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” (C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith, 126)

What are miracles? Are they transgressions of scientific laws? Many people especially atheists might think so. Statements might be made even by Christians that miracles involve a "suspension" of the laws of science, or that laws of science are inapplicable for the "special" occurrences when miracles happen. I would suggest however that such explanations are very unhelpful and give the wrong impression to others of how God works in this world.

Christianity is true. Thus, God is a personal being who acts on this world. Normally, he acts via providence, but sometimes he acts via miracles, which are distinct special acts different in kind from providence. The world therefore is always the theater of God's actions. Therefore, from a Christian perspective, the idea of a neutral impersonal world where God interrupts via miracles may be the perspective of skeptics, but it is certainly not the Christian perspective. Here already, we see a different starting point, a different interpretation grid as we attempt to understand miracles.

Next, we have to know what is science. Science is the study of how the world works through what is often term "the scientific method." To simplify things, science normally involves experimentation involving cause and effect to understand and formularize how various forces and processes in the world work. In experimentation, two of three things are present: initial conditions, final conditions, equation of process(es). An experiment or experiments are done (with controls) to figure out the unknown, experiments are repeated where possible, and thus scientific knowledge is gained.It must be noticed that the scientific method must assume methodological naturalism, or that only nature is at work in the scientific processes under study. One cannot assume a demon has tinkered with the scientific experimentation, or science would be undoable.

Putting the two together, science is the study of God's providence. But since miracles are not providence, obviously it is out of the domain of science. It is in that sense correct to say that the laws of science are "inapplicable" for miracles, or that the law of science are "suspended," but such statements are not helpful because they make it seem as if God somehow does away with the laws of science when He does miracles, but that is totally untrue.

When God works, He acts. In miracles, God works differently to create the outcome He desires. Thus, the best way to understand miracles is as an external force working through unknown (supernatural, spiritual) processes to accomplish the end of what God desires. A good way for us to understand such an action is through an analogy in science. Suppose that I add one mole of copper powder to two moles of hydrochloric acid (HCl) in solution. I would get one mole of Copper Chloride (CuCl2) solution, which is a blue solution. But suppose that someone added two moles of Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) solution to my nice blue solution, without my knowledge. The resulting mixture would be two moles of sodium chloride (NaCl) or common salt in solution with a nice precipitate of one mole of copper hydroxide (Cu(OH)2) at the bottom. Since I did not know of the tinkering done to my solution, what would I see? I would observe that adding copper powder to hydrochloric acid would give me a clear solution of sodium chloride and an insoluble greenish blue precipitate at the bottom. I would most certainly find it strange and suspect that my experiment has been tampered with, since I obviously know what I should be getting.

Miracles can be seen as analogous to the unknown person adding the NaOH solution to the reagent mixture. In miracles, God as a third party acts on the situation on hand, thus the outcome is not what we might have expected. Of course, God not only acts, he acts using divine processes and forces, and therefore the outcome may seem out of this world, but that does not imply a "suspension" of natural laws but rather processes that we do not know and could not qualify. Some miracles are obviously more "miraculous" than others, yet if we understand God as working, God did not transgress the "laws of science" because scientific laws cannot prevent the action of divine forces and processes from changing the outcome. When Jesus turned water into wine, Jesus could have teleported grapes into the containers, do a time acceleration warp, remove the fermented grapes and thus wine is produced.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, magic has been seen as advanced science. Miracles of course is not advanced science, but in concept there is nothing to suggest that is could not be miraculous forces causing the change as an external agent, not through breaking the laws of science, much like magic in the MCU are unknown forces causing changes as external agents. If we understand miracles in this manner, which I think is the better way to understand miracles, then we can show how miracles are not contrary to science, just contrary to scientism.

Again: On the Ontological Argument

The Ontological Argument for the existence of God is in my opinion a terrible argument. Of course, by smuggling in Christian premises, God is indeed the most perfect being, but for the argument to function as an apologetic, one must not consider Christians truths as premises in an argument meant to convince unbelievers. In light of the mainstream scientific theory of evolution and the history of the universe, the ontological argument sounds even more far-fetched than it was in the time of Anselm and Aquinas.

More sophisticated versions of the ontological argument attempt to ground the ontological argument not in theories about "being" but about existence or possible worlds theory. In the possible worlds theory, the premise is stated that God exists in at least one possible world, and therefore from there it is argued that God exists. But what does it mean to say that "God exists in at least one possible world"? If it is meant that there is such a possible world that can be conceived in the mind, then we run into similar problems as Anselm's original argument. Mental conception implies nothing about whether something is possible in reality. [Of course, conversely, inability to be conceived mentally implies nothing about whether something is possible in reality — the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility and ineffability]. One could say that "God exists in at least one possible mentally conceived world" but that is not the same as saying "God exists in at least one possible real world."

The argument from existence (from Norman Malcom) has the following form:

  1. If God exists, his existence is necessary.
  2. If God does not exist, his existence is impossible.
  3. Either God exists or he does not exists.
  4. Therefore, God's existence is either necessary or impossible.
  5. God's existence is possible (not impossible).
  6. Therefore, God's existence is necessary.
[C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith (2nd ed.; Contours of Christianity Philosophy; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1982, 2009), 65]

As the authors of this book had pointed out, premise 5 is questionable. And to clarify further, the doubting of premise 5 is only predicated of the descriptor of God as one necessarily existing. In other words, what this version of the ontological argument proves is that a God with necessary existence either exists or is impossible to exist. But as we can see, that is a tautology.

The ontological arguments I have seen thus far either suffer from ideas about "being" or ontological attributes that are disputed as to their possible perfection or existence, or they become tautologies. I do not see any way such arguments can actually function in any context, and thus we should stop using them altogether.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Law-Gospel distinction

The Law-Gospel distinction has sometimes been thought of as "Lutheran" and thus not Reformed. This kind of thinking however obscure the very real similarities between traditional (confessional) Reformed and Lutheran thought. Both Reformed and Lutheranism came out of the same 16th century Reformation, and at the beginning they were not trying to be different for the sake of being different. Rather, whatever Luther and Lutheran theologians said that were biblical, the Reformed appropriated it. The Reformed of that time were about embracing and confessing the truth from Scripture, not about creating boundary markers against foes real and imagined except where necessary (and most definitely not against "Big Eva").

The Reformed view the Law-Gospel distinction typically with a more covenantal slant. Thus, the Law-Gospel distinction is translated into the Covenant of Works- Covenant of Grace distinction. In the Covenant of Works, we are told to "Do this and Live" (Lev. 18:5, Gal. 3:12). Since we cannot do, we stand condemned under the law, under the broken covenant of works. But under the Covenant of Grace, we are told "It is done." The Gospel proclaims to us what we cannot do of our own accord. We failed, we sinned, but where we fail, where Adam fail, Christ succeeded. We are now under grace, not because we do not have to obey the Law, but because we are not under the condemnation of the Law as a covenant of works.

While I will not yet commit to a definitive judgment on the Marrow controversy (in Scotland in the early 18th century), it seems to me that the Marrow men have it right. John Colquhuon (pronounced "ka-hoon") (1748-1827) was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who wrote what is probably one of the best books on the topic of Law and Gospel in the Reformed tradition. His book is entitled A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, and is highly recommended for its balance and pastoral concern. Here are some choice quotes from the book:

In the Sinaitic transaction, the hewing of the latter tables of stone by Moses, before God wrote the Ten Commandments on them, might be intended to teach sinners that they must be convinced of their sin and misery by the law as a covenant of works before it can be written legibly on their hearts as a rule of life (p. 60)

The gospel, in this its strict and proper sense, seeing it is the form of Christ’s testament which consists of absolute and free promises of salvation by Him, contains no precepts. It commands nothing. It does not enjoin us even to believe and repent; but it declares to us what God in Christ as a God of grace has done, and what He promises still to do for us and in us and by us. (p. 105)

In the blessed gospel, Christ, and God in Christ, are freely offered to sinful men, and men are graciously invited as sinners to receive the offer and to entrust the whole affair of their salvation to Christ, and to God in Him (John 6:32; Isaiah 55:1-4) (p. 120).

The law wounds and terrifies the guilty sinner; the gospel heals and comforts the guilty sinner who believes in Jesus. (p. 151)

Whatever is required in the covenant of works as the condition of eternal life is, according to the covenant of grace, provided and given gratuitously to believing sinners. (p. 156)

The law, as a covenant of works and a rule of life, demands nothing of sinners but what is offered and promised in the gospel; and in the gospel everything is freely promised and offered to them which the law, in any of its forms, requires of them. (p. 161).

The law requires true holiness of heart and of life, and the gospel promises and conveys this holiness. (p. 168).

As it was the privilege of the Christians in Rome, so it is the privilege of all true Christians, in every place and in every age, that they are dead to the law as a covenant of works, and that the law in that form is dead to them. (p. 198)

As the relation between the husband and spouse is dissolved by death (Romans 7:2), so the relation between the law as a covenant and believers is, in the moment of their justification, dissolved (Romans 7:4). (p. 203)

When it comes to the Law and the Gospel, the twin dangers are Legalism (Gospel is not good news but more law), and Antinomianism (The Law is to be disregarded). Throughout the history of the Christian church, groups have veered into one or the other. If we embrace a Law-Gospel distinction, how should we understand these twin errors? Here Colquhuon puts it succinctly:

There are two errors respecting the deliverance of believers from the law which are equally contrary to the Oracles of Truth. The one is that of the legalist who maintains that believers are still under the moral law as covenant of works; the other is that of the antinomian who affirms that believers are not under it even as a rule of life. (p. 205)

In other words, the Legalist puts salvation dependent upon our good works. While they may pay lip service to grace, they hang the Law as a threat and motivator to goad believers to be good or to do good works. For legalists, we must preach the Law to make believers do good works, and imply that failure to obey the Law will make them somehow less welcome in God's sight.

The Antinomian does the exact opposite. The Antinomian does not really focus on good works. He is only interested to tell believers about "grace, grace, grace" without calling them to live holy lives for God. At best, an antinomian thinks of sanctification as an automatic process, and all anyone has to do is to think about grace and he will be holy.

Here, again, Colquhuon has excellent counsel for how we are to navigate the Christian Life. How should we live our lives and deal with the vestiges of our our sinful nature while cultivating the proper desire to do good works?

If Christ is the way to God and to glory, and it He is the way of holiness, or the holy way, then you who have believed through grace ought to take heed that you walk consistently in that way. “As you have, therefore, received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Colossians 2:6). In union with Him, go forward daily in the exercise of faith and love, and in the practice of holiness. Depending on his grace and strength, advance with holy diligence and with increasing ardor in the daily practice of these good works which are works of faith and labors of love. Make constant progress in your exercise of faith, and by sanctifying and comforting influences from the fullness of Christ, walk on with cheerfulness and resolution in Him as your way to the perfection of holiness and of happiness. (pp. 317-318)

They not only look, therefore, to the law as a rule for authority to oblige them to the practice of good works, as well as for direction in performing them, but the look also to the gospel, and to the Savior offered in it, for strength to perform them, for merit to render them acceptable to God, and for a reward of grace to crown them. (p. 320)

The Law is the standard, the goal. But to the Christian, it the Gospel who gives them strength for sanctification. While desiring to obey the Law can be a motivator for good works, it must be grounded in one's love for God because of his gratefulness for an-already present salvation. Sanctification is about gratefulness, not about earning brownie points before God, for after all, who can give anything to the God who owns anything anyway?

The Law-Gospel distinction is a distinction that preserves the necessity of the Law and the glory of the Gospel. We must get it right in order that we may not put believers back under bondage, yet to encourage them to be holy and do good works. It is because of this that Colquhuon's book seem to be me very important for the task at hand, so that Christians can be edified and assured of their standing before God.