God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure. (WCF 5:3)
Gardening is hard work, or so I’ve heard. Few folks understand delayed gratification like gardeners. Sure, at the harvest you’ll enjoy all sorts of veggies, but first comes the spade work. The first part of this article is spade work, so bear with me. Defining our terms is especially important when we’re distinguishing between ordinary providence and miracles. Once we’ve gotten our definitions in place, we’ll explore some tactical observations.
WCF 5.2 and 5.3 provide us with the categories necessary for us to make sense of God’s dealings with us and our world. We learn in 5.2 that God ordinarily brings His purposes to pass “according to the nature of second causes.” C.S. Lewis spoke of this ordinary providence as “that which the previous physical history of the universe, by its own character, would inevitably produce” (Miracles, [New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996], 284]. He goes on to say, “The ‘naturalness’ of natural events does not consist in being somehow outside of God’s providence. It consists in their being interlocked with one another inside a common space-time in accordance with the fixed pattern of the ‘laws’”. Here Lewis is in agreement with the Westminster Assembly. God’s ordinary providence is carried out according to the laws of nature God established at creation (the nature of second causes).
If this makes us nervous, it’s probably because we’ve had one too many encounters with atheists or deists who deny the fact of God’s providence. But our theology should form as we’re reflecting on Scripture, not in reaction to error. In Genesis 1:12, we learn that “the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” Michael Horton helps us understand how this fits into the personal view of providence I’ve argued for thus far. He writes,
When the earth itself brings forth fruit, it is no less due ultimately to God’s generous and sovereign involvement than when he created trees in the first place. God not only created the world with its own inherent potential for fruitfulness, but continues to work in the Son and by the Spirit to enable creation to bring forth fruit – that is, to enable each thing to do what it has been ‘worded’ to do…. Genesis 1 itself tells us that natural causes can be easily discerned: the earth brought forth fruit. Yet, these natural explanations are not exhaustive. We can say that God healed someone of cancer and that the doctors healed him or her. God is no less to be praised when he works through ordinary means that he has created and sustains than when he acts unilaterally and miraculously. (Pilgrim Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012], 111-112. Emphasis mine)
So God typically works through the laws of nature He established in the beginning; however, Horton introduces us to the second classification of God’s providential acts – miracles. To frame the term up in Westminsterian fashion, miracles are events in which God exercises his freedom “to work without, above, and against [second causes].” If Lewis defines ordinary providence as “that which the previous physical history of the universe, by its own character, would inevitably produce,” he defines miracles as that which is “not interlocked with the history of Nature in the backward direction – i.e. in the time before their occurrence” (283). In other words, in ordinary providence, something happens as the natural result of what came before it. So, to use one of Horton’s examples: childbirth. According to Horton, “Childbirth is not a miracle, but one of the most marvelous examples of God’s mighty providence” (112). Why is childbirth an ordinary providence? Because it’s the natural effect of intercourse, fertilization, and pregnancy. In contrast to this ordinary providence stands the birth of Jesus, which was not brought about as the consequence of any prior human action or natural event. Mary was a virgin who was found to be with child. That’s a miracle.
Now that we’ve defined our terms, we can draw two conclusions from these categories of providence:
First, because God most often uses “secondary causes,” we should devote ourselves to scientific study. Of all people, Christians should be the most diligent, most insightful observers of the universe. The church should be filled with neuroscientists, physicists, and engineers. God uses the scientific knowledge these folks acquire and apply to remove tumors from our brains, to launch satellites into orbit, and to build the machines necessary to those tasks. An integral aspect of dominion is technological advance. Such advance will be the means (when sanctified by Gospel progress) by which our children’s children will enjoy the millennial conditions described in Isaiah 65.
Second, because God also works miracles (meaning he works “without, above, and against” secondary causes), Biblical claims aren’t subject to scientific critique. When unbelievers attack the claims of Christianity (e.g., the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension, the second coming) on the grounds of scientific improbability, we need not feel compelled to give them a scientific explanation for those events. Our convictions arise from the presupposition that the Bible is the infallible word of God. The Scriptures teach that God works miracles; it teaches that Christ was born of a virgin, was crucified and was resurrected, and that He now sits at the right hand of the Father and will return again. We’re not required to give an explanation of how these events fit within the laws of nature – they don’t. That’s why they’re called miracles.
The Westminster Standards teach us to take scientific inquiry seriously, though they also teach us we don’t have to play by the rules of another worldview. Miracles happen; God does work “without, above, and against” secondary causes. The biblical worldview understands that.
Now Apply It!
- How does the existence of miracles change the way you defend Biblical Christianity in the public square? What would you say to someone who says, “Dead people don’t rise from the grave?”