A response to John Hileman
(The following is my response to @JohnHileman who sent me a message on Twitter earlier this evening.)
Thank you for raising those questions to me on Twitter and directing me to your article (Hileman, 2011). You asked me two questions; first, whether or not I believe in miracles, and second, what I think of your story about faith.
Do I believe in miracles? The short answer is yes. However, I do not really look at miracles in the way they are most commonly supposed, as violations of nature by an act of God. On the one hand, I tend toward a view that is most succinctly captured by Augustine who said, “Miracles do not happen in contradiction to nature, but only in contradiction to that which is known to us in nature,” such that the term ‘miracle’ is sort of shorthand for our ignorance of how God accomplished some extraordinary thing he did. On the other hand, I tend toward a view of the Creator and the cosmos that the Israelites of the ancient Near East held, in that everything is an act of God. As noted by John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, there was no concept of a ‘natural’ versus ‘supernatural’ dichotomy in their world view. That is a relatively modern invention. God revealed to them—and to us through them—that everything is a product of him acting. “Every plant that grew, every baby born, every drop of rain and every climatic disaster was an act of God,” Walton observed. “There were no ‘miracles’ (in the sense of events deviating from that which was ‘natural’), there were only signs of [God’s] activity (sometimes favorable, sometimes not). The idea that deity got things running then just stood back or engaged himself elsewhere (deism) would have been laughable in the ancient world because it was not even conceivable. As suggested by Richard Bube, if God were to unplug himself in that way from the cosmos, we and everything else in the cosmos would simply cease to exist. … The categories of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ had no meaning to them, let alone any interest” (2009, pp. 20-21). The universe would not exist but for the providential sustaining power of this covenant God. All of creation exists by him, through him, and for him; by his word all things were created and have their being; all things are held together in him. This is the biblical world view to which I am committed.
What do I think of your story of faith? Well it is edifying, first of all, and I thank you for sharing it. Although there were fewer players involved, I experienced something that was not too unlike your story. My wife and I along with our newborn daughter had gone for a long drive away from civilization; we were looking to enjoy a warm Sunday afternoon at a lake someone had told us about. At the end of the day, as we started to make our way back toward civilization our car got stuck, and quite badly. It was just the three of us, in the middle of nowhere and very alone as the afternoon was creeping toward evening. This was a few years before the ubiquity of cell phones, and it would have taken several hours of walking before reaching any signs of civilization. There was nothing we could do but pray, and we certainly did. About 30 minutes later a tow truck showed up. In the middle of nowhere. On a single-lane dirt road in the woods. Several miles from anything. A tow truck. Did I mention that our car was badly stuck? How perfect is a tow truck? Later that night after our daughter was asleep in her crib, my wife and I grabbed the telephone book to find the number for the towing company whose name was on the side of the truck. We wanted to get the name of the gentleman so we could send him some kind of thank you gift. There was no listing for a towing company by that name. We called a couple of listed numbers and were told they had never heard of a company by that name. It was a mystery. I am not suggesting that he was an angel who specially appeared from God in answer our prayer, but to my wife and I that man certainly was an angel, even if metaphorically. I have no idea who he was, where he was from, or what he was doing with a tow truck in the middle of nowhere, just what we needed and at just the right time, but I do give God all the glory for that answer to our prayer.
Is there a plausible and perfectly ‘natural’ explanation for our experience? Maybe. I have a very good imagination and can think of any number of perfectly ‘natural’ explanations for a tow truck being in the woods miles away from civilization as evening was drawing near. Perhaps he worked for a local towing company and had recently purchased this tow truck from another town and was just taking it for a drive to check it out. Who knows. But as I indicated earlier, I reject the notion that miracles are violations of nature by an act of God. At the most profound end of the spectrum, miracles are events which contradict what we know about nature—and when it comes to nature we have more ignorance than knowledge, a fact which our scientific pursuits keep humbling us with. We have no idea how Jesus walked on water, for example, but we cannot on that basis conclude that it therefore violated the laws of nature. Maybe there is a scientific explanation for how he did that, which we have yet to discover. We have such a long, long way to go before we truly understand the laws of nature. As I said, ‘miracle’ in this sense is shorthand for our ignorance of how God accomplished some extraordinary thing he did. He is a covenant God of promise: he will not violate the laws of nature (cf. Jeremiah 33:25-26, “But I, the LORD, make the following promise: I have made a covenant governing the coming of day and night. I have established the fixed laws governing heaven and earth. Just as surely as I have done this, so surely will I never reject the descendants of Jacob. Nor will I ever refuse to choose one of my servant David’s descendants to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”).
But as I also indicated earlier, everything is an act of God. As such I glorify him for the entire experience—for our getting stuck, for the tow truck appearing, for the lessons of faith that we learned, for however it edifies those I share the story with and so forth. And the same should apply to the story that you shared. You are a writer so you also have a very good imagination and could probably think of any number of perfectly ‘natural’ explanations that would account for the various elements in the story. But even supposing one of those explanations being the case, would that mean that it was not an act of God in answer to your wife’s prayer? According to the biblical world view to which I am committed, it certainly was an act of God in answer to her prayer; as such I would say her attitude (and yours) and what she said to your daughter was right and entirely consistent with what God reveals about himself and his creation. Like I said to you over Twitter earlier, “I think you and your wife glorified God for his providential care.” I appreciate your story, particularly the way it made me reflect upon my own similar experience and motivated me to thank him all over again.
John Hileman, “Is it really God?” John Michael Hileman [blog] (2011, August 2).
John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).