Reasons to Believe

It’s a Miracle! Or, is it?

The participants in a recently produced audiotape series from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) suggest that Hugh Ross’s belief in “progressive creation”[1] means he believes that God wasn’t “supernaturally creating” but rather that the universe came about through “strictly natural processes.”[2], [3] Later in the discussion, the panel asserts that Ross “denies the biblical account of creation miracles” while affirming other miracles chronicled in the Bible, such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Based on this mischaracterization they go on to allege that Ross’s position is philosophically “inconsistent” and more closely reflects the methodology of higher criticism than that of evangelical Christianity.

Part of the confusion concerning Ross’s position on miracles may be rooted in terminology, namely transcendent miracles and nontranscendent miracles, which Ross uses to describe his observations of the biblical text, based largely on his perspective as a trained scientist.[4] For this reason, it seems prudent to offer a fuller explanation of Ross’s view of the way God interacts with His creation and how this squares with the biblical text and historic Christianity on the nature of miracles.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) describes God’s interaction with His creation in this way: “God, in his ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.”[5] The universe includes more than just energy and matter. Built into it are physical laws that govern how parts of the universe interact with one another. This governance is part of what God has ordained as ordinary providence. Normally, God works through secondary causes (such as human free agency or the laws of nature) to care for His creation. Biblical examples of ordinary providence include the sending of rain (Acts 14:17), controlling of the weather (Psalm 104:31-32), provision of food for animals (Psalm 104:14, 21), and making the grass grow for humans to cultivate (Psalm 104:14). But God is no absentee landlord—the Bible continually reminds us that the Creator is immanently involved with these so-called “natural” acts, even human reproduction (Psalm 139:13). So, although the universe appears from a physical perspective to be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating, the operations of the universe are directly dependent on the Creator. God constantly sustains and guides such secondary causes in order to produce results He desires.

Because God brought the physical universe into existence, and stands above and beyond the physics of this space-time continuum, He also has the capacity to intervene, redirecting or suspending these laws for His specific purposes. The traditional term for this intervention is extraordinary providence, commonly understood as “miracle.” Classic Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof briefly defines extraordinary providence as those instances in which “God works immediately or without the mediation of second causes in their ordinary operation.”[6] According to Berkhof, this providence would include situations in which God might use the forces of nature “in a way that was out of the ordinary to produce unexpected results.”[7]

With this understanding in mind, one can briefly explore Ross’s theology of miracles and see how it aligns with the traditional categories. Based on his background as a physicist, Ross introduces a distinction between nontranscendent and transcendent miracles, which might be best understood as subcategories of extraordinary providence.

God’s Interaction with His Creation

     

Ordinary Providence

God works within His creation to fulfill His purposes.

 

 

Extraordinary Providence

God works within or without His creation to fulfill His purposes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nontranscendent
Miracles
Transcendent
Miracles

 Ross defines nontranscendent miracles as works of God in which He redirects the laws of nature to bring about His divine purposes. These acts of God may or may not seem outside the ordinary course of events but upon closer examination “reveal supernatural design, timing and placement” to some discernible degree.[8] Biblical examples of nontranscendent miracles might include the torrential rain during Noah’s flood that wiped out all humanity, or the great catch of fish the disciples netted when Jesus commanded them to lower their nets. Examples of nontranscendent miracles in the record of nature would be the formation of the Moon[9] or the faint Sun paradox.[10]

At other times God seems to suspend the laws of nature in order to intervene in a spectacular fashion. Ross classifies these events as transcendent miracles because they defy the laws of physics. Biblical examples of so-called transcendent miracles would include the virgin conception of Christ, his bodily resurrection, and his walking on water. In the realm of nature, transcendent miracles would include the creation of higher animals and the creation of the first humans, Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:27-28).

This sampling of familiar biblical miracles may help to further distinguish between Ross’s two classifications of extraordinary providence:

Nontranscendent
miracles

Transcendent
miracles

Egyptian plagues of locusts, flies, frogs, darkness, hail Virgin conception of Jesus
Noah’s flood, and wind sent to speed evaporation of flood waters Resurrection of Jesus Christ
The disciples’ large catch of fish Feeding of the 5,000
Wind sent to part the Red Sea Healing those without sight, hearing, or speech
Bethlehem star Transformation of water into wine
Wind that blew quail from the sea to feed the Israelites Flotation of the ax head
Sudden, simultaneous death of Sennacherib’s troops Incineration of Elijah’s wooden, water-drenched altar
Aramean army abandoning their tents, weapons, and booty because of sounds in the night Suspended consumption of Moses’ bush

 Under the heading of extraordinary providence, then, it has been suggested that God works in two ways: 1) nontranscendent miracles: God’s working via secondary causes in order to bring about a result “above” their ordinary potential, or 2) transcendent miracles: God’s working “without” or “against ordinary means” and directly intervening to bring about an extraordinary result.[11]

Ross is not alone in recognizing biblical support for subdividing, based on scientific observations, the classical category of extraordinary providence. Theologian John Jefferson Davis suggests that God is free to relate to the natural order in any of three ways: ordinary providence, extraordinary providence, and miracles.

In ordinary providence, God works immanently through the laws of nature, such   as causing the grass to grow for cattle (Ps. 104:14), or creating animals through the normal biological processes of gestation (Ps. 104:24,30). In extraordinary providence, God redirects the forces and laws of nature for a redemptive purpose, such as causing a wind to blow quail from the sea to feed the Israelites during the wilderness wanderings (Num. 11:31). In miracles God transcends or suspends the ordinary laws of nature for a redemptive purpose, illustrated by the floating ax head (2 Kings 6:6), the feeding of the five thousand by Christ, or his bodily resurrection.[12]

Based on this discussion, it would seem that Davis’ definition of extraordinary providence is roughly the same as Ross’s understanding of nontranscendent miracles, while Davis’ term miracles refers to what Ross calls transcendent miracles. Although both men employ their own terminology, they seem to refer to similar ideas. Two minor differences are that Davis includes the qualifier that events of extraordinary providence and miracles have a “redemptive purpose,” and Ross uses the term nontranscendent miracles to include such events as the Moon’s formation.[13]

Returning to the original objection proposed by the ICR panelists: Is Hugh Ross’s belief in nontranscendent miracles (e.g., the formation of the Moon as a result of a Mars-sized collider hitting the earth) inconsistent with a belief in transcendent miracles (e.g., the creation of the physical universe)? The answer is no—no more than it would be inconsistent to believe simultaneously in the parting of the Red Sea and the virgin birth. Despite his unique terminology, Ross’s view of God’s providence and miracles falls squarely within mainstream evangelical doctrine. Nowhere in Ross’s writings does he suggest that God created strictly through natural processes. Neither does he ever limit God’s creative acts exclusively to those of ordinary providence. On the contrary, Ross has been, for over two decades, on the frontiers of Christian scholarship that promotes a biblical and scientific case against Darwinism and deism. According to Ross, God may have supernaturally intervened millions, possibly even billions, of times throughout the history of the universe. †

 

Krista Kay Bontrager is the producer and moderator of a weekly live Webcast, Creation Update, sponsored by Reasons To Believe, and has taught courses in Biblical Studies and Theology at Biola University. She holds an M.A. in Theology and an M.A. in Bible Exposition from Talbot School of Theology and a B.A. in Radio/TV/Film from Biola University. Krista and her husband, Robert, live in Southern California with their two daughters.

Notes:

[1] Hugh Ross prefers the term “day-age creationism” over “progressive creationism” because so many people confuse the latter with “theistic evolutionism” (supernaturally guided evolution), which is not an accurate summary of his position. In fact, it is his position that Darwinism cannot be supported biblically or scientifically.
[2] John Morris et al., “Episode 1: Building the Foundation,” After Eden: Understanding Creation, the Curse, and the Cross, quote by Cris O’Brian (Institute for Creation Research, 2003).
[3] This is not an accurate summary of Ross’s position. Repeatedly in his books, articles, and lectures Ross describes the creation of the universe as a transcendent miracle in which God created the laws of physics.
[4] To be sure, the terms transcendent and nontranscendent miracles are not found anywhere in the Bible (neither is the word “Trinity”), but novelty in terminology does not necessarily mean the categories themselves are biblically and historically unsupported.
[5] Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), V:3.
[6] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938, combined edition, 1996), 176.
[7] Berkhof, 176.
[8] Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question 2d ed., (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), 46.
[9] Ross, The Genesis Question, 29-31. The crash-landing of a Mars-sized object into the earth was followed by a series of unlikely “coincidences,” which Ross would assert are nothing less than miraculous.
[10] Hugh Ross, “The Faint Sun Paradox,” Facts For Faith 10 (Q3 2002), 26-33. The faint Sun paradox refers to the process by which the primordial earth gradually cooled through the decrease of carbon dioxide “coincidently” as the Sun got brighter and brighter in order to prepare the planet to be a hospitable home for future life. Again, Ross has been unequivocal in referring to this so-called “natural phenomenon” as nothing less than miraculous. It defies any purely natural explanation. “Everywhere that scientists look for answers to the faint Sun paradox, the pieces of supernatural design keep coming together. The more they study the paradox, the more evidence they discover for intentionally and intricately balanced complexities” (p. 33).
[11] The author gratefully acknowledges the insights of theologian and friend Lee Irons for this helpful and succinct summary of the intersection between Ross’s position and the Westminster Confession of Faith.
[12]In context, Davis is concerned that theistic evolutionists, by maximizing the role of God's ordinary providence end up minimizing the role of extraordinary providence and miracles. This minimization could result in an “impoverishment of the richness and variety of the biblically attested ways in which God relates to the natural order." Theologically, this loss amounts to “functional deism.” See J.P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds, gen. eds., Three Views on Creation and Evolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 227-28.
[13] There is some question as to whether the phrase “for a redemptive purpose” as a description for extraordinary providence was added by the author or by the editors of Three Views on Creation and Evolution. This phrase is not included in another work by Davis, “Is Progressive Creationism Still a Helpful Concept?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 50 (December 1998), footnote 54 on the same subject. See http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Evolution/PSCF12-98Davis.html (accessed 12-09-2003).

 

Subjects: Philosophy of Science