A transcendent God

Prof. Scott K. Taylor, guest blogger

In my last post, I described how small shifts in the beliefs in miracles and demons can lead to enormous theological changes. Today I want to present a similar case made by historian Brad Gregory.

Why do modern academics, and scientists in particular, refuse to countenance the existence of miracles, now or in the past? According to Gregory, it all has to do with a shift in the way scholars in the 13th century viewed God’s relationship to creation.

In my article, I explained Gregory’s objections to the scientific disbelief in miracles as such:

“Science cannot ‘prove’ that miracles do not occur, he argues, because miracles are by definition inexplicable and outside the normal rules of natural phenomena.”

But Gregory’s argument is actually more complicated than that. He traces the shoving aside of God by academics to the 13th century, when the scholastic theologian Duns Scotus stopped viewing God as outside of Creation – as a transcendent being not at all bounded by time or space – and began viewing God as somehow part of the universe.

This explanation made God as predictable and as understandable by the exercise of human logic as the rest of physical reality. And theologians could still trust their judgments about God, which had increasingly relied less on the revelation of the Scriptures and more on Aristotelian logic. It also led to fresh inquiries into the natural world and new insights — insights that we would later recognize as the origins of modern science.

But this shift also cheapened God, in Gregory’s view, because it constrained God’s ability to work miracles. Indeed, miracles seemed like an absurd affront to the beauty and orderliness of God’s creation and of God himself. Why did God act capriciously, whimsically? Why would God not be as ordered and rational as the rest of the universe? As Renaissance and Enlightenment scientists learned more and more about the workings of the universe, miracles seemed less and less believable. Most fundamentally, miracles did not comport with the aesthetics of the new science.

Gregory rejects all of this in favor of the radically transcendent God that was abandoned by Duns Scotus. If you view nature as orderly and predictable, just as modern science tells us, why not believe in miracles as a manifestation of a God who is completely outside of that system? This way, Gregory believes, one can appreciate all the insights of science while believing in the possibility of miracles. It is not Darwin who is the stumbling block to reconciling religion and science, it is Duns Scotus.

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