The Magical God

Brother Dennis wrote an article for the American Scientific Affiliation several years ago arguing against “magic” in the works of God in creation. Though this article is directed toward “magic” in creation, Dennis would consider any act of God in His created world that acts outside of the natural law that God formed when He created the world to be outside of His nature. Thus, Dennis would propose that all miracles of Scripture would have a physical, natural law explanation, such as the turning of water into wine, the raising of the ax head, or even the ascension of Christ, which Dennis explained probably happened by a flying saucer picking up Christ and escorting Him off into the Heavens (where, I don’t know, perhaps somewhere close to Betelgeuse). In order to discuss Dennis’s article, I have enclosed a copy of it for non-ASA members and can be found at the end of this blog following my discussion.
First, Dennis presupposes that the concept of God working miracles as supposed by most Christians is that God has a larger magic wand than the pagans, and thus is more effective. Included in this supposed concept is the assumption that God acts without constrain and is fickle in His actions. Most devout evangelical Christians would not agree with this summary of their concept of God and miracles, feeling that God does offer restraints on Himself, but those restraints are a product of God’s own ontology or nature, and is not dependent on external law, either law coming from God’s declaration of man’s development.
Even the pagans understood the difference between miracles and magic, so perhaps it would serve the reader to elaborate on those differences.
1. Magic generally is a means whereby man might constrain if not force the god’s to cater to man’s desire or will. On the contrary, a miracle is a request of “the gods” to consider the desire or bidding of man. Miracles may occur at the internal behest or desire of the god himself, acting according to his own nature or in his own best interest.
2. Magic requires learning the right incantations or going through the proper forms in order to compel the supernatural forces or gods to follow the magicians’ bidding. The only requirement of a miracle (when requested by man) is the right sincerity in man’s interaction with the god.
3. Magic tends toward relatively few themes, including seeking after health, life, or erotic love, or perhaps the curse (or breaking/blocking of the curse) on another person. Miracles tend toward a diversity of interests and are generally performed for public display in order to manifest a lesson from the gods.
4. Magic demands clandestine, secret techniques, often learned after years or through occult means and held by a relatively few initiates. The technique of miracles is quite open, and limited to prayer or open request of the god to act on the person’s behalf.
5. Magic exalts the magician alone. Miracles mandatorily exalt the god alone.
6. Magic requires the innate force of the magician to accomplish its effect. Miracles function best with the utter helplessness of the requestor.
It is true that there are common themes with both magic and miracles that may cause the unobservant to miss the difference. Both magic and miracles violate natural laws in their undisturbed course. Both may also utilize natural laws to accomplish their effect, but in both cases, the role of natural physical law will never be either 0% or 100%, but somewhere in between. Thus, God may have parted the Reed Sea with an east wind, yet the timing remains inexplicable outside of God interacting with nature, and the precise details such as the ground being entirely dry could not be explained by simple natural phenomenon. Both magic and miracles believe in a spiritual world that interacts and affects the natural world in such a manner that influences the desire or will of the god.
Dennis continues his discussion by supposing that God would never ever violate His own physical laws, yet Dennis makes a serious mistake in this analysis. First, he supposes faithfulness by God as discussed in Scripture to include restraints on His physical actions in the world. Dennis mistakes God’s faithfulness to His own nature, which acts as the restrain on His actions. Dennis confuses God’s promise to never violate His moral law, by supposing that God really meant that He would not violate the physical “laws” of the universe. This is patently absurd, in that God’s own existence violates physical “law”, and thus any action of God and the physical universe must entail a transgression of physical law. If one believed that God, who exists outside of physical law, would never violate physical “laws”, then that person would be forced to be a functional deist by restraining God to the initial events and then being impotent to affect the “wound-up watch”. Dennis’s discussion laboring over God’s covenant faithfulness remains irrelevant to presuming that God acting outside the system denotes an absence of faithfulness. It also reflects the notion that the “laws” of science are as immutable as God’s word. Though God’s word remains immutable over the centuries, I typically need to buy a new science textbook on any topic every ten years to remain up to date, and every fifty years to grasp the entire change in the paradigmatic structure of the current science.
Dennis would tend toward a theistic evolution similar to what is offered by Francis Collins. Though Collins is quite well known as the head of the NIH as a most prominent scientist and also a professing Christian, Collins (like Dennis) has sold God down the drain by placing theology in a subservient role to science. In theistic evolution, you remain with a quandary. You have two choices. First, God may have created the world in a fashion that He occasionally needed to stick His finger into the system to betray His natural laws, such as with the formation of an organized DNA for the first primitive living organism, and later with the transformation of the last “pre-human” into a man. Or, secondly, He may have created a system from the initial first billionth of a second of the big band, where the universe possessed a personality, that is, an anthropic principle built into the system. I find neither explanation as satisfactory and thus am left with a God who was and is and always will be active in the creation, maintenance, and outcome of His universe, and yet who exists above the “laws” of the universe.
Dennis’s greatest mistake is in trying to be both a scientist and a theologian, of whom he is neither, but rather a theological dilettante with training in electrical engineering and an insatiable curiosity about the world. His theological discussion shows many mistakes, such as his definition of hesed as being “faithfulness” when it implies “lovingkindness”. Such mistakes are excusable except for when somebody is attempting a scholarly defense against prevailing notions. Dennis insists on nomenclatural exactitude, yet fails even in his definition of the word “magic”. His final plea is in the importance of making careful distinctions. Dennis fails to persuade me that the prevailing distinctions of mainline evangelicals are necessarily wrong. Worse, he fails to offer any substantial proof that it is pagan to believe in miracles performed by a God or His agents that generate events that cannot be explained by the natural laws of the system. Perhaps Dennis’s notion of science is the most pagan of all in being a closed system that restricts God from interacting with the system according to His divine will?

Does God Wave a Magic Wand?
By Dennis L. Feucht
One of the great unfulfilled tasks before the people of God, and in particular those of ASA orientation, is to help recover among God’s people a biblical view of how the Creator interacts with the creation. I continue to encounter Christians whose view of God’s activity in creation is essentially that of the gods of paganism, who were capricious and wielded power in an incoherent and inconsistent manner, effecting their desires much like decadent ancient Greeks might. The difference is that the Christian God has a bigger magic wand.
This pagan view of God is manifested in church meetings by those who advance the argument that “God can do anything” and therefore does. The tacit assumption underlying the motivation for this line of thought is that God is also not constrained – not even self-constrained – in how he operates. The magic-wand notion of God’s ways appears when events in scripture are given little description. Eschatology is a favorite playground for such imagining, as are miracles. Events for which we can give no rational, scientific explanation are tacitly assumed to not have any underlying rationality at all. A terminal cancer remits without explanation; God has waved his magic wand. Moses’s rod becomes a snake before Pharaoh; God’s magic wand is now in Moses’s hand. The farther the event is from explanation, the stronger the magic-wand approach becomes. The resurrection of the dead and the creation acts in Genesis 1 – do they not call for some kind of magic wand in God’s hand? Each day of creation, he emits his abracadabra and it is so. God waves his wand and “poof”; the dead are brought back to life. Not only do we not know the underlying rational structure of these events, by the pagan view of God, there are none.
While as Christians we do not deny that both scripture and life have their inexplicable events, it is how one regards them beyond our present ignorance that is critical here. Are they indeed irrational events arbitrarily brought about by God in much the same way that the ancient gods of the pagans would order events in their respective regions of nature? Magic-wand Christians will affirm that all events fit into God’s larger plan, but how they fit into his ongoing activity of upholding the universe remains to be better examined.
Consistency and predictability were not important to the pagan view of how the gods behaved. They were fickle and difficult to appease. This is perhaps the largest difference between paganism and the biblical view of the Yahwist God. In the pagan view, there is little thyme or reason to the events of nature. What purposiveness the gods might have in on the order of people who have not yet discovered the importance of setting goals. Paganism, consistently appreciated by the intelligent mind, is the grounds of atheism, of seeing reality accidentally, as “just one darn thing after another”. In this view, there is no underlying rational structure to history because the forces of history – the gods – are not rational in their behavior.
In contrast to this (and for me, one of the best evidences for the extraordinary nature – indeed, the truth – of scripture) is the existence in history of a thread of humanity set apart from this vast sea of paganism with a radically different view of reality. The Hebrews, as scripture tells us over and over, understood Yahweh as having some characteristics antithetically opposed to those attributed by paganism to the gods. One of the most featured of these characteristics – indeed, the one that stands out above the others to me – is that of God’s faithfulness. “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” Deut. 32:4 (ESV) The Psalms dwell extensively on this one distinctive characteristic. Its consequences for God’s ancient people were explored and appreciated. Fellowship with God was based on the legal covenant, giving a stable and dependable form to the relationship between Israel and Yahweh. The sitz im leben (sic) of it was God’s consistency and predictability in keeping his obligations of the covenant. If you want to know how Yahweh will behave, look at the covenantal agreement. The Hebrew word sedeq, found often in pre-Christian scripture and often translated “righteousness” was this faithfulness in keeping the covenantal obligations. As Gerhard Kittel wrote (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 2109, 110, 115): “There is no firmer guarantee of legal security, peace, or personal loyalty than the covenant… It means legitimate order as opposed to caprice, uncertainty, and animosity.” Or as Leon Morris put it (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pp. 232, 233):
The Old Testament consistently thinks of a God who works by the method of law. … Among the heathen the deity was thought of as above all law, with nothing but the dictates of his own desires to limit him. Accordingly, his behavior was completely unpredictable, and while he made demands on his worshippers for obedience and service, there were few if any ethical implications of this service and none of a logically necessary kind. Far otherwise was it with the God of the Hebrews. The Old Testament does not conceive of anything outside Him which cold direct His actions and we must be on our guard against the thought of a law which was over Him. But Yahweh was thought of as essentially righteous in His nature, as incorporating the law of righteousness within His essential Being. Accordingly He works by a method which may be called law –
It was millenia later, in a Christian setting, that the wider consequences of this understanding of God’s ways were applied, though instinctively at first, to the creation itself. Those who dwelt deeply upon the nature of God in scripture would inevitably generalize in their understanding how this same God would act relative to his own creation. The characteristics of faithfulness in God’s upholding of creation gave it a certain knowability of a repeatable and predictable kind that could be relied upon. The theater-prop world of pagan neoplatonism in medieval religion – a world of appearances, lacking an underlying rational structure – were swept away by early men of God in science, who dared defy the pagan gods with the alternative belief that if a God with the characteristics of Yahweh created the universe, then those same characteristics should be manifested in his creative behavior. A Being consistent in relating to Israel must also be consistent in upholding the created order. Yahweh’s hesed, his covenant-faithfulness, should apply to the physical world. And they found that it did. It is the history of the scientific enterprise.
The rest of that story has been well told, of how this faith relating God’s faithfulness to nature has been abundantly rewarded in a growing understanding of nature that has turned it from being capricious and fearful to humanity to instead becoming the servant of humanity, and increasingly under the subjection of those who have participated in this faith, whether explicitly or instinctively. (Hebrews 2:5 – 8 refers to this subjection of the creation to man, and to the archetypal “son of man”, but in its quoting of Psalms 8:4-6 leaves no doubt that the everyday physical world is included in this subjection regarding the future world in Hebrews). Today, much of science has degraded to the status of an instinctive participation, while often denying the underlying foundation for it in the hesed of the Creator. Nevertheless, God distributes his blessings through technology, a human activity that relies upon the faithful patterns of the Creator that have been discovered in the creation, even to those who deny him as the source of this hesed manifested in nature through science. (Eph. 4:8; Psalms 68:18).
This view of science and of the creation is often not shared by other Christians. It is inconceivable to some of my non-scientific Christian friends that God might behave in all of his activities with an underlying rationality and consistency – a covenant-faithfulness – that might conceivably be discovered and understood in the ongoing subjugation of the creation to humanity in the future. Wider access to space-time might allow the information content of the dead to be acquired. In the future, life will eventually be understood, conceivably to the point of the engineering of new, improved human hardware. And “booting up” the dead on instantiations of this hardware, though still science fiction in our sober understanding, is not inconceivable. A physicist of Baptist roots, Frank Tipler of Tulane U., has written a book, The Physics of Immortality, (Doubleday, 1994) that offers some plausibility arguments based on such means in the hands of a redeemed humanity functioning as his servants under the earthly rule of Christ to effect the equally wild-sounding scenarios of scriptural eschatology.
As engineers who follow in the scientific tradition in which the creation doctrine of the early scientists is embedded, the task of mitigating the latent pagan creation doctrine of a magic-wielding god and its pervasive influence upon our fellows in Christ is ours to effect. We, and our fellow Christians in science, if anyone, are both positioned and motivated to such a task. Babylon casts a shadow through the millenia upon civilization, and it reaches even into the innermost thought processes of fellow Christians today. Where to start? Any Bible-reading church eventually comes upon the many texts of scripture extolling the covenant-faithfulness of god. These texts provide opportunities in Bible classes or lectures to make explicit some of the wider implications of these characteristics of the biblical God. While most Christians will not deny that God is rational, they do not carry through this assertion to his actions in processes that he brings into being in a way that is consistent with his other processes, might turn on some new lights or at least point to the light switch. Then, the next step is to clarify that science, properly so-called, is the human effort to understand God’s ways in creation.
Error is often a result of failure to make necessary distinctions. In avoiding scientism, it is too easy for many Christians to fall into a pagan creationist view of God instead. Hopefully, scripture itself, expounded upon in these ways, will bring new thinking and save some from an essentially magical conception of God and creation.