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Divine Action in the World, Part 4

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September 4, 2012 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose

Today's entry was written by Alvin Plantinga. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This is the conclusion of Dr. Alvin Plantinga’s “Divine Action in the World” series, taken from a talk he delivered for Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought. In parts 2 and 3, Plantinga examined the possibility of divine action within the context of classical Newtonian science. Here in part 4, he turns his attention to quantum mechanics and the contemporary picture of nature. He contends that because the laws of quantum mechanics are probabilistic rather than deterministic, they are compatible with the possibility of God’s involvement in the world, including miracles.

In this four-part series, we provide the video of Professor Plantiga’s lecture as well as a written version of his presentation.

Ok, now I want to talk briefly about the new picture—that, I said, was the old picture—now, the new picture: classical science has now been superseded. The Laplacian and Newtonian world pictures have both been superseded, in particular, by quantum mechanics.

The main thing to see here—there is a lot to be said about quantum mechanics and most of it I don’t know since I am not a quantum mechanic, but fortunately we do not need to know a whole lot about it to see the important point here—the important point is this: the laws of quantum mechanics are probabilistic rather than deterministic.

So according to Newtonian mechanics, if you are given a complete description of some system and there isn’t any outside causal influence on the system, then if you ask what is that system going to be like in five minutes, there will be a particular answer. It will be a completely definite answer. Maybe you are not able to get that answer yourself; in fact, there are a lot of problems with actually working this out in detail (maybe you are not capable of doing that), but the laws entail a particular and completely definite answer to all the physical questions about that system. But that isn’t how it goes with quantum mechanics.

In quantum mechanics, if you are given a system of particles, then the quantum mechanical laws don’t say which configuration they will be in, but instead they assign probabilities to the possible outcomes. So there will be a whole continuum of possible outcomes, and the quantum mechanical laws will assign probabilities to these. Some of the outcomes, if you think of it like a distribution like that, at these edges these outcomes will be extremely unlikely; will be assigned extremely low probabilities—those in the middle, a much higher probability and so on, but it won’t tell you just which one will happen, just which one, in fact, will ensue. It only assigns these probabilities.

If that is the way things stand, then even if you leave out the bit about closed systems, miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead, they are clearly not incompatible with these laws, because these laws are just probabilistic. They say like probably things will be this, this, or this. This way of being has a probability of .13, for this one over here, a probability of .007. Miracles of walking on water [and] rising from the dead, these things are not incompatible with these laws. No doubt, with respect to these laws, they are very improbable, but of course, we already knew that.

So the point here is just this: with respect to the new picture, you don’t even have to add the thing about the systems being closed. Even if the system is a closed system, the laws still won’t entail a particular determinant outcome. Hence, these laws are not incompatible with such miracles as walking on water or somebody rising from the dead. In that way, the new picture is quite different than the old picture. It is quite an important difference—a very substantial and important difference.

Now the next thing I want to note though that very many philosophers, theologians, and scientists who are wholly aware of this quantum mechanical revolution still apparently find a problem with miracles and with special divine interaction, generally. There is the divine action project so called by Wesley Wildman in a paper he wrote. It has been a fifteen-year series of conferences and publications that began in 1988. So far these conferences have resulted in five or six books of essays involving some fifty or more authors from various fields of science together with philosophers and theologians including many of the most prominent writers in the field, for example, John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacock, Nancy Murphy, Philip Clayton, and many others. This whole divine action project is a very serious and impressive attempt to come to grips with the topic of divine action in the world.

Now the interesting thing here is that nearly all of these authors believe that a satisfactory account of God’s action in the world would have to be non-interventionistic. [It] would have a satisfactory account of divine action in the world. [It] would have to be such that it doesn’t involve God’s intervening in the world, really, doesn’t involve God’s acting specially in the world. So says Wesley Wildman, he says, “The project tried to be sensitive to issues of theological consistency.”

For example, the idea of God sustaining nature and its law-like regularities with one hand, while miraculously intervening, abrogating or ignoring these regularities with the other hand, struck most members as dangerously close to outright contradiction. Most participants certainly felt that God would not create an orderly world in which it was impossible for the Creator to act without violating the created structures of order.

Now, when you think about that, there has got to be something wrong with that—the created structures of order (as we now understand them) are understood from the quantum mechanical point of view, and you don’t violate them. God wouldn’t be violating these structures, these laws by causing somebody to rise from the dead (or as far as that goes, by creating a full-grown horse) because the laws don’t say exactly what is going to happen. They only assign these probabilities. Again, no doubt the probability of a full grown horse suddenly emerging right here is very low, but not incompatible with the laws.

There is one more point I want to make here. I think the people that did this divine action project were still sort of hung up on the same sort of thing that people were hung up on before… the same sort of thing those theologians that I mentioned were hung up on… I want to say two things about that.

First of all, even as I say, you set aside the restriction of the laws to causally closed systems; even so, you still won’t get any contradiction with divine special action. That is one. The other thing I want to say is that you really can’t even say what intervention is! I mean, what is intervention on the quantum mechanical level? What would that actually be? There is a way of saying on the old picture what divine intervention would be, but there isn’t anything, as far as I can see, available on the new picture.

Suppose you ask one of these people, “Ok, you don’t like intervention, so tell me, what would an intervention be? Could you tell me what it is?" I mean, if you can’t tell me what an intervention would be, then it is sort of peculiar to be so much against them—you tend to be against things such that you know what they are, not against things such that one cannot even say what they are.

Well, here is one possibility: you might say God does something (A) that causes a state of affairs that would not have occurred if God had not done (A). So imagine the interlocutor saying, “Well that is what divine intervention would be, whether divine intervention would be,” but that can’t be right because then any act of conservation would be an intervention, and they are not worried about conservation, they are just worried about special divine action. So that could not be a good suggestion.

The second one might be this one: God performs an act (A), which is neither conservation nor creation, but causes a state of affairs that would not have happened if he had not performed that action (A), but isn’t that really just acting specially in the world? I mean we are trying to give an account of acting specially in the world, which does not involve intervention. Well, if this is how we understand intervention, well then intervention and acting specially in the world would be the same thing. From that point of view, what they really are trying to do (if you did accept [option] two) you would be trying to give an idea of, an account of divine action in the world that didn’t involve divine action in the world, and of course, that is going to be really hard!

Well, you might try other ones, too. For example, number three: God performs an act that is very improbable given the previous states of the world, but then you want to ask, “Well, what’s the problem with that?” If that is what intervention is, what should be the problem with it? Why shouldn’t God perform improbable acts? If God wants to perform improbable acts, who is to prevent him? That is ok, no problem with that.

Or, number four: there are various lower level generalizations not entailed by quantum mechanics on which we rely, and that is true. I mean things like bread nourishes, people don’t walk on water or rise from the dead—these are generalizations—we all rely on them and believe them, and you might say God intervenes when he causes an event contrary to one of those generalizations, but again, what would be the problem with that? We would think these lower level regularities and generalizations are like the law of the Medes and Persians so that once God has established each one of them, not even he can act contrary to it. In any event, this sort of objection isn’t scientific, it is philosophical or theological.

So, I say, there is nothing in science, either under the old or the new picture, that conflicts with or even calls into question special divine action—including miracles. My general conclusion is that lots of people have raised this problem; they say miracles are incompatible with science. H. Allen Orr said that as well as the philosophers and theologians I mentioned earlier. It is a very common idea that if you believe in miracles, you are somehow not accepting science; you are going contrary to science. My conclusion is that that’s not true at all, either under the old or the new picture; there isn’t any conflict between thinking God acts specially in the world and enthusiastically endorsing all of contemporary physics or whatever science you like. Thank you.

From a presentation sponsored by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, and delivered February 12, 2012 at EV Free Church, Fullerton, CA. Used by permission.

Alvin Plantinga is the inaugural William Harry Jellema Professor of Christian Philosophy at Calvin College, as well as emeritus John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He received his B.A. from Calvin College and his PhD from Yale. He taught at Calvin College for 19 years prior to his 28 years at Notre Dame. Acclaimed for his work on metaphysics, the problem of evil, and the epistemology of religious belief, he has written books such as God and Other Minds (1967), Does God Have a Nature? (1980), Warranted Christian Belief (2000), and most recently, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. (2011). Dr. Plantinga is best known for his Christian epistemology that justifies belief in God without external evidence, his “free will defense” to the logical problem of evil and his evolutionary argument against naturalism.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #72423

September 4th 2012

Miracles are not the issue.  God’s concern for the wellbeing of people is the issue. 

Miracles can be evidence of that concern as are the miracles of Jesus and the apostles. As are the miraculous deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt and YHWH’s protections of the Jews in Israel. 

However there are many other evidences of that concern which are not miraculous, so miracles per se are not the issue, and making them a serious issue distorts and corrupts the faith.

God can do whatever God chooses to do, but we are never to put God to the test to prove that we are right.     

Holger Foersterling - #72468

September 6th 2012

“God can do whatever God chooses to do, but we are never to put God to the test to prove that we are right.”   

But putting our picture of nature (God) up for a test is exactly what science does.  “Test everything, keep what is good”.  And I think Platinga misrepresents science when he claims that one just assumes the universe to be a closed system.  That “assumption”, the reason that science considers conservation of energy as the rule of the land, is really based on the lack of experimental evidence to the contrary.  There is simply no experimental observation for outside tinkering.  That lack of evidence does not exclude tinkering of an outside authirity, but in some way science has put an upper limit to the extend such interference occurs.  If God tinkers with the universe, he does so under the radar screen of current experiments.  Which begs the question whether God interference is observable in principle by scientific means.

Jon Garvey - #72425

September 4th 2012

Roger, I guess it depends how you define “miracles”. Plantinga uses that word, but also seems to have in mind the possibility of God’s day-to-day governance in the world other than by strictly deterministic laws playing out from the big bang.

So that could include “special” providence - if I pray for my daily bread during  a famine, there’s an area between the prayer just being a pious acknowledgement that God made the weather systems that are actually indifferent to my welfare, and seeing my survival as a miracle (as it would be if I was the widow whose cruse of oil lasted for months in Elijah’s time). Do we pray for our daily needs, and have we a worldview that sits easily with their being answered, so that we can give thanks?

And of course it also raises the possibility of special providence in the direction of life’s development: neither science nor theology can exclude it, and since the evidence is incomplete, to exclude either “natural” or “supernatural” factors from the picture appears to be pretty much an ideological prejudice and little more.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72426

September 4th 2012


Of course I believe that God provides for our daily needs, though of course not directly, which does not make any less real.

The problem I have with this view of miracles and God’s governance is that it appears to neglect the real problems of today’s world, which is not only the physical well being of humanity, but also the intellectual and spiritual well being of humanity.     

“Your Kingdom come, Your Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  This is our primary concern, which is much more than daily bread.  Let us not reduce theology to the physical level, but keep our eye on the prize of making life meaningful.  

Jon Garvey - #72432

September 4th 2012


How does praying one line of the Lord’s prayer neglect the rest of it? Jesus didn’t reduce theology to the physical, but did sanctify it by feeding the 5000. And, of course, he did miracles too.

HornSpiel - #72430

September 4th 2012

Platinga apparently applies miracle to divine interventions with religious significance.

How then does he view Genesis? Apparently he believes in a literal Adam and Eve and the Garden the talking snake and so forth. What about six-day creation? All these are examples of improbable, religiously significant miraculous events. He does not take seriously, in this lecture at least, the constraints of evidence on the interpretation of the texts.

He pooh-poohs the views of “John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacock, Nancy Murphy, Philip Clayton, and many others” saying they are “sort of hung up on the same sort of thing that people were hung up on before…” that is, the classical deterministic universe. Unfortunately I don’t think he takes seriously the limits of quantum indeterminacy. Once you get above the molecular level however, all these improbabilities smooth out and result in a quite deterministic, or shall I say miracle-free, physical universe. When he uses the example of a horse suddenly appearing on stage he tacitly implies (or gives comfort to those who believe) Adam might have appeared in that way. 

So overall his defense of divine action seems too free, too post-modern. Anything can happen so sure why can’t God and Christianity be true?

Jon Garvey - #72431

September 4th 2012


How on earth do you infer from Plantinga’s writing that he is a Genesis literalist? The guy is one of the leading philosophers in the world, whose thought influenced Anthony Flew towards theism. Fundamentalist he is not (though he’s been called one, and has the best systematic put down for that term I’ve heard).

That he is speaking colloquially to a lay audience should not fool you into underestimating his grasp of the issues. What he does do is show over the four articles that “a quite deterministic, miracle-free, physical Universe” has no legitimate basis metaphysically or philosophically.

Regarding the inability of quantum events to affect the macro world, have you read R J Russell’s stuff on the influence of quantum events on genetic mutations? He is a physicist, so should be up to speed on the limitations - as is Polkinghorne who, last I heard, now agrees with Russell on quantum events as a possible locus for divine action. Maybe those guys are Genesis literalists too?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72437

September 4th 2012


His message was not His miracles.  His purpose was not primarily to heal the sick and feed the hungry.  These were signs that Jesus was the Messiah/Savior, not His message or purpose. 

It seems to me that when we dwell on the physical miracles we are in danger of overlooking His message, which is salvation of the whole person, body, mind, and spirit.  This is of course the ultimate miracle, but not one that we discuss.    

The miracles are not important in themselves.  His message is.

Jon Garvey - #72440

September 4th 2012

Roger, that’s fine. But there are several years of posts on BioLogos about many things that aren‘t the Gospel message, including many from yourself, because it’s legitimate to concentrate on specific issues for specific purposes. Just as in Jesus’s day it was legitimate for him to meet physical need as part of, and preparation for, the message of life: Legion had to be healed before he could receive the message. Equally his healing is used in the Gospel as a graphic illustration of Christ’s restoring us to our right mind in God.

Plantinga’s specific purpose here is to discuss how God might be involved in his physical Universe - including, I think, how he might supply our physical needs in response to prayer. He’s written whole books on other things, such as the warrant for faith in God.

The Gospel message is intended to restore us to a relationship with him in which we once more rely on him, instead of ourselves, for everything. It extends beyond death through our bodily resurrection, which is vouched for by the miraculous bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It was important in itself.

HornSpiel - #72438

September 4th 2012

Jon G,

Thanks for the clarificaton. Seeing his affiliations I surmise his leanings are not creationist or even IDist.

However, I was not implying anything from his (other) writings. I was inferring from these articles and the context in which he gave them that he is aparently avoiding the hard questions of origins. Biola is certainly sympathetic to, if not promoting, ID. (See for instance the debate they sponsored between Stephen Meyer and Steve Matheson May 14, 2010 and that their Research Professor of Philosophy is William Lane Craig.)  In this presentation he seems to be, as I say, giving comfort to anti/pseudo-science points of view. 

Is it legitimate from the perspective he presents here to believe early Genesis an example of historical miracles? I think the lay audience he addresses would probably think yes. That is the impression he gives, even if he does not believe it. 

So the question is, Is this a good way to bridge the divide between Christian orthodoxy and Anglo-Christian fundamentalism? Perhaps. Perhaps also, his sympathy for the fundamentalist perspective is what leads some critics to wonder if he is one.

Jon Garvey - #72442

September 4th 2012

“Giving comfort to anti/pseudo science points of view”

Do you not see what you’re saying here, Hornspiel? Plantinga corrects a scientistic misapprehension that has misled many generations of people, by philosophical reasoning. If it’s true, it requires a re-examination of our suppositions about what science is, and what it is not. It means sharpening up our evidence, and avoiding metaphysical blinkers being falsely added to science.

The new atheists protest against the airing of arguments supporting God in case they encourage religious people - because truth is less important to them than suppressing the opposition. Bankers didn’t like whistle blowers, because it would only encourage those nutters who thought sub-prime mortgages were a scam. The mediaeval Catholics inveighed against vernacular Bible translations, because it would only encourage those who said we should be taught by it.

In my world, good arguments should be aired and tested, and will lead to greater understanding on all sides - not kept secret in case the wrong people get to use them.

GJDS - #72446

September 4th 2012

In general I agree with Prof. Plantinga’s state of affairs argument, but to make it rigorous (within the context of these non-technical discussions), I think we would need to consider two arguments, state of affairs A(1) where we are convinced they are ‘God has not intervened) and state of affairs A(2) where we can say God has intervened. If I understand the argument correctly, we can either obtain data that supports one of the two statements, of we may find data that supports neither. So we may be back to asking, how would we know which state of affairs is what it is?

On the quantum mechanics, God’s intervention must be at the quantum level, in which case any intervention must by necessity change the entire state of affairs regarding nature. It is not only probability that is envisaged here, but the fundamental nature of nature - so that what we would call a change, or an intervention, would profoundly change all of the macro-states of nature. Just what such an intervention may be is impossible to contemplate, but if we want to show that God is in control and He can direct nature and all in it in this way, He certainly would direct the course of events. The outcome(s) of any change as a quantum event on everyting however, would be dramatic and I cannot see how science can deal with something like this.

Nonetheless it is an interesting outlook.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72453

September 5th 2012

John 6:46 No one has seen the Father except the One Who is from God; only He has seen the Father.

Matthew 11:27 No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

The point I think these passages are making is that we do not know God the Father/Creator directly but we can know God the Son/Logos directly.

Thus if we are looking for evidence of God the Creator’s direct intervention in nature, we will not find it.  However if we look for evidence of God the Logos’ presence in nature, it is there.  Jesus is Emanu-El, God with us and God is with us in nature through the Logos and in life through the Spirit.    

Jesus the Logos is the message of salvation, while God the Creator is the message of unlimited power.  In a real sense God intervening in the processes of God ‘s Creeation is God working against Godself. 

A house divided against itself cannot stand.    

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72458

September 5th 2012


(John 1:18 NIV)  No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, Who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.


Jon Garvey - #72470

September 6th 2012


Jesus the Logos is the message of salvation, while God the Creator is the message of unlimited power.  In a real sense God intervening in the processes of God ‘s Creation is God working against Godself.

 What “real sense” would that be, Roger? You create a philosophical dichotomy where Scripture sees no problem. God the Father began creation through and for the Son by the Spirit. God the Father continues to create through and for the Son by the Spirit. If that is intervention it no more than what an artist does in perfecting an artwork, or what a musician does in varying a performance.

If you want simple examples, Jesus saw no problem in creating a new batch of wine even though the world was already full of the stuff (probably even the liquor store down the road). Ditto for bread and fishes on two occasions. He even saw fit to unmake creation by causing the fig-tree to wither, with no sense of opposition to his Father. Theologically it could be seen as his praying to his Creator Father to work, his acting by right as God’s Logs, or his working by the power of the Holy Spirit - all three are expressed in the gospels or Acts, and may amount to much the same thing. But what is not in doubt is that creation was an ongoing activity (as it was in instances in salvation history in the OT, and more generally in the description of natural creation there).

Maybe you’re just scandalised by the possibility of actual miracles itself, but if so sublimating that to a principle of theology is unwarranted, as it’s based not on apostolic doctrine but Enlightenment sensitivities.

PS, what the heck is “Godself”? Is it a bit like God?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72478

September 6th 2012


Miracles are very different from creation.  Jesus healed the sick, fed the sick, and raised the dead.  These are miracles, that is, unique events that are signs, which is what the Greek word for miracle means, that testify to the divine power of Jesus the Messiah. 

When one says that God acts to intervene in evolution, that is not a miracle.  That is altering the processes of nature that God created.  I just read in the Globe today that there is a new indepth study that shows that the genetic makeup of all organism is much more complicated than scientists understood previously.  It said that the “junk” genetic material found in the body actually contains more than 4 million “switches” which control numerous processes within animal bodies.

In a true sense God is a great manager.  God creates all sorts of processes so God does not have to do things ex nihilo, but just uses natural processes to do God’s will. 

Changing water into wine does not change nature, it changed only the water.  Miracles are part of Salvation History, not part of Natural History. 

Some conservative Christians think that miracles are limited to Biblical times because they were needed as witnesses to the authority of Jesus, the Apostles, the Prophets, and others. 

After the Bible was completed Christians did not need these signs to testify to the Truth.  I would not limit God’s power in this way, but we should not cheapen miracles by mass producing them.    



GJDS - #72485

September 6th 2012


It is difficult to follow your reasoning. You state, “When one says that God acts to intervene in evolution, that is not a miracle.  That is altering the processes of nature that God created.” Just how do you distinguish between ‘acts of God’ that are intervention and those that are miracles? When one states God acts, one must have a basis for that statement. If a person is cured miraculously, she/he bases the statement on personal experience. When someone says God acts in evolution, this is sheer speculation, and has no more weight then any other speculation; thus e.g. you now read of another hypothesis that shows evolutionists with their grand theory are wrong - guess what they will say now - they have advanced with this new insght (!) We can read of galaxies existing in a form not allowed by that science theory at such an early age, but that is ok, cause that is (their) science. Geneticists have published work on samples to show that the male of the human species would cease to exist in the future, until another study shows that to be wrong, and so on and on we go. We have an outlandish column here where the argument goes, if the same number of chromosomes, we have proof A, if not the same number of chromosomes, we have proof B (and therefore A=B). This behaviour has characterised evolution since I can remember - since this is obviously the case, it is wrong of you (and others) to then say that it is how God acts.

Miracles, like any other act of God, are done for various purposes, but those are done because God so wills. The creation is there because of God; once our ignorance (which is great) has become less, and our pride and arrogance also considerably lower, we may be in a position to consider statements such as yours. That day is in the very distant future.

Jon Garvey - #72487

September 7th 2012


OK, we should be able to agreee largely on the importance of Jesus’ “foundational” miracles. The Greek honours are actually divided between “semeion” and “dunamis”. The former does indeed mean “sign”, and so it shows that the miracles had meaning, and so were part of his message.

But dunamis is used almost synonymously with semeion , and means “power”. So there is no dichotomy in Jesus’ ministry between the message and power of God: they are used for exactly the same events. And we are agreed that there are good reasons for understanding them to represent a unique stage of the Gospel’s history, and to be uncommon today.

But wesseldawn’s post re-emphasises the category error of using “miracle” for all God’s present activity. If we pray about events at all (like our job interview, finding lost car keys etc) it is because we believe God acts in some way - but our response to answered daily prayer is daily thanks, not, “It’s a miracle! Let’s try and prove it to the unbelievers!”

The Old Testament keyword is, I think, not any variation on the word “miracle”, but “work”. “The works of the Lord” there cover a vast range: the initial creation, daily provision for and renewal of that creation (eg Pss 104, 139), works of power like earthquakes, acts of deliverance like the Exodus, miracles etc etc. I think it covers all that Jesus means when he tells the Pharisees that his Father is working to this very hour.

There is no justification for limiting the work of an eternal God within nature to merely the first appearance of his work in time. Indeed it’s more logical to for a God outside of time to be seen to be acting at all times rather than one. This is not intervention, still less interference, but loving care and nurture. In eternity, God’s whole work is in the present tense - but in time, it plays out in sequence.

Now the question of when or how much God acts is a separate matter, partly depending on the adequacy of known efficient causes. Clearly natural law as we know it does not raise the dead of turn water into wine, but is it adequate to perform God’s will in nature?

Darwin’s original evolutionary theory, had it been correct, would actually likely have been a sufficient cause for the specific outcomes we see to be God’s original intention, as I’ve recently written. Neodarwinian evolution on the model of S J Gould would never produce predictable results, and so would require specific creative activity if God willed to produce, say, mankind or pangolins. Since Gould, things like convergent evolution make somewhat more specific outcomes scientifically possible.

But one can’t legitimately build one’s theology of creation on a theory that varies over time from completely deterministic to completely random, changing ones view of God’s will and character as one updates ones evolutionary theory. The right way round is to discern the range of God’s ability to act in the world from theology - primarily from Scripture. Then one can deal with the sufficiency of the available efficient causes (like evolution) on the evidence, and deduce whether anything beyond thse is likely to have been done by God as part of his eternal creative activity.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72488

September 7th 2012


You are overlooking my critique of Darwinian science and my desire to replace it with something that is organic rather than mechanistic.  The problem with Darwinian thought is that it is wrong, not that it is theologically incorrect. 

God works through nature by the Logos, Jesus Christ, which brings into existence the universe with all its opportunities and possibilities. 

Let us talk about our daily bread.  We pray for our daily sustenance which of course is more tha bread and food.  

There are at least two aspects of this that I can think of.  First of all God made possible daily bread for all.  It does not make sense that God would provide daily bread for just Christians, or just believers.  God provision begins with the cre4ate of enough for all, which goes against Darwin/Malthus.

The second aspect is the distribution of daily bread.  This is not a natural aspect of reality, but a human aspect of reality.  Therefore when we pray for daily bread and indeed we do not have enough to eat, we need God to act so humans will make food available to us that God has already provided.

In a real sense this is what I am say.  It does little good for science to make it possible to produce enough food for all, if humans do not make that food available to all.  It does do much good to cure diseases if those cures are not available to many who need them.  It does not do much good to have healthy and well fed people if they are going to be murdered in wars and terrorist attacks.  

Scientism assumes that when people are healthy and prosperous, all their problems are solved.  I hope we know better than that. 

Reality is not monistic or purely physical.  God works in and through the physical, but this is not the only aspect of life.  God also works in a through the ideational or the rational.  God reveals to us how to solve our problems so God does not have to do it for us.  God revealed to Joseph and Pharoah how to solve the problem of the coming famine. 

Reality is physical, ideational (rational), and also spiritual.  God created the need to love and be loved so people will work together to improve their lives and society, rather than a dog eat dog world.  If Christians keep focusing on how God works through the physical, then they are neglecting the ideational and spiritual aspects of Reality and indeed playing into the hands of Scientism by playing by its rules of the physical nature of Reality.     

Jon Garvey - #72490

September 7th 2012


I want to pick on a small piece of what you said in order to clarify what you’re thinking of:

We need God to act so that humans will make food available to us

The context of that prayer is our reliance on God for all things - it correlates with the Scripture that tells us not to worry about bodily needs because God feeds the sparrows and clothes the lilies and he cares more for us.

So how, in the prayer of a poor man desperately in need of his next meal, do you envisage God acting  upon other humans to meet his need? What makes it better for the man to pray than simply to knock on the rich man’s door and ask for bread?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72494

September 7th 2012


The issue is not either/or. 

It is not either ask God for help or ask others for help.  We need to do both aqnd admit that we need both.

Enough of “rugged individualism” that must not admit the need to receive help from others, from government, from God, etc.


Jon Garvey - #72504

September 7th 2012

Very true Roger. But about my question on how God acts in answering the Lord’s prayer?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72506

September 7th 2012


God answers everyone individually.  There is no one way God answers prayer. 

God answers everyone according to his/her situation, needs, and abilities.

Jon Garvey - #72521

September 8th 2012

Yes Roger, but remember that this thread is about divine action, including but not exclusively meaning miracles. If one asks “Does God act in the world, and if so how?”, then “It depends” is actually less informative as an answer than the question itself. It’s a Zen reply really.

I get the sense you’re trying to do a BioLogos shuffle both to allow divine action and dismiss any actual description of it. Maybe you’ve been on here too long and are adopting the conventions. My experience is that the conversation usually peters out there and that I’m left with the impression that contradiction is preferred to understanding (but sometimes dressed up as “mystery”).

Nevertheless let me summarise some ways God acts, on which you may perhaps comment wrt my specific question of “How God answers the prayer for daily bread”.

  • God acted in his original creation, establishing orderly processes we call “natural laws”, which by their nature are deterministic, but for various reasons (like chaos theory) can’t explain individual outcomes.
  • God may act across those laws (eg Plantinga #1), which includes the category of “miracle” - but that is likely rare and maybe limited to significant salvation ministries like that of Jesus or Moses.
  • God may act through revelation/inspiration to enable humans to speak or write as from God - but that too, presumably, is rare or else the prophetic word would be in every tabloid newspaper. One could argue, I guess, that to the extent another person accepts the inspired message, God is acting indirectly on them - but the “mode” would still be the original inspired utterance.
  • We might include here the operation of grace in human hearts - but there are issues to be dealt with then about human will and action - to what extent and how often are human choices influenced by God’s direct actions? Are some of our daily thoughts God’s? And if God speaks to our minds, how does that relate to the physical laws operating in our brains?
  • God may act, as it were, in the “cracks” between natural laws - notably by guiding quantum events, as per Plantinga here. This would constitute some form of special providence, whereby God chooses outcomes in the natural sphere, or maybe even in the human, consistent with natural law but directing its outcomes to specific ends.

As far as I can think in the early morning, that covers most possibilities including, I hope, how God might deal with us relationally (just as our relationship with each other is mediated through speech, expression, touch etc.)

I have no bread. I pray fervently to my heavenly Father, and my neighbour knocks on the door with a loaf. Or perhaps I knock on his door, and uncharacteristically he supplies me rather slamming the door as usual. How was God involved?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72522

September 8th 2012


I apologize.

I thought the answer was clear that it did not require detailed explanation.

I pray for food and God directs me to a food pantry that helps me.  God works through prayer and the Spirit, which means that God gives people the spiritual power to do what they need to do to serve God and to help others and themselves. 

It is not all about the physical which becomes the focus when we talk about science.  We need to talk about the Teleos, Which I think is one of your concerns, but is rejected by most scientific thinkers because it is spiritual in nature. 

I pray for food and I find a $5.00 bill on the street.

I pray for help and someone pays me money that they owe me.

I pray for food and find some that I had forgoten about.

The possibilities are almost endless of how God can inspire me to do what I need to do to get food and others to help me whether they know that I am in serious need or not.

“God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform”  William Cowper  

However you and I know that the Lord’s Prayer and the grace we say before meals is not usually prayed by desparate people.  They are a reminder that God does care for our needs even though to the casual observer we are self-sufficient.

God’s people know everything that we have comes from God, therefore we still need to pray for daily bread and to thank God for that daily sustanence and all of the other blessings that we daily receive from God.

God is acting through Creation as you say to provide for all our needs.  God has acted through Jesus Christ to reveal God’s Goodness and provide salvation from sin to all humanity.  God acts through the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus Christ the Logos and Teleos to us, to communicate to people through prayer, to give us the strength and wisdom we need for everyday life as well as special occasions. 

God does act, however I really do not see why God needs to intervene in the workings of the Creation.  Yes, God did provide the miracles of Jesus and the Apostles and the Prophets to demonstrate God’s concern for God’s people, but now we know that or should know that because God so loved humanity that God sent His only beloved Son to us so that whosoever believes in Jesus should not perish, but have eternal life with God.  

While the physical is good, so is the rational, and the spiritual.  The world is in danger of fixing all of its attention on the physical and ignoring the rational and the spiritual. 



Jon Garvey - #72530

September 8th 2012

OK Roger

You seem to be suggesting that God answers prayer primarily by giving me some mental prompting to answer it myself, or by giving such prompting to others to help me.

That in itself suggests that God is intervening in the working of our brains, which are themselves clearly part of creation, unless you hold to a non-materialist idea of mind’s function, and that God acts on that above the physical level.

Then I would ask if such promptings are apparent to us as his guiding, rather than “slipping in” as if they were our own idea. For example, does God say to someone, “Go on, drop $5 in the street - I know someone who needs it.” Because many people find difficulty with God’s influencing our free will in any way, especially secretly.

Does God influence my enemies in the same way? If I pray to be delivered from an atheist persecutor, does God strangely warm his heart towards me? How would he feel about his feelings being “interfered with” in that way?

Then what about those prayers that people can’t answer, like that given us as a model in James 5.17, where Elijah prayed (under God’s guidance, we read) that it would not rain for 3 years. How did God answer that?

Or how about the sailor who prays to be saved from a storm?

By the way, without trying to be overly pious, there are very many who do pray the Lord’s Prayer in fervent desperation, if not in our neighbourhoods. I have heard about, and even met, many from the poor world who say they have no-one to depend on for survival but God. My impression is that they attribute God’s saving activity to more than the influencing of their own actions or even those of others.

You’re right - teleos is at the heart of my interest in all this. A wise man, or a wise God, is one who makes sure he has sufficient means to achieve his aim successfully. The Bible suggests that God has very ambitious aims, in creation, in salvation, in history, in our individual lives. If we’re to have faith in his aims, it’s no use our attributing to him insufficient means.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72536

September 8th 2012


Prayer is communication.  Prayer is conversation with God. 

When I converse with someone, like you in this dialogue, we don’t say that we are intervening in the lives of each other, although we hopefully do learn from each other and thus influence each other.

In terms of persecution, God gave Paul and Stephen a witness to those who were judging them.  This did not get them off, but it did help lead Paul to salvation and Rome.  God does guide Christians, even though God does not always save them from persecution.

God does not answer all prayers in the affirmative, but I believe that Christians need to pray the God’s Will be done.  God enables people in danger not to act in panic which increases their chances to survive.

Jesus came not really for individuals, but for the Church.  Individuals do not live in isolation in or from the Body of Christ.  Christians live primarily to serve God’s Kingdom which is the Church of Jesus Christ. 

As I said we are all dependent on God for survival and well-being, but if that survival and well being is not shared with others then it is in vain. 

What means does God give us to do God’s Will?  I suggest that God gives us faith, hope, and love. (1Cor 13:13)  The world might laugh at these insufficient means, but so be it.      

Jon Garvey - #72560

September 8th 2012


“Prayer is communication. Prayer is conversation with God.”

That assertion is true, but the teaching and example of Jesus, together with the prayers in the New and Old Testaments, show it is also much more than that.

You seem to have answered my specific examples by simply ignoring them which, I guess, is the easiest way to get ones own ideas across.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72589

September 9th 2012


I’m glad that we agree that prayer is communication with God and I reall y think that communication is very important.  It is very good that we do not need iphones and the internet to talk to God.

If you think that prayer is much more than communication, let’s discuss it.

I apologize if you think I did not respond to your examples.  We seem to have a communication problem with communication.  I certainly did not ignore them, but maybe I did not make myself clear.

Jon Garvey - #72603

September 10th 2012

OK Roger

For most of Christian history all Christians - including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant streams - held a high view of Providence, which they took from both the Old and New Testaments. God had established some things firmly, so allowing predictability and order, but his personal decisions were still seen in both the world of men and the world of nature.

So he decided the boundaries of peoples, found the prey for the lion, rewarded virtue with prosperity and punished vice with misfortuine, and personally met the needs of those who cried out to him. Sometimes his ways were inscrutable, sometimes clear, sometimes misunderstood - but no Christian doubted his special Providence, which flowed from his very nature and attributes, as well as from the Biblical revelation.

That changed only with 18th century European and American Deism, and its daughter theological liberalism, which restricted God’s actions to those of Paley’s watchmaker - he built the universe, set it going and thern stood well clear. Miracles were ipse facto excluded, but also more generally “special Providence”, so that for the liberal, answered prayer was merely a personal spiritual response to a natural occurrence interpreted as God’s action.

Natural science has always found Deism conducive to its agenda of explaining everything in the universe. But with the loss of scientific determinism through quantum theory, and so on, a Deistic God turns out to have wound up what is a highly inaccurate (aka “free”) clock.

Theology can go two ways from there. It can either re-write even Deistic theology to say that God is happy to let the world (both human and natural) go in whatever direction it likes, perhaps with some vaguely-conceived “influence” as in Process Theology, or with a fudge that allows Jesus’ miracles as a kind of waiving of the usual rules against God’s non-activity.

Or it can go back to its historical roots and restore the doctrine of special Providence to its place, admitting (better still, rejoicing) that God is indeed immanent in his Universe, though often operating through ways higher than we can understand. For example, he can genuinely communicate with us regardless of neurological science, but more than that, influence or even change what occurs in the world, for example in direct answer to prayer, in the governance of human empires - maybe, in principle, even in the direction of nature.

Many strands of modern thought support the viability of that - these articles from Plantinga, for example, R J Russell’s thoughts of God working through quantum events, Polkinghorne’s of his working through chaotic systems, Elliot Sober’s recent admission that science has no warrant to exclude divine action, and so on.

It seems to me that under all these circumstances anyone denying the historical doctrine of special Providence, against the judgement of 1700 years of Christian teaching and however many centuries of Hebrew teaching before that, is hard put to it to provide adequate grounds for so doing.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72605

September 10th 2012


Thank you for your explanation.

The source of the confusion between us at least as I see it is that I want to put the focus of theology on human interaction or human history, while traditional theology seems to be stuck as I see it in natural history.

Deism relates to God’s relationship to nature.  In some sense I would say that Deism is okay, but Deists want to extend Deism into human history, which is clearly false. 

As far as I can tell the Bible teaches that God created the universe, created it as a good home for humanity, and sustains the universe. 

God is AMEN, which means that Truth is based on God’s faithfulness.  This means that 1) God is dependable, which is indicated by the fact that God works through dependable laws and 2) God cares about humanity, which is demonstrated by God’s salvation history.

When we are talking about evolution we are talking about God’s relationship to nature.  We believe that the extinction of the dinosaurs was cause by a astroid hit which caused climate change which led to the end of the dinosaurs and the emergence of mammals.

Did God cause this to happen or was this some extremely fortunate accident?  I would say that God somehow did it working through nature, but of course I cannot prove it scientifically.

Scientism believes that science will save humnity.  Conservative religion believes that faith in God will save Christianity.

During the time of Jeremiah the Jews believed that God would save them from the Babylonians, even though Jeremiah told them that YHWH wanted them to submit to Babylonian rule. 

Science will not save us nor will traditional theology.  Obedience to God’s Spirit going beyond traditional ways of thinking trusting in God will save humanity.

The above is disjointed and incomplete, but it is the best I can do for now, so I hope you get what I am trying to say and leave it at that for now. 

Jon Garvey - #72607

September 10th 2012

Roger, our discussion is getting narrower and narrower - on the screen, anyway!

I think it’s hard for you to argue persuasively that either traditional Christianity (as I’ve described it) or even Deism are primarily concerned with nature, except that Deism’s main thrust was to elevate reason above revelation and so promote “natural religion”.

The conservative Christianity that I know believes that Christ will save both sinners and the cosmos, because both are his creation, beloved by him and under his governance. Both our positions are biased, on BioLogos, because it is a site primarily about nature and we’re a self-selected sample. But most of my life, most of my theology, and even most of my writing has been about God’s relationship with humanity.

Still, in the context of this series, your sentence: “I say that God somehow did it working through nature, but of course I can’t prove it scientifically” is important.

Since there is no known way for the laws of nature to ensure such a “fortunate accident” as a timely meterite impact, your words necessarily presuppose that, scientifically (or perhaps extra-scientifically) there is a way for God to do such things, that theologically there is no objection to his doing so and that his will is specific enough for him to wish to.

That’s as much as I argue for… though maybe applied wider than just the K-T event (like, maybe, to Elijahs, or our, prayers).

Eddie - #72609

September 10th 2012


John’s point is that traditional theology speaks of God’s action both in the history of nature and in the history of human activity.  Stars and planets, plants and animals, land and sea, Jew and Gentile, Greek and Roman, Persian and Babylonian, rich man and poor man—all of these things are subject not only to sets of “natural laws” which God establishes and keeps running, but also to God’s ongoing personal activity.

So Jon is not denying your point about God’s involvement in human affairs.  He is saying, rather, that the sharp division between human affairs and natural affairs is un-Biblical; all is under the sovereignty and providence of God.

What the Enlightenment did was hand over natural affairs to “the laws of nature,” thus putting God into quasi-retirement in that sphere, being no longer a creator but merely a sustainer; any special actions he did after that would be “tinkering” and in bad taste for a divine being.  So God, after creating the first matter, acted only through “general laws” in regard to nature, and was seen as acting in historically unique ways only in relation to human affairs.  John is saying that this restriction of God’s special actions is not Biblical.

And even in the human sphere, God’s special actions became restricted.  For example, much divine-human interaction revolves around prayers for healing.  But within Protestantism, “cessationism”—the doctrine that the era of miracles was over—became very influential.  So for many modern Christians, God’s special actions became tightly circumscribed, confined within a thousand or so years in the history of Israel and the early Church.  Jon is saying that this chronological confinement of God’s special activity is not Biblical.

In sum, Jon is saying that most modern Christians do not live within a Biblical vision of reality.  Most modern Christians live within an Enlightenment vision of reality, around which, and in the cracks of which, they fit in, as best they can, Biblical and Christian beliefs.  God is the creator of matter, the sustainer of natural laws, and the performer of a hundred or so Biblical miracles; we can pray to him to save our souls for the next life; but he is no longer the very motor and architect of both nature and history.  He has been domesticated within an Enlightenment pattern of thinking which gives a huge degree of autonomy to both man and nature.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72613

September 10th 2012

Jon & Eddie,

I think that the difference is that it seems to me that God works with people differently from how God works with human history, in large part because God can communicate directly with humans THROUGH PRAYER and indirectly though other people.

The bigest problem with scientism is that it treats the physical, the organic, and the human as identical, as physical or mechanical.  If theology falls in the same trap we are no better.  That is why I am trying to point the difference in how God works in and througth these three levels of reality. 

Reality is not simple, it is complex.  That is why we have and need a complex God to create a complex universe and meet our complex needs.  However the universe is also one in that it is a cosmos united by the Logos/Teleos.  That is why we have and need a One God to give human life purpose and meaning.   

Probably the problem is the non-Christian dualism we have been burdened with that we need to jettison philosophical dualism for a Christian triune world view.

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