Divine Action in the World, Part 1

| By Alvin Plantinga

Earlier this year, we introduced a series by Professor Robert Russell that explored the nature of God’s action in the world. We are pleased to continue investigating this fascinating and critically important topic by featuring a recent talk by prominent Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, sponsored by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.

In this talk, Professor Plantinga addresses the fact that many contemporary thinkers—including many theologians—believe that God cannot perform miracles, providentially guide history, or interact in the lives of people, as these activities would be contrary to science. Plantinga, on the other hand, makes the case that this popular view is mistaken; excluding divine action in the world is not a central feature of natural science itself, but a philosophical or theological preference that has been added on to science (and can just as readily be removed). Plantinga concludes that it is completely logical to accept the miracles of the Bible and support contemporary science.

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

My talk is entitled “Divine Action in the World.” I want to talk about a certain kind of objection to Christian belief that some people raise. They claim that central thoughts, central doctrines of Christianity, are contrary to science, and therefore, are suspicious or incredible or such that one can’t sensibly hold them—can’t be rational in accepting them.

There are several different kinds of arguments that people bring along these lines; I want to talk about just one. So first… the Heidelberg catechism, one of the forms of unity of the church I go to (the Christian Reformed Church), says

Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God, by which he upholds as with his hand heaven and Earth and all creatures and so rules them, that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty. All things, in fact, come to us not by chance, but from his fatherly hand.

And part of the way it comes to us—not by chance, but from his fatherly hand—part of the way God has designed our world, is that there is a great deal of regularity and dependability in our world. Of course, if it were not for this regularity and dependability, we couldn’t do the things that we actually do. I mean, for example, if I just wanted to walk off the stage—if, for example, all the sudden those stairs over there suddenly turned into a ladder going up—well, that would make it really difficult.

If you are trying to build a house, for example, you have this hammer, but all the sudden the hammer turns in to a goose or a pigeon. Again, that would make things really difficult…or if the nail turned into a worm…or if you get in the car and turn the key and the car turns into a camel, things would be really hard, much harder than they are. This regularity and dependability in our world is an essential condition of our being able to live in the world in which we actually do.

If the world were irregular enough, we would not even be able to live in it, but there are also, according to classical Christianity here (the Heidelberg catechism, for example) there are also special divine actions; sometimes God does things specially. There are miracles in Scripture: the parting of the Red Sea, for example, Jesus walking on water, Jesus changing water into wine. There are miraculous healings: Jesus rising from the dead, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and so on. And according to classical Christians, many of them, perhaps most of them, are special divine actions. God, for example, responds to prayers. He works in the hearts and minds of his children to effect sanctification. There is, what Calvin called, the internal testimony or witness of the Holy Spirit, and there is what Thomas Aquinas called the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit. So, these things are all special actions on the part of God. God constantly causes events in the world. Ok, so far fair enough—what is the problem?

Many theologians seem to think there is a science-religion problem here. I don’t think any of the theologians of Biola think this, (I don’t know, but I doubt it) but many theologians do. For example, Rudolf Bultmann says, “The historical method,” which of course he thinks that is the method we should use, “includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect. This continuum, furthermore, cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers.”

That’s what he says. Alright, there is this continuum that cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural (that would be God) or transcendent powers. So, it is a little bit like the laws of the Medes and Persians. You probably remember Daniel. Daniel was a favorite of King Darius, and well, the other courtiers became jealous of Daniel (they didn’t like it that the king liked him so well). So, they came to the king and said, “Oh king, live forever, we think it would be a great idea if you passed an edict to the effect that you alone can be worshipped. Everybody has to worship you and nothing else.” Well the king thought that over for a minute, and that sounded pretty good to him so he said, “I guess that it is a pretty good idea.” So he made this edict; he made this declaration: “Only King Darius is to be worshipped—no one else, nothing else.”

These courtiers knew that Daniel worshipped God, and they thought probably Daniel would keep right on worshipping God despite this edict. So they were watching Daniel, and he was, in fact, worshipping God. So they came to the king. Now the penalty for worshipping something else was to be thrown into the lion’s den and they said, “Well, king live forever, looks like Daniel has been violating this edict. You have got to throw him in the lion’s den.”

Well, the king didn’t want to do this because he really liked Daniel. He thought this was a miserable way to proceed, and he didn’t want to do it, but then they said to him, “O king live forever, and remember a law of the Medes and Persians cannot be abrogated, even by the king himself.” So once it’s put in place, not even the king himself can change it or abrogate it or go against it.

That is sort of the suggestion that you get here from Bultmann. Bultmann thinks, “Maybe God created the world and set it up in a certain way, but once he did that, not even he can interfere in it”—he uses that word interference—“not even he can do anything in it. He just has to keep hands off.” It is like the law of the Medes and the Persians.

Another theologian who agrees is John Macquarrie, who says,

The way of understanding miracle (and that would be one kind of special divine action) that appeals to breaks in the natural order and to supernatural intervention belongs to the mythological outlook, and cannot commend itself in a post-mythological climate of thought. The traditional conception of miracle is irreconcilable with our modern understanding of both science and history. Science proceeds on the assumption that whatever events occur in the world, can be accounted for in terms of other events that also belong within the world, and if on some occasion, we are unable to give a complete account of some happening, the scientific conviction is that further research will bring to light further factors in the situation that will turn out to be just as imminent and this worldly as the factors already known.

Ok again, no room there for special action. And the third thinker here, Langdon Gilkey (still another theologian), says something similar, but I will pass. I will not read that one in the interest of saving a little bit of time, but these three theologians, plus many others want to assert that there is something wrong with the idea of God acting in the world, acting in the world in a way that goes beyond creation and sustaining, or creation and holding things in existence. So they think, “Ok, God created the world; God sustains it in existence”…that is ok with them, but anything beyond that, God performing any miracles, raising Jesus from the dead, or for that matter working in somebody’s heart and mind in a special way, that, they say, is a real problem. The question is, what is the problem?

Well, the next little bit here…according to the Christian and theistic idea, God is a person; he has knowledge, loves, and hates. He has aims and ends. He acts on the basis of his knowledge to achieve his ends. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and wholly good. Thirdly (noted above by the Heidelberg catechism), God has created the world. Fourth is God conserves and sustains and maintains in being this world he created, but fifth, at least sometimes, God acts in a way going beyond creation and conservation in miracles, but also in his providential guiding of history, his working in the hearts of people, his internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, and so on, and it is with that fifth category that these people have a problem. It is God’s special action in the world—action beyond conservation and creation—and miracles would be an example.

So we might think of these theologians as endorsing what we could call hands off theology. God has got to keep his hands off. God could create the world. God conserves the world, sustains it in being, but he can’t do anything else—that is as far as he could go. It is hands off theology, and Bultmann, even in this context, even talks about interfering. I mean if God did something in the world that would be interfering, which, when you think about it, is a sort of strange thing to say—I mean if God created the world, he is the omnipotent, omniscient, holy, good creator of the world—when you accuse someone of interfering, you are saying they are doing something they should not be doing, right?

So Bultmann thinks if God did something in the world that would be interfering, and he should be ashamed of himself. Ok, now why is this a problem? Their suggestion is that somehow it is contrary to science. It is contrary to science the suggestion that God acts specially in the world. I didn’t read that bit, but Gilkey says, "The causal nexus in space and time which the enlightenment science and philosophy introduced into the western mind is also assumed by modern theologians and scholars. Since they participate in the modern world of science, both intellectually and existentially, they can scarcely do anything else.”

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.


About the Author

Alvin Plantinga

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 asGod 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.