Divine Action in the World, Part 2

| By (guest author)

In part 1 of this series, Dr. Alvin Plantinga addressed the fact that many contemporary thinkers—including theologians—believe that God cannot perform miracles, providentially guide history, or interact in the lives of people, as this would be contrary to science. Here in part 2, Plantinga examines classical science based on Newtonian physics. He notes that the laws supposedly preventing God from acting in the world apply only to closed or isolated systems. But if God were to act, the system would be open and the conservation laws would not no longer be applicable. God does not have to “violate” these laws to act, and thus divine action is not “prohibited” by classical science.

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


Modern theologians and scholars participate in the world of science, and the world of science (or the scientific method) precludes God’s acting in the world specially. It is ok that he creates the world and creates it with certain laws, but then after that, if he does anything further in it, that would be interference. Why is that?

The idea is, as we will see in a minute, the idea is that science proposes certain kinds of laws, and if God did something special in the world, he would be going contrary to those laws, and that couldn’t happen. Now, it is not just theologians who say this kind of thing, but also philosophers. So, for example, Philip Clayton says,

Science has created a challenge to theology by its remarkable ability to explain and predict natural phenomena. Any theological system that ignores the picture of the world painted by scientific results is certain to be regarded with suspicion.

Ok, fair enough, maybe that’s right, but then he goes on,

…but science is often identified with determinism. In a purely deterministic universe, there would be no room for God to work in the world, except to the sort of miraculous intervention that the 18th century philosopher David Hume and many of his readers found to be so insupportable. Thus many, both inside and outside of theology, have abandoned any doctrine of divine action as incompatible with the natural sciences.

That is the problem: incompatible with the natural sciences. Special divine action is incompatible with the natural sciences, and it is not only theologians and philosophers who say this sort of thing, also many scientists do. For example, many of you are probably aware of Richard Dawkins, and I know he has got a friend named Peter Atkins. Richard Dawkins is one of the dreaded four horsemen of atheism. There are the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the four horsemen of Notre Dame, and now there are the four horsemen of atheism, and Richard Dawkins is—I guess he’s the chief horse, you would have to say—maybe the biggest horse.

Dawkins has got this book called The God Delusion. Now, he has written some books that I think are good books. For example, The Blind Watchmaker is a very good book, very much worth reading, but this book The God Delusion seems to me to be more like an ignorant screed than a real contribution to any particular discussion at all. So scientists like Dawkins and Atkins, I would think of (not to put too fine a point on it) as sort of dancing on the lunatic fringe, but there are other scientists, very sensible, respectable ones, like H. Allen Orr.

Well, what happened was this: H. Allen Orr reviewed a book of Richard Dawkins. The name of the book was A Devil’s Chaplain, and H. Allen Orr said that Dawkins did not know anything about religion. His review was not very positive because he [Dawkins] completely misunderstood religion, and he was far too censorious about it, far too condemnatory... Orr wrote this review in the New York Review of Books.

Well then, another scientist wrote in on the next issue in the letter’s column and said, “Well, look, you know, religions in general, many religions posit miracles and that is a bad thing’ and then H. Allen Orr said in response, “Right…it is not that some sects of one religion invoke miracles, but that many sects of many religions do. Moses, after all, parted the waters and Krishna healed the sick. I agree of course that no sensible scientists can tolerate such exceptionalism with respect to the laws of nature.”

They can’t tolerate it. Of course, if God really does do miracles, it is not going to matter a lot whether scientists or anybody else tolerate it—I mean, it is not really up to them, you know? You can’t really tell God, “Well I won’t tolerate that!” You can give it a try, but you know you are not going to be very successful. It reminds me a little bit of a 19th century woman transcendentalist philosopher whose name was Margaret Fuller. Margaret Fuller once announced, she said, “I accept the universe,” whereupon Mark Twain said, “Good grief, I didn’t know it had been offered to her!”

So there is something overweening about accepting the universe or saying you're not going to tolerate miracles one way or the other. It is not going to matter that much one way or the other. So the real problem here is that science promulgates natural laws; the real problem seen by these philosophers, theologians and scientists is that science promulgates natural laws, but if God did any miracles or acted specially in the world, he would have to contravene these laws; you have to go against them. He would have to break these laws, and that is contrary to science. One famous kind of statement along these lines is by Rudolf Bultmann: “Someone who avails herself/himself of modern medicine and uses the modern radio, not to mention television, computers, digital cameras, the kind of phones you can send messages on, such a person cannot also believe in the spirit and wonder-world of the New Testament.”

Ok, now my question is: is all this really true? I want to talk first about what I will call the old picture, and then I want to talk about the new picture. Bultmann and his friends are apparently thinking in terms of science that would be Newtonian mechanics. You know Newton’s laws of motion, Newton’s law of gravity, together with the later physics of electricity and magnetism that you find represented by Maxwell’s equations. So he is thinking about classical science, the kind we all learned about in high school (Newtonian physics was, of course, extremely influential).


So here is the Newtonian world picture then: God has created the world, (Newton thought God created the world) and the world was like an enormous machine which proceeds according to fixed laws. These are the laws of classical science, Newton’s laws of motion and Maxwell’s equations…Newton’s law of gravity and the like, but that is not sufficient just thinking that. That is not sufficient for anti-interventionism or hands-off theology. Newton himself, you would think, accepted the Newtonian world picture—I mean, if Newton didn’t accept it, who would? It would be kind of a scandal if he didn’t.

Newton himself accepted the Newtonian picture, but he did not accept hands-off theology. Newton’s laws describe how the world works provided that the world is a closed isolated system subject to no outside causal influence. So Newton himself thought that God had to intervene every now and then and adjust the orbits of the planets, and if he didn’t do that, their orbits would spiral off into incoherence. He thought that God acted in the world regularly, so he didn’t accept hands off theology.

What he did accept was that his laws described the world as the world is—provided it’s a closed or isolated system, provided there isn’t any causal influence from outside the world. The great conservation laws that are deduced from Newton’s laws (conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, and conservation of angular momentum and so on), these great conservation laws deduced from Newton’s laws, they are stated for closed or isolated systems.

You see a bit there from a widely used college textbook called University Physics, by Sears and Zemansky. In it they say, “This is the principle of the conservation of linear momentum: when no resultant external force acts on a system, the total momentum of the system remains constant in magnitude and direction.” They also say the principle of the conservation of energy states that “the internal energy of an isolated system remains constant.” This is the most general statement of the principle of the conservation of energy.

So, you get the idea, these laws—Newton’s laws, his law of gravitation, his laws of motion, conservation laws that are deduced from Newton’s laws—these apply to closed or isolated systems, where there isn’t any causal input from the outside... If that is true, there is nothing here to prevent God from changing the velocity or direction of a particle, or for that matter, creating ex-nihilo a full-grown horse.

I say God could create ex-nihilo a full grown horse in the middle of time square in New York City, without violating any of these laws for the following reason: energy is conserved in a closed system, but any system in which God acted in such a way would not be a closed system. So the laws tell us how things go with closed systems, but they don’t say anything about systems that aren’t closed.

If you consider God is creating a full-grown horse ex-nihilo, say on the stage here, then any system that included that horse—this whole building, for example, the whole city of Los Angeles, the whole state of California, the United States, the whole earth—any system that included that horse would not be a closed system. There would be input from outside the system into the system, but if that is the case, then the conservation laws don’t apply to that system. They only tell you what things are like in a closed system.

So these principles, I say, apply to isolated or closed systems, but then there is nothing to prevent God from creating ex-nihilo a full-grown horse. Energy is conserved in a closed system, but not in just any old system or at least the laws don’t say anything about unclosed systems, and it is no part of Newtonian mechanics or classical science generally to declare that the material universe, the whole physical universe is a closed system; that’s not part of physics. Physics tells us that for any two objects there is a force, that they attract each other with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportionally to the square of the distance between them. It tells us that; it tells us lots of other things, but it does not go on to say “and furthermore the whole material or physical universe is a closed system”. That would be more like a theological or philosophical add on, that would not be part of the science just as such; you won’t find that in any physics textbooks.

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.




Plantinga, Alvin. "Divine Action in the World, Part 2"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 2 Sep. 2012. Web. 11 December 2018.


Plantinga, A. (2012, September 2). Divine Action in the World, Part 2
Retrieved December 11, 2018, from /blogs/archive/divine-action-in-the-world-part-2

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.

More posts by Alvin Plantinga