Does the Success of Science Leave God Unemployed? (Part 2)

| By (guest author) on Faith and Science Seeking Understanding

Israel's Escape from Egypt, illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company

INTRO BY JIM: Today is part two of Sarah Lane Ritchie’s introduction to the topic of divine action. See my introduction to the series here, and her first part here.

In yesterday’s post, we explored various challenges to the theological claim that God truly acts in the natural world. While divine action is widely affirmed in Scripture, tradition, and personal experience, modern science’s increasingly specific explication of natural laws and physical processes has made it difficult to find “room” for God to work. Many theologians have also found it difficult to maintain belief in miracles, insofar as the post-Enlightenment notion of natural laws has rendered such divine action to be a violation of sorts – a divine “lawbreaking” that would threaten God’s attributes of integrity and consistency as well as the intelligibility of the created world. This is not the end of the story, however, and affirmation of God’s agency continues even in scholarly circles. Today, we will explore the various ways in which Christians have endeavored to unite their dual commitments to scientific truths and God’s involvement in Creation.

General vs. Special Divine Action and the Deistic Perspective

In academic discussions of divine action, it is common to begin with the supposed distinction between “general” and “special” divine action. General divine action, or providence, is taken to indicate God’s initial act of creation ex nihilo, together with the assumption that God is undergirding and preserving the natural laws that God has set in motion, as it were. This is in marked contrast to “special” divine action, which is depicted as the specific actions God undertakes—either in response to human needs and prayers, or to bring about some divinely intended purpose. Miracles would fall into this category as well. The distinction between general and special divine action has become an important one for theologians, and marks a point of departure for those wishing to affirm God’s ongoing activity in the world. Those affirming God’s initial act of creation, but not any ongoing activity in the temporal, law-governed natural world, describe a “deistic” theology. Many in this camp would be happy to affirm subjective divine action, or the psychological interpretation of natural events as miraculous or providential. This deistic, subjectivist perspective sees God as acting by upholding natural laws and autonomous physical process; events may be experienced as miraculous, but the events themselves are uniform and scientifically explainable. This approach gets around the problems attached to divine intervention, but may result in a rather anemic, “hands-off” theology of divine action.

Non-Interventionist Divine Action

Those dissatisfied with the deistic approach may instead affirm objective, special divine action—the claim that God really does act in the events of the natural world. Because divine action has been so often conceived in interventionist terms (i.e. divine acts imply violation or suspension of natural laws), many have simply chosen to accept interventionism as an unsatisfactory but necessary part of the Christian faith. But for all the reasons discussed in yesterday’s post, many others have endeavored to find ways of affirming objective divine action without conceding to the charge that such agency must be necessarily interventionist. These theologians have pointed out that the scientific worldview is no longer Newtonian or mechanistic; rather, they argue, the post-Einstein world suggests that at least some aspects of nature are “ontologically under-determined.” That is, these theologians have attempted to identify specific spheres within the natural world that are not strictly governed by deterministic laws, and are thus inherently open to God’s action. These points of supposed “openness” or under-determination have been called “causal joints,” in reference to their role in connecting the causal agency of God’s will to the causal mechanisms in the natural world. Robert John Russell has applied the term “non-interventionist objective divine action” (NIODA) to apply to this cluster of approaches. It is worth noting that these non-interventionist approaches are generally not talking about miracles per se, or at least not miracles as defined in the Humean sense as “violations of the laws of nature.” Rather, divine action is to be seen as occurring in and through the natural world, and precisely at the level of inherently under-determined or indeterministic processes.

There are both bottom-up and top-down proposals in this general cluster of theories. Perhaps the most popular (and contentious!) is the bottom-up quantum divine action approach, which locates divine action in the fundamentally indeterministic processes of quantum mechanics. The argument goes that because the outcome of specific quantum events is underdetermined by natural laws, God can appropriately act at this level, thereby effecting large-scale quantum processes resulting in macro-level, observable events that would not have happened if God had not chosen to act. A more top down approach has been exemplified by John Polkinghorne, whose understanding of chaos theory has led him to suggest that because “the world is…so exquisitely sensitive to circumstance that the smallest disturbance will produce large and ever-growing changes in their behavior,” God can act through the input of “pure information” into these systems to bring about specific events.[1] Arthur Peacocke, on the other hand, has worked with the notion of “whole-part” influence to suggest that God constrains the natural world as a whole, in such a way that specific events within the universal system are effected. A final non-interventionist approach involves recent theories of emergentist divine action, such as Philip Clayton’s proposal that the emergent mind might be the only ontologically open area of the natural world in which God can act without intervening in natural laws.

While these non-interventionist scholars have significant key differences (and, indeed, would not all be happy to be grouped together in the same conceptual cluster!), they share in common a dual commitment to both scientific explanation and a commitment to objective divine action in the world. They are persuasive and helpful insofar as they attempt to take both science and theology as seriously as possible, and to show how God might work with, rather than against, God-given natural laws. The main weakness with non-interventionist “causal joint” approaches is that they are entirely dependent on current scientific understanding of specific natural processes. For example, there has been extensive criticism levied against the quantum divine action approach. There is actually great disagreement amongst physicists about the ontology of quantum indeterminism, and also serious questions about whether or not individual quantum events could scale up to observable macro-level events. Similar criticisms attend theological appropriations of chaos theory and the burgeoning field of emergence theories. The general point is that as scientific knowledge progresses and changes, these “ontologically underdetermined” natural processes may well be rendered explainable in scientific terms. Moreover, there are serious theological concerns that non-interventionist approaches limit God to a cause among causes; are non-interventionist approaches capable of handling the robust sort of divine action and interaction attested to in Scripture, tradition, and lived experience?

Reconceiving Metaphysical Models

A final approach to divine action involves questioning the metaphysical assumptions we bring to the theological table in the first place. That is, some have argued that the entire “intervention versus non-intervention” conversation is predicated upon a deistic understanding of the God-world model, in which Creation is depicted as somehow existing autonomously. As Mark Corner points out, the idea of intervention “implies that human beings ordinarily inhabit a self-sufficient universe...If God ‘intervenes’ in the world, that implies that the Deity ordinarily stands apart from it.”[2] The suggestion, then, is that a Trinitarian and biblical conception of the God-nature relationship might involve questioning the terms of the conversation itself. For example, many theologians have suggested a move toward “panentheism”, a model in which Creation exists in God, although God remains transcendent and more than Creation; divine action would then occur in and through natural laws, for the whole natural system would exist within God. Finding this dangerously close to pantheism, others have opted for a renewed emphasis on the proper role of the Holy Spirit in Creation. This view argues that natural laws are approximations of physical regularities that must be contextualized in the “higher laws” of the Holy Spirit. Thus, divine action occurs because the Spirit’s presence and activity are actually necessary for a full account of the natural world. In this view, “phenomena described as ‘miraculous’ are not instances of God breaking into the world, as if God were outside it prior to such events; they are instances of a unique and special mode of participation that always already characterizes creation.”[3] The commonality among these types of approaches is the emphasis on redefining what is “properly natural.”

Some may find these models unconvincing, insofar as they are fundamentally theological, and thus impossible to falsify scientifically. Still, they encourage fresh and healthy re-framing of old questions. In the coming weeks, several contributors will share their diverse perspectives on many of the approaches touched on thus far. While the question of divine action in a scientific world will surely remain open, these contributions promise to ask all the right questions, and perhaps provide theologically compelling and intellectually satisfying perspectives.

Looking Ahead

We’ll start next week with two posts by philosopher Alvin Plantinga. He argues that objections to divine action do not actually come from science itself, but rather from metaphysical frameworks that lie outside the purview of science proper. After that, Robert J. Russell will explain and unpack NIODA and his bottom-up quantum approach. Then, Christopher C. Knight questions the alleged conflict between divine action and natural laws altogether; he explores true naturalism and the possibility that God acts through higher natural laws. Next, Amos Yong explains his pneumatological approach to divine action, in which the immanent Spirit is present and active throughout all natural history and laws. Finally, Thomas Jay Oord proposes an “essential kenosis” approach to divine action, examining miracles through the lens of an affirmation of God’s self-giving love. This will take us well into the month of June, when Jim Stump will be back with some concluding thoughts. Jim and I look forward to interacting with you in the comments to these posts.




Ritchie, Sarah Lane. "Does the Success of Science Leave God Unemployed? (Part 2)" N.p., 4 May. 2016. Web. 18 January 2019.


Ritchie, S. (2016, May 4). Does the Success of Science Leave God Unemployed? (Part 2)
Retrieved January 18, 2019, from /blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/does-the-success-of-science-leave-god-unemployed-part-2

References & Credits

[1] John Polkinghorne (1995) Serious Talk, London: SCM Press, p. 79.

[2] Mark Corner (2005), Signs of God: Miracles and Their Interpretation: Aldershot: Ashgate, p. 7.

[3] James K.A. Smith, ‘Is the Universe Open for Surprise? Pentecostal Ontology and the Spirit of Naturalism’ in Zygon, 43:4, 879-896, p. 890.

About the Author

Sarah Lane Ritchie is Lecturer in Theology and Science at the University of Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh, where her doctoral work focused on the question of divine action in the human mind. A Michigander by birth, Sarah also holds a BA in Philosophy and Religion from Spring Arbor University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and an MSc in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh. Her published work focuses on questions arising from the intersection of theology, philosophy, and the various brain-related sciences. Sarah’s research interests include divine action, philosophy of mind, naturalism, cognitive science of religion, and the psychology of belief formation.

More posts by Sarah Lane Ritchie