Divine Action and the Meaning of “Creation”

Participants in the dialogue:

  • Jim Stump (JS)—BioLogos Content Manager, Philosopher
  • John Walton (JW)—BioLogos Advisory Board Member, Old Testament Scholar
  • Fazale “Fuz” Rana (FR)—Vice President of Research & Apologetics at Reasons to Believe, Biochemist
  • Robert Stewart—Professor of Philosophy and Theology at New Orleans Baptist Seminary
  • Deborah Haarsma (DH)—BioLogos President, Astrophysicist
  • Ken Keathley (KK)—Professor of Theology and Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • Darrel Falk (DF)—BioLogos Senior Advisor for Dialogue, Geneticist
  • Ken Samples (KS)—Senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe, Philosopher and Theologian
  • James K. Dew—Associate professor of the history of ideas and philosophy and dean of the College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • Hugh Ross (HR)—President of Reasons to Believe, Astrophysicist

James Dew—How do these two organizations think through divine action, what God does and does not do, now that the world is here with natural processes in place? Lumped in with that, the question that sometimes comes up about some of these older-Earth perspectives, how it differentiates itself from deism.

Jim Stump—Divine action is a thorny issue, no matter which perspective you come from. Let’s demarcate the boundaries of this: BioLogos does not take the position that God started everything up and created that first cell and then let everything go. We are not deists. But neither are we trying to find gaps in the created order to stick God into. Without being able to fully defend such a view right here, what we would assert, what we would claim, is that God is involved in all of it. God’s creative power and sustaining power works through all of creation. If we were to discover completely persuasive scientific explanations for how life developed and even began on Earth, we don’t think that therefore means that God had nothing to do with it, as if we’re squeezing God out of the issue, out of the process.

Instead, we have to come up with a way of talking about God’s action theologically, and we have to be able to talk about the material, natural processes scientifically, and we want to see those two kinds of discourses merge together, because we don’t want to fall into the “non-overlapping magisteria” model, where we can either talk about science or we can theology. But we understand these are different terms, different vocabularies. When I came to BioLogos a year and a half ago or so, this is one of the issues that we identified as needing an account, in order for the BioLogos explanation, in order for evolutionary creation to be a persuasive explanation.

This is one of the areas that we’re invested in over the long term in trying to get scholars to come on board to help us try to figure some of these questions out. We’re not going to sit here and say, “Here’s the explanation for divine action, how it works.” Neither, do I suspect, will any other perspective be able to say that to the approval of everybody in the audience. It is a problem; we understand that. But we are not deists, and neither are we “God-of–the-Gaps” theorists, that say that God’s action can be stuck in among the parts that we don’t quite understand scientifically yet.

Fazale Rana—I want to speak a little bit about this question of divine action from the standpoint of how I see things as a life scientist. Again, I would agree with this idea that God can intervene, if you will, can act through a route called “divine intervention,” but also through processes. We would not deny God’s capacity to interact with nature through either mechanism. But I want to make sure that there’s a recognition that we’re not just simply inserting God’s direct intervention in places where there’s “gaps” in knowledge.

Let’s take the origin-of-life question, which I’ve written quite extensively on. It’s true that there’s not an explanation at this juncture for the origin of life from the standpoint of chemical evolution, but that’s not the reason why I would argue that God has to have intervened at that point. It’s because of the work that’s actually being done by origin-of-life researchers in pre-biotic simulation studies. I take the view that the chemistry and the physics that you need for the origin of life to happen in principle exist. In principle, chemical evolution doesn’t violate the laws of chemistry and physics. What’s evident when you look at the work of pre-biotic simulation studies is that the only way that chemistry and physics is productive in a laboratory setting is when you have organic chemists and intelligent agents directly controlling and rigging the experimental set-up to force the chemistry to happen in a particular way.

In other words, that chemistry doesn’t translate to the conditions of the early Earth. It’s only through the role of intelligent agency that you see processes affected in a positive, productive manner. That would be the reason why we would argue that this is a point where it’s legitimate to think of God intervening in a direct way. Now, there’s possibilities that this could be through process or some other, more personal means. But really, we aren’t advocating a “God-of-the-Gaps” approach. We’re trying to say, “this is a place where it really does look like some type of intelligent agency’s needed to push things over the hump.”

HR—We would add to that that gaps are the right way to test differing, competing models, in the sense that every model’s got gaps in it. If what happens to the gaps as we study and research that discipline is that the gaps are getting bigger and more numerous and more problematic, that’s not good for your model. But if the gaps are getting progressively smaller and less and less problematic, then you’re probably on the pathway to truth.

This is where Fuz and I made our case on the origin of life, that if you look at the origin-of-life model from a non-theistic perspective, over the last fifty years, the gaps have gotten dramatically bigger and more numerous and more problematic, whereas from a theistic perspective where God intervenes, it’s gone the other way. So we say, “Look at the trend line. If that continues, that’s very powerful evidence for the Christian faith.”

In that context, we would say that divine action is intended to be discoverable. You see that in Romans 1, where God has clearly revealed himself through the record of nature. So we’re anticipating that as we examine that record of nature in more and more detail, we’re going to find increasing scientific evidence that God has personally intervened in such a way to bring about his desired result. Now, how he intervened we would say is open for dialogue. It could be, in some cases, a transcendent miracle, like the origin of the universe. In other cases, it could be like Fuz is suggesting: God steps in like a biochemical engineer and puts all these pieces together that otherwise would never have come together unless he had done that. So that’s our task. But we want to find a model whereby we actually come up with scientific evidence that distinctly distinguishes our creation model from a non-creation model.

We think it’s vitally important that we show people, for example, the origin and history of life how, scientifically, our model can be distinguished and tested against a non-theistic interpretation. We want to say, “Okay, here’s our model. Based on our model, we can make predictions about what scientists should discover if this is coming from a theistic perspective. If it’s coming from a non-theistic perspective, it’s going to go the opposite direction.” This has been going on in the field of astrophysics for quite a few decades, where we’re actually able to make that distinction. We’re saying it’s high time we move that into the area of biology. In fact, that’s been done to a significant degree. We argue that it’s consistent with the Bible. You’ve got the Psalms and the book of Job saying, “The more you look at nature, the more evidence you’re going to find of the handiwork of God.” That evidence will be distinct from someone that’s looking at it from a non-theistic perspective.

John Walton—I’m neither a philosopher to define divine action philosophically, nor am I a scientist to explain how science works out divine action or where it finds room for it. I’m a text guy. I want to look at the text and try to understand: what does the text have to say about divine action? Not even necessarily what theology has to say, but what will you learn from looking at the ancient world and trying to understand how they thought?

One of the things I’ve noted is that, in the ancient world, there was no category, “natural.” As a result, there is no meaningful category, “supernatural,” because that contrasts with what is observed and understood as “natural.” They believed that God was involved in everything, and therefore they wouldn’t designate some things as natural and other things as supernatural. As a result, in the Near East, they did not have degrees of causation that they would identify, so they couldn’t talk about ultimate cause or direct cause or all the different categories that wonderfully smart people like Aristotle put together. So in the ancient world, they just say God is doing everything. Therefore, it’s very difficult for us to read the Bible and say, “Okay, here’s where God was directly involved and here’s places where he was indirectly involved,” and to sort all that out. We could try to do that, but we’re interpreting and employing categories that they didn’t have.

An ancient Israelite would not think about a concept like God’s intervention, because you can only intervene in something that you’re not doing. They don’t have any such category of things God is not doing, the “natural” world that he could intervene in. They talk about God’s action all the time, and sometimes that action is more evident or less evident, but it’s God’s action that they assume to be the case. As a result, they wouldn’t distinguish a miracle as something that was “supernatural” rather than “natural.” Again, category errors. They would talk about God’s signs and wonders, as they do, as God acts in ways to show what he is up to. So when we try to devise an understanding of God’s action from text, we find ourselves facing a very difficult challenge, since the text is not going to be making the distinctions that we make.

That’s true even down to the verbal level. A Hebrew verb like “asa”, meaning “to do or to make,” simply talks about causation. Any level of causation. You can look through your concordance, look at all the examples. Any level of causation can be designated by the verb “asa.” Just because it uses the verb “asa” and we happen to translate it “make” or “do” doesn’t make it direct; it could be indirect, it could be any number of different levels of causation. Divine action’s a wonderful thing to talk about philosophically and scientifically, but if we get talking about it biblically, we’ve got some challenges that the text isn’t going to resolve for us.

JS—I should have said earlier that when we talk about divine action, we’re generally talking about God’s providential action throughout, rather than specific instances of miracles. BioLogos has in its faith statement that we uphold the miracles as described in Scripture, that God—anytime he wants to—can step into this order and alter and change things as he pleases. By trying to talk about the “natural” explanations the way scientists do, we’re not at all claiming that God can’t intervene as some theistic evolutionists assert.

DH—I want to push back on one thing that came up earlier about the first life, the first cell. How do you get a living cell from non-living matter? At BioLogos, we agree with Fuz’s assessment that this is an open area of research and there isn’t a clear explanation. But I don’t think I would agree with what Hugh said, that the gaps are increasing over time. My understanding is that the scientific work in that area is giving us a richer and richer understanding as we learn more about the RNA [ribonucleic acid] world, though we don’t have a solution yet. Darrel, can you add to that as a biologist?

Darrel Falk—I agree with you.

DH—OK, so that would be an area of difference between our organizations as we assess the current state of the science. On another point, Hugh, you referred to your creation model and to a non-creation model. Where would you see BioLogos in that? Do you see us as having a creation model?

HR—We have worked for years to fine-tune and hone our model. Yours is a younger organization coming from a much broader perspective. What I personally see in BioLogos is a range of models. If we were to get into a dialogue or critique, it’s not just one model. There’s a whole set of models. Some of the models are more favorably disposed to ours than others. I did make it clear—there’s also a range of models at Reasons to Believe. It’s a much narrower range of models than what you see at BioLogos. Part of the challenge of our dialogue is which part of the spectrum we’re going to be looking at.

DH—We do want to claim the term “creation.” Sometimes in your messaging, you have “creation” vs. “evolution” as opposed, whereas we see them together.

HR—For example, John and I would have differences in what “create” and “make” means [in the Hebrew text of the OT]. Some of that dialogue needs to take place.

FR—Deb, let me ask you and Darrel, turning the question around—how do you distinguish your model for, let’s say, the history of life, from a model conceived of by someone who’s a non-theist who would take an evolutionary view of the history of life? How would I be able to distinguish between which is be a better way to understand the history of life when guided by God’s intervention versus one without God’s intervention?

Darrel Falk—I wouldn’t want to say that we would have a distinctive biology, but what’s different and makes all the difference in the world, is that this is God’s process. All that has taken place, all that is taking place, all that’s still taking place is taking place because of the presence of God in creation. But I wouldn’t go in and say, “So, here, biologically, is where I, as a Christian, look at this differently, unless it’s that philosophical question of whether it’s God’s creation.”

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