Christopher C. Knight
 on May 23, 2016

Divine Action: Naturalism and Incarnation

Miracles are not a divine interference, but reflections of the true nature of the world that is usually hidden from us.


NOTE: This article is part of a BioLogos conversation on the topic of divine action. How can we understand God’s action in creation? Do the discoveries of modern science leave less room for God to act? We hope that these perspectives help foster greater understanding and more productive dialogue among Christians. 

Models of Divine Action

In my book, The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science, I argue that we often rely on questionable assumptions when thinking about divine action. In particular, we often contrast a belief in “miracles” with “naturalism,” as though these terms had clear meanings. In practice, however, several different (if overlapping) meanings exist for each of them.  

Some, for instance, take it for granted that all “laws of nature” are in principle susceptible to investigation through the methodology of the sciences, and define “naturalism” in terms of this belief. With this understanding, miracles (whether believed in or not) are usually defined as violations of the laws of nature. Others, however, suspect like me that not all of God’s “fixed instructions” for the universe are susceptible to investigation through the scientific methodology. We point towards the problem of how to treat reports of phenomena that, while not miraculous in the sense of revealing God, are still paranormal. We recognise that much of the anecdotal evidence for these phenomena (telepathy, telekinesis etc.) may be shaky, and recognise too that scientifically-oriented “psychical research” has failed to establish their occurrence through repeatable observation. We feel, nevertheless, that we should not simply deny the possibility that such phenomena occur as part of the way in which the natural world operates. Might there not, we ask, be certain aspects of natural causality that cannot be investigated by repeatable laboratory methods? After all, we say, people continue to fall in love despite the fact that no one has ever observed this process in a laboratory.  

Those of us who speak in this way sometimes point to “regime change” in the physical world as a possible way of thinking about phenomena which would not have been anticipated. Take superconductivity, for example: there is a discontinuity in the physical properties that arise through holistic effects (bringing about the “regime change”), and these were not predicted beforehand from what had been observed. Of course we can now explore this phenomenon through scientific methods, but perhaps there are other emergent properties in the universeones associated with human personsthat are not susceptible to scientific investigation but may still be seen in a comparable way as bringing about discontinuities with normal experience.

Naturalism, we argue, should be defined not only in terms of what we might call the “lower” laws of nature that may be investigated by the scientist. In addition, we suggest, there is a need to recognise (as Augustine of Hippo seems to have done in the early fifth century) the possibility of “higher” laws of nature that are beyond such investigation. These higher laws, in our view, are just as much part of the natural universe’s God-given “fixed instructions” as are the “lower” laws that the scientist can investigate.

The traditional Christian notion of “general divine action” arises from the way in which God has always been seen as working, at least partly, through the normal operation of the (“lower”) laws of nature. To account for events that seem inexplicable in these terms, however, many have felt the need to speak, not in terms of “higher” laws of nature, but instead in terms of God’s “personal response” to situations through “special divine action.” Thinking about human action makes it clear, however, that this concept of two separate modes of action“general” and “special”is not necessary for explaining personal providential action.

For example, at present I have a son at university who needs my “providential” financial support.  I can in principle organise this support in any one of three ways:

  1. I can rely entirely on “special” personal action. Whenever it seems appropriate to me I can hand to him the cash I think he needs. I might, for example, say to him as I do this, “here’s your normal living allowance for the next month, and here’s some extra cash to pay for the unexpected repairs that your car needs.”
  2. I can occasionally use “special” action to supplement the “general” action that arises from arranging for my bank to make a regular monthly payment from my account into his. In the event of his car needing repairs, I can say to him “the standing order for the transfer of your ordinary allowance from my bank account to yours doesn’t allow for unexpected car repairs. Here, therefore, is some extra cash to pay for those repairs.”
  3. I can rely entirely on “general action” by adding extra clauses to my standing order to the bank. Thus, for example, I might add this clause: “If my son presents to you a bill for repairs to his car, then in addition to continuing to make the regular monthly transfer to his account that I have arranged, transfer an extra amount to pay this repair bill.”  (Because of this extra clause, I wouldn’t have to make a “response” each time his car needed repairs. “Special” action would be unnecessary, though my support would be no less “personal” because of that.)

Of course I would not, in practice, take this third option in my support of my son because I recognise that my wisdom is limited, and that I am therefore unable to anticipate all his possible needs. In practice I take the second option (as many think God does in the divine equivalent of this metaphor). However, God’s infinite wisdom is not limited in the way that mine is, so the divine equivalent of the third optionthat with no “special” actionbecomes thinkable.

Indeed, for some it becomes more than simply thinkable. To me, for theological reasons that I shall explain presently, the best way of thinking about God’s action is in terms of a “general” action model of this last kind, with no need for extra “special” supplements. The “higher” laws of nature that God has built into the world are sufficient, in my view, to explain all those events that we tend to see as divine “responses” to situations in the world. Even those “responses” that seem to us miraculous are, in my view, explicable in these terms, because the possibility of paranormal phenomena is something that this model can incorporate through the “regime change” analogy.

Concerns from classical theism

Many Christians are wary of this conceptual scheme. They believe that a personal God must have some way of responding directly to events in the world, either temporarily setting aside the laws of nature in order to undertake supernatural intervention, or else by using those laws as tools, as envisaged in the “non-interventionist objective divine action” scheme favoured by many participants in the current science-theology dialogue.

This latter model has a number of problems, however. One of them is the fact that the term “non-interventionist” is potentially misleading, because a kind of divine interference with the world is still envisaged. Other, more major problems are discussed by Nicholas Saunders in his book, Divine Action and Modern Science, and these lead him to see the concept of divine action as being in “crisis.”

One of the main problems for me, however, is one that Saunders does not discuss. This is that the model tends to assume that God is limited by divine personhood much as we are limited by human personhood, which is temporal in nature and ignorant of the future. Those who have defended the model have often argued that Godas a “personal” God who “responds” to our prayersmust also be thought of as a being “within time” and as having no knowledge of the future. By contrast, traditional Christian theism, which I wish to uphold, has often stressed that God does not experience a past and a future as we do. For this traditional model, Godas a classic medieval text puts itsees all points of time  “at a single glance.” (This means, for example, that if we do not know the outcome of some past situation, then we can quite properly pray about that situation even though we know that the outcome must already have been decided, since God can, so to speak, “anticipate” our prayer before it occurs.)

All this is not to say that my view is without its own problems. The main problem is that when it is expressed in philosophical terms—as I have done to this point—it may be seen as a version of a more general view that I have labelled “strong theistic naturalism,” defined by the belief that God exists but that  “special divine action” does not occur. One of the problems of this philosophical view, when not supplemented by further theological considerations, is that it has no criteria for understanding whether God’s “higher laws of nature” exist or, if they do exist, what kinds of events they might allow to occur.

While some strong theistic naturalists seem (like me) to affirm the possibility of everything that any conservative Christian would want to affirmmiracles etc.others do not. Instead, they take up a position very similar to that of the deists of the eighteenth century, who believed in a divine Creator but denied both the occurrence of miracles and the efficacy of intercessory prayer, seeing God as a kind of “absentee landlord” who had no “involvement” with the world. This deistic view is clearly incompatible with a traditionalist Christian understanding of the kind I want to defend.

Deism represents only one kind of strong theistic naturalism, however, and it arises only when this naturalism is developed solely from a philosophical viewpoint. As we shall see below, a different kind of strong theistic naturalism may be developed by arguing from a starting point that is theological rather than purely philosophical. With this starting point, I argue, a version of strong theistic naturalism emerges that is hardly recognisable as such, with none of the problems that such a naturalism has when it is developed only in terms of philosophical arguments. The key, I shall suggest, lies in a proper exegesis of the scriptural phrase at the heart of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1).

The Logos

When most modern Christians read the beginning the fourth gospel“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1)they do so in translation rather than in the original Greek.  They are often unaware that the term “Word” here is a translation of the Greek term Logos (plural logoi), which, as well as meaning word, has many other related meanings, one of which is in the root of the English word logic.

At the time the gospel was written, the term Logos was already widely used, even among pagans, to point to to the world’s origin in some kind of divine logical principle. If they already believed in a divine creator, therefore, the original readers or hearers of the gospel would have almost taken it for granted that it was through the divine Logos that “all things were made” (John 1;7).  Moreover, if they were Greek-speaking Jews, they would already have had a more nuanced understanding of this notion, because in their community this philosophical meaning of Logos had already been refined in terms of the Old Testament’s way of speaking about what happened “in the beginning” (Genesis 1) and about the concept of the role of “Wisdom” in bringing the created order into being (Proverbs 8). What was new in the fourth gospel was simply the assertion that this Logos had, in Christ, “taken flesh” (John 1:14).

In Greek, the term logos did not apply only to the divine logical principle. Each created thing could also be spoken about as behaving “logically” because it had its own logos. The notion of the logoi of created things was, in this way, intimately related to the modern notion of the laws of nature. However, while modern Christians do see the laws of nature as God-given, they only rarely understand that the way in which the term logos was then used suggests a more intimate connection between God and the created order than they usually assume. There was a sense, for those who first heard or read the fourth gospel, that the Logos who was incarnate in Christ had not previously been absent from the world, since that Logos had already been present as the source of that world’s logical behaviour. The incarnation could be seen as the fulfilment of God’s act of creation rather than as some kind of supernatural intrusion into the created order.

When the New Testament was translated into other languages, these nuances tended to get lost. Only in the eastern, Greek-speaking part of the Christian world were they still fully appreciated. There, they were systematically developed, coming to their fullest elaboration in the early seventh century writings of Maximus (or Maximos) the Confessor, for whom the logoi of created things were in some sense a direct manifestation of the divine Logos itself. Since that time, the direct spiritual descendants of the Greek-speakers for whom the fourth gospel was writtenChristians of the Eastern Orthodox Churchhave advocated the notion of God’s presence in created things through Maximus’s belief in an intrinsic connection between the logoi of those things and the divine Logos.

Western theological scholarship has recently begun to appreciate the way in which this theology of creation has very clear New Testament roots. What is often not understood, however, is that the biblical and Orthodox sense of the intimacy of the relationship between God and the natural world has important ramifications that challenge many of our usual assumptions. Here, it would seem, understanding the way in which Orthodox theology approaches this issue can be helpful to all Christians, enabling us to question the assumptions that we often bring to the question of how God acts in the world.  

Natural or sub-natural?

The classic Western separation of grace and nature, for example, simply does not exist in the Christian East, because grace is seen as being implied in God’s act of creation. Similarly, although the term “supernatural” is sometimes used within Orthodoxy, there is no separation between natural and supernatural of the kind usually assumed in the West. (In fact, a comparable distinction is more often expressed by Eastern Orthodox in terms of the distinction between created and uncreated.)

Furthermore, Eastern Orthodox theology supplements its incarnational understanding of creation, rooted in the fourth gospel, with further biblical perspectives: from various passages that refer to the Christian’s hope for eternal life and from Genesis 2 and 3These perspectives lead some Eastern authors to use the term natural only to describe God’s original and ultimate intentions for creation (i.e for the original paradise intended for humanity and for the world to come). The “fallen” world as we experience it is, for this perspective, not natural but sub-natural, and miracles may be seen, not so much as “supernatural” intrusions into the world as a return to its truly natural state.

Science and teleology

One of the things that Maximus the Confessor explored as part of this intimate connection between God and the created order was the way in which, as he saw it, created things tend“naturally” so to speaktowards their divinely-ordained existence in the world to come. An interesting parallel here, I have argued, is the way in which we are increasingly being led to ponder how, from a scientific perspective, the history of the cosmos may be seen in terms of some kind of “pre-ordained” development. In particular, there has been an interesting exploration of the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants of the universe, leading to discussion of what is called the anthropic cosmological principle, and of the way in which evolutionary trajectories tend towards certain kinds of functionality, explored in terms of what is called evolutionary convergence.

The conclusions that arise from this exploration may be seen as consonant with the view that God created the universe with a particular goal (or at least interim goal) in view: the naturalistic emergence of beings who are conscious of both themselves and God.  The “laws of nature” as we understand them scientifically are thus not only a way of providing the logic of the functioning of created things. They may also be seen, in a new and scientifically-informed perspective, as part of the way in which, as Maximus insisted, God draws creation “from within” towards its intended final end.

A personally present God

Especially when the notion of “higher” laws of nature is added to this understanding, a kind of strong theistic naturalism emerges that is intimately connected to Maximus’s vision. This has none of the disadvantages with a theistic naturalism that is developed from a purely philosophical starting point. God, in this theological perspective, is not the “absentee landlord” of the deists; rather God is “involved” with the world in a more radical way than is envisaged by those who advocate other understandings of divine involvement.  In this perspective, God truly acts in all events in the world. The “laws of nature” that bring about these events include not only the “lower” kind that scientists study but also the “higher” ones that are beyond investigation through scientific methodology. God’s action through all these laws is truly “personal” because these laws are not part of an autonomous universe, as imagined in most kinds of naturalism. Rather, they are an aspect of the logoi of created things, in which God is personally present.

We are not, of course, necessarily tied to the way in which Maximus himself expressed these insights. We might, for example, develop an alternative or complementary view in terms of another aspect of our Trinitarian understanding: the way in which the Holy Spirit isas it is put in the classic prayer with which all formal Orthodox prayer beginsone who is “everywhere present and fills all things.” The important thing is that whatever theological starting point we adopt in our thinking about divine action, we must overcome our tendency to begin with a somewhat abstract concept of God, and with the assumption that this God is essentially “outside” the creation.

If we begin with this questionable picture of God separated from created things, it inevitably seems to us that an understanding of divine action requires the development of an understanding of how God can “get in” from “outside.” As we have seen, however, once we have put this assumption aside, we are enabled to think about divine action in a way that is philosophically a form of “strong theistic naturalism” but is almost unrecognisable as such. For what is involved in this alternative picture is not based on this naturalism’s usual denial of “special divine action.” Rather, it is based on a framework in which the distinction between “special” and “general” divine action no longer makes any sense. God’s presence and action in the world are seen simply as two sides of the same coin.

Miracles are not, in this perspective, the result of divine intervention in, or interference with, the world. Rather, they may be seen as reflections of an aspect of the true nature of the world that is usually hidden from us.  The “return” to that true nature, as envisaged in this understanding, represents what some Western theologians have spoken aboutin relation to Christ himselfas a “breaking in of the age to come.” However, to speak of ”‘breaking in” would, in this context, be somewhat misleading, since what is envisaged is not a breaking in of something that comes from “outside.” What occurs is, rather, something that the Eastern Christian tradition has often stressed: a ‘”breaking out” of something that is always present in the world, albeit in a way that is, in a “fallen” world, usually hidden from us.

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