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.
The plausibility of the approach I am proposing to the problem of divine action in a scientifically understood world can be appreciated only given a certain set of presuppositions.
Presuppositions about God’s action
First, I assume a revised faith-seeking-understanding posture that is derived from a more or less orthodox notion of Christian faith. I understand this to be fallibilistic and constantly responding to various criteria. Among these I count continuity with scriptural and theological traditions, correlation with the ongoing advance of human knowledge in its various domains, and capacity to bring about the greater good as agreed upon by the world religions. I embrace a Pentecostal Christian form of life, although I am always exploring its coherence with the broader Christian tradition, testing its adequacy with respect to progress in human inquiry, and examining its ability to engage apologetically and constructively with other world and life views for the common good.
Second, and more specific to the theology and science interface, I presume as a (Pentecostal) Christian that God works through the creation – and its natural laws or creatures and agents. I do not believe, however, that it is possible from a scientific perspective to know when God works interventionistically or specially. There are both positive and negative aspects of this premise. Positively, according to my reading of the creation narrative in the book of Genesis, the evolutionary history of the cosmos unfolds pneumatologically, or “ruahologically.” That is to say, the ruah elohim (the wind of God) hovered across and over the primordial waters (Gen. 1:2), and creation developed from there. Hence there is nothing purely “natural” (in the reductive and Enlightenment sense of that term) in the evolutionary processes of the world. There is also nothing “supernatural” to divine action since no divine work occurs apart from the creational dynamics, and since creation’s unfolding can be understood to proceed only via divine activity. So I believe we ought to jettison the natural-supernatural binary as too heavily saddled with Enlightenment baggage. Negatively, however, I also posit that the most we can say about how God acts comes from what we can empirically detect about the ways in which creation’s processes work, which is precisely the domain of science. But this also means that in principle there will be no way to scientifically identify any interventionistic causal joint between God and the world. Thus efforts related to the “Divine Action” project that has proceeded over the last thirty years tell us that God could work in general through chaotic systems or at the quantum level by collapsing wave functions, but science cannot determine one outcome as being of special divine action and another as being of general divine action. My point here is not that God does not “intervene” in the world in specific instances (on which more in a moment), but that from a scientific point of view, there is no way to detect such cases.
Finally then, what about biblical or other so-called miraculous divine interventions in creaturely affairs so prevalently attested in Pentecostalism and across the Christian tradition and community? I postulate that miracles are never self-evident. Surely they are unexpected and inexplicable developments in the world and in human experience, but their wondrousness – a quality of all miracle accounts – is definable only within a broader framework and even narrative arc. What I mean is that the miraculous character of any sequence of events is significant only within an existing meaning system in relationship to certain expectations. So, for example, God raised Jesus from the dead as part of God’s restoration of Israel and as the first fruits of the final resurrection from the dead to eternal life. From a scientific point of view, then, miracles might be elucidated even via the so-called laws of nature – e.g., when Pharoah’s army was threatening Israel, suddenly a mighty wind inhibited that army’s advance even as it opened up a pathway through the sea for Israel’s escape (here the miracle is not so much what or how but when). Or perhaps a miracle signals some yet unknown although possibly emergent dimension of how creation will come to behave. For example, in the resurrection of Jesus, we have a glimpse of an emergent feature of our evolutionary world. In any case, “miracles” never stand-alone but are interpretations of events within a wider symbolic frame.
Pentecostal, pneumatological, and eschatological divine action
It is within such a context that I suggest a Pentecostal-pneumatological-eschatological consideration of divine action. Its Pentecostal character refers less to my own modern Pentecostal ecclesial commitments than to how the Day of Pentecost narrative in the book of Acts provides a hermeneutical vantage point from which to generalize divine action as consistent with and complementary to the ruahological model drawn from Genesis. The gift and arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost may be recognized from one angle (of faith) as interventionistic. From another standpoint, though, such divine activity did not bypass but worked synergistically through human agents: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4; NRSV). This suggests, from such a post-Pentecost viewpoint, that divine action includes, rather than works apart from, creaturely elements (human agents in this case). There is no reason why modern science—especially the full range of the social, anthropological, and humanistic sciences—cannot enable greater and greater grasp of this creaturely dimension of divine action, or why such always increasing comprehension would undermine faith in divine action (which is always wedded with creaturely contributions).
The pneumatological aspect of my proposal stems from the motivation to articulate a more robustly trinitarian vision of divine action. Much of the scientifically informed theologies of divine action focus on the incarnation as the central point of the God-world interface but this neglects that God otherwise acts in the world by and through the Holy Spirit. A pneumatological theology of divine action points back through the evolutionary history of the cosmos to the Big Bang, as it were, and thus invites a truly interdisciplinary engagement with the full scope of the sciences in order to apprehend more fully the creational or cosmic dimensions of such divine activity. There is no worry here about a God-of-the-gaps problem because there are no gaps: Christian faith enables us to affirm that God is at work providentially by his wind and breath through the world and its cosmological processes even as the sciences illuminate the how of such pneumatological presence and activity.
But what about what some have called gratuitous evil? Are there not some events in the history of the world that are so horrendous that we would not want to claim them as divinely activated, which is what it appears our Pentecostal and pneumatological account suggests? That is where the eschatological dimension becomes important. The Day of Pentecost narrative indicates that the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh inaugurates the “last days” (Acts 2:17), which is the promise of the coming reign of God manifest in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. My Christian faith inspires me to believe that nothing has happened or can happen that somehow God cannot redeem in Christ by the Holy Spirit. That is the goal of creation itself. Science can help us to fathom better what happens in the world, even why it is so devastatingly painful and tragic, but divine redemption is still to come, even as glimpses of such are ascertainable in our modern scientifically informed world.
I want to elaborate more on this difficult matter and provide further justification for my proposal especially in relationship to competing accounts.
Science and Theodicy
From a scientific perspective, of course, the concerns of theodicy – the justification of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God in the face of evil – do not arise, and that for at least two interrelated reasons. First, scientific inquiry is primarily an activity focused on increasing our understanding of how the world works. Second, questions about nature’s processes concern matters of cosmic causality more than they do ethical morality. Within this framework, that and how earthquakes happen can be explained geologically and illuminated from a variety of perspectives provided by the natural sciences. But the claim that earthquakes are evil is not something that science is designed to define. Further, even if science can play a role in clarifying why people suffer – for instance, genetics can elucidate chromosomal aberrations that result in severe or profound disabilities and their attendant painful effects and tragic impacts on human life – science does not presume, one way or another, that God is related to such experiences. So even if the various natural and human sciences help us to understand better from whence and how suffering emerges in the human condition, they do not respond directly to theodic questions and concerns.
Models of Theodicy
Various theodicies have been proposed historically, each with strengths but none with definitive resolutions. I cannot give an exhaustive discussion of the approaches to theodicy in the Christian tradition, but will briefly note here three types of theodicies representative of, in my view, the dominant models – the monotheistic, the cosmic, and the crucicentric.
First is what might be called the divine sovereignty response that insists suffering is allowed by the one creator God for various soul-making or otherwise inscrutable reasons. In the end (eschatologically) God will make right the perceived wrongs and vindicate these divine decisions. Some believers find comfort in the idea that human knowledge is limited and divine omnipotence will justify history finally. Others feel that God’s goodness seems unreliable in the face of what seems to be gratuitous evil, and so it is difficult to trust that monotheism will make things right for distressed souls in the end.
Second is a kind of cosmic dualism in which God is the most powerful but perhaps not all-powerful being who works variously against the recalcitrant forces of the world. These are usually understood either to have always existed in some way alongside God or as emergent from the freedom given to angelic or other non-human creatures that have rebelled against God, to bring about life, goodness, and beauty. This view in effect locates evil in the world that is either perennially distinct or has fallen away from God (thus preserving divine transcendence and goodness). It does not, however, assuage the worry that such evil will also persist everlastingly into the future, as there is no apparent means of guaranteeing divine victory once-and-for-all over such cosmic obstinacy.
Last but not least is a theodic rejoinder that is distinctively Christian in focusing on the central symbol of the cross of Christ as revealing not where evil and sorrow come from, but that God does not stand aloof from human hurt and actually enters deeply into such, even to the point of death. Advocates emphasize how such a reply invites pastoral presence with and praxis in support of the afflicted, but others are unsatisfied that this rejoinder adequately addresses the origins of evil or that the idea of divine solidarity with human sufferers sufficiently undergirds optimism for ultimate triumph over pain and tragedy.
I am not naïve to think that my pentecostal-pneumatological-and eschatological theology will prove thoroughly adequate where these others have valiantly strived. Yet perhaps when situated as a complementary proposal, what I am suggesting buttresses the weakest links of the other chains toward a more robustly trinitarian theological construct. If the theodicy question is fundamentally theological, then my pentecostal and pneumatological notion is necessary in order to fill out the trinitarian potential inherent within but underdeveloped by the incarnational and crucicentric model. So without taking away anything from the important truth that God enters into the human condition in Jesus Christ and experiences fully its suffering and pain on the cross, the pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh additionally proclaims that the creator of the world seeks to redeem the broken cosmos by coming upon and even inhabiting from within the hearts, bodies, and lives of all human sufferers. Hence crucicentric embrace of the generality of human flesh in the carnal being of Jesus is followed by pentecostal infusion into the particular carnal bodies of human beings by the Spirit of Jesus.
Such a trinitarian theodicy foregrounds the work of both the Son and the Spirit in the eschatological redemption of God. If the theodic models proposed above each relies on some kind of eschatological resolution to the problem of evil, the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh in the last days (Acts 2:17) not only indicates how God is present amidst human misery but also accentuates how the Spirit empowers human participation in the mission of the triune deity to redeem such an aggrieved world and enables witness to the good news of the now-but-not-yet reign of God amidst the evil and calamity of the present age. In other words, such a pneumatological and eschatological view invites human creatures to be open to being conduits of charismatic signs and wondrous manifestations that extend hope in the current era of agony and torment, and provide glimpses of the full redemption to come.
Coming back full circle, such a pentecostal and pneumatological theodicy asks how followers of Jesus Christ can make full use of the various realms of human knowledge—the broad scope of the natural and human sciences included—in order to bring comfort and healing to a stricken world. If the reign of God is already here in some sense through Christ and the Spirit (Luke 17:21), then those filled with the Spirit of Christ are co-laborers with the triune God in embodying and announcing the good news of salvation, perhaps not innoculation from anguish and travail but certainly in and through them. To the degree that science unveils the causes of suffering and to the degree that scientific interventions and technologies can alleviate such in the present time, to these same degrees those committed to the mission of the triune God can embrace, urge on, underwrite, and support scientific inquiry for redemptive purposes, all as part of the Spirit’s empowering witness in this pentecostal dispensation. If this theodic vision, like the others, does not account for the ultimate genesis of evil, its trinitarian purview provides vigorous theological support for the eschatological hope that the divine will and goodness eventually prevail, even as the presence and activity of the Spirit of Pentecost instigates and arouses human inquiry—scientific and otherwise—and action toward such redemptive ends.
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