Divine action and human affairs

When I’ve commented about divine action on this blog, I’ve usually been very careful to distinguish the pre- and non-human creation from the affairs of mankind. That’s because it’s usually been in the context of that chimaeric concept of “nature’s freedom”, and many TE’s are determined to confuse that with human free will. And even others, raised on the Promethean myth of human autonomy, are also keener to draw lines in the sand about human freedom that comment about what, if anything, “a creation free to create itself” means. But I’ve come across a biblical example of God’s role in human affairs that raises some interesting thoughts about the detectibility if divine action, and that might, perhaps, feed back into the evolution issue.
The context is the rebellion of King David’s son Absalom in 2 Samuel 15ff. How this happens is described in very human terms of David’s poor judgement as a father, Absalom’s resentment and resulting ambition, and the intrigues of politics that are familiar to anyone who reads the papers, regardless of any lack of grounding an ANE royal dynastic norms. As so often in Old Testament narrative, the motives of the protagonists are often far from clear. It’s easy to miss the fact, especially if you approach the texts as biased royal history, that these stories are actually more to do with God than with men. The key point is how God maintains his covenant with David and with Israel, and yet administers firm governance and justice over the failings of those he’s appointed.

It all stems from the judgement pronounced on David over his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband by Nathan the prophet. This, remember, is that same Nathan whose pronouncement of God’s covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7 is the basis on which the Messiahship of Jesus Christ rests, so Christians need to be careful before sidelining his authority. Nathan, as well as predictiung the death of the son born from adultery, promises calamity from David’s own household (12.11-12).

Yet at the same time as executing this public judgement on David through Absalom, he does not leave the usurper’s numerous sins – including dishonouring his father, rebelling against the anointed king, murder and so on – unpunished. And so we read in 17.14 that “The Lord had determined to frsutrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom.” The picture is of a God who exercises justice not only in some final heavenly court, but with wisdom and power to restrain and divert evil in the tangled affairs of human life.

But look at what that verse actually covers. Absalom has recruited David’s best adviser, Ahithophel, but David’s friend Hushai has stayed behind in Jerusalem to try and steer things in David’s favour. Surprisingly, when Ahithophel advises the usurper to strike David’s party before it has time to escape, Absalom decides to sound out Hushai, who naturally advises the opposite. And “Absalom and all the men of Israel” prefer that counsel, miss the opportunity to secure the throne, and so bring about the ultimate failure of the coup – and all because “the Lord had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel.”

The latter, either not used to being ignored or, maybe, wise enough to see that the game is up and he will come to be punished by David as the traitor he is, hangs himself.

Now, does that whole story suggest a God who rarely and miraculously intervenes to “change events”, or who by a constant providence “works all things according to the purpose of his will”?

To use the English idiom, “Do you see what God did there?” Actually, it’s well nigh impossible to do so. There’s no miracle to be seen. The story hangs together entirely coherently in human terms. The motives and cunning of the two advisers explain their counsel. The decision to accept Hushai’s was freely agreed by the entire leadership. It just happened to be dead wrong. So how did God bring this about? In the first place, did he whisper to Absalom to get a second opinion? It’s not mentioned, and it makes perfect sense for Absalom to do that anyway. Did he make Ahithophel uncharacteristically ineloquent, or Hushai supernaturally persuasive? Did he nudge the free wills of tens or hundreds of people so that they collectively chose foolishly?

The fact is there is not a single hint about God’s “method”, nor any suggestion that the decisions of any of the human players were anything other than what we experience in everyday life. Instead, all we know is that “the Lord had determined”, and it happened. Applying this to the simpler and (in any sensible world) less contentious business of God’s governance of the created order, we might expect similarly to be able to find no evidence for God’s “tinkering” in evolution, any more than 2 Samuel gives us any evidence of his “interference” in Absalom’s and David’s dispute. Maybe for the theistic evolutionist, it is ultimately sufficient to say “God decreed, but natural means performed it.”

That does, however, necessitate a firm commitment, outside the scientific arena, to the position that God has decreed all that nature produces. If there’s any idea in ones mind that where there are natural causes, God is keeping his hands off, then one is committed also to saying that where there are free human actions, God must also keep his distance, and the whole picture of the God of providence that underpins the Bible narrative (including, remember, the promise of Messiah) must be rejected. Which, I’m sure, many will prefer to do, simply on the basis that Prometheus has taught us that human autonomy is the central good of the whole cosmos.

Neither does the invisibility (and even incomprehensibility) of God’s activity necessarily mean his activity cannot be deduced. In David’s case, the word of the prophet showed in advance what would happen. That could be seen in the simple sense that what God promises through revelation, he does. Or maybe it could be taken more generally that where a purpose is seen to be achieved under unusual circumstances, God’s activity may be deduced. In the story, you’d have expected “the usurper in the street” to have taken the sensible course and secured his throne quickly. The low probability of the actual outcome, as well as its consistency with prophetic utterance, may itself, perhaps, provide evidence in an analogous way to the intuitively-perceived design in nature.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to Divine action and human affairs

  1. Gregory says:

    Nature is a slave (unfree)?!

    ‘Design in nature’ (Big-ID) is not/cannot be perceived ‘scientifically,’ but only ‘intuitively’?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Nature can no more be a slave than a stone can be free. That whole language is a category error.

  3. James says:

    Jon:

    Where have you been? I’ve been suffering from theological malnutrition for days now — and how can a former physician promote malnutrition?

    Whatever the reason for your prolonged absence, I’m glad you’re back.

    Agreed that the category of slave/free is inappropriate for inanimate objects, and dubious for all subhuman things, even the higher animals. This is where the BioLogos TEs continually go wrong. And when it comes to category errors, they seem incorrigible. I’d say that the frequency of category errors is due to lack of formal training in philosophy, but while training in philosophy can certainly teach one to avoid category errors, it shouldn’t be necessary; one just needs an exact and logically demanding mind, and non-slovenly vocabulary and reading comprehension habits. Why these things should be so rare among American evangelical scientists, I cannot explain. Perhaps it has something to do with over-specialization in the American higher educational system, or defects in general education in the American primary schools and high schools; or perhaps Christian churches, sects and denominations which place massive emphasis on “feeling” and have relative contempt for rational theology produce inexact reasoners when it comes to theological questions.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Sorry James – I’ve been busy editing recordings and similarly musical things, as well as coping with flooded electrics and other effects of inclement weather.

    I guess the main queston I’m addressing in this post is the other error of insisting that only one type of causation is poissible at once. That would actually potentially allow creation to be free and God still to determine it, if only it actually meant anything!

  5. GD GD says:

    The terminology may or may not be the problem – however, we as human beings are convinced that we are free, and conceive of, the notion of freedom. It is not something we can just throw to one side because it is difficult to attribute to nature (i.e. to innanimate objects and/or bio-objects).

    It is a central aspect of nature, in that human beings can consider ourselves and our world as something that includes freedom. At the risk of sounding simplistic and also overstating the matter, I think freedom within a theological context is central to understanding ourselves and our world.

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    GD

    The point of your last post is good, but in practice the relevant fact that “we are in a Universe in which human freedom is possible” seems to have become “we are in a Universe where freedom is everywhere”, amongst many TEs at least. Your point on the other thread, about trying to say too much about a Universe (and a God!) we barely understand, applies there. We end up denying what we can know (from revelation) by over-extending what we think we know (from science or reason).

    That applies to the “free creation” debate, but also to our understanding even of human freedom – few are working from the paradigm of Christ, who was the most free human, and yet submitted himself willingly to his Father in every way. We’ve lost that old concept, “whose service is perfect freedom”. So an imperfect concept of freedom is applied to an imperfect concept of nature to teach an imperfect concept of God.

    As for human freedom, surely it is our very uniqueness as spiritual beings that gives us “freedom” (using the basic epistemology of your first para above, rather than any exhaustive definition). That being so, we’re more likely to understand freedom if we see it as an attribute of man rather than as a possibility within nature. To do the reverse seems a bit like studying nature to see why it is the sort of thing in which God can do miracles.

  7. GD GD says:

    Jon,

    As a faith position, the statement by Christ before he was taken for beating and crucifixtion (not my will, but yours be done) is an expression and an act of total freedom. This atribute may be discussed in many ways, including service – however it is a divine attribute as shown in Christ, and thus may be understood as the result of God’s Holy Spirit. We as sinful humanity, would understand it (even more so) through that dark glass. Nonetheless, it is central to the human spirit and how we understand both divine action and human affairs. It is here that the overall debate about knowledge. belief and our own attributes in terms of how we relate and act towards each other, would meet. It is also our singular attribute – just how do we then deal with nature? Human beings are in the world, as we are made of the same substance and subject to the (pesky) regularities that science proclaims. Yet no other creature in nature can do to it, what we human beings can and often do. This dilema would trouble anyone – I think this is why Darwin’s idea has exerted such influence in the West – it is a way of avoiding such a dilema. Other matters, such a miraculous events discussed in the Bible, would compound the dilema for a scientific outlook.

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