Lydia McGrew has done an excellent piece, Special agent intention as an explanation, which though not addressed to the same specific subjects, relates to the discussions we’ve had here over the last few posts, on frontloading, natural causes, etc. It’s in the comments that much of what is relevant to our concerns crops up, so I recommend reading those, and the article itself.
Lydia’s interest is as an Aristotelian-Thomist thinker, who’s interacted extensively with Ed Feser, that other celebrated A-T, but has increasingly critiqued his very negative position on theistic design matters in general, and ID in particular.
You’ll see that the conservationist-occasionalist-concurrentist discussion enters in during the comments, and interestingly (speaking as a half-hearted conservationist) she has a different take on it than I, which leads me to my one disagreement (below). But to me, conservationism, as seen in conversation with BioLogos folk like Darrel Falk, leads to a primarily hands-off, laissez-faire doctrine of creation, in which God sustains a creation that largely does its own thing. Miracles are the only alternative, and don’t properly belong in nature. In contrast, I believe concurrentism gives God an ongoing role in every action, whilst respecting true secondary causes.
To McGrew, though, it is the occasionalists and concurrentists who tend to minimise God’s involvement in nature, which is an interesting difference I’d like to study at some (later) stage.
But Lydia’s “cautious conservationism” leads her to what I would see as a rather simplistic dichotomy between “natural” and “miraculous”, the latter being what she dubs her “special agent intention”. She’s chosen that phrase, I think, because it, like ID, does not pre-judge who the “agent” is… it’s just any miracle-worker who is around!
Under concurrentism though, in my view, as clearly discussed in Aquinas, God’s intentionality can work in ways that are direct but not, strictly, miraculous – special providence is always in action, answering prayer, guiding the whole of history, but not necessarily in the extraordinary manner implied by the term “miracle.”
For example, creation ex nihilo is not miraculous, because it establishes the created order, rather than altering it. So if God created new species, for example, in that way it would not be miraculous but simply staged-creation.
Aquinas also recognises a category he calls “change”, in which God providentially alters existing natures, without ex nihilo creation (eg changing dust into Adam’s body). I conjecture that one could actually express that as creation from nothing in terms of “new information” rather than “new matter” – God gives matter new form, in Aristotelian terms.
So I’m unhappy with lumping it all togather as “miracle”, and that’s partly because it seems to play into the hands of those who stumble over the idea of God multiplying miracles unnecessarily, given their rare and demonstrative purpose in Scripture.
Nevertheless, one very positive thing that Lydia’s approach achieves, to me, is that she is keen to break down the invisible barrier that TEs, and many IDists, have erected between the way God acts in salvation history and the way he acts in nature. By bracketing it all as “special agent intention” she reminds us that God himself has not made that NOMA distinction between “nature” and “religion”. He is the same God, and we would therefore expect him to act in similar ways throughout his dealings with what he has made.
If he works by both consistent principle (eg reward and punishment through law) and special providence in spiritual matters, then he would most probably work by both by consistent principle (natural law) and special providence in nature, too.
If he didn’t act similarly in both realms, then the kind of mental split that many TEs display between their faith and their science would be insurmountable. For if I pray for the weather, or for physical healing, then I am bridging the gap between the created order and the spiritual realm: I’m asking for special providence (my preferred term) or for miraculous action (Lydia’s term) within the natural order. There doesn’t seem any valid reason why God should be considered to act within that natural order constantly now, given the billions of people praying, but to have no such involvement otherwise (eg before humans began to pray).
Deep issues – but vital if we’re to approach science and nature with the correct “spectacles behind our eyes.” And Lydia is great at explaining them, so do take a look at her site.