Philosophy of divine action

Gregory raised the question of occasionalism in a reply to the last post, hinting at its presence in the BioLogos leadership and asking me about the alternatives to it in the pre-evolutionary era. Historical philosophy is a bit above my pay-grade, but it might be useful to discuss it in view of the ongoing question of divine agency in evolution. So here’s my overview for proper historians and philosophers to come back with corrections.Gregory writes:

Falk often speaks of God’s ever-present indirect action through natural processes. This can be seen as a form of occasionalism as well.

I really don’t agree that this is occasionalism, and certainly wouldn’t pin that in any form on Darrel Falk. Occasionalism, the idea that God is the only real cause of events, was never a mainstream view in Christendom (a few of the later Ockhamists excepted, I read). Rather it was proposed by the 11th century Muslim scholar al-Ghazali, and became prevalent in Islam, with the result that, combined with a view of God’s sovereignty amounting to arbitrary caprice, it has been the common explanation for the complete eclipse of Muslim science from that time. It also accounts for that strand of Islamic fatalism one comes across sometimes: “It is the will of Allah” (shrugs and wanders across busy highway).

In Europe, particularly under the influence of Thomas Aquinas, a different idea prevailed, based on the idea of secondary causes. God creates all things with propensities built into their nature: stones by their nature fall, lions by nature hunt and so on. God is ultimately the cause of every event, because he sustains everything, including every cause, in existence. That concept of sustaining, which had its roots in the Bible long before Aquinas, lies behind Darrel Falk’s statement of the BioLogos position against William Dembski. In fact Dembski takes it as a given and did not mention it in his article simply because it is irrelevant to the idea of divine government: that is why it is not occasionalism, which is everything to do with hands-on management. Aquinas held that God is the first cause even of sinful human acts, yet is not morally responsible for them. His arguments for this don’t matter here, but it shows that “sustaining” has only an indirect reference to the outworking of God’s will in the world.

The mediaeval philosophers held that this primary causation does not preclude God’s acting separately, for example by miracle. So though they knew that the nature of plagues is to kill, they still attributed particular plagues to God’s specific judgement on sin, rather than solely on the disease acting out its nature. The Reformers (I think) codified this theologically in relation to the Bible. They noted that though lions hunt by nature, the psalmist said their prey was provided, or withheld, by God. Though sparrows by nature die, the individual circumstances are attributed by Jesus to God’s providential will. Thus they distinguished general providence – God’s creation and sustaining of the various natures of things – and special providence, which was God’s direct action not just in signs and wonders, but in his government of the everyday world both of men, and of “nature” too.

With the rise of Newtonian science, the concept of “natures” was largely replaced with that of “natural law” – stones fall because of a law of attraction, not an inbuilt propensity. This led, maybe directly, to the Deistic idea of a mechanical creation. God’s creation was effectively limited to the initial making of things, and the provision of the laws by which they operate. His sustaining role in creation was sidelined, and his special providence, eventually, denied by mainstream science in what was becoming a materially deterministic Universe. Deists, I suppose, would argue that the lion is fed because God’s initial setup was so precise as to guarantee his will for the duration of the Universe.

It was in this context that Darwin’s theory arose – but by then the eclipse of providence had left space for the idea of absolute chance, which is why he was able to state evolution as a combination of deterministic law and contingency, without any reference to God’s will. This “chance” element has only been accentuated by the loss of physical determinism through relativity and quantum physics. The result of this is that, even with the re-affirmation of God as First Cause (ie sustaining power or general providence), from my observation the BioLogos “preferred” view of evolution remains a combination of natural laws (in the Deistic sense) and a contingency that is, essentially, independent of God. Miracle, rather than special providence, becomes the only recognised mode of “direct” divine action, and is considered in this view to be unlikely in the realm of nature, and particular of evolution.

It is important at this point to notice that Neodarwinian evolution has no mechanism for producing “desired” outcomes. Law is not deterministic enough, and chance is not under God’s control either, any more than sinful human acts are. That’s why Shapiro’s suggestions of “self-motivated” evolution by organisms are so interesting. In Thomist terms, they would provide organisms with “evolvability” as part of their God-given natures – thus giving an adequate “secondary cause”, which provides evolution with a sound philosophical footing. The discovery of laws of genuine self-organisation would have the same effect, but none have been found which could bear the weight of evolution’s complexity. Yet notice that both these ideas still leave out that other essential part of the equation – the special providence of God. Special providence is what makes God an active participant in his creation, rather than a mere observer, and sustainer, of secondary natures (in Thomist terms) or natural law (in modern terms). Special providence is actually the direct alternative to the modern, post-Deist, concept of “chance”.

I would argue that the main task for TEs is simply to recover the truth of special providence, just as they seem simply to have re-affirmed God’s general providence (sustaining power) over against the Deist/Materialist tradition. R J Russell has partially achieved this through accommodating to materialism’s determinism, simply by placing God’s direct activity in a non-deterministic area of science, quantum theory. To me Elliot Sober’s recent paper has made this unnecessary by showing that excluding God’s activity is a philosophical addition to, and not a scientific requirement of, Neodarwinism. Alvin Plantinga achieves the same end by pointing out that natural law is only “binding” in closed systems – and a Universe that is open to an external God is not closed. He concludes there is no valid objection to God’s acting outside or beyond natural law.

Where does this leave the BioLogos position (since that’s where we started out)? In my view, the lack of an adequate view of special providence, given an acceptance of Neodarwinism as currently held by the “scientific consensus”, is unable to provide an adequate account of God’s achieving his will through evolution. As far as I can see, the most that Darrel Falk allows is the possibility that God might occasionally have acted miraculously during the evolutionary process, but alternatively (and possibly preferably) he might have allowed it to work itself out through the historically Deistic concepts of natural law and chance. He says that neither science nor Scripture give grounds to decide between these alternatives. The first point is true, since the methodological naturalism of science recognises no other possibilities. The second, as I have argued frequently before, is untrue – special providence was a necessary construct from a careful reading of Scripture, and remains so now.

Because of this error, TEs have been forced to construct a theology without special providence, which probably explains the popularity of Open Theism amongst them. To label the gap left by special providence as mere “chance” is a step too far towards the purposelessness of atheistic formulations of evolution, so is replaced with the deeply unsatisfactory half-idea of “freedom”. This only really achieves any kind of coherence in Process Theology, but though that has found a place in the science and religion field, it is obviously incompatible with Evangelical teaching – and so incoherence is preferred.

Philosphical issues have not, as far as I can see, been brought into the frame in any significant way by BioLogos. But as I have tried to argue above, the last major philosophical system that tried seriously to find a bridge between the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, that is scholastic Thomism (especially as developed during the Reformation under the greater influence of the Bible) insisted that the gap between God as First Cause (with the creation as a series of secondary causes) and the world that we actually see unfolding around us day by day, needs to be filled with God’s direct creative activity. Otherwise Yahweh is merely the God who exists, rather than the real meaning of his name – the God who is there for us, and for all creation.

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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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11 Responses to Philosophy of divine action

  1. James says:

    Thanks for this able discussion, Jon.

    As someone with a fair bit of background on the philosophical side of theological questions, I can confirm your historical account of occasionalism. Occasionalism certainly is not the position advocated by any TE/EC person known to me. It is incompatible with the quasi-Deistic naturalism that the TE/EC leaders mostly advocate.

    One of the difficulties is getting the TE/EC leaders to wander out of their theological comfort zones. They have a narrative they tell themselves, and their followers, about how science can never, even in principle, clash with theology, because theology is about personal faith and values and science is about objective events in the external world. When confronted with the possibility that some scientific theories — e.g., ones which require “chance” or “randomness” to explain certain complex results — might clash with some theological teachings, e.g., about divine governance, they freeze up, because that possibility does not fit with their compartmentalist narrative. Hence the nebulous character of their theological responses in many past and recent discussions. They can tell that the theological objection to their narrative has substance and needs a reply, yet they cannot bring themselves to question the narrative that has sustained them as they have negotiated their way between fundamentalism (which is often their own personal religious origin) and atheist secular humanism (the science of which they wish to retain, while rejecting other aspects of it). To question that narrative is to question commitments that have grounded the past several years or in some cases the past several decades of their lives.

    Your contribution to these debates is that you are trying to give TE/EC a chance of success, while refusing to endorse it if the price is the abandonment of theological orthodoxy. If only the BioLogos people could see you that way, they could listen to you and learn from you. But right now, they are too panicky at your apparent apostasy — your apparent flirting with ID notions and your apparent preference for Calvinistic types of theology over what they call Wesleyan ones. But they have to grow up. Adults should be able to take searching philosophical and theological criticism, especially when it is offered as gently and politely as you offer it. If they don’t listen to you, they are going to get much, much worse from people who have far less patience and Christian charity than you have.

    Keep up the good work. You seem to be in these debates to find out the truth, rather than to defend some entrenched position. Would that this were the case on all sides.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi James

    Well, I don’t flatter myself that my opinions should matter particularly more to them than others. But the defensiveness is clear – witness the recent thread in which Bilbo became increasingly angry at his dialogue with the double act of Venema and his dog Melanogaster, but clearly calmed down and still wanted to engage seriously with the issues. That was 5 days ago, and his 6 posts since have just been ignored – whereas at least one would expect some personal mollification at his rough is treatment and an agreement to differ. He has, after all, been around BioLogos far longer than I have.

    And subsequent serious queries by our Gregory, Eddie and GJDS have likewise been left unanaswered – no doubt by the common “Too busy” justification (that was the motto of a Greek junior biochemist I knew at Putney Hospital – the scourge of his boss, who was never too busy to help).

  3. Gregory says:

    All I have time for now is to copy/paste this astonishing statement that speaks of: “the deeply unsatisfactory half-idea of ‘freedom’.”

    Wow – that is a disturbing (westernised) approach to ‘freedom’! A half-idea?!?

    Here’s a decent source for re-educating a full-idea of ‘freedom’ within a Christian philosophy (one of the deepest and broadest of the 20th c.), which almost certainly James has also never encountered:

    “He truly loves freedom who affirms it for his fellows.” – Nikolai Berdyaev

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Gregory – read the post carefully and you’ll see that I did not say that freedom is a half-idea, but that TEs’ use of it as a substitute for special providence in Open Theism is. I wouldn’t say you were reading with presuppositional blinkers but … I think you may be reading with presuppositional blinkers.

    Watch my lips – “This is nothing to do with Calvinism or free will.”

  5. James says:


    Behe has replied to Dennis’s latest series at:

    So we shall see if Dennis will ignore not only all the recent BioLogos commenters but Behe himself.

    As for melanogaster, he does seem to be a rude and sarcastic individual, but I don’t blame Venema for not shutting him down — I blame Falk. I would guess that banning or disciplining commenters is a high-level decision at BioLogos, that comes not from columnists but from management. That melanogaster is allowed to be offensive, while ID proponents who have been much more polite have been banned, says something about the double standard existing there: Darwinists have more rhetorical leeway than ID people. One has to wonder why.

  6. Gregory says:

    Again the juggling act is apparent, Jon.

    You wrote about “the deeply unsatisfactory half-idea of ‘freedom’.” Do you wish now to retract it? To suggest this is just Open-Theism-TE and not your-kind-of-TE (dialect of the tribe) was at least to me unclear. It does seem that this is a TE vs. TE argument you’re having and since I’m not a TE, my challenge to your position may seem discomforting.

    And again you brought up (the ideology of) Calvinism, for whatever reason, not I, though you claim to be a non-denominationalist. Could you please help me to understand why?

    A full-idea of freedom is something beautiful and profoundly truthful for humanity, Jon. Would you not agree? Perhaps this is the influence of Eastern Christianity speaking to me, which does not metaphorically blossom in your statements. I hear a disproportionate amount of determinism requested of EC/BioLogos in your position so far.

    To say this topic has nothing to do with ‘free will,’ though you raise Primary vs. Secondary causes is misleading, if not counter-productive. Did you willfully choose or just slavishly accept the dichotomy of Primary and Secondary causes? Would you be willing to move into 21st century currents by also accepting the study of Effects, along with Causes – A-T-M (call it Feser-plus)?

    Occasionalism challenges ‘efficient causality’ – something you did not address in your short and sweet, but weak definition. ‘Hands-on management’ is not what I had in mind.

    You wrote: “Historical philosophy is a bit above my pay-grade” … “In Europe, particularly under the influence of Thomas Aquinas, a different idea prevailed, based on the idea of secondary causes.”

    Here is a history lesson then: Saint Thomas comes well before the European occasionalists. Yes, there were Islamic occasionalists too (even before al-Ghazali). But I didn’t realise you were in a habit of making Islam part of your science and faith conversation.

    Nicholas Malebranche from the 17th century would be more appropriate for you to address, within the realm of Christian views of divine action. Given Malebranche’s claim that “conservation is but continuous creation,” this fits well into your on-going argument with Falk, Venema and BioLogos about ‘governance’ vs. (mere) ‘sustenance.’

    Occasionalism is partially a response to Aquinas’ primary vs. secondary cause dichotomy. You’ve put the cart before the horse in suggesting the latter as a “different idea [that] prevailed.”

    You say and ask: “I believe Darrel does believe in answered prayer because he said so, putting it is his ‘supernatural’ category. Does he believe it detectable?”

    Who cares if Falk believes it is ‘detectable’ or not as long as he believes prayer is really answered? It seems like you are forcing (ID) categories where they do not properly belong, Jon. Likewise, the dichotomy of Special vs. General on the topic of Providence can be collected under the common term Divine Providence. This latter seems to be the Bio-Logos view of biology, which cannot exist without a Divine Logos.

    You have also unfortunately bought into the natural vs. supernatural dichotomy, Jon, with your repeated (stubborn?) approval of what I call ‘weak American philosophy’ (WAP), in this case the ridiculous notion of ‘methodological naturalism’ as a ground rule for doing (natural) science. Reading more R.J. Russell will not help you to escape this trap because he also embraces it. And it was set by a Wheaton college philosopher of ethics/educational administrator, who was not competent to pronounce on the field ‘philosophy of science,’ with which the phrase MN deals. Yet you continue to use it, saying “the methodological naturalism of science recognises no other possibilities.” Thus, you limit your own possibilities of interpretation by subscribing to this WAP.

    According to occasionalism, R.J. Russell is simply the occasion through which God is communicating a theory “by placing God’s direct activity in a non-deterministic area of science.”

    Let us remember that Malebranche wrote: “all natural causes are not true causes but only occasional causes.” This sounds a lot like the position you are supporting, Jon, by (sometimes) denying ‘freedom of creation’.

    You write that “a Universe that is open to an external God is not closed,” yet are stuck in the mud of a Closed (always reforming) Theism (by which is meant the opposite of Open Theism, for which you have no truck). You hesitate to allow any ‘freedom’ to the natural (non-human, vegetable or mineral) world. Thus, when you admit that “Darrel Falk allows [is] the possibility that God might occasionally have acted miraculously during the evolutionary process,” you’ve given away the farm. That may be ‘the most that he allows,’ but it is nevertheless enough to unite him with your position, in returning as always (at the beginning and end of the message) to theology and the evangelical approach to Christianity that both he and you are promoting.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Gregory, I get the feeling you don’t entirely agree with my analysis, in which case it’s a pity you raised occasionalism in the first place, as it seems to have had little or no influence on the evolution debate.

    In fact, I get the feeling you are intent on nitpicking criticism from the safe position of no-position-in-particular. There comes a point, though, where misinterpretation and miusunderstanding appear wilful, and not worth a reply.

    If I were more sure of the views of the person I’m replying to, it might be different. You say, though, you are not a TE. Is it the theism or the evolution part you have problems with? You seem partly to identify with ID, yet write against ID views of design in nature. You denigrate Evangelical doctrine as narrow, and (at least apparently) endorse Eastern Orthodoxy, yet defend Open Theism, a heterodox Evangelical variant. And you repeatedly laud freedom, yet have made no attempt to explain what relevance you yourself think it has to evolution.

    I would have thought a truly reflexive approach to dialogue would demand a little more candour about ones own position, when I have been so open about mine for longer than this blog has been going.

  8. Bilbo says:

    Hi Jon,

    I haven’t been back to BioLogos since my blow up. I don’t trust myself to discuss issues calmly and objectively there. I don’t blame Dennis. I blame myself.

    But meanwhile, I still think the BioLogos position is defensible. I think we are ready to accept that God has created a universe where law and chance have produced galaxies, solar systems, and planets. I think we might even be willing to accept that Earth is the result of law and chance. In fact, there only seems to be a real problem with accepting the idea that human beings are the result of law and chance. But what if we discovered that it’s very probable that law and chance would produce human-like beings? And what if we discovered that any of these human-like beings would have been perfectly acceptable to God has the species through which he eventually would become Incarnate?

    I think the strength of your objection only holds if God wanted this specific species of hominid to arise. And do we know that to be the case?

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Bilbo. Don’t beat yourself up. You were sorely provoked.

    I have problems accepting both the concept of law and chance in the context of discussing the philosophy of divine action – and that throughout his creation. Both are actually categories arising from a scientific worldview with its feet in materialism.

    You could equate law roughly with the theological category of general providence, but the assumption that God is bound to follow it is a scientistic assumption (see my ref in OP to Elliot Sober’s essay). Chance, in biblical terms, is pretty well indistinguishable from special providence – it is recognised in human experience as unpredictable, but never as undirected by God.

    So it’s quite possible (though scientifically undemonstrated) that a combination of initial conditions, general providence (natural processes) and special providence (“chance” as we see it) might explain our existence without remainder – but all one would be showing was the means God employed to draw events towards his purpose. The idea of God setting things off and seeing how they turn out belongs to Deism, not Christianity.

    Both terms – law and chance – and your whole concept of “hominid species arising”, are deeply unteleological, which is where my whole problem with the popular TE approach arises, as my interaction with Mike Gene recently shows. God creates by fiat – he commands that man exist in his image, and by whatever process, supernatural or natural or whatever, his word is fulfilled. He does not create processes and then run the program, especially with the odd random number thrown in.

    Christ was chosen (foreknown), 1 Pet says, before the foundation of the world, and we were chosen in him then too, “to be holy and blameless” (Eph 1). Even if one skirts round the personal nature of that inclusion in Christ, that implies Christ was chosen as a redeemer, and therefore that we would need redeeming – which implies a knowledge on God’s part of the outcome of human history – how could he then be ignorant, or indifferent to, the nature of humanity itself?

    If God did not create this specific species of hominid (and that particular species of leviathan in Job), then there are two creators, one independent of God’s will. We know that not to be the case.

  10. Bilbo says:

    I don’t think Dennis saw Melanogaster’s comments as being provocative. But whether or not they were, I did not handle it the way a Christian should.

    I think I see two issues here, Jon. First, is there something called “chance” that is different from God’s special providence? Second, can something be foreknown without being pre-determined? I’m not a physicist, so I might just misunderstand them when they talk about quantum indeterminacy, but I get the idea that subatomic “particles” do not behave in a strictly lawlike manner, but seem to have some sort of chanciness about them. Now it could be that this chanciness is simply God directing the specific direction of each and every subatomic particle. But I’m willing to consider the idea that God has allowed these particles some sort of free will. Not necessarily conscious free will. But some sort of free choice between alternatives. If such a scenario is really the case, would this necessarily frustrate the will of God? I think not. And this leads to the second question.

    To say that God foreknows what will happen does not mean that God has pre-determined what will happen. We believe that God foreknows what every human being will do, but we do not believe that God has pre-determined what they will do. Likewise, if subatomic particles somehow freely choose what to do, that does not negate God foreknowing what they will do. So nothing takes God by surprise.

    Given this scenario of chance having some sort of reality, then we can ask if law (God’s general providence) and chance (free choice of subatomic particles) can accomplish God’s purposes. And it seems to me that it is at least possible. First God creates the initial conditions; then events take place according to a combination of laws (God’s general providence) and chance — subatomic particles choosing as God has allowed them. The final outcome is the production of one of many possible hominid species. God foreknew that this species would be produced, even though He did not pre-determine it. And God saw that this species would be adequate for His purposes. So God chooses to create our species in this manner. I don’t see a problem with this scenario.

    Now it could be that God’s special providence was needed to produce every single species of live on Earth, including us. I see no problem with this scenario, either. BioLogos would. Part of what is driving their insistence on the first scenario and not the second is their dependence on their theodicy for natural evil — that it is caused by the “free will” of Nature, not by God. Once they allow God to intervene even once in natural history, this theodicy collapses completely. Of course, I never thought it was a very good theodicy, so I never felt compelled to accept their scenario of natural history. But I’ve always thought it was possible that God did indeed accomplish His purposes by law and “chance” (in the way that I have defined it).

  11. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Bilbo – 2nd question first. Foreknowledge in every “classical” version of theology, including most Calvinism, does not imply predetermination, of the creaturely will at least – I suppose you have no problem with God’s determining to make, say, Africa and achieving it – even humans get to achieve their creative goals. “Will”, though, at very least implies unforced choice by definition if you don’t have genuine choice, you don’t have genuine will – and God says you do. Augustine pointed that out.

    A paragragh of caveat before developing: (a) Foreknowledge in biblical terms probably implies more than your useage of the word, ie an element of God’s choice rather than simple knowldege of the future (God foreknew Israel, ie chose the nation to come into existence). Not relevant here. (b) Predestination is not predetermination in the sense understood here. Not the place to develop it, but it’s a teaching of assurance, not repression – I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was denying it in my answer.

    Of course, perfect foreknowledge does enable God to exercise sovereignty anyway in his governance of the world. Judas freely chooses to betray Christ – God doesn’t prevent it, in order to bring about his determined and prophesied purpose.

    Of course, this would also enable God some control over a creation into which he’d built dice throws, if “randon” events were indeed random even to him, provided one allowed a doctrine of intervention, in which God could mitigate the evil. Otherwise it’s a sorcerer’s apprentice situation. The BL form of theistic evolution seems to be unhappy about all such divine action, and that makes God a mad inventor.

    But one still needs to ask why he would want to build in randomness – calling it “freedom” gives it a worthy libertarian feel but, as I’ve been saying for ever, is incoherent. Randomness is not freedom, but the very opposite. If my brain acts randomly, all my choices are vain. So it’s just “randomnness”, and it doesn’t help theodicy one jot – if you or I made every third work decision by the toss of a coin, appealing to allowing our work “freedom” wouldn’t keep us from being sacked. Such a theodicy is novel, ineffective and relies on destroying the revealed nature of God. It’s thrown into relief when you remember that the Father delegated all creation to the Son through the Spirit because of his wisdom, perhaps, but not because of his love of autonomy, for he loves only the will of God and submits freely to it always.

    I still say the idea of absolute chance is scientistic, and that there is no evidence for making God subject to it when the Bible says he is not. Quantum events were of course not known to the Bible writers, so they couldn’t know they are indeterminate – but then they knew nothing of the (claimed) determinacy of Newtonian contingent events. Quantum events are undetermined (assuming no hidden variables) by any material cause. To insist that God doesn’t cause them either (although he is the First Cause of all things) is a statement from naturalist-materialist presuppositions, and theologically unwarranted.

    That’s not to say there may not be some degree of (self-evident) non-human self-determination in nature – for example, the limited autonomy we see in animals; or conceivably even secondary causes of evolution like James Shapiro’s natural genetic engineering. But they have a similar character to automatic machinery – they are under his control. That’s a far cry from randomness build into non-sentient processes and misnamed “freedom”, which is then held up as the Demiurge responsible for natural evil.

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