How much autonomy does providence allow?

Hanan, a welcome participant here on the Hump, made a good point on an interminable BioLogos thread about God and the much despised idea of “micromanagement”:

So you say God does not micromanage the world. Ok. What does “micromanage” mean? Let me put it this way, I recall a scientist stating there is no such thing as micro-evolution vs macroevolution. It would be akin to saying one believes in inches but not miles. The macro is derived from the micro. So if God does not manage the micro, then surely he would never manage anything that is formed from all those billions of micros (i.e. macro).

Even if, as some argue, the mechanisms of macro-evolution are qualitatively different from those of micro-evolution,  Hanan’s point is still a valid generalisation. Inches and miles are measures of the same things. It’s akin to the old saying, “Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves.” Or more caustically the husband’s lament: “My wife said I should make all the big decisions, and she would make the small ones. So far there haven’t been any big decisions.”

As far as the natural creation goes, there is no logical problem here if one believes God to have absolutely no involvement in anything, or to be be non-existent. Problems aplenty, yes, but not in this respect. One can propose a strict set of natural laws, a truly indeterminate set of quantum events, and a God who never involves himself except as a spectator or a benign grandfather, and leave chance and necessity to it.

But within theistic evolution circles, that is seldom the complete position. Only the most Deistic, or the most doctrinaire “free process” people, deny God some involvement in the world. Christ’s resurrection and other biblical miracles are granted to be true – though that doesn’t prevent biblical errancy being a preferred option in many particular cases (arbitrarily chosen). Prayer is not oulawed as wishful thinking, nor remarkable instances of divine guidance or preservation as being utterly illusory and coincidental.

On the other hand, the classical concept of God as being so involved in creation as to be the First Cause of every event and the disposer of all things according to his will – that is to say, the doctrine of universal providence that was foundational for Christianity and Judaism both – is resisted very strongly, particularly in America, the “Land of the Free” (“Cultural prejudice dictates theology – discuss”).

“Micro-management” is indeed one such accusation – that God would be a self_managementbad planner to need to “interfere” with the world rather than set it up properly to begin with, and a bad manager to want to do everything himself rather than leaving nature free to pursue its efficient causes… only remember what we discovered about the emptiness of that particular concept here.

Another hackle-raising thing to many Post-enlightenment people is the assumed limitation to their free will if God be involved in human affairs. It would be unchristian to deny God’s concern and activity in the world, but in any particular instance – well, there are problems. Theodicy is, of course, a third issue: “God cannot defend himself from skeptics, so we must do so even if we have to promote him out of the world in the process.”

A BioLogos article that led to a huge number of comments this autumn was about the providential goodness of God in creating a neurological stress mechanism, discovered by a member of the writer’s congregation. And a worthy testimony, too, in classical theology. But I raised the question of how that squares with the God who must also leave evolution to its freedom, to the degree that (in Francisco Ayala’s words) it is blasphemous to think of his being responsible for errors and “moral evils” like sophisticated pathogens.

That question relates directly to Hanan’s perceptive comment – how can God make big decisions if he doesn’t make the small ones too? Or how can he intervene on a small scale if the major changes are independent of him? How far, in other words, would it not only be “acceptable” for God to act, but possible for his acts to be juxtaposed with “natural” ones?

In the above case, for example, how could God be sufficiently in control of the evolution of stress mechanisms to be praised by the same people who insist it would be impossible or wrong for him to control the evolution of viruses? And if God wanted to create you (or John the Baptist or King Cyrus), would he not necessarily have to be in control of the entire cause-and-effect chain which led to you? Jeremiah, chosen before conception as a prophet: sperm and ova are micro, and would need managing.

This confusion goes right up the academic scale. Science-faith writer Robert J Russell tries to steer a middle course between his orthodox Reformed  view of providence and the insistence of those like John Haught and Howard Van Till that God simply must leave nature free to be itself. So he proposes that God could decide quantum events and influence evolution thereby, without “interfering” in the realm of material science. But invisible control is still control, and so his solution doesn’t address the autonomy issue at all (any more than it address the actual, rather than the metaphorical issue, which is indeterminacy, not autonomy. So he hesitates to judge whether God uses this ability rarely, commonly or all the time.

The questions we need to face honestly, then, are twofold. Firstly, if God would be tyrannical to manage everything in nature, but we don’t want to exclude him entirely, exactly how much is “OK” for him to do? How would you calculate it? The implications are great, because that for which God is not responsible is outside the spheres either of thanksgiving or of complaint.

We cannot worship him for what blind nature has created. That might seem fine when it comes to smallpox or impacted wisdom teeth – though it seems hard to have to learn not to pray about these things,being as they are claimed to be in the realm of nature’s autonomy, not God’s control.

But should one give thanks for the uncomplicated love and joy – and even the natural piety – of ones Downs’ syndrome child, knowing that he is just the product of one of those egregious chromosomal errors one must not attribute to God without blasphemy? Should one ask God to ameliorate an enemy’s hatred if free-will is absolutely autonomous?

Who is to teach us what we should pray for or not? Certainly not Jesus, who (doubtless under the baleful influence of Greek philosophy) believed that God micromanages daily bread, temptation and deliverance from evil. Perhaps open theism gurus Greg Boyd or John Sanders could show the way instead, being guided by process and analytic philosophy instead.

The second question is to ask how much it is possible for God to do, if his activity is somehow to be rationed to the occasional event (1%? Less? More?). The proverb says “A stitch in time saves nine.” Does God have to perform occasional large miracles because he can’t or won’t nudge (= “micromanage”) lesser problems? Is the falling branch that kills a saint more or less providential than the asteroid that destroys the dinosaurs, when both depend on the same type of chaotic event? Are such intractable problems irreducible mysteries of the faith – or just the product of incoherent and heterodox thinking?

For both the Bible and traditional theology say that all things are from God – not in a merely Deistical way by the provision of laws and possibilities, but in the way that says we should give thanks to God in all circumstances for all good things, and complain directly to him for the misfortunes and paradoxes of life – whether those come from the hand of nature, malicious humans, or the devil himself. You can’t draw a boundary between God’s “micromanagement” and his “macromanagement” because there isn’t one – there is only his sovereign providence.

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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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12 Responses to How much autonomy does providence allow?

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Since this topic was discussed by you and others at BioLogos, I have remained somewhat puzzled – mainly because my position has been that God’s providence, sovereignty, omnipotence, are starting points for any discussion within Christianity, and not in itself topics for debate or redefinition. Nonetheless, the central point continues to be that of evolution, and with that a notion of ‘autonomy’ (or self-determination, or accidental outcomes, or perhaps random accidental events without purpose of given end-results).

    This is another attempt to make a useful comment, but I am still confronted with a puzzle; thus for what it is worth, I ask these questions – is it possible to develop a reasoned outlook by starting with the thinking termed (neo) Darwinian evolution, and using this as a basis, modify our understanding of God’s attributes? Isn’t this the very point of these discussions – in that we start with the assumption that evolution would cause some to re-think these attributes of God? Or perhaps, are we not saying, “If evolution is this random, accidental (something), than we need to re-think the Christian faith in God?”

    My puzzle deepens when I read that some think that God can do anything, so why shouldn’t He create by accidents and random, autonomous processes (whatever these may be)? This suggests that whatever we think of evolutionary, autonomous, accidental, events and processes, somehow God is in charge (or He decides at times not to be in charge), and thus we do not have any reason for a debate.

    Part of my difficulty in getting a ‘grip’ on this topic, stems from my treatment of freedom, and law, based on those attributes of God, including providence. Within my outlook, Darwinian thinking is part of the larger outlook of the Sciences. As I have said before, I am not convinced that the foundations of biological evolution are as sound as they should be, so I place less weight on this area compared to other branches of science. I do however, have a general outlook of our planet and the bio-sphere, without changing the central tenets of the Christian faith.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      It’s a moot point whether theistic evolutionists have gravitated towards “free creation” theology because of how they perceive nature, or whether they are finding an existing theology convenient to graft on to nature.

      The fact is that in American evangelicalism over a decade or two such a novel theology, really only witnessed before in the 16th century Socianian heresy, has taken root and been allowed to spread almost unchecked. So just as both Catholic and Protestant theologians had to grapple with Socinus’s ideas, it’s necessary to trace out the implications of the claims that there can be areas of the creation off-limits to God’s providence and show them to be untenable.

      Perhaps a better parallel than Socinus is the struggle with the Arian or Pelagian threats, because Socinus himself was never more than a fringe figure, whereas the new teachings are claiming to be what the Bible always taught (though inexplicably that was missed by both the entire Church from Day 1 and by the Jewish Rabbis), and so far America has lacked an Athanasius or an Augustine to show people just how crucial the issues are.

      The specific importance in the origins question is twofold: firstly, that evolution is a key concept in current society, so that if Christians can be persuaded to swallow false theology as necessary to embracing science, the new teaching will have gained an important platform: and secondly that the doctrine of creation is foundational for all other doctrines, so that if we get it wrong, other Christian teachings begin to fall like dominoes: divine omnipotence, ominiscience and sovereignty, providence, incarnation, inspiration, anthropology, hamartology, soteriology, pneumatology, eschatology… you name it, it has to be dragged into line (one has already observed that expansion in action).

      Your puzzlement at why it should be necessary to discuss it is probably partly sociological – by which I mean the sociology of those attracted to the new teaching. One needs a certain addiction to the very word “freedom” and a certain indifference to tradition and history even to consider that Christ would have left his entire Church in darkness for 2,000 years over all the central truths of his message, and some forms of evangelicalism have those in spades, sad to say.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        “…… the sociology of those attracted to the new teaching. One needs a certain addiction to the very word “freedom” and a certain indifference to tradition and history…”

        I think this may partly explain the obsession with evolution and modified theologies, but the idea that people want to change beliefs to suit themselves is hardly new. I agree that the modern and post-modern outlook has a disdain for anything that seeks values and insights into the differences between good and evil. However, I am of the view that Christianity is build on Christ as the Saviour, and God’s Grace. If a person has accepted this, understanding science and the prevailing fashions and ever changing outlook is not all that difficult – indeed for a Christian (who is not blown one way and then the other way by prevailing fashions), the enormous amount of information available presents the major difficulties in understanding developing a sound view of the Sciences (and sociological issues).

        “….evolution is a key concept in current society…” is only partly true; during the past few decades we have seen such things as god is dead, the master race, process theology, Christ is a historical construct, right and wrong are relative – just to name a few. What I have found is an amalgamation of as much anti-Christian thinking as possible, as an attempt to appear authoritative. It is here that evolution seems to have a permanent place. You are correct in identifying the doctrine of creation as a major obstacle to these outlooks.

        My comment I suppose, is to suggest that the discussion may be more wide ranging, not that we should ignore Darwin completely. The conflicts and attacks on the Christian faith are indeed as fierce and at times as ludicrous as those of bygone days. I guess some things never change – and yes we could do with another Athanasius or an Augustine. The problems facing Christians as a community a serious, and perhaps as always, the major ones are found within the Christian community itself.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          Doctrine of Creation is certainly hugely wide-ranging; we hope to explore all its aspects over time, and one is coming up in a 3-part series once I can find a gap! Not a trace of either evolution or free-process teaching in sight!

          • Avatar photo GD says:


            The subject has been beautifully stated in Calvin: Commentaries, VI Providence:

            “Moreover, we must notice two things. Christ defines the providence of God very differently from those who, not unlike the philosophers, admit that somehow the world is under divine government, and yet imagine the workings of providence in a confused way, as though God paid no attention to individual creatures. Christ, on the other hand, declares that every single one of God’s creatures is under his hand and care, and that nothing happens by chance. In this way, he firmly opposes the will of God to chance, without however affirming the fatalism of the Stoics. It is one thing to find necessity in a context of a chain of many causes; it is quite another to see the world, as a whole and in its individual parts, as subject to the will of God. I confess there is a certain operation of chance in the nature of things considered in themselves; but I say that nothing occurs merely by the wheels of blind fortune, because the will of God reigns over all that happens.

            In the second place, we must not look at God’s providence after the manner of curious and silly people. It must be to us the ground of our strength, and an invitation to call upon God.”

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              What? A Calvinist saying that God cares for individual creatures?
              But the Calvinist God is an impersonal tyrant – everybody knows that without having to read Calvin, for goodness sake! 😉

              • Avatar photo GD says:


                Your reference to “Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity” has been informative and has removed the ‘puzzlement’ I have felt during these discussion. It is indeed curios to find evangelical circles adopting open theism nonsense, and the authors show it is such – however, I have associated evangelical outlooks with a conservative ‘more orthodox than orthodoxy itself’, outlook – so what can I say. The world is full of surprises.

  2. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    The comparison of differentiating between inches and miles is a good one for comparing micro and macro evolutionary scales, and I agree with that we should reject the attempted wedge between a so-called big picture and so-called details as regards God’s sovereignty.

    In all fairness though, the metaphor fails to illustrate the other position in any charitable light and better metaphors could (would) be chosen by those still trying to defend God from the “horrifying” tedium of micromanagement. Those metaphors still break themselves over the rocky shoals of the anthropomorphized God who we want to imagine would be bored by the same things that bore us, and would not want to be bothered by the same things that bother us. But nevertheless, when I drive to the grocery store I manage at the level of steering the car safely down the road and choosing my routes. I do not want to manage each piston in the engine going up and down, each valve opening and closing at the proper time. I paid for someone else to worry about those details. My odometer shows me miles. It says nothing about inches. Granted, you don’t get miles without inches, or a drive to the store without a functioning engine –but there is (humanly) such a thing as managing one level without paying attention to other details. We do it and expect to do it all the time. Our theological error is in the assumption that God manages a universe like we manage our own affairs.

    Is it about time to give some commitments to freedom the heave-ho? It may require a reconciliation between the notion of human free-will and total divine foreknowledge/sovereignty. It’s pretty easy to hold both of those simultaneously when both are impossible to completely understand in the first place.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      You’re right about the faulty anthropomorphism – I read a quote from Greg Boyd yesterday to the effect “What a boring world it would be for God if he had no surprises.” The assumption that all God’s experience depends on this world is just the first issue with that.

      Your driving example is a good one, and one immediate point of difference is that, unlike God, we don’t maintain every atom of the car in existence by our sustaining creative power moment by moment – that alone makes any comparison invidious.

      But though you don’t consciously manage each piston stroke, once you think of motoring as a social enterprise, each component of that car has been thought about to the last detail by a human so that you (as a valued representative of humanity) can drive it safely. Humanity has “micromanaged” it because it created it for a purpose. Now what, I wonder, might the One God have created and so desire to manage as carefully as car manufacture? “Everything in heaven and earth” mighht be one good answer.

      Even more relevantly, though because of the limitations of our conscious minds most of the individual actions of our car driving are carried out unconsciously, they are still carried out by us – our bones and muscles are not autonomous, but us.

      Now we are constituted of trillions of cells all serving, mysteriously, “our” ends even though our consciousness remains unaware of many of them – but their work is not delegated: it is our work. We are not just our brains. Now God is One Spirit, not a colonial polyzoan. Which “part” of him (he has no parts) is unconscious or subconsious? Again, the comparison is void.

      Personally I don’t want to sacrifice a jot of freedom – but we do need to give the post-Renaissance definition of “freedom as autonomy” the boot and return to what true Christianity calls freedom, which is radically different. Mark Talbot has an excellent chapter on the difference in Beyond the Bounds (free download) – his testimony on God’s control of nature is powerful, as he is paraplegic following a climbing accident in his youth.

      And I did a series on The Hump back in June with the same aim.

  3. Hanan says:

    >Hanan’s point is still a valid generalisation

    Generlalisation? Is that a typo or just you how you Englishmen spell that? I would appreciate proper American spelling when my name is mentioned in any future post 😀

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thinking about it, the whole micromanagement analogy is an odd mismatch of ideas.

    There are stories in the UK press this last week about a government minister phoning individual NHS hospitals that miss targets, and how wrong that is. But the same news bemoans the increasing failure of the NHS to provide adequate care – the minister is micro-managing because managers aren’t managing properly.

    The counter-accusation is that the system and the targets that politicans like the minister have set up are unmanageable – ie that the minister is a poor macro-manager. What is not in doubt by anyone is that the system ought to work well, whoever manages it and however they do it. The bottom line is, “is it fit for purpose?”, and not whether the managers are sufficiently autonomous to be happy.

    Now the whole “free creation” thing arises from a theodicy that says the apparent evils we see in creation are because it would be wrong for God to micromanage… in this case, the low-level managers are a bunch of mindless material processes that wouldn’t be trusted to run the NHS, let alone the universe.

    Whereas in classical Christianity, the system is said to be ultimately running as planned by the person who set up the thing – the only One with true creative ability. From his point of view its a small family business, not some multinational with shareholders running it.

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