Theology of nature – modes of divine action

Having embarked on a couple of excursus (4th declension Latin plural, Eddie reminds me!) in this exploration of a theology of nature, one on the likelihood that such a new theology would be bound to impact on how one does science, and a longer one on the connection between human speech and divine creation, we may now return to rather more conventional territory – the nature of divine action.

I had cleared the ground by showing that for God to operate entirely by setting up the laws of nature would not achieve what Scripture says he does achieve in the world: some kind of divine action “in real time” must occur.

First let me repeat the truth that the regular patterns of nature are no less a result of divine action than the most spectacular miracles are. Remember that our experience of nature’s regularity is all we gain from nature itself: we may interpret it (speaking in Christian terms) in terms of divinely appointed laws, divinely created natures, or even as God’s faithful personal actions (I defended such “occasionalism,” in the new form called “divine compositionalism” here, without committing myself to it).

Whether we view “laws of nature” in terms of primary or secondary causation, then, they should still be seen as evidences of God’s faiuthfulness: we ought to avoid the modern false dichotomy between “natural” and “supernatural” because it encourages us to think of God’s contingent acts as “alien interference” in an autonomous world, whereas they are just a different mode of his immanence in his own creation, a mode traditionally known as general providence.

Traditional theology separates God’s contingent actions into three main categories, which I will adopt here since they are useful and are best distinguished in a robust theological scheme. These are special providence, miracle and creation, and I’ll illustrate the differences here by examples of Bible records of the restoration of human lives.

Special providence: In Acts 20 a young man, Eutychus, was overcome by sleep during Paul’s address and plunged from a third storey window. The text says he was picked up dead, but Paul “fell upon him and embraced him,” saying that his life was still in him. Clearly this is recorded as a wonderful divine blessing, and we (obviously) lack all medical details. But if only for the purpose of this demonstration, we could say that people do fall out of windows and, fortuitously, avoid serious injury. We can conjecture that the sleeping Eutychus fell limply, avoiding broken bones, but was concussed and suffered depression of respiration or even cardiac arrest from the impact.

If Paul’s physical intervention restarted Eutychus’s heart and breathing in the same way your first-aid training might lead you to hope, it would still be of God that Paul knew what to do in the absence of such training. Still, we may conceive that nature could achieve the same end (such cases having occurred), but only rarely. This might, then, be a case of “special providence”, which we may define as God’s bringing it about that the causes in nature achieve his desired purpose at a certain time.

I’ve recently suggested that the miracle of the damming of the Jordan to allow Israel to cross might be of this character, since the Jordan does rarely block at the very place stated in Scripture. But a comprehensive control of many aspects of nature was required for it to occur just as the priests step into the river at oses’s command.

Miracle: Contrast the case of Eutychus with that of Lazarus, in John 11. Lazarus had been dead for four days, and decomposition (as Mary says) must already have been well advanced. The resuscitation was therefore beyond any of the conceivable causes present in nature, and was achieved (apparently) against fundamental laws including that of entropy. Central to the concept of miracle is the demonstration of God’s power, which in this case was also intended to teach Jesus’s power over death in anticipation of his own resurrection. There is thus no question of God’s “having” to oppose his own work in creation because he didn’t get it right first time. Rather, miracles are intended to demonstrate that God is Lord over his own creation, ie that he is not bound by nature’s regular patterns.

You can see that the distinction between special providence and miracle is sometimes more to do with the purpose of an event than how God does it – there is a degree of overlap. God may be active each day in supplying a believer’s daily bread through special providence, but should he do so in extraordinary circumstances to test, or reward, faith, then the term “miracle” may apply better.

Creation: Let us turn now to the resurrection of Jesus, which although clearly beyond the powers of nature just as much as was so in the case of Lazarus, was not strictly a “miraculous sign,” but an act of new creation. Jesus was not resuscitated, as Eutychus and Lazarus were, to continue his life as before until he eventually died. Rather, his body was transformed to become the first vessel (and seed) of the new creation promised through Isaiah and the other prophets. Jesus rose to eternal life, to ascend to the right hand of God in heaven until his return. The essential truth here (as far as defining “creation” goes) is that God was doing something new, as he does spiritually in the life of each new believer in Christ, and as he will do physically at the general resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus, then, was highly significant, but it was only secondarily a sign, and primarily an act of God’s creation. It would therefore be misleading to call it a “miracle,” for it was not a reversal of normality, but the establishment of a new normality – one day the whole cosmos will share the life that Jesus has. Christ’s resuurection has not astonished the world: it has irrevocably changed it.

The Resurrection is the greatest example of the new creation we have, so far, but the principle of divine innovation also applies to any act within the first creation, too. When God creates, something new and beyond the capabilities of nature is introduced into the world, and thereafter becomes the normal – God creates nature.

Once Jesus had turned water into wine, the wine behaved as ordinary wine, and the pre-existent water disappeared from God’s economy. In Genesis 1, the creation of the birds or the animals was not miraculous, but it did require God’s word of power, rather than the inherent abilities of nature, to accomplish it. Since then, animals have been natural.

Now, the existence of all of these three causes potential problems for doing science, if one wants to say that science describes the way the world is through identifying its laws. For there are no less than three kinds of exception to being able to assume those laws operate universally. These problems, it is useful to remember, were consciously understood by the early modern scientists putting Bacon’s and Descartes’s theology of nature to use. So how did they cope?

It has to be said that they seem to have managed by fudging the issues in the light of the limitations of their times. In the first place, they were convinced that creation had stopped after the sixth day of earth’s existence, so could be ignored for practical purposes. The new creation seems to have evaded their notice, perhaps because they had no programme of study for the psychology of regenerate Christians, and perhaps because they expected no further acts of new creation until the return of Christ put an end to science anyway.

But in our generation we can make no such assumptions legitimately, firstly because we do consider human psychology part of what science does, bringing even the new creation into its concerns, and secondly because we have included origins in our study of nature. If we are theistic evolutionists, we even say that “God creates living things through evolution,” calling our very position “Evolutionary Creation.” So we either have to include God’s direct creation of new normalities within our account of nature, or follow the Darwinian path of denying that new living forms are “created” in the sense that the Bible uses that word.

In that case “Evolutionary Creation” would really mean that God created only the laws of nature, by which all the varieties of life develop naturally. But as I have already established, that is not credible. Somehow, it seems creation is still a cause within nature, and needs some kind of tools to distinguish it from what nature can do by its own powers.

As for miracles, the early scientists (at least in Britain) had the luxury of being Cessationists, largely in reaction to perceived Catholic superstition multiplying miracles fraudulently. So once again, they could simply ignore miracles in their science on the basis that they were never actually expected to occur.

Cessationism is still a convenient option today, as well, but it has not fared well in contemporary theology. Missionary experience, in particular, has shown that healing and other miracles are as well-attested now as in any former age – Craig Keener’s two-volume study is essential reading on this. But even if a Cessationist position is taken, once the Christian scientist accepts even only biblical miracles he knows he is not dealing with nature as a closed causal system. How does he know a miracle has not occurred, and how can he handle them from within a theology and philosophy that accepts them as part of the world?

Lastly, the early scientists took special providence seriously, and discussed it extensively. But as far as I know, they developed no tools to help discern it, merely on the one hand recognising “extraordinary” national events such as plagues or the Great Fire of London as “obviously” providential, and on the other, assuming that special providence must be very rare, or it would interfere with the conclusions of science.

But how rare is “very rare” – and can one decide such a matter on the dubious basis of what would best suit the scientific profession? We have already explored the way in which, in order for God to ensure the arrival of mankind after three billion years of contingent evolution, he would need to be actively steering the whole course of earth’s history, and not simply making rare “interventions.”

And indeed, the whole picture of nature in the Bible is that of a God who actively governs nature at every step. Remember that my conclusion from the “ground clearing” exercise of the first four posts of this series was that the three active causes in nature are divine faithfulness (aka laws of nature), creaturely contingent choices and divine contingent choices. If contingency is, to a large extent, a marker of divine choice, then we cannot take special providence to be a rarity, but part of the very warp and woof of nature’s usual operations. Christians are, after all, commanded to pray for God to guide circumstances, as well as to bring us into line with his will.

So although the Cartesian theology of nature paid lip-service to divine action in the form of creation, miracle and special providence, our modern theology of nature – forged remember in the light of the new creation in Christ on the one hand, and the changed scope of science on the other – has to include them as present realities, alongside the faithful acts of God we call “laws of nature.”

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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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