Divine Action

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Divine Action

One fundamental theme in the theistic religious traditions has been that God acts purposefully to call the world into being and to guide its history. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all include in their sacred scriptures substantial (and overlapping) collections of stories about divine action. These stories present a drama of magnificent scope, setting human events in the wider context of cosmic history and portraying God's relationship with humans as an ongoing dialogue characterized by repeated divine initiatives, inconstant human responses, painful reversals, and renewed opportunities. The God of the biblical narratives establishes a covenant with Abraham, liberates the Hebrew people from slavery and gives them the law, makes Israel an independent kingdom, raises up prophets who call the nation to justice, and judges and sustains the people in their tragedies of political defeat and exile. Christians take up these stories and interpret them in terms of their conviction that God has acted in a stunning new way in Jesus of Nazareth, and Muslims later proclaim that the history of divine action receives its definitive articulation in the text of Qur'an given by Allah to the Prophet Mohammed. Each of these religions of the book places stories of divine action at the center of its understanding of God; God is known, in part, as the One Who Acts in these ways, and divergences in the stories told by these traditions contribute crucially to differences in their conceptions of the character and purposes of God. The canonical narratives, therefore, do not remain simply a record of past understandings of God's activity; rather they set the context within which communities of faith interpret their contemporary experience as part of an ongoing history of divine action in the world.

Modern challenges

In addition to playing this central role in the theistic traditions, the idea that God acts in the world raises a host of difficult questions. The transition from sacred stories to theological claims about divine action involves subtle interpretive judgments. The biblical texts, for example, do not speak with a single voice, but rather depict God in strikingly diverse ways; in order to construe them as contributing to a relatively unified narrative of God's acts, decisions must be made about which elements are central and which are peripheral, and these theological choices can generate a wide range of different readings. Further, modern techniques of critical scholarship have contributed greatly to understanding the literary forms, functions, and history of these texts. One effect of this scholarship has been to show how complicated it is to move from scriptural stories to conclusions about historical events. A theologian who appeals to biblical and liturgical talk about God's mighty acts in history must think through what this language means once it is granted that the stories are not straightforward reports of surprising things that happened long ago. If, for example, one acknowledges the legendary and symbolic character of significant aspects of the exodus story, and if one doubts that each of the miraculous divine interventions occurred just as it is related in the text, then what should one say about what God did to liberate the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt? This is a question that Langdon Gilkey (1919) pressed with great effectiveness against the biblical theology movement, represented by theologians like G. Ernest Wright (19091974) and Reginald H. Fuller (1915), who insisted that God is known through mighty acts in history but who were unwilling to take at face value the biblical stories of those acts.

The natural sciences raise additional powerful questions for traditional claims about divine action. In a prescientific view of the world, one compelling way to make sense of events is to ascribe them to the action of person-like but super-human powers. With the rise of the sciences, these supernatural agencies and teleological (i.e., purposive) explanations tend to be displaced in favor of appeal to efficient causes that are themselves a part of nature. As the various sciences developed, the web of explanations they offer has expanded and become increasingly integrated in interlocking structures of natural law. At the same time, the sciences have progressively eliminated from their theories the remaining elements of explicit theological explanation that reflect the close historic association of science and religion. A paradigm here, perhaps, is the transition from Isaac Newton (16421727) to Pierre-Simon Laplace (17491827). Newton's calculations indicated that there would be accumulating errors in the orbits of the planets. This, he suggested, is corrected by God, who intervenes periodically to set the solar system aright. A hundred years later, Laplace demonstrated that these variations in orbital speed are part of a mathematically predictable cycle, and it is said that when he was asked about the role of God in his physics, he triumphantly replied that he had "no need of that hypothesis." The sciences, it appears, can get along perfectly well without appealing to God as a element in their account of the world. Theologians have had to grapple, therefore, with questions about the relation between the traditional affirmation that God acts in the world and scientific accounts of that world as an intelligible natural order. How do God's purposes engage a world whose history develops within a finely woven skein of natural law?

Creation as God's fundamental act

At the heart of virtually any theological account of divine action will be some understanding of God's fundamental activity as creator. Creation has been construed in various ways in the history of the theistic religions, but one particularly prominent view has understood creation as a free and intentional divine act that calls the world into being and continuously sustains its existence. There are four elements in this account. First, creation is a free divine act in the sense that it does not follow necessarily from the divine nature; God could exist without the world in undiminished fullness of being. God chooses to create not because God must have the creature, but because it is good for the creature to be. The act of creation, therefore, is an expression of generosity and love. Second, creation is an intentional action insofar as God brings the world into existence knowingly and purposefully. These first two claims distinguish classical accounts of creation from emanationist accounts, such as that of the neo-platonic philosopher Plotinus (205270 C.E), according to which the perfection of being in God necessarily overflows into a progression of diminishing forms of existence. Third, perhaps the most striking feature of this theological view is that God's creative act accounts for the very being of the creature. There is no pre-existing unformed "stuff" that constrains and shapes God's creative choice. God creates from nothing (ex nihilo ), that is, apart from God's creative act, nothing at all would exist other than God. Finally, the world that God creates has no power to continue to exist on its own. Finite things depend at every moment on a divine creative action that continuously sustains, or conserves, their existence. Creation, therefore, is not a one-time event completed at some moment long ago but rather is an ongoing active relationship of God to the whole finite world throughout its history. This stands in contrast to the view associated with eighteenth century deism, which responded to the rise of Newtonian mechanics by arguing that the creator establishes the structure of the world and then leaves it to exist and to operate on its own.

This way of thinking about God's action at the foundation of the world will pervasively shape one's interpretation of traditional talk about God's action within its history. On this account of creation, every event in the world depends upon the action of God; it will be true to say that God acts in all things. Theologians have not wanted to conclude from this, however, that God is the only effective cause or agent, or that created causes merely appear to bring about effects in the world while God alone directly produces all change. Views of this sort came to be called occasionalism, because they regard created causes merely as occasions for the action of God in bringing about the effect. In rejecting this view, Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) affirmed that God gives created things active and passive causal powers of their own, that is, the capacity to affect other things and to be affected by them. God is always the primary cause who directly sustains the existence of every creature, but God also chooses to act indirectly through the operation of created, or secondary, causes. This provides a further sense in which events in the world may be understood as God's acts, namely, that God acts by means of the order of nature to produce effects in the world. This mode of divine action is analogous to indirect human action in which various means are used to achieve one's ends. Aquinas notes that when the artisan uses a hammer and chisel to shape stone, the effect is produced both by the tools and by the human agent who wields them, though the two causes operate on different levels. Similarly, God acts by means of the entire network of causal relations that constitutes the created world. God's engagement with finite causes goes much deeper, of course, than the involvement of human agents with the tools they use. For God directly sustains the very existence of the finite cause (traditionally called divine conservation ) and, on some accounts, empowers it to act as it does (traditionally called divine concurrence ). Hence, by establishing the lawful structures of nature and setting the boundary conditions under which they operate, God indirectly produces the vast range of effects that together make up the history of the universe. Indeed, if the universe were a causally closed, deterministic system, then everything that happens would be an indirect act of God. On the other hand, if the universe includes moments of indeterministic openness within its structure (e.g., either as chance or as self-determining freedom), then God will set the direction of cosmic history but not necessarily specify all of its details.

The classical conception of creation that underlies this account of divine action is by no means the only view found in the theistic traditions. Process, or neo-classical, theologies reflect a contemporary alternative approach that has different implications for divine action in the world. These theologians make use in various ways of the thought of Alfred North Whitehead (18611947) and Charles Hartshorne (18972000). Within Whitehead's metaphysical scheme, every entity, from the simplest elements of the physical world to God, is a creative synthesis of relations to others. God is not the absolute source of the world's existence, rather God and the world together constitute the basic structure of reality, which is a process of creative becoming. God plays a central role, however, in the world's unfolding history, for God makes a crucial contribution to the direction of each entity's development and God embraces that individual's achievement within the ongoing divine experience. On this view, God acts in every event to lure and persuade, and though God's power is limited, the reach of God's influence is not. Charles Hartshorne explores similar ideas about the inherently social nature and persuasive power of God, but develops them through the analogy of divine embodiment in the world. God and world form an organic unity of many distinct sub-centers of activity; God shares the experience of all the parts and acts through them with an immediacy analogous to (but even more profound than) that with which humans act through their bodies. Once again, God's powers of action are limited by the given structure of the divine life as a social organism and by the partial independence and self-creativity of the constituents that are united in this structure. One of the strengths of this approach, however, is that it provides a vivid expression of God's universal responsiveness and preeminent influence in shaping the destiny of the cosmos.

Particular divine action

The theistic traditions have affirmed not only that God shapes the overall direction of cosmic history through the act of creation, but also that God acts in particular events to advance the divine purposes for the world. The mighty acts of God related in the biblical stories provide paradigmatic examples of this form of divine action. Modern theologians have struggled to know what to say about particular divine action. There are at least three senses in which specific events might be singled out as acts of God in a special way. First, an event may be distinguished from others by virtue of its disclosive, or revelatory, importance. Particular events may become the occasion through which individuals and communities recognize with special clarity the presence and purposes of God. It need not be the case that God acts in these events in a way that is different from God's universal action in every event. What marks them out as special is not a distinctive mode of divine action within them but rather their power to reveal and exemplify the direction of God's work in history. If, for example, the escape of the Hebrew people across the shallows of the Red Sea involved only the ordinary processes of nature coupled with free human decisions, this event may reveal for this community God's liberating purposes. Second, an event may be distinguished from others by virtue of its causal role in advancing God's purposes in the world. Once again, the event need not be brought about by God in any distinctive way; one can suppose that God acts in this special event in just the way God acts everywhere, namely (on the classical account) as the creator and sustainer of a system of natural causes and free human agents. Yet this event may in fact mark a turning point in the progress of God's purposes in history. The escape of Hebrew people, according to this view, not only discloses God's intentions to humankind, it also advances God's intentions in a particularly significant way. Third, an event may be distinguished from others because God acts directly in it to turn events in a direction they would not otherwise have gone. What makes the event special is that God acts, on this occasion, to alter the course of the world's history. On this view, God not only acts indirectly through created causes and agents, God also acts directly in the world to bring about particular states of affairs. An event of this sort may or may not evoke a recognition of God's working, and it may or may not represent an especially significant turning point in the course of events, but even if it remains hidden in the minutia of history, it constitutes a particular divine action in the world.

Many modern theologians have sought to avoid this third, and strongest, claim about divine action and have interpreted traditional talk about God's acts in history exclusively in terms of the first two. This treats particular divine action as a subset of God's universal activity as creator; it incorporates the idea of divine providence entirely into the doctrine of creation. At the founding of modern Protestant theology, for example, Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) contended that God bears the same relation to every event, though some events play a special role in awakening in human beings a deepened experience of their absolute dependence upon God as the source of all things. This approach has important implications for a number of central topics in Christian theology (e.g., in giving an account of the person and work of Christ), and is a matter of controversy. There are powerful considerations that push in this direction, however, not the least of which are those derived from the impact of the natural sciences.

It has become commonplace for modern theologians to argue that a scientifically informed understanding of the world presents fatal objections to the assertion that God acts in history to affect the course of events. Rudolph Bultmann (18841976), for example, contended that one cannot embrace a scientific world view and also affirm that God acts within objective history. The lawful structures described by the sciences leave, in Bultmann's phrase, "no room for God's working," and any divine action will necessarily be a miraculous intervention that disrupts the natural order. Similar claims have been made by a succession of contemporary theologians. Bultmann's solution was to insist that God's action should be understood as an engagement with the human self that leaves the natural order untouched. This strategy can succeed, of course, only if one thinks that selves can be affected without altering their physical conditions, and if this idea is rejected, then it is far from clear that God can interact with embodied persons without affecting the natural world.

There are at least two considerations at work in these scientifically based worries about particular divine action. Both have to do with miracles, understood in the rather artificial but familiar modern sense of divine actions that contravene the structures of nature. The first concerns the epistemic status of claims about miracles. Although it is sometimes said that science has shown that miracles cannot occur, there is little prospect of vindicating this general claim. It is more plausible to note that scientifically literate people find their expectations about the world to have been shaped in ways that raise significant evidential barriers to accepting claims about miracles. David Hume (17111776) gave early and elegant expression to an argument that it will always be more reasonable to conclude that testimony about miracles is mistaken or fraudulent than to believe that a well-evidenced law of nature has been abrogated. There are also distinctively theological objections to giving miracles a pervasive role in one's account of divine action. Nonetheless, while there are good reasons for caution about claims regarding miracles, it important to note that, at least on a classical account of creation, there is no theological ground for denying that the creator of the universe is free to act in ways that exceed the causal powers of creatures.

The second issue concerns the claim that any divine action that affects the course of events will necessarily constitute a miraculous intervention in the lawful structures of nature. This conclusion may appear inevitable if one thinks of the natural order as a deterministic system; it appears that in a closed structure of sufficient finite causes, God can act either by determining the design of the structure in the initial act of creation or by miraculously intervening within it. In the modern discussion of divine action it has often been assumed that universal causal determinism has been endorsed by the natural sciences, either as result of its investigations or as a presupposition of its methods. There are good reasons not to embrace this conclusion, however. Determinism has neither been established nor refuted by the sciences to date; rather, it represents a metaphysical view that extrapolates beyond the findings of the sciences and that need not be assumed in scientific research.

A number of theologians have sought ways to conceive of particular divine actions that do not involve any disruption of the structures of nature. Arthur Peacocke (1924) notes that the world described by the natural sciences is structured as a complex, nested hierarchy of causal systems; for example, biochemical processes operate within a cell located within an organ that functions within an organism. The higher levels of organization constrain the operation of their parts without abrogating the causal laws proper to those parts. Peacocke couples this picture of the natural order with a panentheistic conception of God according to which the world is encompassed within God, and God constitutes the ultimate whole that unites all finite systems. This opens the way to proposing whole-part as the model for God's action; God affects the world as a higher level system affects is parts, channeling their operation in particular ways without violating the lawful structures that govern them. Note that this account would allow for non-miraculous particular divine influences upon the course of events whether or not the world constitutes a closed system of sufficient (i.e., deterministic) causes. The crucial task facing such a position is to vindicate the claim that God can affect the operations of finite causal systems without this divine influence registering as a discontinuity in the causal series.

Another strategy in developing an account of particular divine action explores the theological possibilities that arise if the universe is not in fact thoroughly deterministic in its structure. If the order of nature does not constitute a lock step of deterministic law but rather includes elements of under-determination, whether as mere chance or as self-determining freedom, then perhaps God can act in the world without in any way disrupting its inherent structures. The world that God created might, that is, incorporate both lawful regularities and openness to novel developments that are not entirely prescribed by the past.

John Polkinghorne (1930) has proposed that the science of chaotic systems, which are highly sensitive to initial conditions and functionally unpredictable, provides a window on what may be a more supple and flexible network of relations in nature. Although these systems are described in deterministic equations, Polkinghorne notes that the laws of nature formulated by the sciences are a simplification and abstraction from the actual complexities of nature. This suggests that God might act by affecting the conditioning context within which these malleable systems operate. Other thinkers have explored the possibilities created by indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics. William Pollard (1911) was the first to develop a proposal of this kind, but the idea has been explored and refined by a number of others. On what is arguably the dominant (though by no means the only) interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are transitions in quantum systems (namely, from a probabilistically described superposition of states to a determinate value for a measured variable) that have necessary but not sufficient conditions in preceding states. If the effects of these chance transitions are sometimes amplified by the larger systems in which they occur, then they can make a difference in the macroscopic course of events. Robert John Russell (1946) has argued that this amplification can be found in a number of natural structures, notably in genetics. The structures of nature, in this case, would be open and flexible in such a way that God could, without disrupting the probabilistic regularity of those structures, act through them to bring about particular effects in the world. It might be objected that this represents a return to the God-of-the-Gaps, that is, the hasty appeal to divine action at points of scientific ignorance. In this case, however, the relevant gaps occur in nature, not simply in human knowledge of nature. If the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory is correct, then the deepest structures in nature are indeterministically open, and that is a fact about the world that theological reflection will need to take into account. Of course, the viability of particular theological proposals of this sort will depend in part on developments in the relevant sciences. Given the multiple options in interpreting quantum theory and the persistence of unresolved fundamental questions within the theory itself, any theological use of this science must remain a tentative exploration of intriguing possibilities.


The affirmation that God acts in the world has played a central role in the theistic religious traditions, and there are a number of ways in which this idea can be understood. God acts as the creator who calls all finite things into being and sustains their existence at every moment. In this way God acts directly with every causal operation or intentional action of creatures. By virtue of endowing created things with causal powers of their own, God can be also understood to act indirectly by means of the order of nature. Theists have typically affirmed that particular events can be identified as special acts of God, at least in the sense that they play a distinctive epistemic or causal role, and perhaps also in the sense that they reflect a direct divine action that affects the course of events or the lives of individuals. The latter form of special divine action raises difficult questions of theological interpretation, and it presents one of the points at which the dialogue between religion and science has been most fascinating and fruitful.

See also Clockwork Universe; Copenhagen Interpretation; Creatio Ex Nihilo; Deism; Determinism; Double Agency; God of the Gaps; Miracle; Panentheism; Process Thought; Providence; Special Divine Action; Special Providence; Theism; Whitehead, Alfred North


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