God of the Gaps

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God of the Gaps

The phrase God of the gaps refers to attempts to use statements about divine intervention in the physical world to fill in the "gaps" in scientific explanation. It is the attempt to introduce God as an explanatory hypothesis on the level of efficient causality to make up for limitations in current scientific understanding. The approach simply does not work because eventually scientific understanding closes the gap, making the appeal to divine explanation irrelevant. The approach is not taken seriously as a way of relating science and religion because it violates several fundamental principles of causal analysis and explanation in both science and theology.


The phrase God of the gaps is often credited to Charles A. Coulson in his book Science and Christian Belief (1955). This is certainly one of the first places where the phrase appears in material directly related to the science and religion discussion, but there are antecedents that appear years or even centuries earlier. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in correspondence from May 25, 1944, observes in response to Carl F. von Weizsacker's The World-view of Physics that:

Weizsacker's book . . . brought home to me how wrong it is to use God as a stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. For the frontiers of knowledge are inevitably being pushed back further and further, which means that you only think of God as a stop-gap. He also is being pushed back further and further, and is in more or less continuous retreat. We should find God in what we do know, not in what we don't . . . (p. 190191).

Bonhoeffer clearly saw the danger of placing God on the level of secondary causal explanation. God and the God hypothesis would be edged out, just as the astronomer Marquis de Laplace replied "I had no need of that hypothesis" when Napoleon asked why he did not discuss God in his writings. According to Ian Barbour in Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (1997):

The "God of the gaps" was as unnecessary in biology after Darwin as it had been in physics after Laplace. Adaptive changes could be accounted for by random variation and natural selection without involving divine intervention. We have Darwin to thank for finally making it clear that God is neither a secondary cause operating on the same level as natural forces nor a means for filling gaps in the scientific account. (p. 73)

The concept of God intervening from beyond to fill in inadequate knowledge or to resolve human problems actually goes back in Western culture to the ancient Greeks and the understanding of a deus ex machina (god of the machine) found in Greek theater. When a plot became too convoluted (or the audience's patience and endurance was wearing thin) an actor wearing the mask of the appropriate Greek deity would literally be lowered onto the stage from above by a crane (the machine) and resolve the plot conflicts, restore order, and serve out justice. In later thought, the phrase deus ex machina came to refer to any theological concept that involved God directing human or earthly events by dropping out of the supernatural into the natural. The ad hoc character of the concept expresses a form of theological desperation in which divine involvement cannot be understood in a coherent way with other forms of rational explanation.


Since the time of Aristotle in Western culture a distinction has been made between primary and secondary causal analysis. Primary causal analysis (formal and final) has to do with the ends or purposes of any physical existent and secondary analysis with the means for its arisal (material and efficient). The great gains in scientific analysis have been accomplished at least in part by focusing on secondary analysis, which is observable, measurable, and repeatable. The power of scientific analysis lies precisely in the intentional limiting of the questions to the physically empirical and verifiable. Science as part of its methodology assumes that there will be material and efficient explanations of physical phenomena, that is, the methodology is inclusive of secondary causal analysis. This focus is at the heart of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Theology and philosophy on the other hand have focused on the origins and ends of physical existence. To introduce God as a part of the secondary causal analysis violates principles of scientific understanding and commits a category mistake in causal analysis.

It must also be said that a constructive relationship between religion and science would involve connecting the two forms of causal analysis. Multiple strategies have been proposed for this with God working either "before" or "behind" the physical systems. The former was approached in Enlightenment deism, where God arranged everything "before" the creation like a divine clock-maker and then left the created order to run on its own. This position, while popular in the eighteenth century, was later seen to deny the understanding of God involved in a continuing creation (creatio continua ) and to be contradictory to the Abrahamic faith traditions.

Since about 1990 attention has been devoted to formulating theories where God works in and through the physical systems, such as in quantum indeterminacy, without violating known physical or biological laws. This "causal joint" discussion has resulted in a number of new theories of divine action ranging from top-down or whole-part causation (Arthur Peacocke) to bottom-up (Robert John Russell), Persuasion ( John Cobb, David Griffin), Information ( John Polkinghorne), or Self-Limitation (W. H. Vanstone), to name a few. What unites these diverse approaches is their commitment to respect the various physical and life sciences in their causal analyses and yet provide opportunities for dialogue on boundary questions, the ethical application of scientific technology, and other areas of common concern. Mutual respect between science and religion permits this in a way that a "God of the gaps" approach does not because it violates the integrity of both. For these reasons, among others, both "God of the gaps" and deus ex machina are not seen as viable concepts for theological understanding in relating science and religion.

See also Aristotle; Causality, Primary and Secondary; Causation; Creatio Continua; Creatio ex Nihilo; Creation; Deism; Divine Action; God; God, Existence of; Skyhooks


barbour, ian. religion and science: historical and contemporary issues. san francisco: harper, 1997.

berg, christian. "leaving behind the god-of-the-gaps: toward a theological response to limit questions." in expanding humanity's vision of god, ed. robert hermann. philadelphia: templeton foundation press. 2001.

bonhoeffer, dietrich. letters and papers from prison, ed. eberhard bethge. new york: macmillan, 1953.

coulson, charles a. science and christian belief. chapel hill: university of north carolina press, 1955.

southgate, christopher, et al. god, humanity, and the cosmos: a textbook in science and religion. harrisburg, pa.: trinity press, 1999.

ernest simmons