This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/divine-action-naturalism-and-incarnation
We need to be able to cope with either approach.
One, where miracles are merely more exotic applications of natural law … and/or
Two, where miracles are a SUSPENSION of natural law.
Thank you for citing Athanasius. He was a wonderful theologian, who appears to been the source of the Nicean Creed and certainly the one who stood up almost alone for it as the Bishop of Alexandria when it was under severe attack. The Trinity has been the under attack for a long time, but it stands and the fads and heresies, while have not disappeared, for the most part have been driven underground.
It is my view that God gave us the Trinity for a reason. The Trinity is our understanding of Who God is, and since humans are created in the Image of God, we cannot understand ourselves and our world without understanding the Trinity and ourselves as triune.
It was Athanasius who recognized that the Son was equal to the Father, and not almost equal, but fully equal. Now he did not do this based on philosophy, because the rationale of philosophy and theology said that nothing and no one was equal to God, the Father. He came to this conclusion simply based on the logic of God’s revelation through God’s Word/Logos.
The logic and revelation of the Word also dictate that the coequal Father and Son be united by a Third coequal Person, the Holy Spirit, thus revealing God’s relational nature to humanity. It is only in the last century that science in the form of Einstein’s theory of Relativity has come to the disorienting conclusion that nature is relational and not absolute. We are still trying to come to grips with this new understanding of reality, which goes against philosophy as we know it.
There is a distinction between grace and nature in the West because we see grace as personal and divine. while nature is mechanistic materialistic. What needs to be added is the organic which serves as a bridge between the Person al and Divine, and the materialistic and mechanistic. This triune form works much better than trying to remake God into Nature, or remake Nature into God, which is what humans normally try to do.
Knight’s approach to divine action has been intriguing to me for some time now, and I find myself wondering how his Eastern Orthodox perspective might (or might not!) be congruent with other metaphysical models. That is, Knight’s approach to divine action is all about shaking up the old dichotomies, questioning the ‘interventionist vs. noninterventionist’ model precisely because it is question-begging in its assumption of a near-deistic metaphysical framework. So he develops his divine action model from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, but is that EO perspective necessary for a robust theistic naturalism? For example, many in the Radical Orthodoxy camp (drawing upon Augustine and co.) would reject standard debates about divine action for the same reason as Knight: all of creation is inherently involved with presence and activity of God, and to speak of God ‘breaking in’ presupposes that God could ever be absent. And again, Amos Yong writes from a pneumatological/pentecostal perspective to make the same point: divine action is as normal as it gets, for all creation is inherently involved with the Spirit. So, I do wonder: are all these metaphysical models working with a common core? This is an important question, I think, as it helps relieve fears that Knight is simply pitting ‘East against West.’
Sarah, I think you’re absolutely right - there are those of many traditions seeking to move beyond that crude and unbiblical Enlightenment “nature/supernature” divide - Hugh McCann would be a voice for the Catholic tradition on that (drawing on the Western tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, of course).
What I’m slightly wary of in Knight’s piece is the stress still placed on the “natural”, and in particular the current scientific paradigm of “natural law”, which seems to relativise the personal involvement of God. Almost inevitably one tends to end up seeing God’s activity forensically: “God acts through laws”. And thereby even the miraculous (even the Incarnation?) can become an expression of a “higher natural law” - rather than seeing even the “lower law” as an expression of God’s personal involvement in his world, a viewpoint I’ve been exploring for a couple of years and more
I’ve also been looking at this on my blog recently in a series of posts on Michael Denton’s recent book on “emergent laws” in evolution (as reviewed favourably by Darrel Falk), which in its own way too seems to err towards “naturalising” God, rather than “re-divinising” nature. I find it interesting that a number of people questioning the nature/supernature divide find themselves returning to the old Aristotelian concepts of natures and fourfold causality for their inspiration: it’s just easier to think out of the box when you don’t focus on “law”.
Perhaps one way of expressing the difference (in interpretation, if not in intention) is to ask whether “God set up the world with comprehensive natural laws when he first created it” or whether “God personally governs the world, which he creates in eternity, rationally”.
I recommend Dr. David Bradshaw’s essays on The Philosophical Theology of St. Cyril’s Against Julian" https://www.academia.edu/8172503/_The_Philosophical_Theology_of_St._Cyrils_Against_Julian_Phronema_29_2014_21-39
Also his "“The Concept of the Divine Energies.” The link for this is http://www.uky.edu/~dbradsh/
In Paul’s epistles the outworking of divine purpose and power is called energeia, a term first used by Aristotle. For Aristotle, the term had various applications: energy, active, operation or effectiveness, but the earliest application, according to Dr. David Bradshaw, pertains to activity as the exercise of a capacity. Dr. Bradshaw writes, “For example, Paul refers to himself as ‘striving according to Christ’s working (or energy, energeia), which is being made effective (or actualized, energoumenēn) in me’ (Col. 1:29). Here it would seem that the divine energy serves two distinct functions. It is at work within Paul, transforming him, so that from this standpoint he is the object of God’s activity; at the same time it finds expression in Paul’s own activity, so that he may also be seen as the agent or conduit through whom God is working.”
In Paul’s writings this concept is linked to another Aristotelian concept - that of telos: the realization of an entity’s end purpose; the actualization of potential. It is clear that without the divine energy, without the divine power at work in us, that we can accomplish nothing of value. In this, Paul echoes Jesus’ own words: “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:5)
As an Egyptian, Athanasius was familiar with the Re-Horus-Hathor narrative in which the “son” was regarded as equal to and of the same substance/essence with the Father. This constituted the Proto-Gospel for the Horite Hebrew.
The author is here advocating (in FAR too many words) for a view that there are “lower” laws of nature which are able to be studied by science, but also that there exist “higher” laws of nature which cannot be studied by science, and which intrinsically draw nature toward order and good. That’s probably how this post got onto Biologos.
The divine is expressed somehow in this “upper” layer. OK, this is not a particularly new idea, often seen in pantheism.
But in any case, there still exists, in the Christian view, a God who is able to act and think. The Bible is clear in the distinction between God and all that has been made.
If we accept that Biblical view, one can then argue that there is only one layer beneath God, the layer of created matter and natural law. Or one can argue that there is also a second (“higher”) layer, perhaps this drive to order and goodness.
But Knight goes too far: “If we begin with this questionable picture of God separated from created things…” But yes, I think the Bible is clear about God being separated from created things, so there is nothing questionable in that picture at all. And “we must overcome our tendency to begin with … the assumption that this God is essentially ‘outside’ the creation.” But if he is not “outside” the creation, how did he start it?
I think there is philosophical argument to be made (not that I agree with it) for this “middle ground” of so-called “higher laws.” But this author argues that this middle ground IS God.
In summary, this author seems to be arguing for pantheism in Christian language.
Your point is well taken. I too found a leaning toward pantheism here. Spinoza articulated something very similar to this idea in speaking about laws of nature.
As for the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, it is futile to attempt a scientific explanation for this sacred mystery which has never been apprehended by even the most brilliant minds. That God became Man and dwelt among us, fully human and yet fully God, is not explicable. Others have framed this as something outside breaking inside, but that is inadequate. St. Paul points in the right direction when he speaks of Christ as the Lamb slain from before the foundations of the world. C.S. Lewis appears to have considered timelessness as evidence that there is no outside entity breaking into the material world. He wrote, "We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. ‘How he’s grown!’ we exclaim, ‘How time flies!’ It’s as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course, the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal’. (Reflections on the Psalms. Harcourt, Chapter 12) Lewis elaborates on this: "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” (The Weight of Glory)
I think the author has a point, that we need to re-think our framework to thinking about these issues, but in some instances I think not far enough. As other authors (like Plantiga) have pointed out, part of the problem is our cultural heritage and language. To focus on just one point that I haven’t seen brought up elsewhere and which I think is a good window on the issue, the continued use of the term “scientific law” in the posts and discussions is starting to grate on me. Personally, I would prefer the term banned from discussions like this, because of misunderstanding/misleading nature. I am trained as a physicist and currently work on incorporating the nature and history of science into my university conceptual physics course, so I am familiar with education research literature about teaching students about the nature of science. From my own experience and literature on teaching such, “scientific law”:
- is only used by scientists (at least the circles I’ve interacted in) anachronistically to refer to things from a few centuries ago. We teach students about Newton’s and Boyle’s laws, but Maxwell’s and Einstein’s equations. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of anything from the twentieth or twenty-first century that scientists typically use “law” when talking among themselves.
- There are widespread misconceptions about it (at least among college students) that it refers to “scientific theories” that have been “proved” (see Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell and Schwartz) rather than a highly predictable observation.
- Reinforces a (erroneously) deductive view of science where “scientific laws” are viewed as certain and unchanging and reveal deep truths about the physical world, and perhaps something distinct from God’s action.
A scientific law is nothing more than a highly predictable, repeatable description of the pattern of natural phenomena that can often be described with a mathematical formula. The terms “scientific law” and “miracle” pretty much mean the same thing as the classical formulation of “ordinary providence” and “extra-ordinary providence,” but the latter terms carry a very different connotation, which I would claim is more consistent with biblical teaching. I my opinion, the term “scientific law” is an anachronistic term that exists mainly in popularizations of science that confuses more than it helps.