The discussion on divine action revisited

Eight years ago, there was a discussion on divine action and natural causality here at BioLogos. A recent paper (Robinson, David S. 2023. “The Dignity of Causing: Kenosis, Compatibilism, and the God Beyond Genus”. Theology and Science 21 (2): 229-44) has helpfully contributed to the discussion. Certainly, I’m not going to retell Robinson’s article; but I’d like to highlight some points in connection with it.

First of all, David Robinson notices that almost every attempt to understand divine action in nature falls into one of the two categories.

The first category implies delimitation. These models may suppose, in a deist manner, that God does nothing but establish the Universe’s initial parameters; or that God utilizes natural indeterminacies to influence the course of events, like in the NIODA hypothesis. Some kenotic creation theologies also prefer to use the language of divine self-contraction, of God’s withdrawal from the world (cf. Moltmann, Jürgen. The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1993. 108-110). The major deficiency of such theologies is that they tend to represent divine action and nature’s self-organization as mutually exclusive agencies. Moreover, these theologies are in apparent conflict with the biblical vision of God who takes care even of sparrows (Matthew 10:29, Luke 12:6).

The second category implies a certain compatibilism, a concurrence of divine action and natural causality: natural things exist and interact according to their own nature; but the course of events is shaped and enabled by divine action at every moment of time. This approach is more traditional and better matching the biblical narratives than delimitation models; but Robinson is quite right, IMO, to remain cautious, to avoid 100% reliance on classical compatibilism. After all, the traditional late-medieval and early-modern scholastic theology that relied on compatibilism has failed to convince the modern intellectuals. So they have drifted towards deism, agnosticism, or even atheism – and not without reason. Natural interdependencies are observable and often even measurable. Therefore, one may be sure that they are real. But how can one be sure that divine action is also at work in the world where we live? And if one can’t be sure of it, doesn’t it make the whole concept of divine action superfluous?

Robinson proposes to hold “classical and kenotic theologies together” – which is, I suppose, a good idea. It may mean to understand God’s creative action as kenosis – voluntary self restraint, self-abasement, even self-humiliation – but to avoid interpreting kenosis as God’s withdrawal from the world. Every occurrence in the world is still created and preserved only by divine action – but this divine action has been freely restraining itself to knit an interconnected and internally consistent Universe.

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