Where is the Problem in the Problem of Divine Action?

(system) #1
Natural laws tell us how things usually go, not how they must go—especially if the divine lawgiver is at work.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/where-is-the-problem-in-the-problem-of-divine-action

(Mervin Bitikofer) #2

Thanks to Dr. Plantinga for sharing this beginning excerpt of his thoughts on Divine action in the world. I look forward to reading the next installment too.

That the universe is not a closed or isolated system --i.e. not causally closed – is a great way to think of this. One can understand where the typical materialist retort goes (has gone), and that is that the universe, by definition, is everything (another metaphysical claim, there). So anything we would purport to be outside the universe simply expands the boundaries of what we might call “Universe” to include that too. But this move leads to a metaphysical/logical contradiction. The ‘ground-of-all-being’ (a classical conception of God) cannot be that, and yet simultaneously also be entirely contained as an item within that set, so grounded. So it would seem to me that there is no escape from this messy and faith-based metaphysical grounding, either for the materialist or the theistic believer.

(Sarah Lane Ritchie ) #4


Yes indeed. One possible issue with Plantinga’s terminology is that ‘system’ has a precise meaning in scientific/materialist discussions. So if God is involved in an open system, does that not invite the new-Thomistic critique that God is thus rendered a ‘cause among causes’? What sorts of metaphysical models might further develop or tweak Plantinga’s approach? (Or challenge it altogether!)

(Mervin Bitikofer) #5

I wish I was more familiar with the formal Thomistic conceptions (much less neo-) that you are no doubt drawing on there. (I guess I could read …!)

One inescapable item for us Christians is that on our view, God is indeed a ‘cause among causes’ when He walked the earth as Jesus, and presumably still ‘acts’ (so much is packed and still to pack in that one word as seen in these essays!) through Christ as a spiritual presence to us. So all that heavily blurs our attempted distinctions for what is coming from inside a system vs. from without.

It’s tricky to try to conceptualize a model for something that, by definition, can only be a single instance with no equivalent.

Roger, I don’t think that conceptualizing something outside of our universe necessarily means we are equating all such conception with the Divine – not in terms of spirits or souls, anyway.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #6

That requirement for precision also runs all of us into trouble when we begin to apply the same demand (precise definition) to our study of God’s actions, much less God Himself. Maybe that’s in part what the incarnation was about as well.

(Sarah Lane Ritchie ) #7

You make a good point here - why, exactly, are theologians so often opposed to God being ‘merely’ a cause-among-causes? The common argument is that if God is acting in an analogous way to created beings, transcendence is somehow compromised. But that is certainly open to challenge! The incarnation, for example, seems to undermine the traditional theological worry that God’s transcendent causal power not be reduced to that of ‘mere mortals.’

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

Thanks for provoking a few more thoughts here, Sarah.

I can’t speak to all the history and development of that classical conception of the Divine among theologians, but doesn’t it seem that the classic view was pretty much just widely accepted (not opposed) until recent centuries? Now (suddenly! --at least on a centuries time-scale) a lot of people under the influence of scientific thought seem more allergic (opposed) to the classic conception and have an almost default embrace of God as merely another causal factor to be indicated or contra-indicated. And those who have embraced this modern concept have taken this down into the core of their philosophical being where no pry-bar will ever force the separation. I don’t know how many modern theologians have succumbed to this --maybe it’s more arm chair theology done by those heavily influenced by enlightenment thought.

And perhaps is isn’t entirely wrong to insist on this – certainly the incarnation is the clearest way in which God’s action was manifested in direct and visible ways. But to “extend that incarnation” concept beyond Jesus’ fleshly self and into a world of measurable causality that can be proven to be of direct divine origin (on scientific terms no less! --whatever that might then look like) seems like a dubious project at best for the Christian.

For those of us who have taken the opposite conclusion more to heart (or down ‘to the core of our philosophical outlook’ as it were) that God’s fingerprints will be seen either everywhere in creation or else nowhere, (and that we are wrong to search for evidence beyond Jesus and His work on our own and each others’ lives) I would like to think that I can still hold this conclusion out for critical appraisal at arm’s length as it is challenged. But as yet I haven’t encountered any fundamentalist atheist or creationist believer who has been willing to even speak in these terms, much less demonstrate why the former view should be preferred over the latter.


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