Why We Can’t “Solve” The Problem of Divine Action

Deism is rather straightforward… and I don’t think we are invoking anything like it:

De·ism, noun
Belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe.

The term is used chiefly of an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.

Hi Richard. The front loading scenario you describe might be thought of in two ways: 1) what we understand as “deistic” today (which is different than it was understood classically) is that God “winds up the machine” and lets it go, sitting back and watching. Some would say that your scenario sounds like that. Or 2) If I set in motion a chain of events (A) that I intend to bring about some effect (D), I can be said to have caused D. For instance, if I strike the cue ball so it hits the 3 ball at just the right angle so it hits the 8 ball into the corner pocket, it is not inappropriate to say I hit the 8 ball into the corner pocket. So if God wanted to create the Hawaiian Islands, and if he caused things to happen in a natural way such that they would come about, we could say he caused it. But… that depends on a deterministic view of things (or at least a sufficiently predictable set of random events like the lottery).

As I said in the post, I’m much more comfortable saying the naturalistic causes of an event tell the scientific story, but that is not the whole story. There really are things like persons who have will, intentions, and reasons for which there are not scientific explanations. So there is also a story to be told about (at least some) events that appeal to these as explanatory factors. If science is not the whole story, a complete scientific explanation does not put God out of a job.

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While I do not find anything that I would disagree with in these posts, I would ask, “Would we be better served by first discussing the attributes of God as revealed in scripture and discussed by theologians for many centuries?”

Once we establish a firm theological base from the revealed attributes of God, we may then seek a rigorous treatment of science and the “problem of divine action”.


Agreed. If we insist on starting from science and then say the problem is insoluble, we are in effect saying that science is the solution for all soluble problems. How is that not scientism?

Yet even to hint at other valid solutions for the problem, eg from theology, is to say that “a complete scientific explanation” is an oxymoron. If one concludes that the whole of biology tells you nothing definite about the nature of inorganic chemistry, you have only shown that biology is an inadequate explanatory tool in that area, and need to ask why. In the last case it’s pretty obvious.

Regarding science and divine action it’s a little more subtle, but must include the fact that the metaphysical model for science excludes divine action and some of its necessary components, such as teleology. It can be staring one in the face, but hidden because of the spectalcles you’re wearing.

Quite aside from divine action (where there is a real dichotomy between what happens within creation and what happens in its creation - a matter only approachable via revealed theology and, to a limited degree, philosophy), we need to ask why our science should also exclude as “not scientific” things that are both natural, and created, such as human will, intentions and reasons.

Conversely, if we believe that will, intentions and reasons are not opaque to science (and if outside the purview of the physical sciences at least within that of psychology), then it’s not clear why the results of divine action in the natural world should not be admissible within science, if not their modality.


I would go a little further and note that people are seeking to use science to address a subject that science says is insoluble, and indeed, science shows it is not a problem for science. :weary:



You were so quick off the mark that you pre-empted my re-edit! Apologies for giving you half an argument!

To the man with only a hammer, everything is a nail.


The timing and manner of this exchange may serve a project on random/stochastic intentional but chance based events (a mouthful by any measure).:grinning:

On your points regarding science, intention, and reason, I am inclined to adopt a Phil of Science outlook (which in itself presents difficulties for a scientist like myself) - and to see a well reasoned outlook as a good starting point. I prefer this to the jargon that is placed under an “open mind” phrase. Thus I (or any thinking person) ought to examine my intention when examining matters such as “what God does” - for the simple reason that I am asking a question that applies to another being.

Let us think of this in another manner - if I apply this criteria to another human being, reason would require of me, that I know enough of the other person so that I can consider intention, purpose, acts, results, etc. It would be difficult to reason in this way for a complete stranger - should we at least consider Christ as the Logos in this way?

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An excellent point - not only do we as Christians believe that Christ as God’s Logos creates, governs and sustains the whole creation, but we are in personal communion in him through our salvation and the Spirit. We’re hardly dispassionate strangers - unless we choose to make ourselves so in the pursuit of some ideal of “objective” knowledge.

Frequently, the way we present a problem has consequences for the options we think are available to us in our attempts to solve it. Take, for example, Jim’s apparently un-problematic statement that “when we do theology, we can tend to emphasize God’s sovereignty over the created order in such a way that seems to make God responsible for everything—including sin and evil. Most of us want to find a solution that avoids both of these.” Yes indeed, and this problem is very old. One of the ways it has been “solved” in the past is to distinguish between causal responsibility and moral responsibility. Presumably, it is fine to say that God is causally responsible for sin and evil (because simply creating a person who ends up sinning is sufficient for such causal responsibility), but very wrong to say that God is morally responsible for sin and evil. But it is the latter that most of us want, quite rightly, to avoid. Not the former. And so a notion of God’s sovereignty that preserves His causal responsibility but denies His moral responsibility seems to be the most desirable “solution.” But then the problem is not that God’s sovereignty has been emphasized in such a way as to make Him seem responsible (without distinction) for everything, but only that God’s sovereignty has been emphasized in such a way as to make Him seem morally responsible for everything. Causal responsibility is ok, as long as it doesn’t imply moral responsibility. And I take that Jon Garvey and GJDS are heading in a similar direction when they insist that past attempts to articulate God’s attributes must be taken into account (is that right?).

Of course, one might think that causal responsibility simply entails some sort of moral responsibility, in which case it is not helpful in this context to make such a distinction. Is that what you had in mind Jim? If so, I’ll just say that I don’t think causal responsibility entails any sort of moral responsibility, but don’t we have to sort this out before we will agree that there is an insoluble problem here?

Hi John,

Is God’s “causal responsibility” sufficient causality? If so, I don’t see how you avoid moral responsibility. Can you give any analogs in the human realm of something I am (sufficiently) causally responsible for, but not morally responsible? Perhaps accidents or other cases in which I’m not intending to bring something about, but I do in fact bring it about; but that doesn’t seem to help the divine case (Does God accidentally bring things about??). And I suppose children might be causally responsible, but not morally responsible for some things; but again that doesn’t shed light on how God could causally responsible, but not morally responsible. Is this a sui generis ability of God?

Then, if God’s causal responsibility is not sufficient, but only necessary to bring about events, there does seem to be room to say that God isn’t morally responsible for those events. But that would also seem to undermine the absolute control you guys’ Reformed version of sovereignty typically entails.

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I hope this is the approach that theologians take. And I hope that scientists (at least qua scientists) start by doing the most rigorous science that is relevant to these questions. Then I hope that the scientists and the theologians enter into dialogue with each other, and that all who are interested in “solving” the problem of divine action listen to that dialogue.

BioLogos is often charged with allowing science to trump theology. I vigorously deny this charge! But neither do think theology gets to trump science. If we’re talking about how photosynthesis works, I hope the theologians mostly keep their mouths shut and listen; if we’re talking about the Incarnation, I hope the scientists mostly keep their mouths shut and listen. If we’re talking about human nature or human origins or divine action, I hope we all recognize that both have important things to say. In genuine dialogue, though, I open myself up to the other, and must be prepared to be changed.



As long as we remember that God is communicating with humans throughout the centuries of human existence… there is nothing DEISTIC about the BioLogos scenarios.

Prayers and divine inspirations are REAL TIME interactions … God is NOT sitting back… not any more than a chef is sitting back while trying to make a good sauce…

I agree that theologians and scientists should listen to one another - my starting point for useful dialogue is that of ideas and knowledge. We all agree that the outlook and training of scientists enables them to conduct work in their areas, and we would agree that theologians rely on their training and expertise. The starting point for such a dialogue would, I suggest, be the meaning and ideas we may have when we speak of God. Christian testimony is that God has revealed himself to them and thus God has made himself known to them. The meaning that they communicate originates from God. This meaning cannot be derived in any manner from a human being but it may be communicated amongst human beings - the meaning is communicated by the use of words and symbols. The meaning is within God himself, since only he can be that meaning.

However, criticism may be made of this thesis because it removes an appeal to intellectual methodology by which meaning may be attached to words and presents epistemological (and perhaps ontological) problems regarding revelation. If we cannot appeal to philosophy and the intellect, how can we know anything? We are characterised by the capacity for reason and knowledge.

Thus, while listening to each other is fine, we also need a language that provides a means of communicating in a meaningful way. To speak of divine action brings with it, to a scientist’s outlook, a need to observe the acting subject. Theologians would (correctly) say, we cannot make God a “something” suited to our investigative methods. As you indicate, we would identify subject areas and each side would provide an outlook and belief - I think that such a general approach (i.e. scientists commence with a general idea of god, theologians commence with a generalised idea(s) of science) would end up in an endless and fruitless discussion on words and definitions.

To be constructive, I suggest an initial position is to find out if science and theology can agree on how to discuss the attribute of God as creator. This attribute is central to our discussions - and it automatically removes the need to consider objections from atheists and anti-theists.

A brief response John - responsibility and accountability can only be meaningful between two equal parties and an ability to enforce in some manner judgments regarding an unwanted outcome.

On a general note, God took on all “responsibility” for all causes and our limited view of moral accountability when His Son took on the attributes and weaknesses of human beings, and without performing an irresponsible or immoral act, was willing to suffer and unjust death at our collective hands.

If this were a two party dispute, we should be held accountable. However, since God is God, we understand it as an act of Grace. It would be correct to indicate that we have a good idea from this on what we may consider as divine action.

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@jpm, nice article. What are you thoughts on this?

I think this is a perfectly fine description of the situation …

I haven’t checked in here in awhile and haven’t read all the comments in detail but want to comment briefly on the OP. The basic reason we can’t specify the precise interaction between God and nature is that theology isn’t physics. Suppose we want to understand the interaction between two physical systems A & B. If we know the Hamiltonians (energy functions) for both, we try to find an interaction Hamiltonian that describes how they’re related. But God is not an entity within the universe that can be described in the terms physicists use.

I think that the traditional idea of God’s cooperation with creatures provides a good way to think about divine action. It’s like the way a human works with some tool. But that’s an analogy rather than a precise description. & we don’t need to be embarrassed about that because we’re always having to use analogies when we speak of God.

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Hi Jim,

Sorry about the delay, I’ve been away.

No, God’s causal responsibility is not always sufficient causality. But only some “guys’ Reformed version of sovereignty” would allow that answer. A theological determinist would indeed have to agree that God’s causal responsibility is sufficient causality. It is very hard to deal with the Problem of Evil from that viewpoint, though taking Universalism seriously can make it easier. But in any case, a “Reformed version of sovereignty” (broadly construed, and perhaps including Thomists) does not require theological determinism. Probably, it does require a risk-free view of providence, and at a minimum the ever-controversial “middle knowledge” of God. But that does allow us to affirm God’s causal responsibility and still deny His moral responsibility, as I just did.

We are dealing with questions of logical consistency here. If there is a significant problem of divine action, there will be one both before and after we learn about evolutionary biology. But if not, evolutionary biology can’t create one. I’m not seeing why knowledge and acceptance of evolution presents a new problem of divine action where none existed before. Or to put it another way, why should accepting evolutionary biology require one to change one’s view about whether there is a problem of divine action?

A very good concluding sentence!

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