Science in Christian Perspective




The God of the Gaps

From: JASA 15 (December 1963): 101-104

All admit that there are gaps in the explanation of the phenomena of nature. But with the advance of science many gaps have disappeared. Some suggest that to find God revealed in non-understood phenomena is dangerous, for tomorrow the phenomena may be explained. Better to emphasize that God is revealed in regular natural processes!

True, God is providentially active in nature. But certain gaps are not understandable by physical-chemical approaches. Miracles, prophecy, and angelic visitants are examples. Life itself may well be such a gap, and human life involving the soul surely is. These gaps and this God will not disappear.

The expression, "the God of the gaps," has been used rather frequently in our circles. As I understand the thought back of the phrase, it is this: In a former age some of the processes of nature were understood, and the rest of such processes were called miracles and ascribed to God's direct activity. As knowledge of natural processes increased, the gaps in understood phenomena narrowed, and to God was ascribed less activity in nature. At present, at least, the outline of the operation of most natural processes is understood. Only the life process itself had, up to recent days, defied analysis. There, God was assumed by some to be in control. Now, however, this gap also has been narrowed. It is confidently asserted that it will soon be eliminated altogether. Life will be chemically explained. At that time, those who trust in the God of the gaps will suffer a further defeat. Presumably they should give up such a, deity altogether. The phrase, "God of the gaps," seems intended to expose the fallacy of believing in a God who works in the field of mystery.

The expression has been used, I believe, more in informal discussion than in published statements. It was referred to by Hearn (2, p. 41) in a popular symposium. The view has been cited by Sinclair and questioned. The quotation he gives runs thus: "In the past the more we have learned, the more we have been able to explain; so we believe that we could explain it all if we knew enough" (3, p. 72). The thought is implied that we could explain the universe on scientific grounds, i.e., according to physico-chemical principles, if we knew enough. Sinclair rightly denies this conclusion because mind, soul, etc. cannot be experimented with without destroying them. This allows that there necessarily are gaps in scientific knowledge. Those gaps may be larger than most scientists tend to allow.

God in Natural Processes

An alternative view is alleged to be one which presents God as the One who is behind the known processes of nature and about whose activity there needs to be no mystery. God works through second causes. It was never true that God caused rain without natural causation. Likewise the more mysterious processes of life are merely biochemical processes analyzable and repeatable even to the extent of the formation of life in the laboratory. This view may be and often is extended to many fields. The phenomena of mind may be duplicated, it is claimed, in an electronic computer. The so-called miracles of the Bible are also said to be subject to rational explanation. Creation is by natural process. The universe is entirely rational and understandable in physical-chemical terms.

It is not to be denied that there is error in the view that God is recognizable only in the mysterious and some truth in the latter view that God works always by law. Aboriginal man indeed assigned a special spirit to each natural function. The Norse mythology said Thor threw his hammer when it thundered. We know better. The thunder is caused by electric discharge which is caused by condensation which is caused by wind currents which are caused by solar radiation which is caused by hydrogen fusion which is caused by-but we have no time for more. At least we know now that thunder is a physical-chemical phenomenon.

But the Bible and Christian creeds do not deny this. True, the Bible ascribes thunder to God as it ascribes all natural process to God. But the Bible does not deny second causes in ordinary natural phenomena. Christ declared that the weather is to an extent predictable. The round of days and seasons and years was set in Genesis I and reconfirmed at the flood. The Bible is not animistic or mythological.

Even the free acts of men are specifically attributed

*Dr. Harris is Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. His writings include Introductory Hebrew Grammar, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, and several articles.

in the Bible both to men and also to God (cf. Isaiah 10 concerning the action of the Assyrian invader). Sickness also, which must have been quite mysterious to the ancients, is in the Bible ascribed to God only as a primary cause. job's illness was no more the direct act of God, Satan, or spirits than was the killing of his children. The Bible does not take time to explain what causes unknown natural phenomena. It assumes that God's ordaining of the universe covers all such matters. But it also assumes that God, the one God, is back of all natural phenomena, known and unknown. God does indeed work through second causes. The major creeds of the Christian Church clearly say this. I therefore believe the phrase, "God of the gaps," embodies a somewhat novel thought. Individual students may have expressed themselves unfortunately, but Christianity never believed in such a concept as that God is God of the gaps only.

On the other hand, the view that all the universe runs the way of second causes is not a Biblical view either. This view is akin to that of English Deism. Deism allowed for God to start the processes of the universe which ever after have carried on of their own accord. Some would deny that this view is deistic because, they say, God may be conceived as immanent in the space-time universe directing all second causes just as the Bible indicates. Indeed the modern Heisenberg uncertainty principle-that atomic phenomena are not all mechanically determined-has made some feel easier about God's method of directing second causes. This principle is thought to preserve God's freedom to act through second causes.

What objection can we then offer to this view of God's relation to the universe? Is it not totally physical-chemical with God watching over and directing it all?

In answering these questions we must begin by insisting that the total universe of essences is not all physical-chemical. To affirm this, would be to deny the existence of God who is on any theory not physicalchemical. Also the Bible makes it quite plain that there are angelic beings and demons who, though not physical-chemical, are real. It is fashionable today to make fun of the old scholastic theologians who argued over how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. Actually I have never heard a very good answer to that query. It concerns the relation of spirits to the spacetime world, a subject which is not easily defined. I fear the modern mind caricatures the scholastics' question because of a deep scepticism about the existence of any spirit world at all. In this, the modern mind is directly at variance with Biblical truth.

But it is true that the scientific method gives us no information about angels. None have been seen in any laboratory. Their mass is zero, their refractive index nil, their speed may exceed 186,000 miles per second. They are not subjects of laboratory analysis. To science, the knowledge of angels is a gap. We simply mention the case of angels to show that to the Christian it is axiomatic that the scientific method does not apply to all truth or all reality or all being.

There are other gaps in such a knowledge of the universe as is gained by the scientific method. it is difficult to establish a scale of beauty. While there are scientific principles applicable to art, it is hard to describe scientifically what is so remarkable about the Mona Lisa smile. Likewise it is difficult to measure love with a. micrometer. The fact is that the most noble things in life (love, beauty, goodness, justice, value, etc.) are not subject to physical-chemical analysis. They are gaps in scientific understanding of our universe, and these gaps cannot be filled by scientific method.

I think we can go further. These items are gaps in science because they are related to a mysterious thing called self-consciousness. I, at least, cannot define this, but I am acutely conscious of it. When somebody steps on my pedal digits, self-consciousness comes into play at once with the appropriate response; there is pain. Pain has been measured by scientists, i.e., one pain has been compared with another, in a scale of "dolors." I once knew of a chemist who in fun had set up a scale of millioscules for measuring enjoyable taste. But these are merely manipulations, and hardly scientific ones, of what we all are conscious of. Feeling, self-consciousness, thought-these are not in the physical-chemical domain.

There should be and there is a reason for this situation. Science does not apply in the realm of spirits. But man is a spiritual being as well as physical. This is denied on every side today. It is denied by many a scientist. It is denied by communistic theory. It was denied in principle by Hitler in his genocide. But we deny so elemental a truth at our peril. The whole Biblical revelation assures us that we have a non-material existence now and beyond the grave. In a way it merely assumes this. It spends more time speaking of the quality of that spiritual life now and the condition of that spiritual life hereafter. This is all a gap in scientific theory. But it is also and especially in these gaps that we meet God I For God is not a space-time Being, and the physical universe, though as His handiwork it may reveal Him, does not mediate God directly. I am glad my own children know me directly and not merely through the clothes I supply them with.

This would perhaps be enough argument to show that there are real gaps in which we can see God work. But there are two more things I should mention and they are more difficult. I refer to prophecy and miracle.

I am aware that prophesying is now said to be forthtelling rather than foretelling. This is a handy clich6. But a forthtelling of what? What is the difference between the prophet of Judah and the oracle of Delphi? Let Isaiah 41:26 answer. God claims to foretell the future in a way the heathen prophets cannot do, and thereby God's prophet is accredited. This is a test of a prophet as given in Deuteronomy 18:22. The prophets of Israel repeatedly foretold future events on a distant horizon and in amazing detail. Modernistic Bible students are concerned to evade this phenomenon. This they do by questioning the translation or by denying the date of the writing of the prediction, No true prediction is allowed to stand. To enter this argument would require a semester's course. Dr. Allis adverts to the question in his Unity of Isaiah (1, p. 38). For our purposes it is enough here to insist that a peculiar group of men in a peculiar ancient nation had this inexplicable forevision. How could it be? Not by natural means. It cannot be duplicated in a laboratory. It is a gap in scientific knowledge. But it demands explanation. Micaiah insisted that the only explanation is that he spoke as a spirit in touch with the spirit world of God (I Kings 22:28). Christ re-echoes the claim (John 14:2a). How can this be? It cannot be in a merely physical-chemical world. But it has occurred. Our conclusion is that the idea that all reality is delineated by physical-chemical relations is pitifully fallacious. The fact of prophecy is a revelation from God.

The same applies to miracle. Miracles are widely denied. This is not new. People were very sceptical of them in Jesus' own day (John 3:32). Nevertheless their reality convinced many of the most hard-headed and hard-hearted, from Paul the Pharisee to Sergius Paulus, the Roman deputy of Cyprus. We can here agree that they have occurred.

Our problem, more likely, is to define them. If real, they were, of course, events in the physical world. I pass over the so-called miracle of conversion, which although real and of infinite importance is not always so visible and definite an evidence. I refer to those occurrences of the seemingly impossible in the natural world. What happened when Christ walked upon the water? Did Christ and Peter simply put to use certain unusual natural laws which would enable us all so to walk if we knew them? If natural law buoyed up Christ and Peter, why did Peter sink when faith failed him? Or take the multiplication of the loaves. Was this so wonderful? At least it hasn't happened since! Of course, wheat grows every day. But loaves don't multiply even in years of time. Nor does water change to wine by any recondite law of nature. No nuclear reactor operated in Cana to transmute elements. No, in Cana there was a power on that wedding day transcending the force of hydrogen fusion.

A miracle is an event in the external world impossible of accomplishment by man or through God's ordinary methods of working in nature, but brought about by the immediate activity of God. In short, the area of miracle is another area of gaps in the physical-chemical structure of things. But here again we meet God. The miraculous facts of the Bible are not to be explained away as due to ancient ignorance of scientific truths.

Some indeed have objected to miracles because they are the immediate activity of God. What kind of cfeator needs to patch up his work, they ask. The answer is not found in the weakness of the Creator, but in the declension of man. Miracles and prophecy are redemptive. Even Jesus did not do miracles just for fun. He did them "That ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins" (Mark 6: 10). God has torn a great gap in the fabric of this universe that He might show Himself to man in fatherly redemptive disclosure. The God of this gap I believe in. A further question: was creation a miracle, or was it by natural process? We cannot know by intuition. God could have created either way. It is a question of fact. Creation could have been instantaneous. But the Bible says that some of God's acts in forming the world were of the nature of miracle, and some were of the nature of second causes. God is in both, but we must not deny either. Hearn asks, "Why shudder, then, at the idea that processes were involved in bringing Adam into existence?" (2, p. 42) The answer is that the suggestion appears to contradict, not theistic theory, but Biblical expression. The creation of man is presented in the Bible as one of those gaps not to be explained by natural law.

Is there another gap ? There certainly is. It is in man himself. As I have said, man is also a spirit. As such, he may be studied physiologically or even psychologically, but can never be defined by such means. His spirit nature eludes scientific definition. Can his bodily nature as a living being be explained in materialistic terms?

And how about the plant and animal worlds? Does life include a gap in the physical-chemical world? I am inclined to think so. Animal states of consciousness seem to have such affinities with our own that I feel that here, too, is such a gap. I wish scientists and Christian scientists would not so quickly assume that this gap is unreal. Much can still be said for vitalism, it appears to me. But in any case, the Christian cannot afford to deny that the temporal universe is full of "gaps" of various kinds not tractable to the scientific approach. God is revealed in his handiwork. Life is partly a physical-chemical process. But it is not to be assumed that life is purely physical-chemical. Human life, at least, is not.

The expression, "God of the Gaps," contains a real truth. It is erroneous if it is taken to mean that God is not immanent in natural law but is only to be observed in mysteries unexplained by law. No significant Christian group has believed this view. It is true, however, if it be taken to emphasize that God is not only immanent in natural law but also is active in the numerous phenomena associated with the supernatural and the spiritual. There are gaps in a physical-chemical explanation of this world, and there always will be. Because science has learned many marvelous secrets of nature, it cannot be concluded that it can explain all phenomena. Meaning, soul, spirits, and life are subjects incapable of physical-chemical explanation or formation.

1. Allis, Oswald T., The Unity of Isaiah, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Philadelphia, 1950.
2. Hearn, Walter, "Summary of Comments of Walter R. Hearn, Wheaton Science Symposium Panel Discussion, Feb. 18, 1961," 1. Am. Sci. Affil., 13, 1961, pp. 41-42.
3. Sinclair, John C., "The Mind-Brain Problem," J. Am. Sci. Affil., 13, 1961, pp. 72-73.