God of the gaps?
( Precisely what is it? ) 

by Alvin Plantinga, Ph.D.

      Precisely what is God-of-the-gaps theology?  There is not anything that it is precisely;  it is not that sort of thing.  Somewhat vaguely, however, it can be characterized as follows:
      The God-of-the-gaps theologian is an Enlightenment semideist who thinks of the universe as a vast machine working according to a set of necessary and inviolable natural laws.  ( Perhaps a God has created the universe: but if he did, it is now for the most part self-sufficient and self-contained. )  These natural laws, furthermore, have a kind of august majesty;  they are necessary in some strong sense;  perhaps not even God, if there is such a person, could violate them;  but even if he could, he almost certainly would not.  ( Hence the otherwise inexplicable worry about miracles characteristic of this sort of thought. )  Natural science investigates and lays out the structure of this cosmic machine, in particular by trying to discover and lay bare those laws, and to explain the phenomena in terms of them.  There seem to be some phenomena, however, that resist a naturalistic explanation — so far, at any rate.  We should therefore postulate a deity in terms of whose actions we can explain these things that current science cannot.  Newton's suggestion that God periodically adjusts the orbits of the planets is often cited as just such an example of God-of-the-gaps theology.

      The following, therefore, are the essential points of God-of-the-gaps theology.
      First, the world is a vast machine that is almost entirely self-sufficient;  divine activity in nature is limited to those phenomena for which there is no scientific, i.e., mechanical and naturalistic explanation.
      Second, the existence of God is a kind of large-scale hypothesis postulated to explain what cannot be explained otherwise, i.e., naturalistically. [16] 
      Third, there is the apologetic emphasis:  the best or one of the best reasons for believing that there is such a person as God is the fact that there are phenomena that natural science cannot (so far) explain naturalistically.

      Now McMullin, Stek, Van Till, and Allen all object strenuously to God-of-the-gaps theology — and rightly so.  {editor's comment: Plantinga refers back to "McMullin,..." because this page is an excerpt from his larger page about Methodological Naturalism, as explained in the appendix.}  This line of thought is at best a kind of anemic and watered-down semideism that inserts God's activity into the gaps in scientific knowledge;  it is associated, furthermore, with a weak and pallid apologetics according to which perhaps the main source or motivation for belief in God is that there are some things science cannot presently explain.  A far cry indeed from what the Scriptures teach!  God-of-the-gaps theology is worlds apart from serious Christian theism.  This is evident at (at least) the following points.
      First and most important, according to serious theism, God is constantly, immediately, intimately, and directly active in his creation:  he constantly upholds it in existence and providentially governs it.  He is immediately and directly active in everything from the Big Bang to the sparrow's fall.  Literally nothing happens without his upholding hand. [17]
      Second, natural laws are not in any way independent of God, and are perhaps best thought of as regularities in the ways in which he treats the stuff he has made, or perhaps as counterfactuals of divine freedom.  ( Hence there is nothing in the least untoward in the thought that on some occasions God might do something in a way different from his usual way — e.g., raise someone from the dead or change water into wine. )
      Indeed, the whole interventionist terminology — speaking of God as intervening in nature, or intruding into it, or interfering with it, or violating natural law — all this goes with God-of-the-gaps theology, not with serious theism.  According to the latter, God is already and always intimately acting in nature, which depends from moment to moment for its existence upon immediate divine activity;  there is not and could not be any such thing as his intervening in nature.

      These are broadly speaking metaphysical differences between Christian theism and God-of-the-gaps thought;  but there are equally significant epistemological differences.  The thought that there is such a person as God is not, according to Christian theism, a hypothesis postulated to explain something or other, [18] nor is the main reason for believing that there is such a person as God the fact that there are phenomena that elude the best efforts of current science. [19]  Rather, our knowledge of God comes by way of general revelation, which involves something like Aquinas's general knowledge of God or Calvin's sensus divinitatis, and also, and more importantly, by way of God's special revelation, in the Scriptures and through the church, of his plan for dealing with our fall into sin.

      God-of-the-gaps theology, therefore, is every bit as bad as McMullin, Van Till, Stek, and Allen think.  ( Indeed, it may be worse than Van Till and Stek think, since some of the things they think — in particular their ban on God's acting directly in nature — seem to me to display a decided list in the direction of such theology. )  Serious Christians should indeed resolutely reject this way of thinking.
      The Christian community knows that God is constantly active in his creation, that natural laws, if there are any, are not independent of God, and that the existence of God is certainly not a hypothesis designed to explain what science cannot.  Furthermore, the Christian community begins the scientific enterprise already believing in God;  it does not (or at any rate need not) engage in it for apologetic reasons, either with respect to itself or with respect to non-Christians.

      But of course from these things it does not follow for an instant that the Christian scientific community should endorse methodological naturalism.  The Christian community faces these questions:  How shall we best understand this creation God has made, and in which he has placed us?  What is the best way to proceed?  What information can we or shall we use?
      Well, is it not clear initially, at any rate, that we should employ whatever is useful and enlightening, including what we know about God and his relationship to the world, and including what we know by way of special revelation?  Could we not sensibly conclude, for example, that God created life, or human life, or something else specially?  ( I do not say we should conclude that: I say only that we could, and should if that is what the evidence most strongly suggests. )  Shouldn't we use our knowledge of sin and creation in psychology, sociology, and the human sciences in general?  Shouldn't we evaluate various scientific theories by way of a background body of belief that includes what we know about God and what we know specifically as Christians?  Shouldn't we decide what needs explanation against that same background body of beliefs?  Well, why not?  That certainly seems initially to be the rational thing to do (one should make use of all that one knows in trying to come to an understanding of some phenomenon); and it is hard to see anything like strong reasons against it.
      We certainly do not fall into any of the unhappy ways of thinking characteristic of God-of-the-gaps theology just by doing one of these things.  In doing these things, we do not thereby commit ourselves, for example, to the idea that God does almost nothing directly in nature, or that the universe is something like a vast machine in whose workings God could intervene only with some difficulty;  nor are we thereby committed to the idea that one of our main reasons for belief in God is just that there are things science cannot explain, or that the idea of God is really something like a large-scale hypothesis postulated to explain those things.  Not at all.  Indeed, the whole God-of-the-gaps issue is nothing but a red herring in the present context. [20]


      As explained above, this page is an excerpt from the middle of Plantinga's page about Methodological Naturalism in which he explains why "a Christian academic and scientific community ought to pursue science in its own way, starting from and taking for granted what we know as Christians."
      More specifically, the main body of this page is the conclusion of a section asking, Does "Functional Integrity" Require Methodological Naturalism?  To show the context, here are quotations (from Ernan McMullin, Howard Van Till, Diogenes Allen, and John Stek) plus comments by Alvin Plantinga:

      from early in the page:
      • Ernan McMullin says: "But, of course, methodological naturalism does not restrict our study of nature;  it just lays down which sort of study qualifies as scientific.  If someone wants to pursue another approach to nature — and there are many others — the methodological naturalist has no reason to object.  Scientists have to proceed in this way;  the methodology of natural science gives no purchase on the claim that a particular event or type of event is to be explained by invoking God's creative action directly." [4]

      and from earlier in the section ending with this "God of the gaps" page:

      • According to Van Till, God has created a world characterized by functional integrity: "By this term I mean to denote a created world that has no functional deficiencies, no gaps in its economy of the sort that would require God to act immediately. ..." [12]
      Note first that Van Till seems to be directing his fire at only one of the several ways in which Christians might employ what they know by faith in pursuing natural science; he is arguing that a scientific hypothesis cannot properly claim that God does something or other immediately or directly.  Note also that the claim here is not that such a hypothesis would not be scientific, but that it would be false.  .....

      • Allen asserts that "God can never properly be used in scientific accounts, which are formulated in terms of the relations between the members of the universe, because that would reduce God to the status of a creature.  According to a Christian conception of God as creator of a universe that is rational through and through, there are no missing relations between the members of nature.  If in our study of nature, we run into what seems to be an instance of a connection missing between members of nature, the Christian doctrine of creation implies that we should keep looking for one." [14] .....
      It could be that investigation would suggest that God created life directly; that it did not arise through the agency of other created things.  If that is how things turn out, or how things appear at a given time, why not say so?  And why not say so as part of science?  As a Christian you believe, of course, that God made the world and could have done so in many different ways;  why not employ this knowledge in evaluating the probability of various hypotheses?  .....

      • Finally, consider John Stek: "Since the created realm is replete with its own economy that is neither incomplete (God is not a component within it) nor defective, understanding based on both practical experience and scientific endeavors — we must methodologically exclude all notions of immediate divine causality.  As stewards of the creation, we must methodologically honor the principle that creation interprets creation;  indeed, we must honor that principle as religiously as the theologian must honor the principle that "Scripture interprets Scripture. ..." [15]  .....
      As Stek says, God is not an internal component within the created realm.  It hardly follows, however, that he does not act immediately or directly in the created realm. ...  I am not sure why Stek thinks that we must observe this methodological naturalism.  Why think that God does not do anything directly or create anything directly?  What is the reason for thinking this?  Scripture does not suggest it;  there do not seem to be arguments from any other source;  why then accept it?

      These reasons, then, for the necessity or advisability of methodological naturalism do not seem strong;  and since they are so weak, it is perhaps reasonable to surmise that they do not really represent what is going on in the minds of those who offer them.  I suggest that there is a different and unspoken reason for this obeisance to methodological naturalism: fear and loathing of God-of-the-gaps theology.  As we saw above, Stek declares that In pursuit of a stewardly understanding of the creation, we may not introduce a "God of the gaps";  he, together with the other three authors I have cited in this connection (McMullin, Van Till and Allen), explicitly mention God-of-the-gaps theology and explicitly connect it with methodological naturalism via the suggestion that God has done this or that immediately.  The idea seems to be that to hold that God acts directly in creation is to fall into, or anyway lean dangerously close to this sort of theology.  But is this true?  Precisely what is God-of-the-gaps theology? ...

      Plantinga's main thesis — that "a Christian academic and scientific community ought to pursue science in its own way, starting from and taking for granted what we know as Christians" — is characterized more broadly, as much more than just an open-minded consideration of gaps, in the full page.  He says, for example:
      Surely the rational thing is to use all that you know in trying to understand a given phenomenon.  But then in coming to a scientific understanding of hostility, or aggression, for example, should Christian psychologists not make use of the notion of sin?  In trying to achieve scientific understanding of love in its many and protean manifestations, for example, or play, or music, or humor, or our sense of adventure, should we also not use what we know about human beings being created in the image of God, who is himself the very source of love, beauty, and the like?  And the same for morality?  .....  Consider the truth that human beings have been created in the image of God, but have also fallen into sin.  This dual truth might turn out to be very useful in giving psychological explanations of various phenomena.  If it is, why should a Christian psychologist not employ it?  Why would the result not be science?


4.  E. McMullin, Plantinga's Defense of Special Creation, Christian Scholar's Review 21 (September, 1991): 57.

12.  H.J. Van Till, When Faith and Reason Cooperate, Christian Scholar's Review 21 (September, 1991): 42. 

14.  D. Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 45. 

15.  J.H. Stek, What Says the Scriptures? in Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World's Formation, edited by H.J. Van Till, R.E. Snow, J.H. Stek, and D.A. Young (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 261. 

16.  I do not mean to suggest that one who espouses or advocates God-of-the-gaps theology herself believes in God only as such a hypothesis: that is quite another question.

17.  In addition, most medieval Christian thinkers have also insisted on a separate divine activity of God's; any causal transaction in the world requires his concurrence.  Problems arise here; to some ears it sounds as if this doctrine is motivated less by the relevant evidence than by a desire to pay metaphysical compliments to God.

18.  See my "Is Theism Really a Miracle?" Faith and Philosophy 3 no. 2 (1986): 132ff

19.  A further problem with this way of thinking: as science explains more and more, the scope for God's activity is less and less; it is in danger of being squeezed out of the world altogether, thus making more and more tenuous one's reasons (on this way of thinking) for believing that there is such a person as God at all.  ( Of course it must also be acknowledged on the other side that things sometimes go in the opposite direction; for example, it is much harder now than it was in Darwin's day to see how it could be that life should arise just by way of the regularities recognized in physics and chemistry. )

20.  Further, Newton seems to me to have suffered a bum rap.  He suggested that God made periodic adjustments in the orbits of the planets: true enough.  But he did not propose this as a reason for believing in God; it is rather that (of course) he already believed in God, and could not think of any other explanation for the movements of the planets.  He turned out to be wrong; he could have been right, however, and in any event he was not endorsing any of the characteristic ideas of God-of-the-gaps thought.

Alvin Plantinga is a John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and past president of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division) and of the Society of Christian Philosophers.  Plantinga has written many books — including  Does God Have a Nature?;  God and Other Minds;  God, Freedom, and Evil;  The Nature of Necessity; Warrant: The Current Debate;  Warrant and Proper Function — plus scores of articles.  An internationally recognized expert in epistemology, Plantinga is generally acknowledged to be America's leading philosopher of religion.  [later, there will be a link to other web-pages written by Plantinga]

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