Two Modes of Divine Action

by Craig Rusbult, PhD 

This page contains the abstract of my presentation at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (July 26, 2003), the talk with links to pages that discuss these ideas in more detail, and an appendix with the answer I should have given in the question-answer session following the talk.


    Two Modes of Divine Action in History
    During history in the Bible, divine action is usually natural-appearing and occasionally miraculous-appearing.  It seems reasonable to expect — unless there is strong counter-evidence — that both modes of action are still used now, and were used during the formative history of nature.  For a theist, "natural" does not mean "without God" (because God designed and created nature, and constantly sustains nature); nor does it mean "without control" (because God can guide nature so one natural result occurs instead of another).
    Applying these principles leads to interesting perspectives on important questions.  Even though theistic evolution can be an authentically theistic creation theory, we should ask, "To make it theistic rather than deistic, what views of natural process are required?"  Is a sustaining of nature sufficient, or is a divine control of natural process also necessary?  Is a theory of creation by miraculous-appearing genetic modification, analogous to the healing in Acts 3, a theologically and scientifically plausible theory?  Why isn't divine action more obvious more often?  To avoid a reinforcement of the unfortunate assumption that natural process occurs without God, should we avoid a "natural versus supernatural" dichotomy, and avoid the use of "naturalism" to mean "a universe without God"?  Since we want to minimize confusion and miscommunication, and "God of the gaps" has many possible meanings, should we eliminate this confusing phrase from our vocabulary?  What important practical implications does a supernatural control of natural process have in daily life?


comment #1 (in 2003) — If parts of what you see in the talk below look strange in your browser, I apologize for the irregular spacings between lines and paragraphs;  I wrote this and converted it into a web-page using Microsoft Word, which makes a mess of the HTML code, making it very difficult to adjust afterward.  Sorry.  But I don't want to re-do the whole page now.  The abstract and appendix were written with Dreamweaver, and in these parts the spacing is better.
comment #2 (written in 2006) — What you see below is what I saw during the talk, since these are MY NOTES for the talk.  The emphasis — in colors, BOLD, and underlining — were "reminders to myself" about points that I wanted to emphasize (or at least remember to include, since there wasn't time to say everything you see here) and they can serve a similar purpose for you, calling attention to important ideas.  /  Since July 2003 the ideas in this page have been reconsidered (but without major changes) and rewritten, and most of the ideas are in Theology of Theistic Creation.

    This talk will be an introductory overview, a "big picture" outline of two major themes:
    The main theme is that natural process involves divine action.
    A minor theme is that, since both modes were used in Biblical history, maybe both modes were used in formative history.

    Two Modes of Divine Action (natural and miraculous) in History
    We'll look at three stages of history:
    formative (during the first 14 billion years)
    biblical (especially from Genesis 2 onward)
    current (since New Testament times)

    The abstract summarizes what I want to say, so now I'll just go through it, one point at a time, to expand it.


    During history in the Bible, divine action is usually natural-appearing and occasionally miraculous-appearing.

    This is a fact, and we can all agree.

    But it's followed by my claim, and some of you may not agree:

    It seems reasonable to expect -- unless there is strong counter-evidence -- that both modes of action are still used now, and were used during the formative history of nature.

    So my claim is that, by analogy, We should expect that both modes of action -- producing events that appear natural and appear miraculous -- were used during the formative history of nature.  This "argument by analogy" certainly isn't conclusive, but I think it does provide theological support for a theory of progressive creation.  I'll come back to this later.


    First, let's look at natural process.  What do we mean when we say that something occurred naturally?  One answer is common but wrong, and it's next in the abstract:

    In a theistic worldview, "natural" does not mean "without God".

    Why?  because God designed nature, created nature, and constantly sustains nature;   and natural does not mean "without control"  Why?  because God can guide nature so one natural result occurs instead of another natural result.

    So God is actively involved in natural process in four ways:  design, creation, sustaining, and guidance.


    One point I want to emphasize is that for theism, although a SUSTAINING of the universe is necessary, it is not sufficient.

    Let's compare theism with deism;  in DEISM, in the beginning God actively designs and creates the universe, but then God is passive, taking a hands-off approach by just "letting it run".

    But THEISM emphasizes the active control by God;

    Earlier I said that God can guide nature;  that's a principle of faith, and we can all agree.

    But when we ask "does God control nature?", we'll have disagreements;  and I'm not even sure what I think about this:  Does God control always, usually, seldom, or never?  And at a particular instant, is there control of some events in the universe, or all events, or none?  And when there is control, is it total (as in determinism) or only partial.

    We know that God can guide, but we wonder whether God does guide, and in what ways.


    And the fact that God can control everything leads to a difficult question:  Why is there evil and suffering, if God is loving (so he should want to prevent the suffering) and is powerful (so he could prevent it)?

    Like all of you, I don't have a good answer.  /  But I think the absence of answers that we consider satisfactory is due to our own limited perspective:  we find it difficult to understand the time-dimension of God's perspective (which includes life after death) and the generality of God's perspective (which includes everyone, not just me and my small circle of family and friends).  /  Then there's the educational value.  I don't think we fully appreciate the educational value of living by faith in a world filled with drama and danger, while trusting that everything God wants to control really is under His control.
    Many topics in this page, including natural process, are examined more closely in my page about Theistic Evolution & Theology.


    back to the abstract:

    Applying these principles leads to interesting perspectives on important questions.


    One practical question is,

    If natural means with God involved, how should this affect our actions?  At the end of the talk is the most important action, but here's an easy one:

    It's obvious that we should avoid saying that "natural" means "without God".

    But this isn't enough;

    We also shouldn't imply it, and we shouldn't allow it.

    For example, Allan Harvey describes a scorekeeping system that's common, even though it's wrong:  In this way of scoring,  If it's a miracle, we give credit to God;  if it's natural, it counts against God,  as "something God did not do" since it would happen anyway even if God did not exist or was not active.

    The difficulty is that people tend to assume this scorekeeping system.   This makes sense for

    But it also occurs for Christians, even though it's un-Biblical.

    Therefore, we have to explicitly deny this, call attention to it, and do whatever we can to be educationally effective, to change the way people think about natural process.


    Another application;  in the abstract I say,

    theistic evolution can be an authentically theistic creation theory.

    But many in the Christian community, especially those who are most vocal in the origns debates, disagree with this in their declarations and their implications;  and that's unfortunate.


    But I do have a tough question:

    Even though theistic evolution can be authentically theistic, we should ask, "To make it theistic rather than deistic, what views of natural process are required?"  Is a sustaining of nature sufficient, or is a divine control of natural process also necessary?  Earlier I talked about the characteristics of control and reached the conclusion that --- [[shrug shoulders]]  I don't know.

    But I do think the level of control is somewhere above zero, and I'm wondering if advocates of theistic evolution will agree, and will emphasize this when describing their own views.

    When we look at a theory of evolutionary creation, we can ask two questions: one is scientific, the other is theological;  scientifically, Can natural process produce all of the complexity we observe?   and theologically, Can natural process achieve the goals of God?


    First, there's a scientific question about about Howard Van Till's RFEP [[use sign]], his
Robust Formational Economy Principle,

    It seems that God designed nature to operate smoothly without miraculous intervention, so it would be self-operating.  But did he also design nature to be self-assembling?

    After the initial design and creation, will the universe naturally self-assemble into complex physical and biological structures?  Van Till says yes, and we can study this claim using science.

    In astronomy, we see the wonderful ways that natural process leads to the formation of stars (as described by Debbie Haarsma and Stockton & Keel).  For ASTRONOMICAL evolution, natural process does seem to produce self-assembly.

    But when we examine the origin of life by CHEMICAL evolution, the scientific conclusion might be different.  Why?  When we look at the simplest life --it's not simple;  there is a high degree of complexity, and it's just the right kind of complexity.  But if we compare what's needed for life [[show]] and what's available from natural process [[show]], a self-assembly of life doesn't seem very probable.

    Is the universe designed so total self-assembly is possible?  --  maybe, maybe not.

    But as Christians we can certainly say, with confidence, that a totally natural self-assembly isn't necessary -- because God can do miracles.

    And maybe there's an essential tension between assembly and operation -- maybe it is not possible to design a universe for optimal operation and also self-assembly.

    Walter Bradley illustrates this by asking us to imagine a car that's designed so it can change its own spark plugs.

    We respond by saying, why bother?  this isn't needed because we can change the plugs,

    And designing a car for self-maintenance might reduce its performance in other ways that are more important, and it would not lead to an optimal car.

    In a similar way, maybe designing for partial self-assemby, not total self-assembly, is the best way to get an optimal universe.


    Self-assembly is a scientific question, with a little bit of theology thrown in, but we can also ask a question that's mainly theological: 

    In a theory of theistic evolution, what makes it theistic instead of deistic?

    In a totally deistic evolution, when the level of theistic guidance is zero, will this unguided natural process achieve the goals of God?

    When thinking about this question, we need two sub-questions:

    First, How precise were the goals of God?  Did God want humans with the exact characteristics we have -- physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual -- or would it be enough for natural evolution to produce "any creatures that are complex and interesting"?

    Second, how predictable are the results of unguided evolution?  What would be the results of different evolutionary histories.  If we "run the tape" a hundred times, would the results be identical, fairly similar (due to convergence), or very different (due to divergence)?


    Now, back to the abstract and the two modes of action and my own view of origins:

    Is a theory of creation by miraculous-appearing genetic modification, analogous to the healing in Acts 3, a theologically and scientifically plausible theory?

    When we consider theology and science, YES, this is a plausible theory;  I think it's most likely to be correct, and it's where I would place my bets.

    First, let's consider theology.  When we study the Bible, we should look at details and also the big picture.

    At the level of details, we can look at specific passages, for example by trying to determine the meaning of "creation words" in Genesis 1:  Do these words describe creation by natural process, miraculous action,  some of each,  or is the meaning unclear?

    We can also look at the big picture, the overall flow of action in the Bible, and we see two modes of action: usually natural and occasionally miraculous.  By analogy we can say:  Since there are two modes of action in the Biblical history of humans, maybe we should expect two modes of action in the formative history of nature.

    Let's look at a timeline for the lame man in Acts 3:

    born ---- natural life ---- MIRACULOUS healing of his leg ---- natural life ---- dies

    Maybe this timeline for the lame man (in salvation history)

    was also used for some organisms (in formative history):  for one or more of these organisms,

    sometime during its natural life there is a MIRACULOUS genetic change

    The change might be a set of systematic macromutations that produces major new features (like birds that can fly) or structures that are irreducibly complex.

    I won't go into the details here, but a theory of "creation by genetic modification" is very different, scientifically, than a theory of old-earth independent creation in which a new species is produced "from scratch" so it would not necessarily have any continuity with its ancestors.  With genetic modification there is some genetic continuity, so evidence for common descent would be expected, in agreement with natural evolutionary theory, and the main challenges to evolution would be questions about rates of change or irreducible complexity{details about the science}


    At this point I'll depart from the abstract, for a brief comment about flexible open science.

    If we want to find truth about the history of nature, we should abandon a rigid methodological naturalism.  We should begin by assuming that "natural process did it", but we should be flexible, willing to change this conclusion if it doesn't seem justified when we look at the scientific evidence and logic. 

    In some of my web-pages I look at open science, and my goal is to encourage careful thinking.  Based on my own experience in careful thinking, it seems  that -- when we study the option of rejecting a rigid methodological naturalism -- "the closer we look, the better it looks."
    To see why Open Science is Better Science, you can read Methodological Naturalism in Our Search for Truth: An Introduction to A Challenging Problem.


    back to the abstract:

    Why isn't divine action more obvious more often?

    If God created using miraculous action, why is there any appearance of an all-natural process of gradual evolution?  Why aren't the miracles more obvious?  This is a good question.

    And we can ask similar questions about events in the Bible:

    After the resurrection of Jesus, why did he not appear in downtown Jerusalem?

    And why doesn't God give everyone a Damascus Road Experience?  It worked with Paul, so why not for the rest of us?

The outline of what seems to be a good answer comes from C.S. Lewis, in Chapter 8 of Screwtape Letters -- the explanation from Lewis is that, in order to educate us, to help us learn how to live by faith, God doesn't want to overpower us by making his action too obvious;  Instead he produces a balance of evidence (with some reasons to believe, and some reasons not to believe) -- so we're not

overpowered -- we're free to develop a desire for God, and will really want to build a relationship with God.

    One argument against my analogy is a question about the FUNCTIONS of a miracle during salvation history;
    a miracle can accomplish something? (for example, healing the lame man during Biblical history;  or in formative history maybe a miracle was necessary to produce the first life or to produce a certain type of complex structure.

    and a miracle can serve as a sign to affect the "balance of evidence" I just talked about.
    note: After the talk, there was a question about this analogy, and I thought my answer was weak; a better answer is now in the appendix.

    The abstract makes several suggestions about terminology:

    To avoid a reinforcement of the unfortunate assumption that natural process occurs without God, should we avoid a dichotomy of "natural versus supernatural", and we should avoid the use of "naturalism" to mean "a universe without God"?

    Let's look at four terms that can lead to wrong thinking:


    First) when we contrast NATURAL with SUPERNATURAL, as an EITHER-OR dichotomy,

    Here is what happens:  If supernatural means "God is involved",

The contrasting term -- natural -- must mean "God is not involved".   and we have wrong thinking.


    a second term) a similar difficulty occurs when we use NATURALISM to mean "a universe without God"

    because if naturalism means a universe without God, maybe natural means an event without God.

    But if we don't say NATURALISM, what are the alternatives?

    Another common term "for a universe without God" is MATERIALISM;  this is better, since it tends to produce fewer wrong ideas about divine action.  But materialism has another common meaning -- too much focus on earthly pleasures, especially by gaining wealth and material possessions.  /  Christians should also oppose this type of materialism, so when we criticize "materialism" there are two possible meanings, and a potential for confusion.

    Another term is PHYSICALISM -- but it can be used in the context of mind-body duality, with extra metaphysical baggage attached to it.

    So here is what I suggest:  If the intended meaning is that "only nature exists", why don't we call it NATURISM?  If "the only thing that exists is nature", it's naturism, not naturalism.

    Why should we add an extra syllable that isn't needed, especially when it leads to wrong thinking?


    Third) I don't like the term NATURAL HISTORY.

    Again, the difficulty is in two meanings:

    First, natural can mean pertaining to nature -- and in this sense "natural history" is OK.

    But the most common meaning of "natural" is "normal-appearing and non-miraculous" so the most common meaning of "natural history" is "a history with only normal-appearing process" and this is not OK because it's a conclusion that closes minds, when we should be asking questions with an open mind.

    To avoid this implication, instead of NATURAL HISTORY we should say THE HISTORY OF NATURE.


    Fourth) we have GOD OF THE GAPS.

    What's wrong with this term?  It's OVERPOPULATED WITH MEANINGS,

    and the inevitable result is CONFUSION.

    So, if we want to AVOID CONFUSION, we should AVOID THIS TERM.

    Details about this claim -- for my explanation of why "God of the gaps" should be eliminated from our vocabulary -- are in the final section (re: God and gaps) of my page about God of the Gaps.


    Finally, we arrive at the most important application:

    What important practical implications does a supernatural control of natural process have in daily life?

    If God is actively involved in natural process, then God is involved in every aspect of our lives, every day, even when it isn't obvious.

    Therefore, we should make this understanding a part of the way we live, and we should pray for God's control in all of the natural, normal-appearing events that fill our lives.  And we should expect these prayers to be answered.


    During the question-and-answer period following my talk, Robert Fay asked a good question about the logic of my analogy, about the similarities and differences between the two situations in the analogy.
    I wish that I had explained my context -- that I had considered this analogy to be a minor theme, less than 20% of the talk, that I hadn't thought much about the formal details -- in fact, my comments about "the objection and the two functions of miracles" had been added during the last few minutes before the talk, in response to a question by Peter Payne (another presenter) earlier in the day -- and that I would provide a clear answer in this web-page later.  Even more, I wish that I had thought more about it earlier, since Robert's question was very relevant, and that I had said this:

    1) If either of the two functions during Biblical history (to accomplish something, or to serve as a sign) were important during formative history, there will be a reason for the miracle.  It is not necessary for both functions to be important during formative history.
    If the universe is not self-assembling, one or more miracles are necessary.  But the plausibility of self-assembly is mainly a scientific question, and my analogy doesn't provide strong theological support.
    Regarding the use of formative miracles as a sign for humans (at least recently when modern science is allowing us to examine nature more closely), maybe miraculous-appearing events in formative history are intended to provide evidence for the action of God.  But our questions asking "Why isn't God more obvious?" are relevant.
    Therefore, in each case only a weak support, not a strong support, seems justified.  This is consistent with my earlier claims that "this argument-by-analogy certainly isn't conclusive, but I think it does provide theological support for a theory of progressive creation."  Perhaps I should have said that it offers "weak theological support," but I think it does shift the "burden of proof" onto those who would claim that formative history is DIFFERENT than salvation history:  If God is willing to "interfere" during one stage of history, why not also in another stage?  Again, we return to a scientific question (is natural process sufficient for total self-assembly?) and a theological question (is natural process, either unguided or guided, sufficient to achieve the goals of God?)

    2) This analogy provides the basic foundation for a claim that God did miracles during formative history, with miraculous theistic action during Biblical history — showing that God is able and willing to do things that appear miraculous — serving as a model for miraculous theistic action during formative history.  But for anyone (atheist, deist, marginally theistic,...) who doesn't accept the credibility of Biblical claims about miracles, the Bible will provide no reason for believing in the possibility of formative miracles.  And among those who do accept the occurrence of Biblical miracles, and thus the possibility of formative miracles, some propose the occurrence of formative miracles, and some don't.

The original notes (almost like what is above) are in a PDF file.

I've also written other pages about Origins Question and
pages by other authors are in METHODS OF CREATION.