Ordinary Presence Rather Than Ordinary Absence

The next chapter in the recent book Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos addresses the question of divine action. As with the question of natural evil, J.B. (Jim) Stump from BioLogos and Jeff Zweerink from Reasons to Believe agree substantially on this question. John Laing (Southwestern Baptist Seminary) moderates the chapter. Both Jim and Jeff emphasize that it is a serious theological mistake to separate ‘natural’ processes from divine action, as though these are opposites – one or the other.

John Laing begins the chapter with a definition: “The doctrine of providence refers to God’s governance, sustainment, and preservation of the created order.” (p. 85) This starts the discussion on the right foot by emphasizing the full range of divine action.

Jim Stump emphasizes the fact that BioLogos accepts God’s omnipotence and capacity for miraculous action.

But no matter how many miracles a Christian accepts, if it is assumed that when God isn’t performing miracles he’s not acting at all, the difference from deism is only a matter of degree. Aubrey Moore saw the problem with that approach more than one hundred years ago, saying, “a theory of occasional intervention implies as its correlative a theory of ordinary absence.”

At BioLogos we think that attempting to preserve a role for God by denying scientific explanations is going about things the wrong way. We see God’s hand throughout the created order not because science can’t explain nature but because it can. …

God created the world but did not leave it on its own. At BioLogos we hold that the ordinary functioning of the world is describable by science, and that God is continuously involved in sustaining and governing it. (p. 87-88)

Many who argue about divine action seem to think about God as a character within creation rather than the author of all creation. Jim references C.S. Lewis who made the point that a better metaphor is that of author. As we see Shakespeare in his plays, so we see God in his creation. Scientific explanations only touch on one aspect of reality, they don’t plunge the full depth of meaning and knowledge placed there by the author/creator.

Jeff Zweerink agrees that God is found in all of creation, not only in the places that lack scientific explanation. In fact, the RTB position is that if God removed his sustaining hand from creation even the so-called laws of physics would fail us. “Without God’s providential work in the created order, none of the predictability that the scientific enterprise requires would exist.” (p. 93) and “If God were to withdraw his hand from creation, it would tumble into nonexistence.” (p. 94)

We can divide God’s action in the world into that of ordinary providence (“the kind of activity that leads to such an orderly creation that scientists can describe it by the laws of physics”) and extraordinary providence. A miracle can involve an improbable sequence of ‘normal’ events or be an event that transcends the ‘normal’. “Hypernatural miracles have a natural accounting, but their explanations require such unusual or contrived circumstances that they appear natural.” (p. 95) The parting of the sea of reeds in Ex. 14 where “the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind” is such an example. Jim Stump uses different descriptions, but seems to have roughly the same categories. He points out that John 21, when the disciples were fishing and Jesus told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, was a ‘miracle’ of timing, but not an event that transcended the laws of physics.

In contrast, the resurrection transcends the law of physics. Jim Stump notes: “Scientists could not say, “the resurrection of Jesus was a remarkable coincidence.” It was something they believe not to be just rare or extraordinary, but physically impossible.” (p. 100).

The primary difference between BioLogos and RTB concerning creation involves the frequency of ordinary and extraordinary providence in the process. At BioLogos we tend to think that creation involved primarily God’s ordinary providence but did not transcend the laws of physics. Some (perhaps many) of us will accept the possibility of ‘hypernatural’ providence on occasion, most notably in the origin of life. In contrast, Jeff Zweerink observes:

Probably the main difference between RTB and BioLogos relates to the was we view how frequently God intervenes beyond ordinary providence. RTB would argue that the bulk of God’s creative activity in Genesis 1 and 2 consists of extraordinary providence, whereas BioLogos contends that this activity is largely a part of ordinary providence. Clearly the main purpose of these two chapters in Genesis centers on revealing the nature of God and how he interacts with his creation. However, the biblical author uses language to communicate God’s direct activity as opposed to a more passive historical description. (p. 101)

RTB sees much more extensive place for hypernatural miracles in creation – from the collision that produced the moon to the fine tuning that results in the stable water cycle and permits the existence of life on earth. They also see a larger role for transcendent miracles. For example, RTB sees the advent of humanity and human consciousness as something that transcends physical laws.

What categories describe God’s action in creation?

How active was God in the processes of creation?

Does ‘ordinary providence’ imply God’s passive involvement? (I think not.)

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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