Options in Divine Action
A recurring interest of mine is pondering how God acts. It’s an immensely complex subject. I’ve come to think eight main options present themselves to Christians wanting a general framework for considering divine action.
Below is a chart of the eight general options. Some options are more attractive to me than others are. Those nearer the middle of the chart are most attractive.
Less Attractive Options
The options on the far left of the chart presuppose a very controlling God. The universe is virtually a puppet, because God controls everything or almost everything. This view of divine sovereignty, in my opinion, allows little or no room for genuine creaturely freedom or agency. These options fit some Calvinist theologies.
The options at the far right have problems as well. Although I think some degree of mystery should always be present when pondering how God acts, absolute mystery negates the entire enterprise of believing in God. I can’t affirm wholescale negative theology.
Deism is not a viable option for me. My own personal experience, the Bible, and from reports of people throughout history testify to the ongoing activity of God after the creation of our universe. Thoroughgoing deism allows no room to account well for the spiritual experiences of my life and the lives of most people who have every lived.
More Attractive Options
Among the four remaining options, I see strengths and weaknesses.
Traditional freewill theism fits most of what John Wesley says about God’s action. So I’m partial to that option. God generally gives freedom and only occasionally “interrupts” or “intervenes” the freedom God gives
Natural and/or Supernatural Action fits most of what I read in the writings of important theologians like Thomas Aquinas. His version of divine primary and secondary causation has been influential, although I don’t think it answers some of the most important questions pertaining to theodicy.
What I’ve called the Steady State Divine Influence option has the advantage of an active God whose causal activity is uniform. This option fits well with theologies that emphasize God working in and with the laws of nature. But it has a more difficult time accounting for miracles. And most versions say God is voluntarily self-limited and the gifts of freedom and/or agency God gives are entirely voluntary on God’s part.
The option I currently like most is Essential Kenosis Freewill Theism. It says God necessarily gives freedom and/or agency to others. But the forms of God’s causal influence vary. And the effectiveness of God’s activity depends in part on creaturely responses. It seems to fit best both with the idea that God creates and works with natural laws and the idea that God can act dramatically – miraculously – without squashing creaturely freedom and agency entirely.
I like to think Essential Kenosis Freewill Theism option takes Wesley’s theology of prevenient grace, puts it on turbo charge, and then offers a consistent basis for affirming God’s love. This is the option I develop in the last chapter of my new book, The Nature of Love: A Theology (Chalice Press) and in Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Brazos Press).
We Live by Faith
At the end of the day, of course, there will always be a speculative element to thinking about how God acts in the world. We live by faith, after all. None of our minds can comprehend the universal Mind.
But some divine action options make better sense of what we find in Scripture, in our own experience, and contemporary science. And some do a better job of consistently affirming God’s love.