The Spirit as Nonintervening and Noncoercive

March 29th, 2012 / 9 Comments

The question of God’s intervention in the world persists in the science-and-religion conversation. An adequate theology of the Spirit active in creation must handle this issue with care.

Intervention 1

What people mean by “intervention” is rarely clarified. The word, “intervene,” suggests coming into a situation from the outside. When used in reference to God, “divine intervention” suggests that God enters a situation from the outside, a situation previously devoid of God’s presence.

In my most recent blog essay on the Spirit active in creation, I claimed that God is always present to and always influencing all others. This claim implies that I reject divine intervention. That is, I reject the idea that God intervenes from the outside, because I believe God is directly present to all creatures, all the time.

Some people – often those scientists with an atheistic bent – believe the universe and its causes and effects are closed to God’s activity. They say the universe is causally closed and therefore persists without divine influence.

Christians who embrace interventionist language may be unwittingly reinforcing this notion of causal closure. Their insistence that God intervenes from the outside seems to assume that there is some truth in the notion that, most of the time, nature is causally closed and does not need God’s activity. Consequently, I think Christians should drop their claim that God “intervenes” in nature. God is always already present to all things!

Intervention 2

Some people use “divine intervention” in a second way. This sense has more to do with God acting as sufficient cause, which is how philosophers talk about one thing totally controlling others.

Divine intervention in this second sense refers to God’s total control – ontological coercion – of some event. Those who affirm this idea believe God intervenes at least occassionally to determine unilaterally an outcome or entity. God totally controls others.

I also don’t like this second way of talking about intervention. I think God is best conceived as never controlling others totally. I don’t think God ever coerces, where “coerce” is defined in the ontological sense of unilateral determination or sufficient cause.

I do think God, as one always present to and always influencing others, acts as a necessary cause in the persistence of all things. Nothing can exist without God’s influence, because all things necessarily depend upon God for them even to be. But God never coerces creatures.

The Noncoercive God

One of my basic beliefs is that even the most basic entities of existence are not entirely determined by their surroundings. And there’s quite a bit of scientific theory and evidence to support this belief.

I also think complex creatures – people, dogs, dolphins, others – possess some measure of genuine freedom. The degree of freedom among less complex creatures — ants, worms, etc. — is difficult to gauge. But I do think less complex creatures possess agency that God provides but cannot entirely control.

In other published writings, I have provided extensive arguments for why I think we should think God incapable of coercion.[1] My argument says that God’s essential nature is love, and God always acts lovingly.

I think the loving creative Spirit loves all creation, and God’s love involves granting freedom/agency to all others. In fact, because God’s nature is love, I think God cannot fail to grant, override, or withdraw this freedom/agency at any time. Giving freedom/agency to others is part of God’s essential nature of love.

Essential Kenosis

The view I am advocating might best be called, “essential kenosis.” This view says God’s self-limitation derives from God’s self-giving nature.

Essential kenosis is different from what many in the science-and-religion discussion call “divine self-limitation.” Their view of divine limitation says God voluntarily adopts limitations when granting freedom or agency to others.

Essential kenosis, by contrast, affirms God’s involuntary self-limitation. Any constraints God possesses derive from God’s eternal nature. They are not imposed by external forces, and so they are rightly called self-limitations. My view expands what the Apostle Paul means when he says “God cannot deny himself.” [2]

One of the major advantages of essential kenosis is that it overcomes the central aspect of the problem of evil. This aspect plagues other theologies, even those theologies that embrace voluntary divine self-limitation. Essential kenosis says God isn’t culpable for failing to prevent evil, because God necessarily gives freedom and agency to others. And God cannot prevent others from using these gifts in evil ways.

Another advantage of essential kenosis is that it means a full explanation of any event in the world requires appealing to both God’s action and creaturely actions. We cannot fully describe an event by appealing to theology alone or science alone. Fully adequate explanations require both. If those in the science-and-religions conversation would recognize the importance of this view, the conversation would change in radical ways!


The implications of the thoughts above, I believe, are both far-reaching and revolutionary. They require further amplification, but a blog post is probably not the best place to pursue that task.

I have one more facet in this multi-blog essay argument for why it makes sense to say God as Spirit is active in the world. That facet has to do with the diverse ways God acts. I’ll address that issue soon.


[1] See, for instance, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010), The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2010), “Testing Love and God’s Causal Role” in The Science and Theology of Godly Love, Matthew T. Lee & Amos Yong, eds. (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), “Love as a Methodological and Metaphysical Source for Science and Theology,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 45:1 (Spring 2010): 81-107.

[2] Although I do not have space to develop my thoughts here, I believe what we typically call “laws of nature” are compatible with the theological notion of divine providence. But my view says God does not act providentially or provide laws of nature on an entirely voluntary basis. Instead, I think God’s diverse providential workings and any such laws are an expression of God’s eternal nature of love. This is also part of my essential kenosis proposal.

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Donald M. Minter

I think the primary problem I have with your non intervening but always engaged God is that God in your presentation is always ‘exerting maximum influence’ at all times.  Hence, your view suggests that God can be no more ‘influential’ than God is in the present moment.  All moments have the most influence that God can provide.  Hence, some of us, feel your view of God to be ultimately ‘hopeless’, in that the first ‘x’ amount of moments have not been overly productive toward creating what Rob Bell calls heaven, or a creation in which ‘anti-God’ behavior will not be allowed.  I am still waiting for the book on eschatology that tells us how this God of yours is going to pull off a different tomorrow than the ones we have seen so far…

Thomas Jay Oord


My next blog will address your concern.


Bill Scheurer

Nice work with this. You seem to brush by and leave open the question of whether free agency applies to “inanimate” elements of nature or only “living” creatures. You leave this gap open at both the metaphysical and theodicean dimensions—e.g., you interpret “evil” as arising from the agency of the creature, yet remain silent on “natural” disasters which can have equally harmful effects on our lives. Not finding fault, just prodding for you to slightly expand this area to show how it fits in your thesis.

DinkyDau Billy

Intervention 1: OK, Doc, you’re saying that ‘divine intervention’ is a wash because of the implication that God is interjecting himself from outside the issue at hand … because God is never outside the issue at hand; he is ‘always present and always influencing all others.’ But picture this: Nguyen van Phred and his happy team of fusileers are pumping recoiless rifle rounds into a barracks cantonment somewhere in the Delta, reducing their fellow men to unrecognizable biological garbage (bear with me, I’m having flashbacks here). We imperialist running dog warmongers are cringing in our holes, trying desperately to keep from soiling our trousers with varying degrees of success and it ain’t doin’ any good despite the sobbing of prayers left and right. Phred’s got it dialed in and the feces is hitting the fan big time. Where’s God? Yoo hoo, God, how about a little of that intervention here! Best answer to this might the line from ‘Blood Diamond’ – ‘God left this place a long time ago …’. I find it difficult to accept the premise that ‘God is always present to and always influencing all others.’ Here’s another way of looking at it; it’s like Glenda Goodwife is getting beaten senseless by her beloved husband, and maybe someone calls the cops, who eventually arrive and eventually stop the beating. But … maybe no one calls. Ever. Or maybe someone calls, ‘praying’ for the cops to come … and they for whatever reason, do not. The ‘prayer’ is never answered. Is God too busy eating divine donuts to bother with Glenda Goodwife’s predicament?

Now I know it is common for people like me to posit examples like that in questioning the entire concept of God, much less when, why, and how God may or may not choose to ‘intervene’. And it is common for theologians, preachers, priests, and other of God’s professionals to offer all manner of explanations as why all of this is, most of which explanations, to people like me, are so much poppycock. Um. Not in reference to the instant bloggery, which is actually pretty good stuff.

I will also admit that this is not a particularly learned input on my part, but it’s why I ain’t buyin’ that God is ‘always present to and always influencing all others.’ It’s my story and so far I’m a-stickin’ to it. I’d love to persuaded otherwise, but so far, no joy on that.

OTOH, those US Navy OV-10’s did blow Phred and his cohorts into the next realm, bringing some measure of peace into the valley. Perhaps that was God being ‘present to and always influencing all others’? Does God get a little trigger time sometimes in order to wield that influence? Our sky pilots would seem to have believed that, with all that beseeching of God to smite the enemy on our righteous behalf.

Intervention 2: I kind of like your view on this one. I mean, we are pretty much in agreeance on this. This seems to me to be what we might call ‘the Pat Robertson definition of Divine Intervention.’

The Non-coercive God: I like this one, too. IMHO, it’s why Phred’s dead and I’m not. I particularly like that ‘… God provides but *cannot* control …’; would you say then that God is neither omnipotent nor omniscient? The only way he could be were if he were to withdraw that free agency. Like parents and teenagers. Parents have to give their teenagers increasing free agency – they do if they want the kids to develop as mature (more or less) human beings – but the more free agency, the less control the parents have and the more dire the consequences may be. OTOH, you could, as the saying goes, keep the kids in a barrel and feed them through the bunghole till they are 18, giving complete control on the part of the parents – kind of like God withdrawing that free agency – but what would you have when you opened the barrel?

Essential Kenosis: You go, Doc! Oh, Pat Robertson wouldn’t like that one, I’ll betcha! But so much for God being omnipotent and omniscient? No? Yes?

Meanwhile,  the question remains: What’s God up to with all this?

Greg Boyd

I am pretty much on the same page with you Tom regarding the inherent freedom pervading all entities and God’s omnipresent and ever-present influence. But I’m wondering if your metaphysical commitments logically force you to embrace a “representational Christology” in which Christ is merely the superlative exemplification of what is universally true. And if so, I’m wondering if this sets you outside the bounds of a Chalcedonian Christology. Just wondering. Thanks.

Thomas Jay Oord


I don’t think my metaphysical commitments require one to reject the Christology of Chalcedon, at least in its formulation as stated. Of course, I don’t think contemporary Christians ought to embrace the metaphysics underlying the Chalcedonian creed. But one can affirm the language of the creed without affirming its assumed metaphysics. Wouldn’t you agree?


Troy Crider


I was wondering if you have have you read “Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology” by Michael J. Gorman

John W. Dally

DinkyDau Billy

I LOVED your post. I have no problem with God’s involvement in humanity, at whatever level. I think Essential Kenosis is an approach that fulfills a goal, keep God from being culpable. However, I am struggling over the issue of inanimate matter. I study astronomy and love geology. A lot of things just happen due to physics. How these fit into pray I have not nailed down…yet.

As I have been pondering this I read, “God in an Open Universe” (Thomas Jay Oord being a co-editor), Robin Collins has an essay, Prayer and Open Theism. After a good analysis into unanswered prayer Robin says, “Although I believe the above account goes a long way towards accounting for why some prayers are not efficacious even though they seem to be definitely in accordance with the will of God as revealed in scripture, why a specific prayer is not efficacious will often remain a mystery.” (Pg. 180-1) hmmm
Somehow I am comforted by the open-ended nature of the statement.

Any time we say “God has answered a prayer,” it is a statement of faith. If we could come up with the ultimate formula to assure answered prayers well…watch Bruce Almighty.

Dan Smith

I agree with much of what you say, but I had a similar eschatological question to the one above: where is this going?  If God necessarily grants agency to other creatures, does that mean the future of the planet depends on us?  God help us!  Essential kenosis, in other words, seems to force God’s hand.  This is difficult to square with the eschatology of the Bible, which seems to affirm that in spite of sin and evil, the future is in God’s hands and thus ultimately will be redeemed. 

I also wonder how you actually see the relationship between science and theology.  Many ARE talking about the interaction between the two, but there are many and diverse understandings of how they interact, or should interact.  For instance, does using both science and theology to “adequately explain an event” describe its origin or point to its future direction?  Are science and theology having coffee or are they more intimately related for you – like two sides of the same coin?

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