Periodical Reviews -- By: Jefferson P. Webster

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 166:662 (Apr 2009)
Article: Periodical Reviews
Author: Jefferson P. Webster

Periodical Reviews

By The Faculty and Library Staff of

Dallas Theological Seminary

Jefferson P. Webster


“What Is ‘Intervention’?” Alvin Plantinga, Theology and Science 6 (2008): 369-401.

Plantinga, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University and perhaps the foremost Christian philosopher writing today, examines the notion of divine intervention in this closely reasoned, demanding, and yet rewarding article. Surveying the modern discussion among scientists, philosophers, and theologians concerning God’s action in the world, he brings his characteristic clarity and rigor to bear on the most contested issues, showing where agreement is often impeded by confusion of terms and unwarranted assumptions.

Deeply embedded in the Christian tradition is the principle of divine intervention, the notion that God has acted in sundry manners and ways within the world of space and time to pursue His providential ends. This conviction is aptly stated by the Heidelberg Catechism, which asserts that “all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his [God’s] fatherly hand” (p. 370). It is important to note, further, that the traditional view conceives of God’s action as extending “beyond creation and conservation” to “special divine action” (p. 371), though for some thinkers this notion is deeply problematic.

In 1961 Langdon Gilkey articulated quite clearly what many theologians and biblical scholars had come to believe about biblical history, namely, that God had not, in fact, done any of the great deeds recounted in the Bible, such as the miracles described in the Exodus narrative. Gilkey did not “object to the notion that God has created and sustains the world” (p. 372), but he did reject the concept of divine intervention, for according to the picture of science that he assumed, all events are part of a great “causal nexus in space and time” that can be explained by natural means. For Gilkey, Bultmann, and others, the world is a deterministic system, a “closed continuum of effects” that cannot be “rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers” (ibid.).

As Plantinga shows, however, this notion of deterministic science is simply outdated, based as it is on the system of mechanics developed by Pierre Laplace, Newton’s deterministic successor (p. 376). Furthermore, though it is commonly thought that determinism results inexorably from Newton’s laws themselves, Plantinga argues that it is in fact a consequence of a metaphysical principle that Laplace assumed but that Newton would surely have rejected, namely, “the causal closure of the physic...

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