Considering Randomness and the Providence of God: Part 3

hands held out in space

By Michael J. Mobley, PhD
Executive Director, Center for Integrated Science, Engineering and Technology

Posted on April 15, 2016  in  [ Engineering & Technology ]

In part 1 and part 2 on the subject of randomness and the providence of God, we introduced the subject of randomness in nature, and discussed thermodynamics and biological systems. We continue our discussion by focusing on the true providence of God.

Our understanding of divine providence must start with the recognition that God is sovereign (rules the universe), omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing). The teaching on God’s sovereignty and power flow from the pages of the Bible in Genesis 1:1-3, where by divine fiat (His word), the heavens and the Earth (the universe) are created from nothing.

The universe (space, matter and time) has a beginning. But, as God is outside of His created universe, He is also beyond of our observations of space and time. Isaiah gives voice to God’s sovereignty, (Isaiah 45:7) “I form light and create darkness, I make wellbeing and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

With this perspective, all events in the universe (our past, present and future) are touched by God in the present tense and viewed by God in the past tense. Like an artist’s brush strokes can move along the two dimensions of his canvas, the hand of God can move along the dimensions of space and time. Thus, God would have full control and full knowledge of all events. Scripture teaches that no outcomes are a surprise to God.

Deism

With this understanding of God’s omnipotence and the observation that the laws of nature (mechanics and thermodynamics) may appear to be deterministic, one might conclude that an all-knowing God could have defined all the laws and initial conditions for His universe and set it into motion (with a Big Bang) and watched it unfold according to His design. This universe would have been so finely crafted that, similar to an expensive Swiss watch after it is wound up, God would not have to interfere with it until its time ran out.

In fact, scientists have observed that our fundamental physical constants (e.g. the speed of light, Planck’s constant, charge of electron, gravitational constant) must be extremely fine-tuned for us to have the universe we observe that is capable of generating our Earth and allowing any life forms to exist. A very small deviation in these constants would change the four primary forces, radically altering the production of hydrogen and helium and potentially eliminating heavier elements and any possibility for planets to form and life to exist. This has been termed “the Goldilocks Enigma” by Paul Davies, as we seem to have a universe “just right” for us to live in.

This extreme fine tuning for the initial conditions of the universe is taken by many as compelling evidence that behind the Laws of Nature is an intelligent designer. The apostle Paul seems to concur in Romans 1:19, 20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

Many early scientists (e.g. Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin) had adopted the view that God did create such a fined tuned universe and then stepped back from it to let it unfold (wind down) without His direct involvement. This position is known as deism.

A tempered form of deism is recognizable in much of Christian philosophy today, which assumes God established the Laws of Nature at creation, but only very infrequently involves himself with their determined course. This position would align with the theistic evolution view of origins that is held by many in the Roman Catholic Church and recently popularized by Francis Collins’ “The Language of God.” Such a view minimizes God’s involvement with His creation, thus minimizing God’s responsibility for random events, and potentially opening the door for free agency of God’s creatures.

However, this view seems to be at odds with the doctrine of providence we find in the Bible.   We saw in God’s words to Isaiah, “I make wellbeing and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

The Bible teaches God is actively involved with His creation at each moment. To clarify, we examine some of the Biblical support for God’s providence.

Concurrence

The Bible teaches that God, through Christ, preserves all things. Colossians 1:17: “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” And in Hebrews 1:3: “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”

God’s involvement appears to be a continuing activity. Matthew 6:26, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” These and many other verses indicate God’s ongoing preservation of the creation. God’s active involvement with His creation is very explicitly called out in the doctrine of concurrence.

Grudem provides us with a concise definition for this doctrine: “God cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do.”

The Bible tells us God is involved in all the activities of nature. For example Ps 135:7 says, “He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.” And in Job 37:10-11, “By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning.”

God is also intimately involved in the life of the believer. In Psalm 139:14-16, David thanks God, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…”  And in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

We note from this doctrine of concurrence that God’s engagement is assured, but it is not clearly recognizable in the natural events in the world around us. The work of His hand is hidden. This doctrine clearly speaks against deism.

This doctrine of concurrence is very relevant to our discussion of natural randomness. The Bible clearly teaches that God is in control of random events. The casting of lots mentioned in the Bible is very analogous to our earlier example of flipping a coin. In Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” What is particularly relevant in this verse is that we are assured that God is not simply in control of macroscopically determinative processes like the weather, but every event and process that is random and might be viewed as governed by “chance.”

We may not see God’s hand directing the casting of the lot, the flipping of the coin or the roll of the dice. However, we are assured by Scripture that God is in control of these and all apparently random events. God’s hand may not be seen in the birth of every child, but Scripture indicates that it is. While we have this assurance, it does not make the doctrine of providence any easier to understand. Scripture does not provide the insight to understand this. But, it does assure us that this is within the capacity of an omnipotent God.

Agency

Perhaps most difficult to comprehend with this doctrine of concurrence is that it does also apply to the exercise of agency by God’s creatures in the choices they make. This challenge to our comprehension in not unlike (and may be considered the root) to the paradox of foreknowledge and predestination versus free agency that has given rise to the contending views characterized by Calvinism and Arminianism.

We observe, after Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, Joseph was able to say to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).

Here, God’s purposes were accomplished even through the evil deeds of Joseph’s brothers.   The crucifixion of Christ was foretold and ordained by God. Nevertheless, it was carried out by the actions and choices of evil men; Acts 2:23, “… this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Thus, we find in Scripture that God’s plans are not thwarted by evil choices and that God can actually use the evil choices of men to accomplish his purposes. We see that God is sovereign and sustains the elements of His creation in a more direct fashion than what is assumed with a deterministic view or a tempered deism. Scripture does set up and acknowledge the paradox of randomness and agency in nature concurrent with the directing and purposeful control by God.

To summarize, the Bible tells us that the randomness we see in the world about us is not without purpose and is within the plan and directives of God. The randomness we see can be reconciled with the doctrine of divine providence. This harmony is difficult to understand, but we should accept the biblical assurance.

Grand Canyon University educates students across all degrees from a distinctly Christian worldview. Learn more by visiting the GCU website.

References:

  • [1] This watchmaker analogy can be traced to William Paley’s argument for a divine designer that was originally applied to the creation of functioning organisms. This design argument evolved to include the origin of the laws behind nature.
  • 2 Barrow, John D. and Tipler, Frank J. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford University Press, Oxford (1986).
  • 3 Davies, P.C.W., The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? Houghton Mifflin Co. New York (2008).
  • 4 Ross, Hugh, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God. NavPress, Colorado Springs (1995).
  • 5 Collins, Francis S., The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Free Press, New York, (2006).
  • 6 Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 317-331 (1994).

 

More about Michael:

Michael Mobley, PhD, is executive director of the Center for Integrated Science, Engineering and Technology at GCU, leading the design and integration of new STEM education programs and building relations with industry partners. Dr. Mobley has over 30 years of experience in industrial and academic settings and as a consultant to the health products industry. Dr. Mobley is also co-founder and CEO of eHealth Nexus, a health information services company.  He was recently associate director for the Biodesign Institute at ASU, responsible for many operational elements in the formation of the new research institute. Formerly, Dr. Mobley held senior positions as director of R&D at the Procter & Gamble Company, managing large divisions in their healthcare and skin beauty care sectors. Dr. Mobley maintains his graduate research interests in theoretical physics and optics. He has served as chair of the Board of Directors of the Arizona BioIndustry Association and on the AZ Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee.

 

About College of Science, Engineering and Technology

The College of Science, Engineering and Technology offers degree programs that prepare students for high-demand professions in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. With an emphasis on Grand Canyon University’s Christian worldview, our college believes in instilling social awareness, responsibility, ethical character and compassion. Our blog, Brain STEM, focuses on topics related to science, engineering and technology, with engaging contributions from students, staff and faculty. 


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