Sophia

, Volume 49, Issue 4, pp 577–589

On Polkinghorne’s Unification of General Providence, Special Providence and Miracle

Authors

    • School of Humanities and Social Sciences, & The Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public EthicsCharles Sturt University
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11841-010-0228-y

Cite this article as:
Luck, M. SOPHIA (2010) 49: 577. doi:10.1007/s11841-010-0228-y

Abstract

John Polkinghorne claims there are no real distinctions between general providence, special providence and miracle. In this paper I determine whether this claim could be true given Polkinghorne’s wider account of these types of divine action. I conclude that this claim could be true, but only given a particular reading of Polkinghorne. I then defend this reading in light of two potential objections.

Keywords

John PolkinghorneGeneral providenceSpecial providenceMiracleDivine action

Introduction

In his book Science and providence: God’s interaction with the world, John Polkinghorne makes the following claim:
  1. (1).

    ‘In the end there is no sharp separation to be made between general providence and special providence and miracle’. (2005, p. 59)

     

The goal of this paper is to evaluate claim (1). To this end, I will seek to identify some of the essential properties that pertain to each of these three types of divine action, as described by Polkinghorne. I will then compare these properties in order to discover any potential points of difference ― where if these essential properties are found to differ, claim (1) can be determined as false. To better understand this approach, please consider the following example.

Imagine that someone claims there is no difference between a beach ball and a golf ball. In order to evaluate this claim you might begin by comparing some of the essential properties of these kinds of ball. You may, for example, begin by comparing the balls in respect to the category of shape. If it is discovered that both balls must be round and there is no other fact about the matter at hand, then this would leave open the possibility that the claim is true. Note that the claim could not be determined as actually true (rather than merely possibly true) until at least after you had taken stock of all the essential properties and found them to be identical. You might next compare the balls in respect to the category of hardness. Upon discovering that beach balls must be relatively soft, whilst golf balls must be relatively hard, you would now be in a position to determine that the claim, that there is no difference between the balls, must be false, for no two things can be identical if they have different essential properties. We shall be evaluating claim (1) in much the same manner.

In the two balls example, the balls’ essential properties were compared in relation to the categories of shape and hardness. When comparing types of divine action I shall limit my analysis to just three categories. I have imposed this limitation chiefly because the more types of essential properties I attempt to draw from Polkinghorne, the more likely I am to misrepresent him. For, as Polkinghorne resists providing us with a strict analysis of divine action, attributing such essential properties is no easy task. However, I take it we are on relatively safe ground with the following three comparative categories:

The Divine Outcome: The outcome of the divine action.

The Active Willing: The willing responsible for the divine outcome.

The Non-active Willing: The willing responsible for the relevant alternative outcome.

The best way to illustrate these three comparative categories is by applying them to general providence, special providence and miracles. Let us begin with general providence.

General Providence

Polkinghorne describes general providence as ‘the upholding of creation’ (2002, p. 754). This term is usually associated with God establishing and maintaining the general patterns, processes or laws of nature. The following two passages provide a further indication of Polkinghorne’s account of general providence:
  1. (2).

    ‘Those very laws of nature, whose regularities are discerned by science, are understood by the theologian to be willed by God and to reflect God’s continuing faithfulness’. (1995, p. 77)

     
  2. (3).

    ‘Put some water in a kettle and boil it... As you put more heat in, the temperature of the water rises in a uniform way ― until you get to 100 (degrees) C... the laws of physics don’t change at 100°C; they are exactly the same all the time. But the consequences of the laws of physics change quite radically as we enter, as physicists say, a new regime, the change from a liquid phase into a gaseous phase’. (1990, p. 6)

     

In light of the above passages, two points should be made. First, passage (2) suggests that the laws of nature are established by God’s will. That is, if God wills it to be the case that physical events of type A are followed by physical events of type B, then a law of nature has been established that has the form ‘if physical events of type A occur then physical events of type B occur’. Secondly, passage (3) suggests that these laws, and so in turn the willing that establishes them, may be sensitive to the presence of what Polkinghorne refers to as regimes. Polkinghorne does not offer us an exact definition of the term regime, so we shall proceed with the general notion that a regime is a context under which events may fall.

To illustrate general providence, consider a case where God wills that, if liquid water is heated, but not above 100°C, then it will remain a liquid. Likewise, God also wills it to be the case that, if liquid water is heated above 100°C, then its state will change to gas. What is more, when in actual fact liquid water is heated above 100°C, it does indeed change to a gas ― and it does so because of God’s willing. Following Polkinghorne, such an example could potentially constitute an instance of general providence.

Given the above information it is now possible to pick out some of the essential properties of general providence, as described by Polkinghorne.

General ProvidenceG

As mentioned earlier, I will limit my analysis to three categories of comparison ― that of the divine outcome, the active willing and the non-active willing. In the case of general providence these categories pick out the following essential properties:

General ProvidenceG

Divine Outcome: Some physical event of type A occurs under regime X and, because of God’s active willing, some physical event of type B occurs.

Active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur under regime X, then physical events of type B occur.

Non-active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur outside regime X, then physical events of type C occur.

These three properties, when taken together, provide a partial picture of general providence. That is, they constitute some of the necessary, but not sufficient, features that accompany this reading of general providence. In order to better introduce the categories of the divine outcome, active willing and non-active willing, whilst also elaborating upon general providence, let us examine each of these essential properties in further detail ― beginning with the divine outcome.

The divine outcome entails the sequence of events that, at least in part, constitute the outcome of the divine action. Just as mundane acts result in certain outcomes, such as running resulting in a person moving faster, divine acts also have outcomes. In the case of the divine act of general providence, one quite minimal outcome is that at least one sequence of events occurs that both conforms to a law of nature established by God’s will, and does so because of this law.1 In the boiling water case given in the previous section, the sequence of events was that of liquid water being heated, such that its temperature rises to above 100°C and, because of God’s willing, this liquid changing into gas.

The active willing is the willing responsible for the divine outcome. In each case of divine action mentioned in claim (1) the active willing is constituted by God willing a certain relationship to hold between events, or types of events. In the case of general providence specifically the active willing is general. That is, it establishes a general relationship to hold between types of events, rather than particular events. Such general willings express God’s faithfulness, as suggested by passage (2). In the boiling water case, the active willing is that of God willing that the heating of liquid water is followed by its changing into a gas, when the event falls within regime X (that is, when the water’s temperature is above 100°C). This sensitivity to regimes is indicated by passage (3). Note that in the boiling water example, regime X is constituted by a physical circumstance.

The non-active willing expresses the willing responsible for the relevant alternative outcome. That is, the willing that would influence the course of events were these events not to fall under regime X. In the boiling water example, the non-active willing would be that of God willing liquid water to maintain its current state as a liquid, when it is heated to a temperature not above 100°C.

The three comparative categories given (that of the divine outcome, the active willing and the non-active willing) have picked out three essential properties of general providence. These categories will also help us to examine analogous properties relating to special providence and miracles. Let us proceed now to special providence.

Special Providence

Polkinghorne describes special providence as ‘operating within the open grain’ (2002, p. 754). It is associated here with God working within the flexibility of the laws of nature to achieve particular ends. The following three passages indicate something further of Polkinghorne’s account of special providence:
  1. (4).

    ‘The location of his [God’s] action in the flexibility of process makes it clear why it is conceivable to pray for healing, or even perhaps for rain, but inconceivable to pray for the sun to stand still or for winter to become summer’. (2005, p. 5)

     
  2. (5).

    ‘He [God] is not an alternative source of energetic causation, competing with the effects of physical principles from time to time and overriding them’. (2005, p. 42)

     
  3. (6).

    ‘Without special providence, the idea of a personal God is emptied of content. Whatever it may mean to use personal language of God in an analogical sense, it surely cannot mean less than we experience of our own personhood, which is not content with general benevolence but seeks to meet individual need in individual ways’. (2005, p. 49)

     

In light of these passages, three points should be made. First, passage (4) suggests that at least some laws of nature are flexible, allowing for more than one possible outcome. And, by influencing these outcomes, God can ‘work in the world within the flexibility of its process’ (2005, p. 38). Secondly, passage (5) suggests that God does not cause physical effects to occur in the same way physical causes do. And thirdly, passage (6) implies special providence is required to express God’s personal nature ― by allowing him to exercise his particular, rather than general, benevolence.

By way of an illustration of special providence, consider a case where God wills that, if cloudiness occurs, and the cloud is not hovering over Farmer Jones’s crops, then it will either rain or remain dry. However, since God knows the personal circumstances of Farmer Jones – a God-fearing famer who desperately needs some rain – he also wills it to be the case that, if there is cloudiness above Farmer Jones’s crops, then it will definitely rain. And indeed on the occasion there is cloudiness above Jones’s crops, it rains because of God’s willing. Following Polkinghorne, such an example may, to some degree, be in a position to constitute an instance of special providence.

One may question why, if God wishes some particular event to occur, such as rain over Farmer Jone’s crops, he doesn’t simply cause this event to occur directly. Polkinghorne dismisses this possibility in passage (4), as such a move would make God a ‘source of energetic causation,’ a result that Polkinghorne is at pains to avoid (for reasons that need not be elaborated upon here).2

Given the above information, at least two possible readings of Polkinghorne’s account of special providence can be established: special providenceP and special providenceG.

Special ProvidenceP

The first reading of special providence is as follows:

Special ProvidenceP

Divine Outcome: Some particular physical event of type A occurs under regime X and, because of God’s active willing, some particular physical event of type B occurs.

Active Willing: Some particular physical event of type A under regime X is such that that God wills that this event be followed by a particular physical event of type B.

Non-active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur outside of regime X, then physical events of type B or C occur.3

These three properties, when taken together, provide a partial picture of special providenceP. That is, they constitute some of the necessary, but not sufficient, features of this first reading of special providence. An examination of each of these properties in further detail may now prove helpful.

The divine outcome entails the sequence of events that, at least in part, constitutes the outcome of the divine action. In the Farmer Jones case, the sequence of events is that of a particular instance of cloudiness above Famer Jones’s crops, and, because of God’s willing, the subsequent rain.

The active willing is the willing responsible for the divine outcome. On this reading of special providence, this willing is particular, rather than general - where God wills a relationship to hold between particular events, rather than types of events. God’s attention to particular events may, as Polkinghorne suggests in passage (6), be necessary in order for God to exercise his particular benevolence - something that Polkinghorne takes to be required in order for God to constitute as personal agent. In the Farmer Jones example, the active willing is the willing that holds that rain follows cloudiness, if this cloudiness is over Famer Jones’s crops in particular.

The non-active willing is the willing of God that would influence the course of events were they not to fall under regime X. Under this reading of special providence this willing is general - where God wills a general relationship to hold between types of events. Note that this general relationship is also flexible ― that is, it allows for multiple outcomes. It is this willing that establishes the flexible laws of nature required for special providence to work within, as referred to in passage (4). Also note that regime X is here constituted by a particular personal circumstance. In the Farmer Jones case, regime X is the personal circumstances surrounding this particular farmer’s desperate need for rain. In the absence of such a regime, the possible outcomes are either rain or continuing dryness.

Since Polkinghorne does not provide us with a strict definition of special providence, it is possible to draw more than one reading from his work. The second reading of Polkinghorne’s account of special providence I shall consider has a more general flavor.

Special ProvidenceG

A second possible reading of Polkinghorne’s account of special providence is as follows.

Special ProvidenceG

Divine Outcome: Some physical event of type A occurs under regime X and, because of God’s active willing, some physical event of type B occurs.

Active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur under regime X, then physical events of type B occur.

Non-active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur outside of regime X, then physical events of type B or C occur.

The divine outcome again entails a sequence of events that, at least in part, constitutes the outcome of the divine action. Although this sequence differs in form slightly from the sequence given in special providenceP, the major difference between these two readings relates to the active willing involved.

The active willing in the case of special providenceG is general (rather than particular, as it was under special providenceP). That is, it establishes a general relationship that holds between types of events, rather than between particular events. Some might immediately baulk at this reading, since passage (6) suggests that it is through special providence that God’s personal nature is expressed. God’s personal nature, Polkinghorne asserts, must be expressed through instances of particular benevolence rather than through general benevolence. If one was to assume that particular benevolence can only be expressed through particular willings, one might conclude that Polkinghorne’s account of special providence must involve particular willings. In which case, we should abandon special providenceG, which does not entail particular willings, and instead favour special providenceP, which does. This objection will be considered further in Objection 1.

The non-active willing remains the same in both readings of special providence ― in each case constituting the general willing of God that would influence the course of events were these events not to fall under regime X. This willing is required in order to establish the flexibility of the laws of nature through which special providence operates.

With these two possible readings of special providence in place, there remains only one type of divine action left to consider: miracles.

Miracles

Polkinghorne describes a miracle as something that is ‘radically unprecedented’ (2002, p. 754). What is important about Polkinghorne’s account of miracles is that it stresses that, although miracles are ‘totally contrary to the previously known character’ (2005, p. 59) of the laws of nature, they do not constitute violations. The following two passages indicate something further of Polkinghorne’s account of miracles:
  1. (7).

    ‘[A miracle] is not something that can be thought of as arising from the inherent flexibility of process, but it is something totally contrary to the previously known character of that process. The resurrection would be an outstanding example of such a miracle, truly so-called. Not only do dead men stay dead in our common experience, but it is inconceivable that the exploitation of ‘chance’ enabled a dead man to live again, nevermore to die’. (2005, p. 59)

     
  2. (8).

    ‘The concept of regime, of the sensitive relationship of possibility to circumstances, can also help us to understand something of why miracles occur so sparsely and with a seeming fitfulness. If God is consistent he must act in the same way in the same circumstances, but personal matters are so infinitely graded in their characters that what may seem closely similar occasions can in fact be quite different from each other’. (2005, p. 61)

     

In light of the above passages, two points should be made. First, passage (7) suggests miracles cannot be wrought in the same manner as special providence. That is, miracles are not wrought through the flexibility of the laws of nature. What is more, miracles must, at least initially, seem contrary to the laws of nature. Secondly, passage (8) suggests the willing responsible for miracles may be sensitive to regimes that are constituted by unique (or at least exceedingly rare) personal circumstances.

To illustrate this type of divine action, consider a case where God wills that, if a person dies, and they are not the Son of God, then they stay dead.4 However, since God is sensitive to the personal circumstances surrounding the Son of God’s death, he wills it to be the case that, if the Son of God dies then he will be resurrected three days later. And indeed on the occasion the Son of God is crucified, he is indeed resurrected three days later because of God’s willing.

It might be asked why, if God wished some event to occur, such as resurrection of his son, he doesn’t simply cause this event to occur directly. This is again because of the sentiment expressed in passage (5). Namely that, if God was to act in such a way this would make him a ‘source of energetic causation,’ a result which, as mentioned earlier, Polkinghorne is at pains to avoid.

Given the above information, at least two possible readings of Polkinghorne’s account of miracles can be established: miracleP and miracleG.

MiracleP

The first possible reading of Polkinghorne’s account of miracles is as follows:

MiracleP

Divine Outcome: Some particular physical event of type A occurs under regime X and, because of God’s active willing, some particular physical event of type B occurs.

Active Willing: Some particular physical event of type A under regime X, is such that God wills that this event be followed by a particular physical event of type B.

Non-active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur outside of regime X, then physical events of type C occur.5

These three properties, when taken together, provide a partial picture of miracles. That is, they constitute some of the necessary, but not sufficient, features of this first reading of miracles. An examination of these properties in further detail will now prove helpful.

The divine outcome entails the sequence of events that, at least in part, constitute the outcome of the divine action. In the Son of God case, the sequence of events is that of Jesus dying and, because of God’s willing, his subsequent resurrection.

The active willing is the willing responsible for the divine outcome. According to this reading of miracle, this willing is particular (rather than general) ― where God wills a relationship to hold between particular events rather than types of events. In the Son of God case, the active willing holds that resurrection follows three days after a person’s death, if this person is Jesus in particular (rather than just any Son of God). Note that regime X is here constituted by a particular personal circumstance, that of the particular personal circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death.

The non-active willing constitutes the willing of God that would hold over this sequence of events were it not to fall under regime X. In this case this willing is general. This willing provides the context for miracles to seem ‘totally contrary to the previously known character’ of the laws of nature, as suggested by passage (7). This is because, given that the presence of regime X is unique (or at least exceedingly rare), people would reasonably assume that the law of nature in effect when events of type A occur was, ‘if physical events of type A occur then physical events of type B occur’. So when an event of type A occurs without one of type B occurring, onlookers would be understandably startled by this new turn of events. So in Son of God case, it is only because dead people had always previously stayed dead that those witnessing Jesus’ resurrection were suitably impressed.

Some might immediately baulk at this reading of miracles, since Polkinghorne states in passage (6) that, ‘Without special providence, the idea of a personal God is emptied of content’. But if miracles are also able to express God’s personal nature by allowing him to exercise his particular benevolence through particular active willings, this assertion now seems false. Such a consideration leads to perhaps a less problematic reading of Polkinghorne’s account of miracles ― one that is more general in flavour.

MiracleG

The second reading of Polkinghorne’s account of miracles is as follows.

MiracleG

Divine Outcome: Some physical event of type A occurs under regime X and, because of God’s active willing, some physical event of type B occurs.

Active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur under regime X, then physical events of type B occur.

Non-active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur outside of regime X, then physical events of type C occur.6

The divine outcome here entails a sequence of events similar to that of miracleP. However, one notable difference is that, whilst in the case of miracleP the sequence involves particular events, within miracleG the divine outcome can be any single sequence of events that instantiates the active willing. So, for example, rather than it being Jesus in particular that is resurrected, it could be any Son of God. Of course, if there is only one Son of God, this distinction will collapse.

The active willing here, in contrast to miracleP, is general rather than particular. This reading avoids the problem raised by passage (6), which states that ‘Without special providence, the idea of a personal God is emptied of content’. As outlined in the previous section, the problem arises for miracleP because this passage suggests that only special providence can express God’s personal nature via particular benevolence. But because the willing in miracleP is particular, this reading may allow God to express his particular benevolence through miracles also ― a result that seems to conflict with passage (6). However, the willing in miracleG is general, and so, if particular benevolence requires particular willings, this reading seems to avoid this problem. Consequently, if passage (6) is true then we would have reason to favour miracleG over miracleP. We shall return to this point in Objection 1.

The non-active willing remains the same for both readings of miracle, expressing the general willing of God that would hold over these events were they not to fall under regime X. It is this willing that establishes the law of nature that the miracle seems contrary to.

With these possible readings established, we can now move on to determine whether claim (1) is either false, or possibly true, given only these limited categories of comparison.

Claim (1) and Combination (1)

So far I have offered a single reading Polkinghorne’s account of general providence (general providenceG), two possible readings of special providence (special providenceG and special providenceP) and two possible readings of miracle (miracleG and miracleP). These possible readings give rise to four different combinations of possible readings.
  1. Combination (1)

    General providenceG, special providenceG and miracleG

     
  2. Combination (2)

    General providenceG, special providenceG and miracleP

     
  3. Combination (3)

    General providenceG, special providenceP and miracleG

     
  4. Combination (4)

    General providenceG, special providenceP and miracleP

     

The question of which combination of possible readings best represents Polkinghorne can be answered by calling upon claim (1) to cull these combinations somewhat.

Claim (1) states that ‘In the end there is no sharp separation to be made between general providence and special providence and miracle’ (2005, p. 59). In light of this claim, we can discard those combinations that suggest general providence, special providence and miracles have different essential properties. In respect to the three comparative categories I have limited my analysis to the combination of possible readings that offers the fewest points of difference between essential properties is combination (1). To better understand this conclusion, consider again each of the three categories of essential properties that we are comparing: the divine outcome, the active willing and the non-active willing.

Within combination (1) (which entails general providenceG, special providenceG and miracleG) each instance of the divine outcome has the same following form:

Divine Outcome: Some physical event of type A occurs under regime X and, because of God’s active willing, some physical event of type B occurs.

In addition, each instance of active willing within combination (1) also has the same form:

Active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur under regime X, then physical events of type B occur.

Lastly, let us consider the non-active willing. In the case of both general providenceG and miracleG the non-active willing is as follows:

Non-active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur outside of regime X, then physical events of type C occur.

However, within special providenceG it is:

Non-active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur outside of regime X, then physical events of type B or C occur.

Although general providenceG and miracleG share the same form, special providenceG is slightly different as it entails multiple possible outcomes (outcomes B or C), whereas general providenceG and miracleG only refer to one possible outcome. This difference arises from the fact that, although the laws of nature can be flexible (allowing for multiple possible outcomes), it is only in the case of special providence that they must. However, if it were the case that all laws were flexible in this manner, then the non-active willing shared by both general providenceG and miracleG would collapse into the same form as the non-active willing of special providenceG. And indeed Polkinghorne himself suggests such a possibility when he stated that ‘recent advances in science point to an openness and flexibility within physical process ― not only at the microscopic level of quantum theory but also at the macroscopic level of large systems’ (2005, p. 17). Consequently, were Polkinghorne to commit to the universal flexibility of the laws of nature, this small point of difference could be ironed out.

The near identical form of these essential properties makes combination (1) very appealing in the light of claim (1). This is because, as all the properties within the comparison categories have identical forms, claim (1) is still in a position to be true. Consequently, combination (1), rather the (2), (3) or (4), seems to be the combination of possible readings that best supports Polkinghorne’s position. I shall next consider two potential objections to combination (1).

Objection 1

Some may object to combination (1) constituting the most accurate rendering of Polkinghorne’s taxonomy of divine action because of passage (6). Consider again this passage:

(6) ‘Without special providence, the idea of a personal God is emptied of content. Whatever it may mean to use personal language of God in an analogical sense, it surely cannot mean less than we experience of our own personhood, which is not content with general benevolence but seeks to meet individual need in individual ways’. (2005, p. 49)

Passage (6) suggests that it is through special providence that God’s personal nature is expressed. And this is done, in part, by God exercising his particular benevolence rather than general benevolence. One straightforward manner by which particular benevolence may be exercised is through particular willings that are appropriately sensitive to regimes involving personal circumstances. Combination (1), however, does not contain any instances of particular willing. Combinations (3) and (4), on the other hand, do.

The reading of special providence contained in combination (1) is special providenceG. The active willing within special providenceG is as follows:

Active Willing: God wills that, if physical events of type A occur under regime X, then physical events of type C occur.

Compare this with the active willing in special providenceP, the reading of special providence taken up in combinations (3) and (4):

Active Willing: Some particular physical event of type A under regime X is such that that God wills that this event be followed by a particular physical event of type B.

The active willing in special providenceP entails an instance of particular willing, whereas special providenceG does not. So if the exercise of particular benevolence is required to express God’s personal nature, and the only way for God to do this is through particular willings, one might argue that combination (1) should be abandoned in favour of combination (3) or (4).

One response to this objection is to argue that particular benevolence need not be exercised solely through particular willings. Passage (8) states that personal circumstances are ‘infinitely graded’ (2005, p. 61). Accordingly, a particular personal circumstance may be so distinct that it occurs only once. And if regime X was constituted by a uniquely personal circumstance then the active willing expressed in special providenceG would only apply to a single particular event. That is, although the active willing expressed in special providenceG is general in form, given that it may be tailored to suit a unique personal circumstance, it might still be able to express God’s particular benevolence. To illustrate this possibility consider a retelling of the Farmer Jones case.

When establishing the laws of nature, God foresees a possible future allowed by these laws ― a future where a God-fearing farmer named Farmer Jones will desperately need rain. In response to this unique potential personal circumstance, God establishes a general willing that is sensitive to regimes that are constituted by this exact personal circumstance. That is, God wills that, if cloudiness occurs over someone’s crops, and this person shares the exact same personal situation as the potential Farmer Jones, then raining will occur. Of course, given that Farmer Jones is the only person who will be in this particular personal circumstance, this willing may seem to some to constitute an instance of particular benevolence on God’s part, despite the fact the active willing responsible is general in form.

If it is acceptable for God’s particular benevolence to be expressed through general willings that are sensitive to particular circumstances in the manner discussed, then it may be that the active willing expressed in special providenceG would allow for God’s personal nature to be expressed, and in turn combination (1) could avoid this objection.

It should be noted that if God’s personal nature can be expressed through general willings, then it may be expressed not only through special providenceG, but also through miracleG. In which case, the sentiment expressed by Polkinghorne in passage (6) when he stated that ‘Without special providence, the idea of a personal God is emptied of content’ (2005, p. 49) would be false, for even if God did not operate via special providence, God’s personal nature could still be expressed in this manner through miracles.

Objection 2

I have been examining Polkinghorne’s account of divine action in respect to the following comparative categories: the divine outcome, the active willing and the non-active willing. Yet what if claim (1) was not intended to apply to all the possible comparative categories of divine action, rather it was intended to apply exclusively to the category of God’s intentions, purposes or rationale.

Claim (1) might be interpreted as meaning that at the level of God’s intentions ‘there is no sharp separation to be made between general providence and special providence and miracle’ (2005, p. 59). If this reading of claim (1) is correct then, although the essential properties within the categories I have focused upon might differ, the essential properties within the category divine intentions may be identical. Such a stance seems plausible, for regardless of whether Buridan’s ass finally determines to consume the left or the right bale of hay, his intention to eat surely remains the same.

This reading of claim (1) gives rises to the following query. Claim (1) concerns divine action, and actions of any type involve intentions. Yet actions are not fully reducible to intentions alone. It is one thing to claim that there is no sharp separation between the intentions behind certain distinct actions, but another to claim that there is no sharp separation between the actions themselves, of which intentions are but a part. If claim (1) is interpreted solely in respect to intentions, then it is no longer a claim about the essence of miracles, general providence or special providence, but rather it is about a particular constitutive feature of these types of divine action. But if claim (1) is interpreted as applying to the essence of these types of divine action, then combination (1) will prove to be the best representation of Polkinghorne for the reasons expressed in Claim (1) and Combination (1).

Consequently, it must be noted that the assertion that combination (1) best captures Polkinghorne’s account of divine action is based upon the assumption that claim (1) is about the essence of general providence, special providence and miracle, and not about a particular constitutive part of these types of divine action.

Conclusion

In this paper some of the essential properties of Polkinghorne’s account of general providence, special providence and miracle were considered in light of the claim that there is no sharp separation to be made between them. It was argued that (at least in respect to the comparative categories of the divine outcome, active willing and non-active willing) the best combination of possible readings of Polkinghorne was combination (1). This was because this combination yielded the fewest points of difference between the forms of the essential properties. Consequently, if Polkinghorne’s account of divine action is correctly captured, at least partially, by combination (1), then claim (1) remains in a position to be true.7

Footnotes
1

This assertion operates under the assumption that general providence would not hold in those possible universes where none of the laws of nature established by God ever dictate an actual sequence of events. I take it that, in line with passage (2), such a universe would not adequately reflect God's continuing faithfulness to his creations.

 
2

See Chap. 5 of Science of Providence (2005) to learn how Polkinghorne's free process theodicy relates to God's non-energetic interaction with creation.

 
3

Note there might be more possible outcomes than just B and C. However, for the sake of simplicity, only two outcomes need be considered.

 
4

Of course there are several other biblical instances of people returning from the dead, as well the future promise of the Day of Resurrection. However, for the sake of the example's simplicity, these instances will be put aside.

 
5

Where type B events and C events are mutually exclusive.

 
6

Where type B events and C events are mutually exclusive.

 
7

My thanks to Daniel Cohen, Alex Segal, Graeme Mclean and John Hadley for their support and input.

 

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010