Setting the record straight on Plantinga

Terry M. Gray (
Mon, 15 Sep 1997 23:28:58 -0600

A couple of recent posts of mine had some comments about a quote from Al
Plantinga's article "Methodological Naturalism" in the latest issue
(September 1997) of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. The quote
was originally cited by someone else and then I commented on it. I had
heard Al give this paper at Calvin 2 or 3 years ago, so I hadn't read it
recently. I went back and read the paper today and decided that I may have
attributed views to Plantinga that he doesn't hold. I want to set the
record straight here.

It appears that the initial comments about God's direct activity vs. God
acting through a series indirect activities was part of a section of the
paper criticizing Howard Van Till, Diogenes Allen, and John Stek where they
seemed to imply that God never does anything directly. So my criticism of
Plantinga here was actually an agreement with some of his own criticisms of
Van Till, Allen, and Stek, i.e. that there is a sense in which all of God's
interactions with his creation are immediate, even though they may appear
to be mediated. Later in the article he clearly states what I have been

"This line of thought (God-of-the-gaps theology) is at best a kind of
anemic and watered-down semideism that inserts God's activity into the gaps
in scientific knowledge; it is associated, furthermore, with a weak and
pallid apologetics according to which perhaps the main source or motivation
for belief in God is that there are some things science cannot presently
explain. A far cry indeed from what the Scriptures teach! God-of-the-gaps
theology is worlds apart from serious Christian theism. This is evident at
(at least) the following points. First and most important, according to
serious theism, God is constantly, immediately, intimately, and directly
active in his creation: he constantly upholds it in existence and
providentially governs it. He is immediately and directly active in
everything from the Big Bang to the sparrow's fall. Literally nothing
happens without his upholding hand. (Note 17: In addition, most medieval
Christian thinkers have also insisted on a separate diving activity of
God's; any causal transaction in the world requires his *concurrence*.
Problems arise here; to some ears it sounds as if this doctrine is
motivated less by the relevant evidence than by a desire to pay
metaphysical compliments to God.) Second, natural laws are not in any way
independent of God, and are perhaps best thought of as regularities in the
ways in which he treats the stuff he has made, or perhaps as
counterfactuals of divine freedom. (Hence there is nothing in the least
untoward in the thought that on some occasions God might do something in a
way different from his usual way--e.g., raise someone from the dead or
change water into wine.) Indeed, the whole *interventionist*
terminology--speaking of God as *intervening* in nature, or *intruding*
into it, or *interfering* with it, or *violating* natural law--all this
goes with God-of-the-gaps theology, not with serious theism. According to
the latter, God is already and always intimately acting in nature, which
depends from moment to moment for its existence upon immediate divine
activity; there is not and could not be any such thing as his "intervening"
in nature." (p. 149)


Plantinga goes on to discuss the possibility of some activities of God
occuring directly, by which he appears to mean science-stoppers (his term),
i.e. things that cannot be explained by known scientific mechanisms.
Footnote 31 states what he means most clearly:

"Why could a scientist not think as follows? God has created the world,
and of course has created everything in it directly or indirectly. After a
great deal of study, we cannot see how he created some phenomenon P (life,
for exampe) indirectly; thus probably he has created it directly."

I can agree with this line of thought. However, contrary to Johnson, Behe,
and others in the intelligent design movement, I don't believe we are there
("after a great deal of study") yet. In fact, I and many of us critical of
the movement think that evolutionary theory is alive and well. To be
honest, I'm not sure how we decide such a thing--what if we're just
ignorant or haven't thought of it yet or haven't developed the techniques
to study it. Given the history of science, I'd suggest that we ought to
have a bit of humility before we actually declare that we can't know

I do appreciate Al's willingness to use the phrase "science stoppers" and
"we cannot see how he created some phenomenon ... indirectly". This, as
many of us have pointed out, requires the "created it directly" conclusion
to be basically a negative one. Given what we know now, we can't see how
this could happen. Or the probability of such and such an event is so low
(given our present knowledge on how to specify probabilities) that we can't
see how this could happen apart from God's direct activity. I am willing
to admit to such "walls of knowledge" *in principle*. I am not willing at
present to admit that such a wall exists either with the origin of life or
of the origin of biological complexity or the origin of species or higher
taxa from a common ancestor.

Terry M. Gray