Creation Providence Theology Proper

Should we appeal to God to “fill the gaps”?

Joe CarterJoe Carter is sorry that the phrase “God of the gaps” came up again in the recent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, because there is more than one thing that could be meant by the statement, and some of them are not a good description of a healthy theistic understanding of the world. Carter identifies some of the different ways in which this term is used in discussions of science and religion.

So what then does “God of the gaps” mean? The phrase, according to chemist Craig Rusbult, actually encompasses four different views based on distinctions between a “science gap” (a gap in our current scientific knowledge) and a “nature gap” (a break in the continuous cause-effect chain of natural process) that may or may not be bridged by miraculous-appearing theistic action. The four views are:

An “always in the gaps” view — the claim that we should always assume that a science gap is a nature gap

An “only in the gaps” view — which implies that God works only in nature gaps, that God is not active in natural process and defines “natural” in a way that means “without God.”

A “gaps are possible” view — a humble claim that “maybe God exists, and maybe nature gaps exist”

A “gaps are impossible” view — a belief that: 1) God does not exist, so nature-gaps are physically impossible, or 2) God does exist, but a nature-gap is theologically impossible because God would never allow it.

Carter thinks that Rusbult is right to urge us to discard “the confusing phrase,” but to ask, “when someone criticizes a theory by calling it a ‘God of the gaps’ theory,” what exactly they mean by that statement.

Does it refer to a “gaps are possible” view (this is theologically acceptable for a Christian theist) or a specific theory claiming “a gap did occur” (this should be evaluated using evidence and logic), or an “always in the gaps” habit (that is scientifically naive) or an “only in the gaps” view (that is theologically unacceptable and should be criticized)?

An “always in the gaps” view is scientifically naive while an “only in the gaps” view is theological unsound. Claiming that God does not exist, so nature-gaps are physically impossible, is also an unsophisticated and unsupportable claim. Saying that God does exist, but a nature-gap is theologically impossible because God would never allow it, is simply pretentious.

I like Carter’s case for “gaps are possible” as the most reasonable position, because it covers “a broad spectrum that ranges from ‘gaps are exceedingly likely’ to ‘gaps are statistically improbable.’”

Because this breadth allows for a significant amount of wiggle room, the view that gaps are possible isn’t very useless as a descriptive category. In fact, there is a large variance even among those who believe God (or, at least, some intelligent being) is the cause of all creation.

Some people, for example, believe that simply finding evidence of intelligent agency is sufficient to explain “gaps” while others (including me) believe that such data is simply the starting point for postulating a more robust explanatory framework. After all, the whole of creation — including all processes, all “natural” laws — are the actions of an intelligent agent, the divine Creator and Sustainer of the universe. The distinction between natural-appearing and miraculous-appearing is, again, a matter of which way God chooses to act. “Natural” laws that require low-information content are as much a product of purposeful design and intentionality as the most complex processes.

There is also no reason to be concerned that scientific discoveries will relegate God to a secondary role. Closing “science gaps” almost always has the opposite effect. Science is an hydra-headed creature; with every “science gap” that is closed, two more rise up to replace the one that is bridged.

Plausibly, Carter suggests that “the biggest science gap in biology remains the origin of life.”

As physicist David Snoke notes, no one today has an adequate explanation for how this highly complicated molecule arose out of nowhere. Also, we do not have an adequate explanation within chemical evolutionary theory for the appearance of the mechanism that gives us a readout of the information, or for the appearance of methods that replicate information with out error, or for the appearance of the delicate balance of repair and maintenance of the molecular systems that use the information stored in DNA.

God does not appear periodically in nature only to disappear again. He does not come upon the scene at special crises to fill in the “gaps” in our knowledge, nor is he absent from the scene in the intervals. The God of Christianity is not a mere “god of the gaps” but is the ever present, always working, Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all creation. The only real gaps that need to be filled are the knowledge gaps that exist between our ears.

This approach strikes me as wise for a number of reasons.

  • It acknowledges that there are very significant holes in our understanding of the world in which we live, but it refuses to confine God to those gaps in our understanding.
  • It eschews materialism without squelching our scientific curiosity about how God has done his amazing work in creation and providence.
  • It prompts us to be open to the possibility that God may do miracles, acts of unusual providence which we tend to call “supernatural,” while not forgetting that the way things usually work in the world is God’s doing as well.
  • It infuses the natural with the supernatural, creation with its Creator, so that we glorify God not only because he makes the inexplicable aspects of the world amazing rather than frightening, but also because we find his regular sustenance of the order we perceive in the world to be a cause of continual amazement. We look at what we know as well as what we do not know, and we sing “How great thou art!”

By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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