This is an excerpt from Divine Action: Naturalism and Incarnation by Christopher Knight. You can read the full essay at Biologos
When most modern Christians read the beginning the fourth gospel—“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1)—they do so in translation rather than in the original Greek. They are often unaware that the term “Word” here is a translation of the Greek term Logos (plural logoi), which, as well as meaning word, has many other related meanings, one of which is in the root of the English word logic.
At the time the gospel was written, the term Logos was already widely used, even among pagans, to point to to the world’s origin in some kind of divine logical principle. If they already believed in a divine creator, therefore, the original readers or hearers of the gospel would have almost taken it for granted that it was through the divineLogos that “all things were made” (John 1;7). Moreover, if they were Greek-speaking Jews, they would already have had a more nuanced understanding of this notion, because in their community this philosophical meaning of Logos had already been refined in terms of the Old Testament’s way of speaking about what happened “in the beginning” (Genesis 1) and about the concept of the role of “Wisdom” in bringing the created order into being (Proverbs 8). What was new in the fourth gospel was simply the assertion that this Logos had, in Christ, “taken flesh” (John 1:14).
In Greek, the term logos did not apply only to the divine logical principle. Each created thing could also be spoken about as behaving “logically” because it had its own logos. The notion of the logoi of created things was, in this way, intimately related to the modern notion of the laws of nature. However, while modern Christians do see the laws of nature as God-given, they only rarely understand that the way in which the term logos was then used suggests a more intimate connection between God and the created order than they usually assume. There was a sense, for those who first heard or read the fourth gospel, that the Logos who was incarnate in Christ had not previously been absent from the world, since that Logos had already been present as the source of that world’s logical behaviour. The incarnation could be seen as the fulfilment of God’s act of creation rather than as some kind of supernatural intrusion into the created order.
When the New Testament was translated into other languages, these nuances tended to get lost. Only in the eastern, Greek-speaking part of the Christian world were they still fully appreciated. There, they were systematically developed, coming to their fullest elaboration in the early seventh century writings of Maximus (or Maximos) the Confessor, for whom the logoi of created things were in some sense a direct manifestation of the divine Logos itself. Since that time, the direct spiritual descendants of the Greek-speakers for whom the fourth gospel was written—Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church—have advocated the notion of God’s presence in created things through Maximus’s belief in an intrinsic connection between the logoi of those things and the divine Logos.
Western theological scholarship has recently begun to appreciate the way in which this theology of creation has very clear New Testament roots. What is often not understood, however, is that the biblical and Orthodox sense of the intimacy of the relationship between God and the natural world has important ramifications that challenge many of our usual assumptions. Here, it would seem, understanding the way in which Orthodox theology approaches this issue can be helpful to all Christians, enabling us to question the assumptions that we often bring to the question of how God acts in the world.
Natural or sub–natural?
The classic Western separation of grace and nature, for example, simply does not exist in the Christian East, because grace is seen as being implied in God’s act of creation. Similarly, although the term “supernatural” is sometimes used within Orthodoxy, there is no separation between natural and supernatural of the kind usually assumed in the West. (In fact, a comparable distinction is more often expressed by Eastern Orthodox in terms of the distinction between created and uncreated.)
Furthermore, Eastern Orthodox theology supplements its incarnational understanding of creation, rooted in the fourth gospel, with further biblical perspectives: from various passages that refer to the Christian’s hope for eternal life and from Genesis 2 and 3. These perspectives lead some Eastern authors to use the term natural only to describe God’s original and ultimate intentions for creation (i.e for the original paradise intended for humanity and for the world to come). The “fallen” world as we experience it is, for this perspective, not natural but sub-natural, and miracles may be seen, not so much as “supernatural” intrusions into the world as a return to its truly natural state.
Science and teleology
One of the things that Maximus the Confessor explored as part of this intimate connection between God and the created order was the way in which, as he saw it, created things tend—“naturally” so to speak—towards their divinely-ordained existence in the world to come. An interesting parallel here, I have argued, is the way in which we are increasingly being led to ponder how, from a scientific perspective, the history of the cosmos may be seen in terms of some kind of “pre-ordained” development. In particular, there has been an interesting exploration of the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants of the universe, leading to discussion of what is called the anthropic cosmological principle, and of the way in which evolutionary trajectories tend towards certain kinds of functionality, explored in terms of what is called evolutionary convergence.
The conclusions that arise from this exploration may be seen as consonant with the view that God created the universe with a particular goal (or at least interim goal) in view: the naturalistic emergence of beings who are conscious of both themselves and God. The “laws of nature” as we understand them scientifically are thus not only a way of providing the logic of the functioning of created things. They may also be seen, in a new and scientifically-informed perspective, as part of the way in which, as Maximus insisted, God draws creation “from within” towards its intended final end.
A personally present God
Especially when the notion of “higher” laws of nature is added to this understanding, a kind of strong theistic naturalism emerges that is intimately connected to Maximus’s vision. This has none of the disadvantages with a theistic naturalism that is developed from a purely philosophical starting point. God, in this theological perspective, is not the “absentee landlord” of the deists; rather God is “involved” with the world in a more radical way than is envisaged by those who advocate other understandings of divine involvement. In this perspective, God truly acts in all events in the world. The “laws of nature” that bring about these events include not only the “lower” kind that scientists study but also the “higher” ones that are beyond investigation through scientific methodology. God’s action through all these laws is truly “personal” because these laws are not part of an autonomous universe, as imagined in most kinds of naturalism. Rather, they are an aspect of the logoi of created things, in which God is personally present.
We are not, of course, necessarily tied to the way in which Maximus himself expressed these insights. We might, for example, develop an alternative or complementary view in terms of another aspect of our Trinitarian understanding: the way in which the Holy Spirit is—as it is put in the classic prayer with which all formal Orthodox prayer begins—one who is “everywhere present and fills all things.” The important thing is that whatever theological starting point we adopt in our thinking about divine action, we must overcome our tendency to begin with a somewhat abstract concept of God, and with the assumption that this God is essentially “outside” the creation.
If we begin with this questionable picture of God separated from created things, it inevitably seems to us that an understanding of divine action requires the development of an understanding of how God can “get in” from “outside.” As we have seen, however, once we have put this assumption aside, we are enabled to think about divine action in a way that is philosophically a form of “strong theistic naturalism” but is almost unrecognisable as such. For what is involved in this alternative picture is not based on this naturalism’s usual denial of “special divine action.” Rather, it is based on a framework in which the distinction between “special” and “general” divine action no longer makes any sense. God’s presence and action in the world are seen simply as two sides of the same coin.
Miracles are not, in this perspective, the result of divine intervention in, or interference with, the world. Rather, they may be seen as reflections of an aspect of the true nature of the world that is usually hidden from us. The “return” to that true nature, as envisaged in this understanding, represents what some Western theologians have spoken about—in relation to Christ himself—as a “breaking in of the age to come.” However, to speak of ”‘breaking in” would, in this context, be somewhat misleading, since what is envisaged is not a breaking in of something that comes from “outside.” What occurs is, rather, something that the Eastern Christian tradition has often stressed: a ‘”breaking out” of something that is always present in the world, albeit in a way that is, in a “fallen” world, usually hidden from us.