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How does God work in the world?

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 2 July 2021

If you start reading the bible from the beginning, you will find that God is very busy. He creates the world (twice) has conversations with Adam and Eve, floods the earth, calls Abraham, etc. It is in Exodus that things really hot up. God is very busy indeed, talking to Moses, sending plagues upon Egypt and parting the sea of reeds.

It is significant that He is not so busy in other parts of biblical narrative. For example, in what has been called the Joseph cycle (Gen. 37-50:26) God is present in the background but He never talks to Joseph or any of the characters, neither does He work miracles or inspire prophets. In other words, Scripture is not univocal concerning God's activity in the world. In the Psalms we find heartening verses that tell us that God will protect us when we are in great danger and heart-rending expressions of His absence.

One of the reasons that many have abandoned the Church in our time is that the actions of God related in the bible are simply not believed because we understand, more than anyone before us, that the world is a system of causes and effects and there is no evidence that this relationship is ever disrupted. Planes do not fall out of the sky for no reason, the light always goes on when we flip the switch. The laws of physics, even when they become weird as in the quantum and relativity varieties, hold. Many have decided that an interventionist God has no place in such a world and hence Christianity is forfeit.


This is the point where I would usually explain that biblical narratives are not like modern history that is devoted to evidence. Biblical narratives may be compared with Greek legends but with more point. If they had an historical basis much of that basis has been lost to the ages. Besides, we have no reason to believe that the laws of physics did not rule in biblical times and hence God did not intervene in the physical processes of the world back then as now. Biblical stories that relate how God did intervene are narratives whose point was more to do with the identity of Israel and its relationship with God than in giving a factual account of events.

While this explanation removes some objections to belief, it leaves us with no pathway to belief. We have indulged in demythologisation but find ourselves still with no compelling narrative that would lead us to the doors of the Church. Our atheism is not challenged. If anything, our cynical view of biblical miracles is re-enforced.

That God cannot intervene in the physical processes of the world is backed up by classical conceptions of God. God is transcendent. He does not exist in our time and space but in eternity and in heaven. An interventionist God would have to exist in secular time and worldly space. He would then become part of the physical processes of the world and would no longer be transcendent. Our physics would have to account for him.

We are caught between the dilemma of God's transcendence and his immanence. The doctrine of the Trinity; that God reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the church's solution to this dilemma. While the Son is not the Father, he is the image of the Father. After Jesus dies, he is present to the Church in Word and Sacrament by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is the spirit of Jesus that persists in the minds of believers. It is called the Holy Spirit in order to differentiate it from all the other spirits in the world, that steal our lives from us. God is present in the world in the Spirit. Apart from the work of Jesus in his lifetime, God only acts in the world via the Spirit. The Spirit is always associated with power as we would associate the power of an idea to change the minds of humanity.

Although the gospels writers did not have a formal doctrine of the Trinity, their texts are saturated with the concept. For example, Luke's story of how a virgin came to bear the Son of God relies on the Spirit: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35). The work of the Spirit is not a work that intervenes in the physical processes of the world. God does not plant a seed in the virgin's womb. Rather, the story tells us that Jesus is the only begotten of God. Presumably, the mother of Jesus had been husbanded and his identity has been lost or suppressed.

The narrative of the incarnation solves the problem of preserving the transcendence of God while at the same time bringing Jesus to us as Emmanuel, God with us. We must, of course entertain in our imaginations the personification of all three members of the Trinity and attribute to them intent and potency. For theology to make sense we must learn the rules of its game even though they conflict with our experience of the world. Quantum physicists has the same problem.


When we ask how God acts in the world, we may say that He acts via the Spirit which, as the name suggests, is not a physical agent. God sends the Son in order to create the world and to keep us, as citizens of Heaven, in eternal life. He raises Jesus from the dead so that his spirit will forever reside in the Church. Both our citizenship of heaven and our living in the quality of the time that God bequeaths us are lived out in our lives in the world. Our secular time is touched with the eternal, our death bound lives are touched by immortality and we are changed and become more like Him.

The big mistake that emerged, with the help of Platonism and the idea of the immortality of the soul, was to project our divinely effected life beyond the grave. This concept is a misinterpretation of what the gospel is all about; the inauguration of a new time of justice and peace in the world, known in biblical literature as the kingdom of God/Heaven.

The work of the Spirit in us is to free us from the death dealing powers of the world and direct us towards the person next to us as who stands as the meaning of our lives. When life is lived in freedom and love, the grave may be approached, certainly with trepidation, but also in a mood of sober acceptance that takes away the horror. If we are blessed with a warning of immanent death, we may go into that dark night, not fighting against the dying of the light but in grace and peace. Our finishing may be a gift to those who will mourn us and will go to their own deaths without fear.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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