God’s Response-Empowering Grace and Creaturely Cooperation: God’s Action in the World of Science

by Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. He is a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. A twelve-time Faculty Award-winning professor, Oord teaches at institutions around the globe, and is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology. To find out more about him or view more of his works, visit his website or the Center for Open and Relational Theology.

From the conference, “Evangelical Voices on Science and Culture: A Symposium.” Azusa Pacific University. November 2007.


In this essay, Oord suggests that the categories of love might help us coherently conceive of divine action in and with the world. When asking questions related to science and culture, we best conceive of God’s action and creaturely response if we adopt a metaphysics of love. He further argues that God’s grace encourages and empowers a creaturely response in support of a life of love for all of His creations. 

Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular typically believe that God acts. These believers want to talk coherently and adequately about God’s action in the world: in their own lives, in the lives of others, and in all creation.

The Bible, which is the Christian’s primary resource for theology, indicates that God is active throughout all creation. The Bible also indicates that creatures are actors in the ongoing story of the God-creation relationship. Significant leaders and theologians in the Christian tradition – both distant and recent past – have affirmed these basic beliefs about divine and creaturely action.

Central to the Bible’s witness of God’s activity and central to God’s desire for creaturely activity is the word “love.” “God is love,” says John in his New Testament letter. Old Testament writers speak hundreds of times of God’s steadfast love. Jesus draws from the Old Testament when saying that not only does God love the world, but the two greatest commandments are that we should love God and that we should love others as ourselves. The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Church in Ephesus these words: “Imitate God, my dearly beloved children, and live a life of love as Christ loved us.” Although a number of important themes emerge in scripture, none seem more important or more widespread than the themes of love.

The idea that God loves creatures and the idea that we ought to love God and others suggest that God and creatures exert influence in relationship. This relationality involves various kinds of causation. In fact, these notions about love suggest particular metaphysical schemes – to use philosophical language -- that include relationships, causation, mutuality, possibilities, and freedom.

In this essay, I suggest that the categories of love might help us coherently conceive of divine action in and with the world. To put it another way: when asking questions of science and culture, we best conceive of God’s action and creaturely response if we adopt a metaphysics of love. I’m not here appealing to love as a way of blurring differences, ignoring conflicts, glossing over tensions, or wondering, “Why we can’t just all get along?” Rather, I suggest that an examination of the fundamentals of love might help us to think about God’s action in the world.

Two Theological Traditions Not Endorsed

1. Various Christian traditions describe divine and creaturely action. Some traditions regard creaturely actions as entirely determined by God. These traditions typically regard creaturely action as of little consequence with regard to matters of ultimate importance. God alone acts in ultimately significant ways, say these traditions, and God entirely controls -- unilaterally determines -- others.

The 20th century’s most influential theologian of love, Anders Nygren, endorses this way of thinking. I call Nygren’s theory of God’s action “divine unilateralism.” According to Nygren, any creaturely expression of genuine love is actually an act of God not a creaturely act. Creatures contribute nothing.

Nygren says that the only authentic love is agape, and God is the only agent who expresses agape. “The Christian has nothing of his own to give,” says Nygren. “The love which he shows his neighbor is the love which God has infused in him.”[1] Nygren equates creatures to tubes that pass genuine love received from above to others below. Like tubes that pass water on without contributing, so creatures do not contribute to the character or shape of genuine love.[2] “It is God’s own agape,” Nygren asserts, “which seeks to make its way out into the world through the Christian as its channel. What we have here is a purely theocentric love, in which all choice on man’s part is excluded.”[3]

There are many reasons to reject the divine unilateralism that Nygren and other theologians promote. Commentators have noted for centuries that divine unilateralism leads easily to absolute divine determinism, predestination, and lack of significant creaturely value. Divine unilateralism entails the notion that God acts single-handedly to secure any good, because inherently evil creatures are incapable of promoting well-being.

Divine unilateralism should also be rejected for what it implies about science. This theory ultimately says that science cannot tell us anything important about creaturely action or creaturely love. Science is ultimately superfluous if divine unilateralism is correct. This theory requires divine sovereignty to mean that God is in complete control – at least in complete control of what really matters.

I do not endorse this theological tradition.

2. Partly in response to divine unilateralism, other theological traditions say that many – if not most – events in the universe can be explained with reference to creaturely causation. God has a “hands off” approach to most events. God’s occasional action is an “add on” to what occurs naturally. God sometimes intervenes in a natural process that typically functions without divine tinkering.

Another of the 20th century’s leading theologians of love adopts this view. Martin C. D’Arcy suggests that God’s activity is an occasional add-on to the natural processes. D’Arcy says that God occasionally provides supernatural power to enable us to love of those whom we find difficult to love. Science can explain natural love fully. But God supernaturally empowers at least some creatures to go above and beyond nature. To use the Greek love words, creatures don’t need divine help to love with eros. But God must occasionally work supernaturally to make possible creaturely expressions of agape.

D’Arcy puts it this way: “We can advance a high theory of love by making full use of natural love. But … in Christian Agape, the complete revelation of love is given. Here the finite is lifted to a new degree of being. This new life, which is thus set going, is a pure gift and beyond the natural capacity of the finite human person.”[4]

The natural/supernatural scheme that D’Arcy advocates presents several problems. It implies, for instance, that some creaturely love can be adequately understood without reference to God. Divine inspiration is only necessary, says this theory, when nature proves insufficient to empower us to love of those we consider difficult. God must intervene supernaturally in natural processes that can otherwise operate without divine influence.

D’Arcy’s natural/supernatural scheme is also vulnerable to the God-of-the-gaps problem. The God-of-the-gaps theory says that science explains fully most occurrences. Scientifically unexplainable events require appeal to the mysterious workings of God. However, science has over time provided theories believed to explain fully what was previously attributed to divine action. When these scientific theories are deemed plausible, the gaps close, and divine action plays no explanatory role. A God hypothesis becomes unnecessary.

Although I don’t endorse the natural/supernatural scheme, I understand why many in this scientific age find it appealing. If given a choice between 1) the notion that God unilaterally determines all important things – and 2) the notion that nature typically provides explanations of its own, some will opt for the second notion.

The natural/supernatural scheme is especially appealing to Christians who affirm genuine creaturely freedom, in the sense of what philosophers sometimes call “libertarian free-will.” Wesleyan Evangelicals, for instance, typically regard issues of free-will as central to affirming Christian themes related to love, salvation, moral responsibility, the problem of evil, etc.

The natural/supernatural scheme is also appealing to many Christians who work as scientists. In the current discussions, this appeal is illustrated by those who want to affirm metaphysical supernaturalism but methodological naturalism. That is, many scientists believe that God exists and acts, but they don’t want to include divine activity as part of their scientific methodology. One my science colleagues put it this way: “When I write up the summary of my experiments, I don’t think it’s appropriate to add in ‘the Jesus factor’.” In other words, many scientists want a way to go about the work of science without having to deal with God as an explanatory factor in their work. And yet these same scientists believe that affirming God’s existence and creative activity is part of what it means to be Christian.

My argument is that Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular would be wise to reject divine unilateralism and to reject divine “add-on” supernaturalism. There are many reasons these two ought to be rejected. One has to do with the nature of love. I will conclude this presentation with my argument that love is best understood as always involving God’s action and creaturely response. Divine unilateralism allows no room for creaturely contributions to love; and the natural/ supernatural scheme suggests that some creaturely love requires no divine causation.

Intelligent Design Theory as a Case Study

I want to mention briefly, however, a second reason why I believe divine unilateralism and the add-on supernaturalism views ought to be rejected. This reason is well illustrated in the contemporary discussions of Intelligent Design Theory.

If understood in very broad terms, virtually every Christian affirms that God is intelligent and a creative designer. But Intelligent Design Theory has come to stand for something much narrower. And many Christians are uncomfortable with what the theory either explicitly or implicitly says about God and about science.

The broad contemporary scientific community opposes Intelligent Design Theory. It does so in part because contemporary science adopts a methodology that includes no formal place for appeals to or exploration of divine action. Science as currently understood investigates creaturely causation. It makes no claims about God’s action in the world. To put it bluntly, there is no explanatory role for an active God in the reigning scientific methodology.

Given that most theists believe that God is a spirit whose direct actions cannot be perceived with our five senses, many Christians are comfortable with the fact that contemporary scientific methodology allows no explanatory role for divine action. After all, contemporary scientific theory is restricted – at least in theory – to claims about what our five senses can perceive.

Problems emerge, however, when scientists claim – either explicitly or implicitly – to provide a complete explanation of life in general or any particular organism or event in particular. When science portends to provide necessary and sufficient explanations while ignoring theology, Christians rightly object.

Sometimes a scientist’s offer of a complete explanation that allows no role for God is blatant: the work of Richard Dawkins comes to mind. Other times, well-meaning scientists use language that subtly suggests that science has a complete explanation. For example, sometimes I hear scientists tell the story of a particular problem in science. When they talk about a recent hypothesis or experiment that sheds light on or answers the problem, they will say, “But it turns out….” Or they will say, “Actually, science has now shown that ….” These subtle phrases imply that science has a fully naturalistic explanation, and reference divine action is unnecessary. But I think Christians should insist that science cannot provide the whole truth about any particular aspect of existence, if it leaves God out. In the case of evolution, Intelligent Design advocates rightly oppose evolutionary theories that claim to provide a complete explanation to the evolution of life and yet provide no role for God as creator in that evolutionary process.

Intelligent Design advocates often fall into the trap, however, of thinking that the best way to counter the reigning scientific methodology is to demonstrate that particular organisms or events can best or only be explained by God acting alone. To use the language of the movement, some organisms are irreducibly complex and this irreducible complexity is best explained by the activity of an Intelligent Designer rather than by natural evolutionary mechanisms. Often implied in this claim is that an Intelligent Designer is the sole explanation for a purportedly irreducibly complex organism. Natural explanations are unsatisfactory; supernatural causation is apparently required as an explanation.

The rhetoric seems to present Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular with a choice. Either they must believe that evolutionary processes function without any direct divine creative activity, or they must believe that God supernaturally controls creatures – at least periodically – to determine unilaterally a particular organism or event. In other words, Christians feel that they must choose between 1) atheistic evolutionary naturalism and 2) an Intelligent Designer who either entirely controls all things or occasionally supernatural intervenes to determine unilaterally the creation of an organism. I think that there is another, better, alternative.

God’s Response-Empowering Grace and Creaturely Cooperation

The view I offer differs from the views that emphasize divine unilateralism – like Nygren’s view – and from views that emphasize creaturely action with occasional add-on supernatural interventions at the apparent absence of persistent moment-by-moment divine action – like D’Arcy’s view.

I suggest that the centrality of love in the Christian tradition provides a basis for a response-empowering cooperation view of divine and creaturely action. And I believe that this view is most adequate for conceptualizing God’s activity in science and culture. This cooperation view might best be understood in terms of God’s loving action that always and everywhere initiates and empowers creaturely response. The response-empowering cooperation view, therefore, involves a relationality of response-empowering grace.

The view I offer overcomes the deficiencies in the traditions that emphasize divine controlling action and regard creaturely action as not of ultimate importance. It does so by claiming that creaturely responses are a necessary and ultimately significant aspect of existence. What humans and other creatures do in response to God really matters. It matters in the present and for eternity. This means, in part, that the work done in the sciences in general or scientific studies on love in particular are not peripheral or beside the point. And the cultures of the world and in our own society possess ultimate significance. We bear real responsibility for our world as created co-creators with God.

The response-empowering cooperation view also overcomes deficiencies in the natural/supernatural traditions that emphasize creaturely action but leave no real place for divine causation -- except as an occasional supernatural add on. It does so by claiming that God’s initiating activity in each moment of each creature’s life is necessary activity. Any attempt to explain fully creation in general or a creature’s existence in particular will be inadequate without reference to God. A necessary and sufficient explanation for any particular phenomenon must include both divine and creaturely causes.

Those familiar with the history of theology might wonder if this response-empowering grace alternative is merely 21st century Pelagianism. To remind us: Pelagius argued with Augustine about a millennium and a half ago about creaturely freedom and divine control. Although it is difficult to gauge precisely what Pelagius believed, Pelagianism has come to stand for the view that autonomous creatures come to God of their own accord and without divine empowering. Creatures are essentially independent agents free from divine influence unless they should choose to accept such influence.

Unlike the Pelagian view, which says that creatures are essentially independent free creatures that come autonomously to God, the response-empowering cooperation view claims that God acts first – moment by moment – to provide freedom to and create creatures. Creatures are – to use the phrase of Friedrich Schleiermacher – “utterly dependent” upon God. But those whom God creates and to whom God provides freedom can respond appropriately or in appropriately to God. Creatures express love when they respond appropriately to God’s calls. Inappropriate responses are sin. This response-empowering grace is – to use the phrase of Wesleyan theologian, Randy Maddox – “responsible grace” rather than the kind of irresistible grace explicitly advocated in the divine unilateralism of Nygren and considered an occasional occurrence in the natural/supernatural scheme of D’Arcy.

The grace-empowering cooperation view I am proposing has a strong biblical basis. In John’s first letter to believers, he offers valuable insights about the centrality of love both for our understanding God and for living in response to God. At one point, John writes these words: “We love, because God first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). This passage in its context suggests that God’s loving activity makes possible our loving activity in response. The Apostle Paul also gives priority to God’s initiating activity in his words to the believers in the City of Philippi: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12). And in his letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul reminds his readers that they are God’s fellow-workers (1 Cor. 3:9).

These passages and others in the Bible support the response-empowering cooperation view that I am proposing. I also suggest a theory of divine action and creaturely response fits best in metaphysical schemes based upon relationality, participation, and cooperation. They fit well with the view that each moment begins with God’s loving empowering that calls for creaturely response. This understanding of a prevenient grace that initiates cooperation suggests that God’s loving activity in the world is not entirely controlling nor occasionally intervening in natural processes. Rather God continually and lovingly acts in and sustains creation in general and creatures in particular. The response-empowering cooperation view suggests that relational love is God’s mode of operation – not coercion or absolute control – and creaturely responses to God make an ultimate difference.


The view that God’s grace empowers creaturely response and cooperation fits comfortably in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition of Evangelicalism. And its structures help us make sense of the God who loves perfectly and who calls creatures to live lives of love. I offer this view for your serious consideration.


  1. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, tr. Philip S. Watson (New York: Harper and Row, 1957 [1930]), 129.

  2. Ibid., 735, 741.

  3. Ibid., 218, 213

  4. M. C. D’Arcy, The Heart and Mind of Love: Lion and Unicorn: A Study in Eros and Agape (Cleveland: Meridian, 1956), 363, 370. This quote does not represent D’Arcy’s only view on the relation of nature and grace. D’Arcy presents a kaleidoscope of opinions on the relation, with no coherent explanation of the differences.