Posted by: davidlarkin | June 2, 2012

The Holy Spirit and Divine Action in the Material World


“Pentecost” by El Greco c. 1596-1600, Museo Del Prado, Madrid

Christians believe that God works in the world, that He interacts with the world and with us, that He is a physical causal influence on events in the material world. Divine action in the world may be general or special. God can be said to act generally through the regular structures of the world, matter and the laws of nature, which God created and sustains. This General Divine Action (GDA) parallels and is the means of General Revelation, that God reveals himself in nature. As poet Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote —

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

from Hopkins’ poem, God’s Grandeur

And as David wrote in Psalm 19:1 (NIV):

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.   

Thus, God reveals himself generally in nature through General Divine Action.

I have written in a prior post about the constant work of God in holding the material universe together.  God is the essence, the active power of the forces that we describe as doing that, namely, the physical forces including gravity, and the strong and weak forces that hold the repellent subatomic particles together. See What is a Force?

Theologically, the constant holding of the universe together, the divine order manifested in His laws of nature set in motion by God, the prime mover, at the moment of creation, would be the work of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus or the Word of God.

In the beginning was the Word,and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
. . .
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-5, 14 (NIV)

Speaking of our Lord Jesus, Paul writes:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things,and in him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:17 (NIV)

We believe in this divine activity despite our simultaneous acceptance of a theoretical scheme of natural laws which on a physical level, science tells us, determine physical events, subject to an underlying and inherent modern indeterminacy: events occurring as a matter of an ambiguous and uncertain probability labelled as quantum or chaos. Clearly, there is room for God to work in a quantum world or an unknowable chaos of events beyond or hidden from observation. Contemporary theologians speculate about this locus for the interactive Special Divine Action sometimes referred to as “SDA.” This special or particular divine action parallels the special revelation of God’s redemptive plan revealed in the Scriptures, as general revelation is God revealing Himself in nature through general divine action.

God may be interacting as well in the internal world of the mind, moving our spirit to make choices, or gain wisdom in our subjective minds or souls. We believe that God is interacting with us and with our minds, hopefully influencing somehow our desires and choices.  He carries out his will with particularity through particular or special divine action.  With the source or physical locale, if any, of the human consciousness unknown to science and philosophy, what is referred to as the hard problem of consciousness, faith stands firm in our Christian experience of the interaction of God with us in our subjective worlds of our minds.  In faith, we rely on God to give us wisdom, to lead us, protect us and provide for us. We pray for these blessings. In our desire to carry out the will of God, in faith we look for signs, or simply trust that he is with us as we make our choices and walk as strangers in a strange land. The material comfort we enjoy can make it a challenge to remember that we are not of this world. We need to be reminded. Here, the Apostle Peter admonishes us:

Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.

1 Peter 1:17 (NIV)

With the faith that God is acting in the World, the Hebrews used the Urim and Thummin, some device of randomness used for making decisions and determining the will of God, like an oracle, where God guides the random process to deliver a message.

Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the LORD. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD

Exodus 28:30 (NIV)

After Jesus was crucified and Judas Iscariot had committed suicide in shame, the Apostles were short one of the twelve. They decided to choose a successor by casting lots, allowing God to intercede in the action of a seemingly random act, as Aaron did with the Urim and Thummin, telling the Apostles who His choice was to succeed Judas:

(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

“For,” said Peter, “it is written in the book of Psalms,

‘May his place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in it,’
‘May another take his place of leadership.’

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:18-26 (NIV)

This practice of choosing a successor to the Apostles by casting lots continues today in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt:

On the day of his consecration the Patriarch Elect of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt is traditionally led to the cathedral having spent the previous night in chains keeping vigil by the dead body of his predecessor.  When he arrives at the cathedral he is taken to the altar and stands between the bishops as his deed of election is read aloud to the congregation:

We besought the Spotless Trinity with a pure heart and an upright faith to
reveal unto us him who (was) worthy of this meditation … Therefore, by an
election from above’ and by the w’orking of the Holy Spirit and by the assent
and conviction of us all, it was revealed unto us to have regard unto N for the
Apostolic Throne of the divinely-prophetic Mark.

What is particularly interesting is the procedure adopted by the Copts to manifest most reliably God’s choice and revelation of their new Pope the election from above and working of the Holy Spirit is invoked by means of a wry ancient tradition.  In the election of their sixty-fifth Pope, HH Shenute II (1032-1046): the Copts adopted a process analogous to the Nestorian custom of choosing their patriarch by means of picking lots.  Throughout the next nine hundred years this process was only used occasionally until it became accepted as the standard method of selection in the twentieth century with the election of the patriarch, HH Shenouda III, on 31 October 1971.

HH Pope Shenouela III was chosen by the process of al-Qur’ah al-Haykaliyya, which literally means “the choice of God from the Altar.”  The names of the final three candidates for election are written on identical slips of paper and placed into a sealed box.  During the Mass a very young boy is selected from the congregation.  He is blindfolded and the priest opens the box.  As the congregation pray the Lord’s Prayer and chant “Lord have mercy” the boy chooses one of the slips inside.  The name picked is that of the new Patriarch.

Of course there are certain things we can say about how God brings about this revelation.  Central to the modern Coptic ceremony is the belief that God helps to form the intentions of all of those involved in the selection of the three names that will be written on the lots and many intercessionary prayers are made to ask for God’s guidance in this matter.  In the ceremony of the young boy choosing the slip there are two further implicit statements about God — both of which have Biblical parallels: that God has knowledge of the configuration of the slips in the box and knows which slip has which name written upon it: and that God can make his specific intention known to the mind of one child who then chooses in accordance with that intention without himself knowing which slip to choose.  Both of these are essential claims about the extent of God’s knowledge of the natural world — the exact configuration of the slips in the box, and the nature of the boy’s thought processes.  The latter element also includes a claim that God is capable of acting in the world on the level of human mental processes and accordingly instigates the child’s movements.

A strong element of the selection of the Coptic Patriarch is that God is capable of guiding a chance-like process and has knowledge of how to effect that process in a suitable way to select a desired result.  Put another way, God acts with intention to determine an otherwise random selection by virtue of knowledge and foresight of the implications of that determination.  .  .  .

[emphasis added) Nicholas Saunders, Divine Action & Modern Science, p. 1-4.

The special work of God interacting in the world as demonstrated by the reliance on the work of God to do the choosing of the new Coptic Pope is generally considered by Christians to be the ministry and work of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that sees the pieces of paper in the box, sees the particular names on the box, and who guides the boy, through interaction with his mind and nervous system to act in just the right way to pick the Pope, according to the will of God:

And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Romans 8:27 (NIV)

However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived” —
the things God has prepared for those who love him —
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

1 Corinthians 2:9-11 (NIV)

Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to us after His resurrection and glorification.

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

John 14:26 (NIV)

Then, in John 16:5-14, Jesus further describes the ministry of the Holy Spirit when He comes:

“Now I am going to him who sent me,yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.

This past Sunday was Pentecost — the Old Testament Feast of Weeks or Feast of the Harvest:

Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain.  Then celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God . . . .

Deuteronomy 16:9-10

The Holy Spirit followed Jesus as promised, entering the World in a spectacular way. In the Book of Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2, the Jews are gathered in Jerusalem from the diaspora to celebrate Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the believers as tongues of fire upon their heads:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.  When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.  Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Acts 2:1-1-12

What this meant was that the Holy Spirit had come as promised, and Galileans miraculously speaking in foreign languages was a sign of his coming. As Peter told them:

“Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
. . .
God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
. . .
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord(AU) and Christ.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Acts 2:14-24, 32-33, 36-41 (NIV)

William Barclay wrote this wonderful prayer for Whitsunday, the Anglican name for Pentecost Sunday, the day the Holy Spirit came as promised.  The prayer is a petition to the Holy Spirit (1) for guidance in making decisions in order to act in accordance with God’s will through the inspiration and special divine interaction of the Holy Spirit with our minds, the first half of the prayer, and then (2) for a clean heart, for wisdom, beauty, usefulness, and light to learn from the Word and express the fruits of the Spirit in our lives:

O God. our Father, give us your Holy Spirit in our hearts
and in our minds that we may ever choose aright.

Give us your Holy Spirit that we may know.

which way to choose. and which way to refuse;
which choice to make and which choice to reject;
which course of action to take. and which course
of action to avoid.

Give us your Holy Spirit.

to enlighten our minds.
to see what we ought to do;
to strengthen our wills.
to choose the right course of action.
and to abide by it;
to empower our lives.
to follow the right way to the end.

Give us your Holy Spirit.

to cleanse our minds of all evil and impure thoughts;
to fill our hearts with all lovely and noble desires;
to make our lives

wise with knowledge.
beautiful with love.
useful with service.

Give us your Holy Spirit.

to light up the pages of your Book for us;
to teach us for what we ought to pray;
to enrich our lives with the fruit which only he can

Grant us all this for your love’s sake. Amen

William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year 1965.

With prayers like this, we can walk in the Spirit in faith without relying on flipping a coin, or rolling the dice, or casting lots to make our way each day.  We then hope to see the fruits of the Spirit in our lives:

 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Galatians 5:22-23a (NIV)

Here is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives from William Barclay’s 1964 collection of prayers, Prayers for the Christian Year, the Sunday after Ascension-Day:

Holy Spirit Prayer

O God, our Father, we remember that Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit from you.
Keep that promise to us today.

He called his Spirit the Spirit of truth.

Open our eyes that we may see the truth;
Strengthen our hearts that we may face the truth;
Enlighten our minds that we may understand the truth;
Make resolute our wills that we may obey the truth, through the Spirit
which he has promised to us.

He said that the Spirit would bring to our remembrance all that he had said to men.

O God, when we are in danger of forgetting the things which we should always remember, grant that your Spirit may bring again to our memory the promises, the commands and the presence of our risen and blessed Lord.

He said that the Spirit would take what is his and declare it to us.

O God, when we do not know what to do, when we find the teachings of our Lord either difficult to understand or to apply, grant that your Spirit may show us what to believe and what to do.

He said that the Spirit would tell us things which in the days of his flesh he could not say to his disciples, because they were not ready to receive them.

O God, keep us from ever thinking of our Christian faith ad belief as something static. Help us to remember that there are ever new depths of truth, new vistas of beauty, new glories of experience, new gifts of power into which the Spirit can lead us.

He said that the Spirit would lead us into all truth.

Help us to remember that all truth belongs to you —

The skill of the scientist and the thought of the philosopher;
The inspiration of the poet, the vision of the artist, the melody of the
The craft of the craftsman and the strength of body and of mind by
which we make a living.

And since everything comes from you, help us to use everything for you and four our fellow men and women; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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