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The God Who Acts: Robert John Russell on Divine Intervention and Divine Action, Part 2

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May 24, 2012 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
The God Who Acts: Robert John Russell on Divine Intervention and Divine Action, Part 2

Today's entry was written by Thomas Burnett. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This series presents Robert John Russell’s view of how God is at work in what we have called the “ordinary processes” of the world—how God acts in the areas of creation that are commonly explored through the natural sciences. While Russell argues that God does miraculously act in human history (most importantly in the bodily resurrection of Jesus), here the focus is divine action that occurs in and through the natural laws that God himself ordains, even when those processes and events appear “random” to us.

In Part 1 of our series, we introduced the multiple meanings today’s Christians associate with the word intervention, and shared Russell’s description of how views of divine action have changed throughout history. Today’s Part 2 is BioLogos Associate Editor Tom Burnett’s concise synthesis of ideas that Russell presents in chapter 4 of his book Cosmology: From Alpha to Omega. The idea of “supernatural intervention” that developed during the Enlightenment distorts a biblical understanding of divine action. It does so by implying that God is absent in ordinary natural processes, and that divine action is restricted to "interventions" that violate trustworthy laws.

“Supernatural Intervention” was invented during the Enlightenment

The Newtonian worldview introduced during the Enlightenment (and famously promoted by Laplace) proposed a fully mechanistic universe in which all phenomena are rigidly determined by natural laws. If this were true, then theology would be left with two possible scenarios:

Scenario 1. God really acts in nature, but in order to do so, God must suspend natural laws and intervene in a supernatural way.

Scenario 2. God only appears to be acting in what are in fact the ordinary processes of nature, but in actuality does not act in either a special or objective way.

As the Enlightenment worldview became popular, conservatives adopted scenario 1—God's actions are interventionist and supernatural, whereas purely natural processes operate independently of God. Liberals, on the other hand, generally opted for scenario 2—all phenomena are a result of natural laws describable by science, and God’s actions are purely subjective—merely in the minds of believers and not in objective reality (see Russell’s description of Schleiermacher in the previous post).

Today, nearly three hundred years later, most people still unquestioningly accept this intellectual framework and assume there is no alternative to these two scenarios.

Interventionism relies on old, outdated science

Beginning in the 20th century, the account of the world provided by the natural sciences progressed beyond being a set of rigidly deterministic natural laws that could infallibly predict all future events. Instead, much of current fundamental science depends on laws that are statistical and probabilistic, predicting with high degrees of accuracy, but unable to describe (much less dictate) what must be the case in every instance. Speaking of this in-built indeterminacy, Russell maintains,

If this surmise is correct, it would mean that the presence of statistics in the mathematics of these fields does not arise from our ignorance of the underlying deterministic forces but from the fact that there are, in reality, no sufficient underlying forces or causes to fully determine particular physical processes, events, or outcomes. Scholars call this view of chance “ontological indeterminism” to distinguish it from chance as mere “epistemic ignorance”.

In this scenario, one cannot “exclude” God from the universe by appealing to pre-determined natural laws. Simply put, the illusion of absolute scientific certainty collapsed with the discovery of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics opens up space for a philosophical and theological interpretation of nature that moves beyond the rigid causal determinism of Enlightenment physics. Thus contemporary Christians do not have to continually appeal to an interventionist God that must intrude into a completely determined, practically godless system of natural law. This is because, in light of our best current science, such a deterministic causally-closed system of natural laws is not an accurate description of physical reality. As early quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger explained, “physical laws rest on atomic statistics and are therefore only approximate.” From a theological perspective, then, it would appear that God built into the cosmos probabilistic processes over which he is in complete control, but which we can not (rather than merely do not) have specific predictive knowledge.

But besides being dependent on outdated science, the continued use of the Enlightenment approach to divine action is also theologically flawed: “supernatural intervention” acknowledges God's transcendence but devalues God's immanence. Indeed, if intervention is taken to mean that God ordinarily stands apart from creation and human history, and only occasionally enters into direct relationship with it, then it is a concept foreign to the character of God as depicted in the Bible. In scripture, God is everywhere and always present, always knowing and always acting. The regular courses of the sun, moon and stars, the regularity of the seasons, and even meteorological phenomena like wind, rain, and lightning are seen as exemplifying the continuous action of God in and through the natural world (Job 38; Prov. 8:29; Ps. 148:1-12; Jer. 31:35; 33:20). There aren’t any phenomena that proceed completely independently of God. Therefore, God does not have to intervene as if from “outside” the physical creation because the triune God is already sustaining and governing all of creation. Thus Russell is confident in rejecting scenario 1 (God acts in nature by suspending natural laws) and maintaining that this ordinary kind of divine action is non-interventionist.

Divine action is an objective reality

Turning our attention from the conservative interpretation of divine action to the liberal one (scenario 2), Russell rejects this interpretation as well. God does not only appear to act in the world, God does in fact act in the world. Divine action is not just a subjective phenomenon experienced by humans (i.e. those who have faith). Rather, whenever God acts in a particular circumstance it is an objective event, not reducible to subjective human experience:

An objective act of God might involve a medical healing, being saved from a near disaster, or a sudden inspiration that leads one to decisive an unanticipated action. Such events would not have occurred without God acting in some distinctive way in relation to them. Our attribution of meaning and intentionality to God in relation to them is, or at least might be, based on our response to what God is actually doing in and through these events. We might be wrong (in some cases) in calling them an objective act of God but we are not wrong in employing the category of objective divine action to claim theologically that that God can act in extraordinary ways in the world. (p.121)

Because human judgment and interpretation are subject to error, it may be difficult to discern whether a particular event is a direct act of God. In this way the objective divine acts of God may still be hidden from the eyes unaided by faith (c.f. Psalm 77:14-20). But despite our limited abilities to perceive the subtle details of divine action, we can still confidently conclude that God is free to act in decisive ways to bring about his purposes and goals, both in the lives of individual humans and for the world as a whole.

Non-Interventionist Objective Divine Action (NIODA)

By embracing the objective reality of divine action in the world, but also recognizing the theological problems associated with “intervention”, Russell proposes a theory of non-interventionist, objective divine action (NIODA). Though it is a mouthful to say, NIODA is not nearly as complicated as it sounds. As we saw above, God's involvement in the world is non-interventionist in so far as he does not have to suspend natural laws in order to act (natural laws, after all, are themselves a description of God’s will for and action in the world). God's activities are also objective in the sense that they are not just a figment of human imagination. God truly acts in powerful ways, both in the natural world and in the lives of humans. This leads Russell to proclaim,

We can credibly believe that God really did do what the Bible testifies to, and we may in the process begin to overcome one of the basic reasons for the split between theological liberals and conservatives. (p. 112)

This split is often perceived as a conflict over science, but at a more fundamental level, it is a misunderstanding of the nature of divine action. As we have seen, the concept of “supernatural intervention” was a product of the Enlightenment, and it has created a false dichotomy between natural science and Christian faith.

But this has not always been the case, and Russell points out that until recently, Christians have thought quite differently:

Rather than seeing divine acts as occasional events in what are otherwise entirely natural and historical processes, both the Hebrews and the early Christians conceived of God as the creator of the world and of divine action as the continuing basis of all that happens in nature and in history. (p. 112-13)

Divine action is not limited to the original creation of the universe ex nihilo and supernatural interventions; instead, God is continuously involved in directing and developing the cosmos. The early church called this process creatio continua. The effects of ongoing, consistent divine action in nature (i.e. general providence) are best understood through natural laws and theories developed by scientists; not only that, but scientists need not demand instances when natural laws are suspended or overturned in order to recognize God’s action. Yet as we shall see in part 3 of our series, God’s general providence—when understood as NIODA—does not undermine the reality of special providence, the miracles of the Bible, or the efficacy of prayer.

From Chapter 4, “Does ‘The God Who Acts’ Really Act? New Approaches to Divine Action In Light Of Contemporary Science,” in Cosmology: From Alpha to Omega by Robert John Russell, copyright © 2008 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission of Augsburg Fortress Publishers. All rights reserved. No further reproduction allowed without the written permission of the publisher.

Thomas is a former BioLogos Associate Editor. He currently works in science communications at the National Academy of Sciences, and he has also worked with the American Scientific Affiliation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has degrees in philosophy and the history of science from Rice University and University of California, Berkeley.

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Jon Garvey - #70088

May 24th 2012

The Enlightenment natural/supernatural divide arose because the Biblical God-who-acts was held to belong to a rationally untenable pre-scientific worldview. That’s why it called itself “enlightened”. If Russell, or anything like his views, is right, then that older worldview is thoroughly rehabilitated - there is room for mind, teleology, providence, divine government of the world (including of evolution), and no absolute bar to the eschatological transformation of creation prophesied in Christ.

What there is no longer room for is materialistic determinism and accidental outcomes in what can no longer rightly be called “nature” (if moved by God). No wonder it’s a controversial view. Far from not allowing God a foot in the door of science, it makes it impossible to keep him out.

But if belief in the possibility of God’s active involvement in the Universe used to be called “pre-Scientific”, what do we now call that view that clings to the Enlightenment scientific categories of “natural” and “supernatural”? “Endarkened”? The Brights wouldn’t like that.

Jon Garvey - #70093

May 24th 2012

Similarly, if Russell turns out to be right, does that mean that all those Christians who kept right on believing in providence, revelation and miracle when Enlightenment science denied their possibility for 200 years were right all along? Or would they have been more blessed to have accepted the science of the day until quantum theory gave them permission to change?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70095

May 24th 2012


My understanding of the situation is somewhat different.  Actually there are two Enlightenment traditions.  One is the French continental Enlightenment which is more like what Russell talks about, dualistic and anti-Christian.  The other is the British Enligthtenment which is basically centered around Newton, who was Christian, and also the great preacher/theologian John Wesley, who combined concern for natural law with moral law.

While I could be wrong and the USA might be different from the UK, it seems to me that most people are more in the tradition of the English Enlightenment, although non-believers favor the ideas of the French.

The break with Newton came with Einstein, not quantum physics.  Einstein meant the end of absolutes in science and thus an end of absolute determinism.  Some say that Darwinism with its insistence of random variation governing the development of life also broke down the concept of determinism.

If this view is basically accurate, then it explains for me the split between modernism and post modernism.  Fundamentalists are basically modernist, living in a Newtonian absolutist universe determined by God.  They are not really anti-science.  They are against today’s science.  

Scientism has not learn the lessons of Einstein or quantum physics, but uses them to deny the old absolutist Newtonian view.           

Jon Garvey - #70102

May 25th 2012


As a Brit I’d question whether ther Enlightenment split in quite that way. Newton, for all his (unorthodox) faith, was a vanguard of the new ways - an intermediate figure, if you like. His successors kept the reason and jettisoned the faith.

Wesley was more, in a sense, like the Creationists - an unconscious product of the Enlightenment whilst reacting against it. The Holy Club was, at least in part, a look back towards ostensibly holier times - Whitefield, unlike Wesley, found his inspiration in the Puritans, and Samuel Johnson called them “a new kind of Puritan.” Wesley’s early career seems to me to follow, nevertheless, a pretty rationalist religious agenda, which is why it cause him and others so much grief. The post-conversion  Methodism, surely, was sociologically speaking a call to reclaim faith from cold reason and bring it back to  back to the heart - that anyway is my reading of his journals. I accept that in its way it confirmed the radical natural/supernatural divide by siding with the suernatural.

One can argue about terminology of course, but I would say that Methodism actually  mitigated the effects of the Enlightenment in Britain and even America in a way that didn’t happen in France or Germany. Too many people had experienced an alternative to believe what they were told by the movers and shakers without question.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70108

May 25th 2012


I think that this kind of discussion about history and ideas is important because it takes ideas out of the strictly theoretical and puts them into the reality of life.

Wesleyism is widely credited with softening the trauma of industrialization and fostering the development of the middle class in England and presumably the US.  This is because Wesley encouraged workers to read (the Bible) and to organize into classes, which lead to education and empowerment. 

He did not deny the intellectual, but pointed to the power of the Spirit.  He was able to find a balance that for the most part has been lost today.  The liberals have the intellectual, while the pentecostals have the enthusiasm.  In my opinion this is the key. 

BioLogos at its best is trying to bring together the head and the heart, but my feeling is that it really cannot do so unless it is willing to be critical of both science and evangelical ideology as John Wesley was in his time when he put the Holy Spirit into the center of his world view. 


Roger A. Sawtelle - #70097

May 24th 2012

Nota Bene: The God Who Acts is the name of a book written by OT scholar George Ernest Wright.  My book is The GOD Who RELATES.

Jon Garvey - #70101

May 25th 2012


If I wrote a book, then, it would probably be called The God who Relates and Acts. Neither would have been in doubt apart from the Enlightenment project.

I relate to my daughter, who is getting married, mainly by phone at the moment since she’s a long way away. All kinds of encouragement, advice etc regarding the planning. But the relationship is furthered no end by the large slug of cash that I put in her account, and the footwork we’ve done for her here.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70107

May 25th 2012


I doubt that you would have given your daughter that money if she were not your daughter, about whom you clearly care very much.  I think that the relationship comes first, reinforced by our actions, just as God’s caring about humanity is reinforced and revealed by God’s actions through the Creation and Salvation through Jesus Christ.

It is fitting that Wright’s OT book is about the God Who Acts, while my book The GOD Who RELATES is written from the NT Trinitarian point of view.    

Bilbo - #70098

May 24th 2012

Thomas Burnett wrote:

“...not only that, but scientists need not demand instances when natural laws are suspended or overturned in order to find recognize God’s action.

I agree that they need not ask for it, but God may provide it, anyway.  If ID theoy is valid, then God has done so.

Jon Garvey - #70103

May 25th 2012


Russell’s suggestion would, in strict terms, negate what you say. But actually it would confirm the core of it.

If “natural law” can give a range of statistical outcomes, and yet constantly trends towards, say, evolutionary progress rather than an average outcome of stasis because of God’s activity, then it doesn’t make a scrap of difference whether the laws were circumvented or not - information was added that altered the outcome.

The answer to “Why this rather than that?” would be, one way or the other, “God’s government”, with an alternative always available to the atheist: “Lucky fluke”. That’s even a possible explanation if you’re an eye witness to the Resurrection. But “Luck” has never been considered an actual explanation of anything, so as you say, ID remains in the field, and would actually be the preferable option as the only actual cause on the table of what is observed.

Russell’s idea of quantum control, then, provides only the limited role of destroying the objection that ID would necessitate law-breaking supernatural intervention. And in so doing, it also destroys the objection that ID provides no mechanism for the instantiation of information, because presumably all information in the natural Universe comes ultimately through quantum mechanisms.

GJDS - #70100

May 24th 2012

Law is: (1) legislated laws; (2) scientific laws; and (3) the law of God. The first is a legal statement enforced within the community. The second may be intrinsic to an object ensuring its dynamic properties are so in time and space. The third phrase is discussed within revelation and the meaning of God.

Strictly speaking, the Law of God is not comprehensible within terms (1) and (2). It cannot be understood empirically as a law God has placed in nature, or physically legislated personally by God Himself before the community and enforced by Him. The law of God is commands, and overall, “To love God and ones neighbour.” In the case of legislative law a person obeys or else is prosecuted. The law, as articulated by Moses is directed to human activity. But the law in toto is the expression of the revealed will of God to Israel, and through Christ, to humanity.

The totality of God’s law includes a one-ness of, or completeness to, intent and act – that is, there cannot be any variation or error.  If the law of God is comprehended as active concepts by a human based on intention and act, then a separation of intent and act would introduce a possibility of an act actualising different to the intent. An additional attribute is required from a human, that of being lawful. If we take a scientific view we require an intrinsic aspect of lawfulness within a human being to be as lawful as an object in nature in being what-it-is. This is obviously incorrect.

A judgement is required of intent and an act realisation in the world. A person who intended and acted correctly, displays a lawful attribute; if a person did not intent, nor act, (i.e. does not harm another person) this is non-activity. This is based on the human characteristics of choice, intent, act, and judgment.

This cannot be attributed to Nature in it is what it is; we cannot attribute sin through the laws of science. Nor can science open any doors to God; this is non-sense. A tradition has departed from the early Christians in which attributes of God were within the teachings of the Faith. Philosophy and now science make statements that are incorrectly interpreted as knowledge of what God may do. I am pretty sure a Christian would say that God is before beginning, during beginnings, after endings, in-between, and that one second would have the same meaning to Him as 1 billion years, and vice-versa. This subject matter of God allowed to do something by science, is odd to say the least. Perhaps the Religious organisations which ceased to be instruments of the State, now want to be part of the sciences? It is difficult for me to come to any other  reasonable view of these discussions.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70110

May 25th 2012


Very interesting and insightful comment.  I do not want to take anything away from it by what I say.

My point would be that God’s Law is not what we normally think of all law at all.  Jesus gave only one commandment, which is to Love God and love others as we love ourselves.

Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the Start and the Finish, the Source and the Teleos/End of our faith.  The New Covenant, as indicated through Baptism (into the Body of Christ) and Communion (with God and others through Christ), is based wholly on Jesus Christ. 

Faith in Jesus is the basis of our Covenant or relationship with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.  Love of God the Father and others through the Holy Spirit as found in Jesus is the basis of our Covenantal Law or Standard.   

Understanding that the above is true, then I think we can say that the Law of God is better understood as the Logos of God, the Rational Word of God Who is Jesus Christ. 

The Logos requires that there be unity and order, but also that there be diversity and freedom.  Only the Logos can provide all these paradoxical qualities that are found in Life, and therefore there is a prima facie case that Jesus is the Logos of God.   

Bilbo - #70114

May 25th 2012

Hi Jon,

See my comment in Part 3 of this series.

GJDS - #70127

May 26th 2012

Reply to Roger #70110

These are very interesting points Roger; I take my guidance regarding the Law from passages such as Romans 7-8:17, and especially Rom 7:12; 14; and 7:22-25.

Thanks for your discussion.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70139

May 26th 2012


Thank you for the references.  This gives a better ideas from where you are coming. 

Of course Paul’s views of the Law come from his own experience of trying to be an observant Jew and then seeing the first Christians seemingly turn their back on the Law by distilling it into Loving God and loving your neightbor as yourself. 

He and Jesus also recognize that we cannot keep the Law trusting in our own strength.  Therefore we must trust in Jesus and the forgiveness that comes from the Cross so that we cannter the Kingdom of God and be saved through the Holy Spirit. 

What is clear is that Paul, even though he wanted to, could not obey the Law.  His mind was willing, but his body (his lusts) betrayed him.  After salvation, after being born of the Spirit we are dead to our natural selves and alive to God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit through faith.  See Romans 6:1-14. 

However it is true that even when saved we are still sinners because our lives are not perfect.  We are on the right path but there are times we take some detours or trip and fall down.  We are able to obey the Law and we do so in general but not in every specific. 

In a sense this is OK, because this is what forgiveness is all about.  We are not expected to be perfect or to expect others to be perfect, but we are to forgive others and ourselves, particualry when we and they are trying to do right.  We need to give others the benefit of the doubt, because God is most forgiving of us.

The Law Paul was speaking of was the OT Torah law.  Our understanding of the Law is the NT Law of Jesus to taught us most effectively by example.  We try to be like Him, even though we know that we cannot through our own strength, but only as far as we follow the Gift of the Holy Spirit. 

God gives us the Holy Spirit so we might be cable to lifve in communion with Jesus Christ and we might live in a love relationship with others.  This reflects the unity and diversity God built into the Creation.     

GJDS - #70142

May 27th 2012


My initial post was to point out that the Law differs from statements provided by the sciences, which are more accurately terms theories according to the sicentist who postulated them. My best reply is to quote the verse from Pope below. I trust you enjoy poetry.

First follow nature, and your judgements frame

By her just standard, which is still the same:

Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,

One clear, unchang’d, and universal Light,

Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart,

At once the source, and end, and Test of Art.   Pope – An Essay on Criticism


Roger A. Sawtelle - #70148

May 28th 2012


Agreed if you define “Nature” as the Logos, Jesus Christ, the rational Word of God. 

GJDS - #70149

May 28th 2012


The poet is testifying to the glory of the creation, which in tern testifies to the geatness of the Creator. Nothing needs to be defined.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70171

May 29th 2012


Of course Darwin, the scientist, observed the “dark, irrational” side of nature which he could not reconcile with poet’s vision of Beauty and here seems to be the conflict.

I am still asking if the dark Malthusian character of Natural Selection is compatible with Christianity?  Is it still the basis for evolutionary biology, or has it been replaced?  If so by what? 

Maybe nothing needs to be defined, but much needs to be understood.   

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