The God Who Acts: Robert John Russell on Divine Intervention and Divine Action, Part 3
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 that Christians today associate with the word intervention, and shared Russell’s description of how views of divine action have changed throughout history. In Part 2, BioLogos Associate Editor Tom Burnett examined how the Enlightenment conception of “supernatural intervention” distorted a biblical understanding of divine action. Today’s Part 3 addresses Russell’s concept of Non-Interventionist Objective Divine Action—NIODA—in more detail.
The Enlightenment view of an “interventionist” God does not accurately reflect a biblical understanding of a Creator who is both transcendent and immanent—fully present and continuously involved in his creation. Not only is this sense of intervention theologically flawed, it depends on outdated science—deterministic physics and reductionistic philosophy. Now that quantum mechanics suggests that nature displays a fundamental indeterminism, it is no longer necessary to insist that God must “suspend” or “violate” natural laws in order to directly act in our world.
Given this background, Robert John Russell has proposed that divine action can be non-interventionist while still being objective—God really does act in the world. Russell calls his conception non-interventionist objective divine action (NIODA). NIODA is a theological framework that is consonant with both scripture and contemporary science, and it frees us from Enlightenment conceptions of that have distorted our understanding of the Bible for centuries. But NIODA requires time and careful reflection to fully appreciate, as it can be misunderstood as rejecting God’s miraculous work (which it certainly does not). More accurately, it is a way to understand both the “miraculous” and the “non-miraculous” processes of nature as being fully within the sphere of God’s divine action.
Consider, for example, the central miracle of the Exodus from Egypt—the Hebrew crossing of the Red Sea. The parting of the Red Sea is an objective act of God which most Christians would describe as a genuine 'miracle'. However, we might ask if such a miraculous event is necessarily conceived in interventionist terms. Russell’s concept of Quantum Mechanical NIODA could certainly serve as the physical foundation for an event of this type, and the chaotic amplification (e.g. ‘Butterfly effect’) of quantum events as manifested through a weather system (a 'strong East wind') readily provides a physical mechanism for God’s parting of the waters of the Red Sea. In this way, objective Divine actions such as this could be called 'non-interventionist miracles'. The reason why is because this type of scenario is truly a ‘miracle’ in the most common or obvious sense of the term (a dramatic deliverance of God's people not owing to chance) and yet no regularities of nature need be 'suspended' to bring about this sequence of temporally unlikely events. Below we’ll look at some of Russell’s responses to other common misconceptions about this way of thinking about God’s actions.
NIODA is not visible through the lens of natural science
Russell acknowledges that we may recognize instances of divine action through faith, while those same instances may only appear as random events through the lens of natural science:
Where faith will posit it, science will see only random events described, as far as they can be by science, by the theories of physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, and so on. The positive grounds for an alleged divine action are theological, not scientific. This [NIODA] hypothesis is not drawn from science even though it aims to be consistent with science. Science would not be expected to include anything explicitly about God’s action in nature as part of its scientific explanation of the world. Theology, however, in its explanation of the world, can and should include both. This is as it should be for the mutual integrity of, and distinction between, the two fields of inquiry. [p. 126]
Just because divine action is not visible through the lens of science, it does not mean that science is incompatible with faith, but rather that science is not the exclusive basis of knowledge. As an academic discipline, natural science is constrained by its methodologies. Fortunately, human understanding is not limited to natural science alone. Theology can play a mediating role by acknowledging scientific discoveries and pointing to divine action in the world. It is not an either/or scenario.
NIODA is not meant to “prove” that God acts
Belief in divine action does not have its foundation in natural science, but from deep theological reflection that draws from other sources, including scripture, tradition, experience, and reason (see, for instance, John Wesley’s Quadrilateral). Thus NIODA is not a "scientific proof" or even a precise explanation of how God acts. It simply maintains that “God’s direct or basic acts—although ultimately mysterious and unknowable in themselves—result in an objective event effecting the course of nature without intervention.” (p. 126)
Russell is keen to distinguish NIODA from Intelligent Design:
[NIODA] undercuts the rationale of intelligent design as an approach to God’s action in evolution by arguing for such action without divine intervention, by describing it as a theological and not a scientific theory, and without calling for a “new science” that includes an appeal to “agency” within biology. (p. 215)
Here Russell asserts that NIODA is a theological theory, not a scientific theory. He does not view contemporary natural science as deeply flawed or in need of dramatic revision. Specifically, God does not need to supernaturally “intervene” in order to create life through evolutionary processes. Russell does not call for a new science that appeals to a designer in biology.
NIODA is not a God-of-the-gaps theory
Russell also makes it clear that NIODA is not meant to fill gaps in scientific knowledge, but to draw theological insights from aspects of science that do have adequate explanations:
An epistemic gaps argument is based on what we do not know about the world. It invokes God to explain things that we do not yet understand. But many gaps in our current understanding of nature will eventually be filled by new discoveries or changing paradigms in science. The argument is that we ought not stake our theological ground on transitory scientific puzzles. In a moving letter from a Nazi prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer urges us to reject such a ‘stopgap’ argument as he calls it. Instead we must discuss God’s activity in the world in terms of ‘what we know, not…what we don’t know.’ [p. 126]
As Russell sees it, God works through the natural processes described by quantum mechanics, not against them (after all, natural processes are themselves are a result of general divine action). Moreover, because nature displays indeterminism at its most fundamental level, God is free to act in unique and special ways through what materialists can only describe as “chance”:
By avoiding a “gaps” strategy, quantum-based NIODA allows us to affirm that God is the transcendent Creator ex nihilo of the universe as a whole and that God is the immanent ongoing Creator of each special event who acts objectively in, with, and through the processes of Nature (creatio continua). Non-interventionist objective special divine action thus offers a robust response to atheistic challenges to the intelligibility and credibility of Christian faith in light of “chance” in nature since the presence of “chance” does not imply an absent God and a “pointless” and dysteleological world but an ever-present God acting immanently with purpose in the world. [p. 169]
NIODA does not rule out special providence, miracles, or the efficacy of prayer
As we saw in part 2 of this series, the divine action described by NIODA is real (objective), but it is not "miraculous" in the sense of suspending natural laws. Thus it is consistent with what we know about how the physical world generally operates. However, Russell points out that that NIODA is not the only way that God acts in the world. The 'interventionist-miraculous' events depicted in the Bible are just a different category of divine action than NIODA. God is continuously acting to carry out the general processes of nature, and he also acts in special ways in carrying out his unique relationship with humans:
The remarkable distinction made possible between miracles and NIODA in an indeterministic world offers theologians for the first time the opportunity to distinguish between objective divine providence in light of science (see, for example, my version of theistic evolution in chapter 6), and those events in scripture and the life of faith which do require the language of miracle, such as the nature miracles and healing miracles in the New Testament. [p. 129]
In Russell’s conception, there is both general divine action and special divine action. General divine action (aka general providence) can usually be described by what scientists and philosophers call natural laws. Special divine action (aka special providence) takes place in irregular, unpredictable ways as God interacts with humans, both individually and collectively, throughout history. This would include, for instance, both the miracles of the Bible and God’s interaction with humans through prayer. Keep in mind, however, that special divine action is not necessarily “better” or “more special” than general divine action. It is just something that God does in addition to the consistent, faithful, ongoing action by which he sustains and guides everything in the universe.
“More than a miracle”: The bodily resurrection of Jesus
When discussing the miracles of the bible, Russell specifically mentions the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:1-46), a man who had lain dead in a tomb for four days. Raising a man from the grave is a miracle in the truest sense, and a reason to celebrate the mighty acts of God. But in spite of this special divine action, Lazarus would eventually die again, as all humans do, subject to the same natural processes that age and destroy us.
On the other hand, Russell notes that there is one particular case of divine action that stands out from all the rest—the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Jesus, who laid dead in a tomb for three days, was resurrected and transfigured in such a way that he would never die again. This is what Russell would call “more than a miracle”, since the natural course of affairs was not just temporarily altered, but permanently transfigured within the body of the resurrected Christ. (For further discussion, see Russell’s chapter 10 on the resurrection of Jesus and Christian eschatology)
In this three-part series, we have explored how Christians have thought about divine action throughout history, particularly we’ve struggled with the idea of supernatural intervention since the Enlightenment. We have also discussed Robert John Russell’s contention that the concept of intervention is fraught with both theological and scientific problems. Finally, we’ve considered Russell’s NIODA as a framework that is based on a biblical understanding of divine action and draws insights from contemporary science. NIODA reflects both the fundamental indeterminacy of the world and the evidence that non-miraculous processes could possibly lead to the incredible diversity and interrelationships of life on earth.
The goal here has not been to give an exhaustive account of all the material in Russell’s book, but to introduce the BioLogos community to some academic reflections on the nature of divine action. In a future series, we’ll focus on the second half of Russell’s book, which deals with several continuing challenges:
- Developing a coherent foundation for theistic evolution (chapter 6)
- The problem of natural evil as it relates to evolution (chapter 8)
- The future of the cosmos in light of the resurrection of Christ (chapters 9 and 10)
We look forward to exploring these topics together with you!
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. As a science writer, he has also worked for the American Scientific Affiliation, National Academy of Sciences, 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.