Miracles and Science: A Third Way (Part 1)

| By (guest author) on Faith and Science Seeking Understanding

Detail from Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers by Antoine Caron. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Painting depicts the reaction to the solar eclipse of 1571.

INTRO BY JIM: This week’s contributions to our Divine Action series (see intro to the series here) are from Robert Russell. In today’s post, he presents various categories of divine action, and the two main ways Christian thinkers have attempted to understand such action. This lays the groundwork for his important contribution to the literature on the topic: non-interventionist objective divine action, which will be unpacked in more detail in tomorrow’s post.

The topic of divine action can be challenging for those affirming both the reality of scientific explanation and the theological claim that God acts in the world. Discussions of divine action are complex not only because of the various scientific and theological claims that need to be taken seriously, but also because the very term “divine action” can be fraught with ambiguities. In today’s post, I explore different understandings and varieties of divine action, which should make clear what we are and are not talking about when speaking of God’s action in the world. Then I’ll suggest a new way of thinking about divine action, and develop that further in tomorrow’s post.

I should start by laying out several of my general theological presuppositions about the acts of God as the Creator and Redeemer of the world. These various modes of understanding the acts of God display the complexity of the term “divine action”.

Creative divine action

First there are at least three ways in which we refer to the acts of the Trinitarian God as Creator[1]:

  1. According to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo God creates the world as a whole out of nothing and holds the world in continued existence at each moment. In this way creation is a form of divine action.
  2. God also provides all that is needed for life, such as the regular seasons of nature, the abundances of crop, and life’s ordinary, daily moments and events, as affirmed by the doctrine of general providence. Such general providence is a second part of what can be called divine action.
  3. Finally God provides those special events in life, history and nature which give particular meaning and purpose both to individual life, to communities and societies, and to the evolving world as affirmed by the doctrine of special providence. The birth of a child, the achievement and culmination of lifelong goals and plans, the birth of grandchildren, petitionary prayer being answered: all these are part of God’s special providence and yet another form of what we call divine action.

Redemptive divine action

Next, there are at least several ways in which we refer to the acts of the Trinitarian God as Redeemer, including divine miraculous acts. Divine acts of redemption include events such as the Exodus, the Spirit of God speaking through the prophets, the Incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; and the gift of God as the Holy Spirit to the early Church community. These redemptive acts continue today, offering us forgiveness of sins, transformation of our societies, and the promise of our own eternal life in community with the Risen Lord in the eschatological New Creation.

Miraculous divine action

It is particularly in these acts of redemption that we can introduce yet another term for divine action, namely miraculous divine action. This term can take on a variety of meanings in both theological and philosophical literature and in descriptions geared for a more general audience. An example of the latter can be found on the website of the American Scientific Affiliation:

all Judeo-Christian theists … believe that God designed and created the universe, whether they think the process of creation was young-earth (by miracles), old-earth progressive (by miracles and natural process), or old-earth evolutionary (by natural process), where "natural" does not mean "without God" because God designed and created nature, sustains it and can guide it.[2]

Ways of Understanding God’s Acts

Traditional theological sources offer a rich variety of understandings of miracles. Over the centuries, we find a general trend to view a miracle as an extraordinary event, but one which does not contradict the natural flow of events. According to Augustine, a miracle can be understood as the manifestation of an “extraordinary” capacity of a creature, one that is rarely expressed compared with its routine, ordinary capacities, but one which does not go beyond its creaturely capacities as such.[3]

            By the nineteenth century, liberal Protestant theology had domesticated the concept of miracle to a subjective response to a purely natural event. The fountainhead of this theological movement was Friedrich Schleiermacher, for whom the term “miracle” is reduced to a subjective interpretation of a natural event. In his now famous 1799 book On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, Schleiermacher writes:

“Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant. To me all is miracle.”[4]

A solar eclipse comes to mind as a classic example of Schleiermacher’s understanding of the miraculous. Viewing an eclipse, as I have done on several occasions, one feels caught up in an extraordinary experience, but nothing objectively extraordinary is involved. Instead, two ordinary objects—the sun and moon—with ordinary spatial trajectories, pass into and out of visual conjunction. Events like this are entirely consistent with, and predictable by, science. Their uniqueness as divine acts is strictly in the eyes of the beholder and not in any way involving what might be called an objectively unique event caused by God.

           Yet the contemporary meaning of the term “miracle” in both academic and popular venues is still most often associated with the writings of the 18th century Enlightenment philosopher David Hume.[5] In his enormously influential Enquiry of 1748, Hume defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.”[6] It is an event which purportedly really happens—it is meant to be objective and factual, not just a subjective interpretation as in the example of the eclipse—and it is an event which nature could never produce on its own powers. Indeed it contradicts those powers. By implication, a miracle in Hume’s sense is an event which contradicts scientific laws. An event like this is due to divine intervention: an act of God which violates or at least suspends the causality inherent in nature and the laws of nature which describe natural causality. It is the result of what I call “interventionist objective divine action”. It is in stark contrast to the view I attributed to Schleiermacher just above, one which I will call “non-interventionist subjective divine action”.

But are these the only two options available to us? I suggest that between the subjectivist view of Schleiermacher and the interventionist definition of Hume, there is a third category of divine action that incorporates the best of both views described above. This is the approach I term “non-interventionist objective divine action”, or NIODA. NIODA is not meant to replace either subjective, non-interventionist experiences of divine action or interventionist miracles. Indeed, one can affirm the reality of miracles and still see the need for a third approach, one describing the ways in which God works in and through natural processes on a more regular basis. Because we do not want to confine God's activity to comparatively rare miraculous events, we also need an account of how God operates within and guides the normal course of events.  That’s what we'll address in tomorrow's post.




Russell, Robert John. "Miracles and Science: A Third Way (Part 1) "
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 16 May. 2016. Web. 23 September 2017.


Russell, R. (2016, May 16). Miracles and Science: A Third Way (Part 1)
Retrieved September 23, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/miracles-and-science-a-third-way-part-1

References & Credits

[1] Following Augustine, the “external” or ad extra acts of God, such as creation, were acts of the Trinity as a unity and not the acts of individual persons in the Trinity, even though we refer to them as if they were. The technical way to put this is that the ad extra acts of God were “appropriated” to individual Trinitarian persons, particularly in the Christian liturgy and creeds. So for example we confess that we “believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth” even though we understand that God as Trinity is the “maker.”

[2] http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/genesis.htm, accessed on 9/1/14. Differences on whether Genesis involves miraculous divine action is related to whether the text is read literally, figuratively, analogically, metaphorically, allegorically, through the lens of historical-critical tools, etc. For a very nuanced discussion of what a “literal” reading of the Bible actually entails see Joshua Moritz: (https://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/Issues_Moritz.php) and (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14746700.2011.616001#.U9knXqOHPFw

[3] “A portent (miracle), therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature” Augustine, City of God, Book XX1, Ch. 8. Available online: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120121.htm accessed 9.3.14.

[4] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, translated by John Oman (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 88.

[5] For an excellent analysis of Hume’s influence on the philosophical concept of miracle see Timothy McGrew, “Miracles” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy available online at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/ accessed 9.1.14. See also Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Creation and Humanity: A Constructive Christian Anthropology for a Pluralistic World (forthcoming), the section entitled “Divine Action, Miracles, and Transcending the Natural.”

[6] Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

About the Author

Robert John Russell

Robert John Russell is the Founder and Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), and the Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. in experimental physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, an M.Div. and an M. A. in theology and science from the Pacific School of Religion (one of nine seminaries in the GTU consortium), an M. S. in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and he triple-majored in physics, religion and music at Stanford University. He is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists. Russell is also the author of Cosmology from Alpha to Omega: Towards the Mutual Creative Interaction of Theology and Science (Fortress Press, 2008). He has co-edited a multi-volume series of books focused on scientific perspectives on divine action through an international research conference program co-sponsored by CTNS and the Vatican Observatory, including such topics as quantum mechanics, chaos theory, evolutionary and molecular biology, the neurosciences, and quantum cosmology.

More posts by Robert John Russell