The God Who Acts: Robert John Russell on Divine Intervention and Divine Action, Part 1

| By Robert John Russell

The God Who Acts: Robert John Russell on Divine Intervention and Divine Action, Part 1



(Written by the BioLogos editorial team)

In a recent lecture in Washington, D.C., Intelligent Design advocate Stephen Meyer noted that scientists and theologians are generally uncomfortable with the idea of "supernatural intervention" in natural processes such as evolution. He then posed the question, “What's so bad about supernatural intervention?” Meyer’s comment touches on a point of particular tension among Christians engaged in understanding how our science and our theology interact: the nature of divine action.

Much of the confusion in this area, however, stems from the inexact meaning ofintervention, which—like evolution or Darwinism—implies different things to different people. All Christians affirm that God works powerfully in the world, doing extraordinary acts of creation and salvation. In common conversation, then, intervention tends to mean simply “acts that are recognizably or obviously God’s,” whether as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea or as subtle as an individual believer hearing a clear call to repentance or to mission from the Lord. Even in this most casual sense, intervention tends to mean special occasions of God’s providential care, rather than his ordinary sustaining work.

But to Christian scientists and philosophers trying to understand God’s action in creation—especially how he might go about his sustaining role—intervention has another connotation: namely, that recognizing something as “divine action” requires it to be in violation of the natural laws which God himself established. Put another way, many Christian thinkers associate the word intervention with the idea that to act in the world God “must” act from outside the world. That view is a central tenet of deism, not Christianity. One response to Meyer’s comment, then, is to ask whether intervention is the only (or even a helpful) way of thinking about God’s work in biological creation. Is there another way of talking about “divine action” that does not restrict God's work to only extraordinary events? Can we conceive of divine action in a way God is never absent, distant, or in any way removed from the creation he sustains at every moment?

Finding such an alternative vocabulary to talk about the different ways God acts in his creation is the purpose of this short series introducing the work of theologian and physicist Robert John Russell. Russell’s book Cosmology: From Alpha to Omega explores the history of Christian thinking about divine action and proposes one model for how we might understand it in light of Scripture, the traditions of the church, and contemporary scientific explorations of the material world.

To be clear, Russell argues that God does unmistakably act in the world. He singles out the bodily resurrection of Jesus not only as a prime example, but as a truly unique event distinct even from Christ’s other miraculous acts during his ministry on earth. That is, the resurrection was an in-breaking of God’s new reality into the present one, something “beyond miraculous.” This series, though, offers his perspective on the more basic issue of how God might be at work in what we have called the “ordinary processes” of his world.

We begin our three-part series below with Professor Russell’s description of how views of divine action have changed throughout history (excerpted from Chapter 4 of Cosmology: From Alpha to Omega).

Historical background to the problem of divine action

The notion of God’s acting in the world is central to the biblical witness. From the call of Abraham and the Exodus from Egypt to the birth, ministry, death and raising of Jesus and the founding of the church at Pentecost, God is represented as making new things happen. Through these “mighty acts,” God creates and saves. 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.

The view that God works in and through all the processes of the world continued throughout Patristic and Medieval times. For example, God was understood as the first or primary cause of all events—where all natural causes are instrumental or secondary causes through which God works. The conviction that God acts universally in all events, and that we act together with God in specific events, was maintained by the Reformers and the ensuing Protestant orthodoxy. John Calvin (1509-1564) argued that God is in absolute control over the world and at the same time maintained that people are responsible for evil deeds. Questions about human freedom and the reality of evil were seen more as problems requiring serious theological attention than as reasons for abandoning belief in God’s universal agency.

Moreover, faith in God the creator was articulated through two distinct but interwoven doctrines: creation and providence. The doctrine of creationasserts that the ultimate source and absolute ground of the universe is God. Without God, the universe would not exist, nor would it exist as “universe.” Creation theology, in turn, has often included three related but distinct claims: 1) the universe had a beginning; 2) the universe depends absolutely and at every moment on God for its sheer existence; and 3) the universe is the locus of God’s continuing activity as Creator. The first two have traditionally been grouped in terms of creatio ex nihilo(creation from nothing), and the third in terms of creatio continua (continuing creation).

The doctrine of providence presupposes a doctrine of creation, but adds significantly to it. While creation stresses that God is the cause of all existence, providence stresses that God is the cause of the meaning and purpose of all that is. God not only creates but guides and directs the universe towards the fulfilling of God’s purposes. These purposes are mostly hidden to us, though they may be partially seen after the fact in the course of natural and historical events. The way God achieves them is hidden, too. Only in the eschatological future will God’s action throughout the history of the universe be fully revealed and our faith in it confirmed. General providence refers to God’s universal action in guiding all events; special providence refers to God’s particular acts in specific moments, whether found in personal life or in history.

Divine intervention arises in the Enlightenment

The rise of modern science in the seventeenth century and Enlightenment philosophy in the eighteenth, however, led many to reject the traditional views of divine action. Although Isaac Newton (1643-1727) argued for the essential role of God in relation to the metaphysical underpinnings of his mechanical system, and in this way defended the sovereignty of God in relation to nature, Newtonian mechanics depicted a causally closed universe with little, if any, room for God’sspecial action in specific events—and then only by intervention: that is, by acting as from outside that closed system. A century later, Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827, pictured left) combined the determinism of Newton’s equations withepistemological reductionism (the properties and behavior of the whole are reducible to those of the parts) and metaphysical reductionism (the whole is simply composed of its parts), to portray all of nature as a causally closed, impersonal mechanism. This in turn led to the concept of interventionism: if God were really to act in specific events in nature, God would apparently have to break the remorseless lock-step of natural cause and effect by intervening in the sequence and violating the laws of nature in the process.

The eighteenth century also saw the rise and fall of deism, in which the scope of divine agency was limited to an initial act of creation. According to deism, the universe was like a clock which, once built and set in place, proceeded to run on its own. David Hume (1711-1776) challenged the deistic (and theistic) arguments for God as first cause and as designer. In response, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804, pictured right) constructed a new metaphysical system which emphasized the mind’s role in organizing sense-data through universal categories of intuition and forms of sensibility. According to Kant, the sphere of religion lies not in our knowing (the activity of pure reason) but in our sense of moral obligation (the activity of practical reason). It is our ethical system, not our knowledge of nature, that requires us to postulate God, freedom and the immortality of the soul. The consequence of Kant’s thought for the West was the philosophical separation of the domains of science and religion into “two worlds”—a move which was to have an immeasurable effect on Christian theology up to the present.

Theology splits into conservative and liberal interpretations of divine action

As a consequence of the philosophical division of science and religion, theology in the nineteenth century was faced with a fundamental challenge not only to its contents and structure, but even to its method. The variety of responses to this challenge tend to fall into two groups: “liberals” largely accepted and worked within the terms of the discussion that modernity dictated while “conservatives” upheld traditional formulations and tended to reject “modernity.” The earliest and most influential figure among liberals was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who responded to Kant by locating religion as neither a knowing nor a doing. Instead religion is grounded in personal piety—the feeling of absolute dependence.

Schleiermacher held that theological assertions emerge from the immediacy of the religious self-consciousness. He understood God’s relation to the world in terms of “universal divine immanence” [the idea that God is present to the entire cosmos at all times], and he blurred the distinction between creation and providence by collapsing the later into the former. In a famous move he defined miracle as “. . . 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.” Schleiermacher’s arguments became characteristic of liberal Protestant theology throughout the nineteenth century and continued into much of twentieth century theological work.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of Darwinian evolution, which combined random variation and natural selection to explain biological complexity. To some in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the fundamental role of chance in nature seemed to undercut any notion of divine action in the world; to others, such as the Anglo-Catholic liberal movement in Britain and America, Darwinian evolution could be accommodated and even integrated into theology without interventionism, since God works immanently in and through the very processes of nature. In contrast, religious conservatives tended either to reject evolution as a whole or give it a limited acceptance with the proviso that the objective acts of special providence constitute divine interventions in nature.

The rise of neo-orthodoxy in the twentieth century

Protestant theology in the first half of the twentieth century was largely shaped by Karl Barth. In his rejection of nineteenth-century liberal theology, Barth returned theology to its biblical roots and focused it on the God who is “wholly other.” Recognizing that a religion founded exclusively on subjective experience is vulnerable to the critiques of Feuerbach and Freud, Barth and his followers held fast to the objective action of God in creating and redeeming the world. “The Gospel is . . . not an event, nor an experience, nor an emotion—however delicate! ... It is a communication which presumes faith in the living God, and which creates that which it presumes.” The ‘God who acts’ became a hallmark of the ensuing “biblical theology” movement which arose in the 1940s and 1950s. To many this movement seemed to offer a tertium quid between liberal and conservative theologies.

But do Barthian neo-orthodoxy and the biblical theology movement actually produce a credible account of divine action? On the one hand neo-orthodoxy attempts to distance itself from liberal theology by retaining biblical language about God acting through wondrous events and by viewing revelation as including an objective act. Yet on the other hand, it, like liberalism, accepts the modern premise that nature is a closed causal system, as depicted by classical physics. The result is that neo-orthodoxy seems to assert a contradiction: God does act objectively in nature (as conservatives believe) and God does so without intervening, violating, suspending or obstructing the ordinary processes of nature understood as a closed causal system (as liberals believe).

A third way between liberal and conservative theologies

Any purported “third option” will require an intelligible concept of objectively special providence which does notentail divine intervention. Such a concept could serve as a genuine tertium quid to conservative and liberal notions of special providence, combining strengths borrowed from each. Specifically, we will seek to speak about special divine acts in which God acts objectively in an unusual and particularly meaningful way in, with, and through events which serve to mediate God’s action. We will seek to do so without entertaining—in fact by refusing—the additional claim that God must intervene in, or at least suspend, the laws of nature. Those laws are themselves the result of and description of God’s continuous creation, after all. I call this type of divine actionNon-Interventionist Objective Divine Action (NIODA).

In part 2 of this series, Tom Burnett will explore in more depth what Russell takes to be wrong with the Enlightenment concept of “supernatural intervention.” Part 3 will explain and clarify Russell’s theory of NIODA.

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.


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.


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