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

| By Robert John Russell

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 bookCosmology: 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.

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



“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 anyphenomena 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-interventionistobjective 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.


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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