Robert John Russell
 on May 16, 2016

Miracles and Science: A Third Way

My model, Non-Interventionist Objective Divine Action, allows us to ascribe actions to God in the natural world that do not violate the laws of nature.


NOTE: This article is part of a BioLogos conversation on the topic of divine action. How can we understand God’s action in creation? Do the discoveries of modern science leave less room for God to act? We hope that these perspectives help foster greater understanding and more productive dialogue among Christians. 

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 this essay, 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.

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 next.

Part 2

Earlier, I described the two traditional categories of divine action: 1) non-miraculous non-interventionist, subjective divine action; and 2) miraculous, interventionist, objective divine action. I affirm the reality of events described by both of these categories, but I believe that there is a need for a new theological category to understand how God acts through natural processes on a regular basis. This combines the best of the preceding two categories while avoiding the problems of each of them. It is more than the subjective interpretation of an ordinary event and it is less than an objective interpretation of a special event requiring divine, miraculous intervention to bring it about. Here I have used the term “objective” to refer specifically to the idea that God acts with nature to bring about an event in the world and one which makes a difference in the future. I also use the term “non-interventionist” to refer to this event happening in a way that does not entail its being miraculous, at least in the Humean sense. My acronym for this concept is NIODA: non-interventionist objective divine action.

NIODA, in turn, requires the possibility that the world of natural processes, at some or many levels of complexity, is causally incomplete: here God may act non-miraculously to produce an event in nature which nature on its own would not have produced. In this way, the principle of sufficient reason (that for every effect there is a sufficient cause) is satisfied in some cases by the direct action of God even though in an overwhelming number of cases it is satisfied by natural causes. Thus NIODA in no way runs into conflict with science since it bases its philosophical interpretation of the processes of nature on the theories of the natural sciences. It asks whether there are one, or several, areas in the natural sciences where science itself leads to a view of nature as including events for which the natural causes that contribute to them are insufficient to bring them about. I use the term “indeterminism” or better yet, “ontological indeterminism,” to refer to a philosophical interpretation of the various areas in the natural sciences in which these sciences allow for such a possibility in nature.

The crucial point here is that the philosophical interpretation of nature as indeterministic creates space for this new option for divine action. I believe this option has tremendous theological promise for understanding God’s ongoing involvement in the natural world without having to resort to the Humean “violation of natural laws” definition of miracles. The challenge is to find one or more areas in contemporary science that permit an indeterministic interpretation of the ontology of nature. When such areas are actually found, and thus when NIODA is possible, I then import this philosophical interpretation into Christian theology, resulting, hopefully, in a more persuasive and compelling account of God’s action in nature which is consistent with science. God is not only nature’s creator ex nihilo and sustainer via creatio continua. God’s action in nature can also give rise to events that are not miraculous but which result in something happening in nature which would not have occurred without God acting in this special way. God does so in ways which do not contradict the predictions of science since these predictions, given the underlying ontological indeterminism, will be statistical / stochastic. I strongly believe that quantum mechanics (QM) provides one such area in the natural sciences where a NIODA version of divine action can be sustained. Thus my primary focus here is on such a “QM-NIODA” account of divine action.

Quantum processes underlie and give rise to the general features of the classical physical world as well as specific macroscopic effects in the classical physical world. These facts may be interpreted theologically as follows:

  1. Divine action at the quantum level results in the general features of the classical world, features which typically fall within the category of general providence.
  2. Divine action at the quantum level also results in specific features and events in the classical world, features and events, some of which fall within the category of special providence.

From a theological perspective, God’s non-interventionist action at the quantum level gives rise to the creation of these general features of the classical world as well as to their sustenance and physical development in time, or what we would routinely call general providence (or continuous creation). (Note: This theological claim could be sustained even if a deterministic version of QM were correct, such as David Bohm’s non-local hidden variables version. It doesn’t rely specifically on Copenhagen’s ontologically indeterministic version. The reason is that God can be seen as acting “in, with, and through” the regular processes of nature to bring about what we call “general providence.” Such divine action can be what I previously labeled “subjective divine action” in a deterministic world as compared with “objective / miraculous divine action” in a deterministic world.[1])

Quantum processes also underlie and give rise to specific effects in the macroscopic world in several ways. One way is through those phenomena, such as superfluidity and superconductivity, which, though found in the ordinary classical world, are really “bulk” quantum states—what George Ellis calls “essentially quantum effects at the macro level.”

Another, and quite different, way is through specific quantum processes, which, when amplified, result in particular classical effects in the classical world. It is the latter that will be part of what we think theologically in terms of special providence—although as I indicated above, special providence includes many events in nature and history which seem to fall far beyond what the amplification of quantum events can produce. Obvious examples of amplified effects range from such jury-rigged situations as “Schrödinger’s cat” to such routine measurement devices as a Geiger counter. But the amplification of specific effects in the macroscopic level from quantum processes includes a whole range of phenomena such as the animal eye responding to a single photon, mental states resulting from quantum events at neural junctions,[2] or the phenotypic expression of a single genetic mutation in an organism (resulting, for example, in sickle-cell anemia or cancer).

In sum: the results of God’s action at the quantum level can be seen as bringing about, in a non-interventionist mode, both the general features of the world we describe theologically in terms of general providence (or continuous creation) and at least some of those specific events in the world to which a theology of special providence refers.

NIODA and Evolution

Continuing, now, from what I pointed to above, one of the most fruitful applications of a theology of QM-NIODA is in the context of evolutionary biology, namely a theistic interpretation of evolution or “theistic evolution” (TE), which broadly speaking claims that God is the creator of the diversity of species that we find spanning the evolutionary history of life on earth. Although there is a spectrum of voices for TE, all of us seem to agree on one point at least: A very strong theological case can be made that God continuously creates through the processes of biological evolution. It is a case which accepts standard Darwinian science without needing to expand its explanatory methods to include ‘agency’ (contrary to Intelligent Design) and one which claims that evolutionary biology is how God creates the diversity of species on earth (contrary to atheistic evolution). Here, long before the evolution of humankind and our creation of measuring instruments, nature was replete with quantum amplification of a biological form.

We start with God’s action at the quantum level in the context of molecular biology. Quantum processes are essential to the production of genetic variation, and genetic variation can lead to phenotypic variation in the populations of living species. I call the genotype-phenotype relation a “biological amplifier.” Here natural selection is at work, favoring those phenotypes with greater fitness in the competition for finite resources in changing environments. This in turn contributes to both microevolution and, even more importantly, macroevolution. I dub this the “green Schroedinger’s cat”: biological processes of genetic expression and phenotypic competition over long periods of time lead to new speciation in nature due to God’s non-interventionist action at the quantum level of genetic variation.[3]

In this way I believe that the most significant accomplishment of QM-NIODA is in delivering on the “promissory note” of TE by those scholars who support TE but may not be able to fully articulate just how God’s action in evolution can bring about events in nature, such as the appearance of biological design and the diversity of well-adapted species, without challenging the standard methodology of the natural sciences (methodological naturalism) as ID does.

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