Miracles and Science: A Third Way
Article by Robert John Russell (2016)
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What is the Science?

Ever since the Enlightenment period in the 18th century, Western Christians have largely had only two choices available to understand God’s work in the world: 1) God suspends natural laws in order to really act in the world supernaturally; 2) God appears to be acting in ordinary natural processes but is not really acting in a special or objective way. Recent work by scientists and theologians, particularly the scientist-theologian Robert John Russell, has suggested a new way that incorporates both scripture and new developments in science.

Increasingly, physicists have realized that scientific laws are not infallible predictors of future events, but rather statistical probabilities (with high degrees of accuracy) that cannot describe what must occur in every situation. This view recognizes the “ontological indeterminism” (that is, physical processes are not set in stone) of ordinary processes of the world and makes space for a new way to understand how God works in the world. Robert John Russell has developed a theory called Non-Interventionist Objective Divine Action (NIODA) to describe how God most often works without suspending the laws of nature. For Russell, NIODA does not supersede the first and second choices in the previous paragraphs; rather, it offers a way to talk about how God most often works in the world in a way that moves beyond the liberal-conservative divide. NIODA understands God to work within natural processes while still making space for miracles, prayer, and special providence.

NIODA (Non-Interventionist Objective Divine Action): A theory about one way God acts in nature. It argues that God “objectively” works to bring about an event in nature without pausing or superceding the natural laws of physics. It relies heavily upon quantum mechanics rather than Newtonian physics.

Ontological indeterminism: A concept which arises out of quantum mechanics that physical processes are not set in stone but are rather statistical probabilities.

NIODA understands God to work within natural processes while still making space for miracles, prayer, and special providence.

What is the Theology?

Christians’ commitment to a God who acts in the world is often a stumbling block to those who desire to reconcile science and Christianity. NIODA provides a way to understand God’s work in the world while simultaneously exercising a strong commitment to science. It can be a tool to dialogue with the scientific world while simultaneously recognizing God’s work in the world. In sermons, pastors might integrate NIODA into a sermon on God’s creating or sustaining roles in the world, using the creation narratives in Genesis 1:1-2:4 or Genesis 2:4-3:24, or Psalm 33. They can also look anew at prayer, miracles, and special providence and help congregations see a new way to understand divine action that bypasses the liberal-conservative divide.

What to Consider

  • What terms and concepts have you and/or your tradition used to understand the ways God works in the world?
  • How do you view the relationship between science and Christianity? (Check out this post to see the different ways of understanding this relationship)
  • What is the role of prayer in divine intervention?

How to go Deeper

  • Hold a healing service. Depending on your tradition, you might try introducing the time of healing with a story of Jesus healing (such as this one in Mark 10:46-52) and a synopsis of NIODA.
  • Read Matthew 9:1-8 and Proverbs 8:22-36 and compare the different ways that God acts in both of these passages. Connect these passages to modern day miracles and different ways of discussing divine intervention. Talk about the different ways that God works in our lives and in all of creation as the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.
  • Preach a series or teach a class on prayer. Use NIODA (as well as the other ways this article understands God to work) to show how prayer might transform both those who pray as well as the people and things that are being prayed for.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

Related Research

Cosmology: From Alpha to Omega by Robert John Russell

Divine Action Blog Series  by BioLogos

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About the Author:

Zach is currently a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the role of leaders in congregational change. His calling in life is to train and equip pastors to faithfully lead local congregations. When not studying, he'll most likely be watching Sporting Kansas City score goals or hiking with his wife and two kids.

2 Comments

  1. Reed Metcalf February 3, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    An amazing theory by Russell. I likely need to read through this several more times–and read up on quantum mechanics–but it seems that Russell has given us a scientific niche for God’s continual activity in the world, without needing God to constantly intervene through miraculous events. I think this is a welcome corrective to both the god of deism and the god of intelligent design, the former being tremendously uninvolved except on the rare occasion, the latter having no regard for the governing laws of the universe by constantly breaking them for his purposes. I do not think that we need to do away with either a conviction of God’s foresight in creating wise laws that govern the universe nor with God’s miraculous interventions at key points in history; instead, Russell’s theory leaves room for both while also holding that God’s everyday activity in sustaining and perpetuating the universe fits within current scientific theory.

    With all that said, I can’t help but wonder if this is a new “God of the gaps” theory; I simply don’t know enough about quantum mechanics. Still, as a scientific layperson, it seems to me that Russell’s theory is susceptible to such a critique.

  2. matt@ncstudycenter.org June 29, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    Very interesting! I looked up Robert John Russell and he has fairly extensive study in both theology and science. The rare breed we need exploring such questions!

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