Natural law, creation and R J Russell

Commenting on an Uncommon Descent thread about chance, I used the example of tossing 1000 heads in a row with a coin as being evidence, without any further information, of design. It was the old argument that strictly, even miracles are likely to be indistinguishable from chance except by their having a specific meaning and greater improbability. The division between miracle and chance, as I said there, is theologically somewhat of a false dichotomy, as is all talk of divine intervention. And that’s because classical theology attributes all actions in the Universe to God as first cause. You can’t intervene in what you’re already doing.

Take that coin example. Let’s suppose that there is no discernible physical cause for the constant run of “heads”. The basic choice would be between “chance”, and divine action of indeterminate type (let’s exclude aliens or ghosts for the sake of argument). Of the first, there’s an interesting quote in R J Russell’s Cosmology from William Pollard, going back to 1958 (though B B Warfield said much the same in the nineteenth century):

Chance as such simply cannot be the cause or reason for anything happening.

Instead, as Russell explains, “it stands for our ignorance of hidden, but real, causes. Thus, since science knows it cannot discover them, it makes sense to posit God as providing the ultimate cause for particular natural events.” Chance, in other words, defaults ultimately to divine action anyway, if classical theism (and biblical Yahwism) is true.

Let’s suppose for a moment, not only that one had a run of 1000 heads, but that every time any coin were tossed, it came up heads, and that, once more, no physical explanation could be found. That would actually take the phenomenon from the category of “chance” or “miracle” to being a law of nature, simply because God did the same thing every time.

Why do we not find laws of this kind, then? Some would say we do, such as Murphy’s Law which, in one iteration, says that buttered toast will always fall face downwards on expensive carpets, but face up on vinyl. But the real reason there is no Law of Heads is that God is both rational and efficient. He limits natural laws to a very few ultimately simple, and useful, principles. Even those are apparently arbitrary, though, which is the background to cosmic fine tuning.

Is that idea of natural law as divine habit foolishly naive? Russell thinks not, to a surprising extent for a science and faith writer. In the first place he casts doubt on the ultimate validity of natural laws anyway:

First of all, most scholars recognize that the actual laws of nature – if there are such laws – are only partially and provisionally represented by the laws contained in particular scientific theories such as quantum mechanics; whether we will ever discover the actual laws is a debatable question.”

Maybe “habit” isn’t such a bad description after all. But he goes on to say that, “assuming there are such actual laws”, some scholars see them as platonic realities which natural processes have to “obey”, but others as “descriptions of what are either simply natural regularities or, perhaps underlying these, the causal efficacy of nature itself.” This latter sounds even more like “habit”, and it is the position Russell himself prefers.

But in both interpretations, he says, the theological perspective would be the same. They…

…are due ultimately to God’s faithful and trustworthy action in creating the world ex nihilo.

So far that sounds like the typical “statistical deist” position so often seen on BioLogos. But he goes on in a way clearly faithful to classical theism:

God’s action as Creator is accomplished both as a whole and at each moment and, through such faithful and trustworthy action, the world is given its natural regularities as described by the laws of nature. In a trinitarian doctrine of God, these natural regularities and the intelligibility of nature are a result of the world being created theough the second Person of the Trinity, the λογος of God (John 1:3; Heb. 1:2).

This is the ultimate hands-on creation, the hands in question being (as I said in the series on Christological Creation) those of our loving King and Saviour.

In Russell’s estimation, as in mine, such a view makes it absolutely legitimate for God, in his active ongoing purpose, to turn up a “tails” from time to time. It’s the exception that proves the rule.  But in fact Russell goes on to explain why he doesn’t customarily speak like that, and often talks about laws as principles that nature obeys. His explanation is that he has undertaken to “play the game” [his quotes] of theology and science fairly. To say that “the laws are mere descriptions and cannot apply apodically or normatively in all cases” is best used sparingly, not because it is false but because “it threatens to end the discussion with science.”

Whether I agree with this “non-realist natural lawism” I’m not sure. But it would be good if more people realised the nature of the literal game that’s being played in science-faith dialogue.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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24 Responses to Natural law, creation and R J Russell

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    This “non-realist natural lawism” is not as far-fetched as you think. There is a sizable group in the philosophy of nature that start with dispositional essentialism, and end up with what they call a ‘lawless’ position. According to that, rules of nature are not in any way external to objects, but are just descriptions of the usual behaviour that results from the dispositions that constitute those objects.

    See, for example, Stephen Mumford’s article “Laws and Lawlessness” at . Nothing to be ashamed about, as Russell fears perhaps.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:


    I thin there is a philosophy-science dialogue in this area, and the faith-science dialogue appears to be ‘fitted’ uncomfortably in this. The notion of laws is strictly speaking derived from metaphysics. Science provides theories and models which approximate “what is out there”. The most basic premise that I can think of for science, is that nature is derived, or the result of, real entities. We can illustrate this by considering the physicist’s particles, or the chemist’s periodic table of the elements. All substances in Nature are from these particles, and are the result of combinations to form molecules that make up all substances we know. The diversity in Nature appears almost infinite to a chemist, because the ways the elements may combine has not been exhausted – and we cannot see how a limit to such combinations may be reached.

    Metaphysical discussions are focussed on laws as regularities in Nature, or as governing principles that perhaps may be given within a causal chain. I cannot speak about philosophy; scientifically however, the instruments used to measure properties shown often to be uniquely characteristic of molecules, and the ability to visualise atoms that make up molecules, gives science a realism that is associated with sense certainty. When we extend this outlook to constants that to us are immutable and independent of how (and who) obtains these, we are left with a staggering certainty that the world MUST be as it is. I conclude from this that underpinning the Universe are real entities (real now means ultimate, indisputable, absolute, etc.). This I see as consistent with the Faith teaching us that the word of God created – the logos is more then a principle thought by Hellenic philosophers – it is the ultimate act of creation.
    I think the notion of randomness as is often discussed in BioLogos for bio-forms and evolution, is more often a confession of ignorance, and not as a scientific insight. An inexhaustible range of substances for bio-forms can be derived from combinations involving C, H, O (with smaller amounts of S, N, P, and other elements) – this is not due to random things, but the Nature of Nature. Science makes observations that are related to energetics and kinetics of chemical events, and more complex events such as found in genetic science, and these are given regularity statements or theories when these systems are of a limited complexity. When the complexity is very large, science finds it difficult to obtain regularities at this point in time – this does not mean that these complex systems will always be beyond science.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Ian and GD

    Thanks for comments – I shall read Mumford’s piece at leisure. On the face of it there seems a link between that interpretation of the world and Thomas Aquinas’ Aristotelian view, in which the nature of objects themselves, rather than the Universe in which they reside, dictates their behaviour.

    I believe you’re both working scientists – is it your impression that most of your colleagues pay any heed to these philosophical/metaphysical distinctions? Engaging with people at BioLogos, it seems to be accepted as more or less axiomatic that Laws Must Be Obeyed Without Question At All Times (to quote an ancient radio SF thriller), and that therefore God must do miracles even to bend them. Russell, if I read him right, seems to work on that view for the sake of dialogue. I’d rather challenge it as insufficiently founded, I think.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    This I see as consistent with the Faith teaching us that the word of God created – the logos is more then a principle thought by Hellenic philosophers – it is the ultimate act of creation.

    This strikes me as well, from the theological side. If the Son, the Logos, also known as the Wisdom of God, is the hands-on means of creation, and if that creation is his ongoing activity moment by moment, and if we take that biblical sense of “logos” as word-act, then one would expect the Universe to be a pretty close expression of who the Son, and therefore God, is.

    That includes both its physical aspects and its functional aspects, including the matching of human reason. It gives weight to Aquinas’ approach to “natural theology”, that is a high view of what we can know of God by natural revelation (without downplaying the importance and uniqueness of supernatural revelation).

    That’s a challenge when today’s wordview, even amongst believers, is of a deranged world of randomness and evil, but I’ve already concluded on other grounds that that is a problem of human viewpoint, not of the world.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:


    I have not studied Aquinas in great detail (although what you say of him is agreeable), but as I have stated before, what I have read of Natural Theology leaves me unimpressed. You say, “….. one would expect the Universe to be a pretty close expression of who the Son, and therefore God, is.” I would state it differently – the creation would add to our understanding of the attribute of God the Creator. I agree the Logos shows us the creation is via the power of God’s Word, and I would speculate that the intelligibility of the Universe is related to our ‘God given ability’ to comprehend the revealed word. This indicates human beings have the capacity, if God wills, to comprehend the wisdom of God displayed in the creation. I also see the creation pointing us to what I consider the “Law” in toto, which is God’s law. This is how I relate, or include, our understanding of Nature, with theology, and consider the creation pointing us to law in Nature. On other matters, it is a theological outlook in that the Word created according to God’s will, or the creation is within the overall notion of God’s plan. But on the rest of your statement, my response is what Christ said, i.e. “You have seen me (Christ), you have seen God” (therefore who God is).

  6. Ian Thompson says:

    Yes, I am a scientist by profession (nuclear reaction theory). But most of my colleagues adhere rather strictly to the external-law-based view of natural processes, and not the sort of Aristotelean view we have discussed a little here.

    About Russell. I met him earlier this year, and he was keen to ask me exactly this point: If laws describe what actually happens, and if external influences are significant, then surely then the laws have to be changed. There cannot be any sense of ‘violating’ the actual laws, can there? Yes, I said, agreeing with him.

    So Russell really does believe the view you attribute to him, but seems to having some trouble getting it accepted! You may think it insufficiently founded, but only, he would think, because he has not explained it properly yet.

    Another way of looking at this:: External influences are said to ‘violate the conservation of energy’. However, that law only holds for closed systems, and the existence of external influences implies that the system was NOT closed. That is, if there are new processes, then laws (as the description of actual processes) have to be revised.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I generally take the limitations of natural theology as those spelled out in Scripture, eg in Romans 1 “his eternal power and divine nature”, “his glory” in Psalm 19, his “kindness to all” in Acts 14. Yet those can be interpreted quite broadly, certainly to leave men without excuse.

    But we also need to know God, and that’s only through Christ and the revelation relating to him

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    If your last paragraph reflects Russell’s thinking, then he’s in the same arena as Alvin Plantinga, who makes exactly the same argument. Good to know that.

  9. Avatar photo GD says:


    If I understand it, an open system is taken to mean one in which an external agency (e.g. God) is able to ‘change’ any and/or all events. On this basis, intervention may involve a modification of the system, leading to the conclusion that regularities or laws of Nature would be changed.
    The point that bothers me is this. For an external agency to intervene in such an open system, that system is characterised in such a way that it cannot be ‘set or determined by laws’. Otherwise such a system is ‘open’ for the period of intervention, and I presume is ‘closed’ for the rest of the time. This is a crude way of saying this, but I think we may have trouble advocating what this open aspect of the Universe amounts to. The uncertainty principle at a quantum level appears to indicate lack of predictability by us as observers, rather than leaving the Universe permanently to the possibility of external intervention – what happens during periods in which intervention does not occur? Are the ‘laws of nature’ meant to keep the Universe regular? Are they also waiting for intervention which would change them and if so is this also a law of nature? I can see how removing the notion of laws as principles that regulate the Universe for all time may be a crude generalisation, but I cannot see how advocating openness to the Universe would necessarily solve the dilemma.

  10. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I’d say a truly open (in this sense – not the “Open Theism” nonsense) Universe is one in which God forms all events. In other words, he is the “system”, so “change”, “modification” doesn’t come into it. God both creates and sustains each moment.

    The regularity of nature (which as Russell and the philosophers he cites say, is quite hard to pin down to an absolute reality, but in practice is provisional, and/or statistical and/or approximate) is then a direct expression of the faithfulness of God.

    Yet that idea leaves open the possibility that, when regularity is not what is required – say, for the input of new information into the Universe via whatever mechanism – no laws are broken, any more than I break a law by putting a bar of 5/4 in a piece I’m playing in common time.

  11. Avatar photo GD says:


    An interesting suggestion – one thing though. If anything is added to Nature (or Universe) or taken out for that matter, and we can discuss this, it must by definition be detectable in some way. If this is so, we need to postulate a change in the nature of Nature. I find this outlook difficult to reconcile with what we know about the Universe (similar objection to the ID dilema).

    I think (at least I suspect) this may be an attempt to keep ‘regularities’ under the guise of God’s faithfulness and have the Darwin notion of chance, random and happenstance. I guess we all try to come to terms with things from Darwin and quantum mechanics. I take the ‘safe’ way out by stating we simply do not know enough on these matters (I am sure I do not know enough).

    On new information, I take it you mean miraculous events – this is due to God acting as He wills – I do not see this as adding another beat or theme to a symphony or another verse or line to a great poem (attractive as this notion is to me). It is a unique and personal event, done in such a way the Universe remains as God had willed it from the beginning – otherwise it would not be miraculous but a permanent change to Nature. There is still the notion of scientifically stating how God sustains the Universe – by this I mean how we would prove or detect such a thing. Lots of things to think about, what!

  12. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I think (at least I suspect) this may be an attempt to keep ‘regularities’ under the guise of God’s faithfulness

    On the contrary I think it preceded the idea of natural law, except in the loosest terms. “Law” in Scripture is just one analogy for God’s faithfulness in nature, where the ordinances of the stars etc are occsionally compared to the Law of Moses. But analogy isn’t definition. Older writers thought in terms of the God-given natures of objects, maintained by the will of God.

    I wan’t thinking mainly of miracles, but of special providence more generally, including whatever it is that makes the species God’s “creatures” rather than mere “products of a process”.

    But surely miracles, particularly, are a “permanent change to nature” if I’ve understood your point. On the face of it, after the 5000 were fed, there were many Kg more of organic mass in the Universe. That may negate conservation of mass, necessitating an open system, as we don’t read of mass disappearing from elsewhere to make the loaves and fishes. If we did, some other quite fundamental laws were performing abnormally along the way to get it into the wilderness.

    New information, in the general case, could easily include, as per Russell, quantum information. Even Russell asks “how often” God might regulate quantum events, but what does that mean? Quantum events are part of creation by the active will of God through the Logos, who is wisdom, love, reason and so on. How would they get exempted from serving his specific purposes merely by being scientifically indeterminate? Taking decisions by divine lot-casting would be neither wise, loving nor rational.

  13. Avatar photo GD says:


    I have failed in logging, and this has been for short time periods. It seems that a software problem exists when I post

  14. Avatar photo GD says:

    The last post has come through and I will try this now:

    A few points; feeding 5000 or changing water into wine, and so on, did not add new molecules or bring something into the creation that would be considered a ‘real’ change. However, I think that ‘pre-determined’, means that it is possible to argue that God made the Universe such, that at the particular time, Christ would feed the 5000. The major premise in this is still the ‘know-ability’ of such an event. People may have been amazed, or simply fed, and perhaps most believed that the disciples had brought the food with them. Whatever the case, all events (with the exception of those who had faith) can readily be see by people as ‘normal’ in that they are within the Universe as they knew it. I do not think the Universe is open in the sense that I would understand the term. On the conservation of mass and energy, it sounds a bit crazy, but in principle, why should causing non-bread molecules to become bread be any more, or any less, miraculous? It simply means the creation is subject to its creator.
    I use the term ‘Law’ to suggest that it preceded Moses, but it was given to Israel as part of the covenant. In this context, the Law, and the Word Creating, are synonymous in meaning. That is why I think Paul stated the rock that followed Israel and gave water in the dessert was Christ. I do not see this as bringing in additional mass to the Universe.
    Regularities in science are human constructs as we endeavour to understand nature. Creation is the reality and the ultimate scientific insight would, I think, be to scientifically articulate and understand the ‘real’ things God created, instead of the things we can perceive via our senses and instruments. I think Law precedes what we religious people regard as sin – this is why we may consider our existence as good and evil; this is within the Universe, which must be closed, as it cannot be considered to be part of God.
    I guess what we call theodicy and the Law become part of the discussion – my point in this discussion is to question the view of an ‘open’ Universe, as this would mean things can be added and removed from it. I take the view that the entire Universe from before its beginning, to after its end, has been predetermined by God, and this is how it is subject to His will. I understand how understanding Nature in all of its glory (and regularity, including seasons etc.) would inspire us to consider God in numerous way, including His faithfulness. However, the claims of atheists need to be considered, in their claim that if God is perfect goodness, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

  15. Avatar photo GD says:

    I tried to post the message I got when the post was stopped but this too did not come through – sorry but I cannot find the cause from here.

  16. James says:

    GD and Jon:

    I don’t think the Biblical text gives us any data from which we can determine whether the 5000 were fed with “new mass” (thus violating conservation law) or with mass that was transferred from elsewhere in the universe. It is of course within the power of a Sovereign God to do either. But either way, the event itself clearly involves direct supernatural action, not action working only through natural causes, since no natural cause can explain how 7 pieces of food can feed 5000. And of course, direct supernatural action is common in the Gospels, as in the Old Testament.

    I find this passage by GD puzzling:

    “People may have been amazed, or simply fed, and perhaps most believed that the disciples had brought the food with them. Whatever the case, all events (with the exception of those who had faith) can readily be see by people as ‘normal’ in that they are within the Universe as they knew it.”

    The suggestion that the crowd may have thought the disciples brought the food with them seems to have no basis in the text. Whether the disciples were on foot with backpacks, or travelling in the sort of small fishing-boat that poor Galilean fishermen generally used (which would have had no hold, or at most a modest-sized one, and with 12 disciples and Jesus crammed in it, there wouldn’t have been room left for much of a catch), they would have no way of carrying that much food with them. So the crowd, seeing these 13 guys with walking sticks and maybe a small lunch bag each, would naturally have asked: “Where did all this food come from?”

    I don’t believe that “all events can be seen as normal” except by those with the eyes of faith. Even Jerry Coyne has specified spectacular miracles which would make him believe. No Buddhist, atheist, or Greek pagan would think the Red Sea event was “normal” if he witnessed it. The Biblical miracles, or most of them, are not merely in the eye of the beholder. They are presented as objective physical events, and that means that a camera, placed on the site, would have recorded them; and cameras have no faith.

    It is precisely this feature of the Biblical text which causes many TEs, on BioLogos and elsewhere, to take up evasive tactics when someone asks them questions such as: “What would a camera have recorded when Jesus fed the 5000?” An atheist would say: “The camera would show that the disciples had a lot more food than indicated, that the crowd was a lot smaller than indicated, and that Jesus’s spiritual influence induced the crowd to accept small portions, so that no one would have to go without.” A YEC would say: “The camera would show the fish and loaves miraculously refilling the lunch bags after each dinner was handed out.” The BioLogos or ASA-TE will usually say something like: “We have to take into account the symbolism of bread and fish in Hebraic thought. Also, the number 7. Of course, I am far from denying that God could create new food ex nihilo if he wished, and we must be careful not to limit God’s power by our modern conceptions. Still, at the same time, we must consider the differences between the various Gospel accounts, the fact that there are two similar stories of feeding 5000 and 4000 which may indicate a redaction problem, and of course that Origen and Theomophilus the Syriac interpreted the story allegorically … I’m sorry, I must run along now, I have a lab to prepare for my students tomorrow; I’ll try to get back to you again next week. Oh, and the check is in the mail.”

  17. Avatar photo GD says:


    The bread and fish handed out to people would have been just like any other bread and fish – this would have been normal. Obviously a large crowd would wonder how the disciples would have obtained so much food, and those who knew and could see the disciples had only a small amount, understood what was happening was miraculous.

  18. Ian Thompson says:

    An extract from a very recent paper by Robert Russell.
    (The main subject is eschatology, but it contains a digression on divine action)


    Robert John Russell
    Zygon 47 (Dec 2012) 997-1014

    Part of page 1010:

    I do not believe we need to reject objective divine action in nature because it need not be construed as miraculous in light of contemporary science. As an alternative, I believe we can construct a new account of objective divine action, based on contemporary science, which is nonmiraculous (or in my terms “noninterventionist”). We can only do so, however, if nature can be interpreted philosophically as ontologically open to divine action— that is, if we can identify scientific theories from physics and biology to the neurosciences whose philosophical interpretation points to ontological indeterminism in nature. I have developed this approach, which I represent by the acronym NIODA (noninterventionist objective divine action), in several writings (Russell 2008, Chapters 4–6). … In short, then, while I agree with Nuernberger that much of the prescientific worldview found in the Bible and Christian tradition must be set aside as obsolete, noninterventionist objective divine action need not be rejected.

    Nuernberger rightly points out that scientists would insist that “the basic parameters and regularities underlying the current universe cannot be changed, suspended, or replaced” (975). I simply want to suggest that this is a philosophical assumption being made by scientists about science, whether they know it or not. It is not an intrinsic part of any particular scientific theory, such as quantum mechanics or general relativity.


  19. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for that, Ian. It more or less confirms his position in “Cosmology: from Alpha to Omega. And also confirms that he questions the philosophical presupposition involved, which is heartening.

    Incidentally, the same issue of Zygon has an article by John Waltom, which he was kind enough to send me (under embargo) in response to a query I sent him. I guess it’s not embargoed any more.

  20. Avatar photo GD says:

    Jon and Ian,

    Interesting points. I often think that the open universe may be a ‘side issue’ and one that seeks to counter views on divine intervention. The question of what is “open” in the Universe is poorly articulated imo, and I am uncertain as to the seriousness of the concept.

    We have the following statement by Polkinghorne, “ …. we have far no more that an epistemological limitation … without having anything of real ontological consequence…” (Reason and Reality, page 39).
    An interesting point of view is presented by Rosenberg in Philosophy of Science; his view is somewhat similar in terms of uncertainty and science, but articulated differently. He thinks the dogma of empiricism has been overthrown by recent philosophers, who now question meaningful and truthful statements in the sciences, and may (my words) prefer doubt rather than dogma in all science. Kuhn has essentially caused people to treat the exact, or physical sciences, as being just as easily influenced by people’s ambitions and beliefs, as the other disciplines, such as biology, economics etc.
    With this level of uncertainty and scepticism regarding all of the sciences, it seems inappropriate to equate God’s attributes (or His activities, as these are directly deduced from His attributes) with our limited and faulty understanding. Thus what appears open to us as scientific is more likely to be a reflection of our limited and imperfect understanding, rather than what is true.
    While I treat Polkinghorne’s approach with caution (imo he appears overly enthusiastic to combine the terms and concepts of physics with ones he uses when discussing his view on theology), I think that investing a great deal in an ‘open concept’ of the creation seems more of a reaction to the confusion found in the bio-sciences, rather that something that we can draw from our knowledge of God’s attributes.
    The regularities often discussed regarding physics, and the indeterminate nature attributed to the bio-world, are discussions pointing to human inadequacies regarding knowledge. The point of the Christian faith is to acknowledge our inadequacies and errors, and on this turn to God for justification and redemption. The faith cannot accept a reversal of this, in that our knowledge of nature provides a basis for understanding what and how God does things.

  21. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I’ve just started Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith, a weighty symposium questioning the neo-liberal views of Bible scholars like Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns.

    Its opening chapters look at the recent developments in epistemology you refer to, which (naturally) apply even more to Critical Bible Scholarship than to the natural sciences, yet in the same way. The old assumption that the best, or even only, ways to true knowledge are via “scientific” epistemologies are losing their authority, and not before time to those of us who have been, sometimes inarticulately, espousing a different viewpoint all our lives.

  22. Avatar photo GD says:


    True enough – however the general outcome from the assault on the imperium of Science has been inordinate skepticism resulting in post-modernism and deconstruction. It seems to be ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’.

    My position, as you have realised, is to look to Orthodoxy for theological thinking, and then see what else is needed in terms of knowledge and understanding regarding Faith.

    It is not science that is at fault in all of this mixture, and Rosenburg (who seems totally unsympethatic to religious views) shows the history of scientific authority is mostly due to philosophical/empirical outlooks that have dominated western thinking. Some branches of western theology have added their own (heterodox) theology to this potent mix. The controversy around laws of science, or regularties, or realities, is testimony to this ill advised outlook.

    The spill-over to Biblical interpretation, especially with Darwin, simply expands this mix.

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