About Providence, Divine Action and the Church


In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Monday, 25 October 2010

On Primary Causation (1)

I don’t suppose that many writers enjoy stumbling across critiques of their work, especially if the critiques in question appear not to exhibit meticulous interaction with the text. Imagine my dismay, then, when I inwardly digested Ian McFarland’s mostly negative assessment of Providence Made Flesh in a recent edition of the Evangelical Quarterly (82:3 [2010], pp. 286–288). Some judgements there left me unconvinced that the reviewer had fully engaged with the material. Immature and insecure, I find myself desirous of an opportunity to irritate my assailant by flapping the volume he faulted in the closest of proximities to his face until finally an admission leaks freely from his pen, a formal declaration crafted from a position of absolute sincerity and immutable conviction, that Providence Made Flesh is without doubt an outstanding contribution to modern theological scholarship and an unparalleled masterpiece of our times.

But while I am immature and insecure, I am also realistic. I recognise that a book review is just that: a book review, one person’s opinion of another’s aggregated opinion, limited in expression by the word count imposed by the host publication. Book reviews are seldom sustained treatments of thought, and McFarland is entitled to hold his opinion without my obsessing about it on a blog that few people actually read.

That said, I can’t resist rising to this charge (p. 287):

Most seriously, his [Wright’s] analysis of the language of primary and secondary causation betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of it. He persistently characterizes secondary causes as a means of ‘mediating’ or ‘bridging’ between God and creation, but this imagery is inconsistent with the doctrine of creation from nothing that shapes theories of double agency. Creation from nothing means that God is the only condition of every creature’s being. It follows that a creature exists only because it is at every moment and in every dimension of its existence sustained by God. That is what is means to speak of God as ‘primary cause’. Among the creatures that God sustains in this way, some relate to other creatures as cause to effect. These ‘secondary’ causes do not ‘mediate’ between God and creation. No mediation is necessary, because the whole created sequence of (secondary) causes and effects is in its entirety the work of God. As Creator, God is immediately present to all of creation all the time. Some of the creatures God sustains have the characteristic of being secondary causes, but to name them as such is not to describe how God interacts with them; it is simply a means of distinguishing causal relationships among creatures, on the one hand, from the causal relationship that exists between all creatures and God, on the other.
I suspect that McFarland has a slightly different understanding of ‘mediation’ than me, for I find it difficult to picture a world to which God is immediately present, unless I hold that God is present to the whole of creation without also somehow being present in creation – and surely that would suggest some form of dualism. My point about creaturely secondary causes mediating divine primary causation is simply that when employed, the concept of secondary causation appears to function in such a way that God is depicted as present in all things while remaining ontologically distinct from all things. But let me now examine McFarland’s account of primary and secondary causation, as above expressed.

… a creature exists only because it is at every moment and in every dimension of its existence sustained by God. That is what it means to speak of God as ‘primary cause’. I can’t really disagree with this… but see On Primary Causation (2).

Among the creatures that God sustains in this way, some relate to other creatures as cause to effect. Why are only some of the creatures that God sustains labelled ‘secondary causes’? Are there some creatures that do not cause or have an effect on their environment?

… the whole created sequence of (secondary) causes and effects is in its entirety the work of God. What does this sentiment actually mean? Is it no more than an affirmation that God continuously upholds all things, granting existence to all things and providing the ontological ground for real created causes to have real created effects that the secondary causes themselves genuinely produce? Or is it more a declaration that God not only upholds all things, but that the causal efficacy that each created cause enjoys is actually God’s own causal efficacy? How far does McFarland’s statement stray from a notion of simple preservation to an idea of preservation through concurrence, which does imply that primary causation is mediated through secondary causation?

Some of the creatures God sustains have the characteristic of being secondary causes, but to name them as such is not to describe how God interacts with them; it is simply a means of distinguishing causal relationships among creatures, on the one hand, from the causal relationship that exists between all creatures and God, on the other. I don’t accept that naming secondary causes secondary causes is not to describe God’s interaction with them. The very idea that they are secondary causes implies a relation to some kind of primary cause, otherwise there’s no reason to label them secondary causes. Anyway, it seems to me that McFarland has even admitted a relation between the two, for God the primary cause at least upholds the world of secondary causes.

In writing this post, it occurs to me that the notion of primary causation is difficult to define with any consistency. If to speak of God as primary cause is only to say that God sustains all things in existence, why do so many statements about divine providence appear to go further and imply that God as primary cause actually enacts whatever secondary causes are said to do? I’ll look at this further in my next post.

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