3 Types of Divine Action

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by Felipe Diez III

This essay is designed to introduce and logically define a few terms that many Calvinists, some Roman Catholics, Cartesian Rationalists, and some Muslims (natural or Quranic) have believed about how Predestination works itself out in the natural world. In general, this type of study has been termed “determinism, divine causality, or occasionalism.” This blog will not be a defense of these sets of positions that presuppose a high view of predestination. Rather, it will be an outline for the views propounded by a few sources I have collected. All of the aforementioned groups believe in predestination in its non-molinistic and certainly non-Arminian conceptions (which are not appropriate models of predestination at all).

The study of causality, God’s action in the universe, has ancient roots, and has been the occasion of some heated polemic, resulting in some censures and even excommunications. Some theologians and philosophers who believe in Predestination argue that the fashion in which God carries out His decrees is a bit more restricted than saturated, and vice versa. By restricted, I mean that there is the action of God’s will and then there is the creation that interacts with God, or, rather, that God causally interacts with, or both. A restricted causality would state that God is the first and ultimate cause of all things, but that there are genuine proximate causes, such as creatures that proximally act upon themselves or other creatures and objects. These theologians are not stating that God is physically or proximally removed from these proximal causes, but that they are causes in and of themselves, even though God stays omnipotent and omnipresent. Those who argue for a more saturated causality state that if God is omnipotent and omnipresent, then proximate causes (creatures) must either be “illusion-like causes, vulgar causes, or quasi-causes,” and that the only genuine cause is God, whether first or proximal, since the universe is in constant motion with God’s agency moving and controlling all things to carry out His will of decree.

Theologians who wish to restrict God’s action from proximal causes do so for reasons of theodicy. They aver that if God is the proximate cause (or works alongside the proximate cause), that this would mean that God literally caused and moved SS German officers to gas Jews during the Holocaust. Such theologians find it morally repugnant to state that God is the only cause. For this reason, Malebranche bluffed in his writings and only assigned total causality to God’s good acts, but stated incoherently that as it relates to evil, God’s causality is passive. Readers will quickly pick up on the fact that a passive cause is at least a hard paradox. Malebranche, Roman Catholic that he was, and a high predestinarian at that, would like to “distance God from evil” for pious purposes. Others, however, particularly high and hyper-calvinists, who dismiss theodicy as a “straw problem,” do not mind to assign the Lord the title of the First and Ultimate cause of the existence of evil in the world – and a few have even inserted the word “proximate” in this equation, causing a strong reaction by most people that these High or also Hyper-Calvinists are staining God with evil. “God is the Author of evil,” they aver with frustration. But on the other hand, some people find it morally repugnant that God be far removed from the proximate causes (creatures). These people desire as little creaturly autonomy as possible in their systems, since this would disturb the Christian thesis that God is the sustainer and upholder of all things, and for that matter, they poignantly ask “how could God govern a creature that acts autonomously wherein God is removed from the “action” of the creature or object?”

Here is a list of terms and definitions I have arranged in a 3 stage spectrum, starting from the hardest and most saturated form of total causality to the most restricted one in a legitimate predestinarian theological system.

A). Total / High / Strong Occasionalism:  Divine causal activity is maximal and creaturely causal activity is non-existent, since divine causal activity is the only type of genuine causality. Creatures provide at most an occasion for God’s activity, which is direct and immediate in bringing about all effects in nature.[1] Some adherents of this view, such as Nicholas Malebranche, believe that to not assign God as the only cause or the only true cause robs Him of His glory. Stated as nuggets of excellent quotes in David Scott’s phenomenal account of Malebranche, the 17th century occasionalist states: “God’s will is realized instantly. ..all natural forces are therefore nothing but the will of God, which is always efficacious.” David Scott continues: “The criticism [of those who ascribe creatures true causality] is two-fold: ancient philosophers falsely ascribe causality to creatures; and there are “dangerous” pagan consequences of this. To ascribe true causality to creatures, then, “seems to justify a religion similar to that of the pagans.” Scott continues on his commentary of the theologian: “People love and honor things in proportion to the degree to which they receive benefit from them, and to ascribe causal efficacy to creatures, says Malebranche, is akin to the worship and adoration of onions and leeks. It is the divinization of nature, and so occasionalism can be viewed as a theological remedy to paganism.”[2]

The Stanford Encyclopedia includes a phrase provided by Alfred Fedrosso with its explication. “The other issue that occasionalism addresses is one that concerns how divine causality relates to natural causality, or as Alfred Freddoso has put it, “the general problem of divine action in nature” (Freddoso 1994, 131–5). The problem, as Freddoso notes, consists of the following questions: if God ultimately is the first and direct cause of everything, including whatever occurs and exists in nature, can there be any causal activity on the part of creatures?; and if there is secondary causation, how does this causal activity fit in with God’s causal activity?”

 Other Philosophers, such as Jonathan Edwards and probably Bishop Berkley taught a form of occasionalism, although it appears as though Edwards, an avowed Calvinist, looked to the Scriptures as his first principle for ascertaining the question of creaturly causation. As for Berkley, perhaps the young Berkleyan J Adam Johnson can bring more insight into this blog post. There are two ways one may approach the first principle of occasionalism in any of its forms. One may start with natural theology and metaphysics that results from the observation of nature, or one may begin my consulting the Scriptures alone, which is the method I strongly advocate. At any rate, Strong occasionalism gives creatures either no causality (illusory “occasional” causality) or slight causality.

B). Divine Concurrentism (moderate occasionalism): One can, like Malebranche, state that God’s causality is total and completely saturated, although with certain qualifications that would prevent an unbiblical and truly pagan model of Spinozism (Rationalistic Pantheism). What Malebranche was not stating is that creatures have no volition of their own. He was stating that their volition had no causal efficacy, so creatures still stay as creatures, contra Pantheism / Panentheism. For those who are not convinced by Total Occasionalism, a seemingly more popular model among a vast number of Roman Catholic high predestinarians, Calvinists, and some natural theologians of other traditions is Divine Concurrentism, or moderate occasionalism. The Stanford encyclopedia states: “Concurrentism (or “divine concurrentism”) can then be seen as occupying the middle ground. Concurrentists hold that when a natural effect is produced, it is immediately caused by both God and the creature. God and the creature are both directly involved and “concur” in bringing about the natural effects typically attributed to the creature.” This view still presupposes a very high deterministic and predestinarian model that can easily be reconciled with biblical data. If we are honest, as some say, with historical figures such as Geraud de Cordemoy, Louis de la Forge, Arnold Geulincx, and even Descartes, we may conclude that their work may be more easily reconciled with this view of moderate occasionalism. Many Calvinists including Johannes Maccovius, Theodore Beza, Franciscus Gomarus, and Gordon Clark (20th century) appear to have held to this view[3], although this cannot right now be independently confirmed. What is known, however, is that these High Calvinists, or supralapsarians, held a very high view of total Predestination and affirmed some causality to creatures, either slight or moderate, yet probably not total. What is elusive to us is whether or not they (minus Clark) knew of this mostly French and Muslim natural theology / philosophy (occasionalism) by name and by definition. At any rate, Any high predestinarian would surely have something to say regarding creaturly causality, and whether or not theologians in various lands who had not met or heard of each other would have and in fact did address this issue in their respective works. It is, however, difficult to imagine that the Dutch and English Reformers of the 17th century would not have heard of or read Descartes, whose rationalistic school dominated France for at least a century and crept quickly (minus England) into other parts of Europe and the United States.

            Divine concurrentism works remarkably well among confessional Calvinists, for it is inclusive of the portion of the Westminster Confession that mentions second causes. However, since Westminster was not a treatise focusing on causality, especially secondary causality, we are left to wonder what the Divines meant by “second causes.” A Divine concurrentist could easily state that since God must be Sovereign even in proximal causes (those closest to the moment, duration, and perpetual change in a creature), and this is generally the Calvinist view, but most of us unfortunately simply stop there, since many Reformed aver, to our dismay, that the Bible by no means addresses issues of intricate causality that can be deduced from its larger high predestinarian data. We hope to awaken the “deductive spirits” in our brethren, and spur them to begin to think of more metaphysical and yet important issues to the glory of God.

            But theory B states that “when a natural effect is produced, it is immediately caused by both God and the creature.” Immediately, some questions arise here: Is God the first or second agent in this dual model of proximal causation? If God is the first agent, why not move up a notch toward Total Occasionalism and leave the creature with minimal causality? A quick concurrentist response would be that even if God is the major sovereign acting thrust in the equation, and the creature simply follows (yet immediately), producing this dual action, this does not necessitate the inquirer’s desire for us to move up a notch. In other words, if God is to stay Sovereign and controlling of proximate (secondary) causes, even as we push Westminster’s language to its ambiguous limits, this does not mean that then the creature is totally passive or devoid of causality. Granted, we may give a creature limited causality during this “dual causality model” and not have to say that then the creature has an illusory causality or none at all. It is my conention, at least right now, that the Bible speaks of secondary causation, although it does not give much of a theory as to how this works. But I am not convinced that we must stay content with “God is Sovereign even in the second causes” and go no further. This does not mean much – it gives us little data to work with. But concurrentism seems to be the way that most Reformers contemplated the issue. They, after all, were not highly preoccupied with it.

If I decide to have lunch by microwaving macaroni and cheese (which I am doing right now), the concurrentist model posits that God is in control of the heat waves that warm up my meal. But that says nothing of what God is doing or how my meal is being warmed up. I take it out of the microwave, and voila, it has undergone a particular change whereby particles are moving faster and also, there is a bit of smoke rising up from the meal itself. The feeling of heat and the taste of the food is subjective. Food does not taste good – good is a subjective quality which is not a property of the food itself, neither is the pain we feel when we burn our mouths with it. Nevertheless, under observation at a lab, particles are moving faster, and a change in the nature of things has occurred. What is going on? Here is a little summary:

Pantheism (which we reject) says: the meal is God – God is the meal

Panentheism says: God is the soul or inner force of the meal (we reject this)

Total occasionalism says: The waves appeared to heat up the meal, but in reality, God’s will did it. The waves were an occasion yet did not have genuine causal efficacy – only God’s will did.

Divine concurrentism says: Both the waves and God heat up the meal. We are not saying that God used the waves to heat up the meal (this is simply regular theism), we are saying that God heat up the meal by His will-power, and that the waves did so as well, acting at the same time, yet God caused the waves to act in the same time in which He acted. But unlike Total occasionalism, the waves did possess some causal efficacy which caused the particles to move faster and the meal to taste hotter to me.

C). If one is not convinced of either view that any model of occasionalism offers, there is another predestinarian view that many Calvinists hold to, usually of the moderate to lower variety, that seems sufficient to them. It is called Divine Conservationism. The Stanford Encyclopedia states: This is a view “that keeps divine causal involvement to a minimum. According to conservationism, while God conserves substances with their powers in existence, when creatures are causally active in bringing about their natural effects, God’s contribution is remote or indirect. In other words, God’s causal contribution consists in merely conserving the being or esse of the creature in question along with its power, and the causal activity of the creature is in some straightforward sense the creature’s own and not God’s (Freddoso 1991, 554).” This model is not strictly occasionalist in any sense, yet it is not far removed from it, depending on how one chooses to word their model. Here is where many of the Westminster Divines appeared to have leaned, at least initially, since again, they were not very alarmed by or heavily concerned with the issue as they wrote their magnificent treatise on the Reformed Christian faith. In this view, the heat waves that heat up my meal were not only real causes in themselves, but were simply proximal causes, with God still being Sovereign over them, yet allowing them by His plan or permission, to do as He planned with them. We are not stating that the heat was autonomous and that God was removed from the action – we are stating that the heat had total causal efficacy – it was truly proximal, yet still at the mercy of God’s will.

I am personally a bit critical toward the Conservationist view, which can be only mildly deterministic at best, as it still tends to maybe fall short of the natural and logical conclusions of omnipotence and omnipresence. It seems to me as though to state that God’s will has causal efficacy naturally means that the heat waves themselves did and could not have contained sufficient efficacy in themselves or even with the help of God to change the nature of my meal or of anything at all. Sovereign omnipotence and omnipresence demands that everything be upheld, and therefore moved by God’s will carried out in time, which proceeds from His Decree – His good pleasure, to have everything He conceived in His mind to occur as He planned, without glitches, and without autonomous causality. This includes not only my meal, but murder as well. I am not a concerned theodicist nor do I wish to answer the problem of evil by removing God from proximal causality. To me, such a reactionary view does nothing to ease the anxiety of suffering, but may even do more to exacerbate it, since if God is not in the business of moving proximate causes, even while Hitler says and does His evil (he still had a will, and therefore was accountable to God) we have still robbed God of His omnipotence and omniscience. Let us be consistent and bow down to His sure and saturated plan to carry out everything He had intended, like a good and loving divine author (God’s goodness is not impinged by evil, no matter how much evil occurs, as long as He destroys it in the end, which He certainly will).

Having touched upon theodicy just a bit – something I was not planning to do, I will state that the highest possible conception of Total Occasionalism, as much as it tries to be faithful to divine omnipotence and omnipresence, by stating that God is the only cause, possesses a grave danger of collapsing into Pantheism, since it is hard to see how then the Creature and Creator distinction is going to be what it is – a distinction. The impenetrability (personality) of the creature, even if Malebranche attempts to defend his thesis vigorously, is in danger, so secondary causality, while not strong or autonomous or even removed from God’s own causal efficacy, must be upheld. The fact that the Bible does seem to posit secondary causes, while not going into detail about how these work, leads us to believe what we initially suspected – that Malebranche’s starting point of natural theology possibly led him to ignore the whole of Scripture – much of it, though, that he surely had with him in his thesis on occasionalism. The starting point or first principle of any model of causality is best understood by appealing to God’s revelation which properly interprets general revelation (the world around us), since natural theologizing is, as most Calvinists state, almost useless without the express light of Scripture. Pagans have done many illegitimate and spurious things with natural theology, and conceived of many gods, a world system of reason, an eternal emanation from a God unknown to us, and in Africa the Pacific Islands, and pre-colonial America, animism.

All in all, I remain a convinced occasionalist, with not a few reservations, and these reservations have probably already pushed me into the camp of divine concurrentism, where I must develop my own model and expound upon this short essay, hopefully to not only be faithful to the Scriptures, but also from them to a concise and biblical view of general revelation where God acts, since only in Him do we live, and move, and have our being.


[2] Scott, David. On Malebranche. Wadsworth Philosophers series.Victoria, Canda, 2002.

[3] A contemporary and rather obscure theologian known as Vincent Cheung is a proponent of Scriptural occasionalism with Clarkian sympathies.

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