Give Me Some of That Old-Time Theology: A Reflection on

Charles Hodge¹s Discussion of Concursus in Light of Recent

Discussions of Divine Action in Nature


Parallel Session II­B

Saturday, July 26

1:25­3:30 PM


Terry M. Gray

Chemistry Department

Colorado State University

Fort Collins, CO 80523



Howard Van Till has suggested that traditional theological categories are unable to bear our current understanding of the character of the universe resulting from modern scientific investigation. He claims that notions such as ³functional integrity² and the ³Robust Formational Economy Principle (RFEP)² are not compatible with traditional discussions of creation and providence. He uses in a derogatory manner words and phrases such as ³coercion,² ³supernatural intervention,² ³apparent creaturely action,² and ³divine Puppeteer.² For a solution he appeals to process theology and its panentheistic view of the relationship between God and the world together with the language of ³persuasion² and ³authentic creaturely action.² (I also suspect that the problem of evil raised by traditional Calvinistic views of ³divine providence² also contribute to Van Till¹s exploration of process theology.) While I am sympathetic with Van Till¹s notions of ³functional integrity² and ³RFEP,² I disagree that we need to rework our traditional understanding of the relationship between God and creation. Perhaps we simply need to review it. The discussion of concursus in the context of divine governance in Charles Hodge¹s Systematic Theology addresses many of these same issues. The traditional Calvinistic formulation is fully able to bear our current understanding without the problems that accompany an appeal to process theology.


A Letter to the Editor by Howard Van Till appeared in the March 2002 issue of the ASA journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.1 There Howard claimed that the traditional doctrines of creation and providence need to be reformulated in light of modern science. In using words and phrases such as ³coercion,² ³supernatural intervention,² ³apparent creaturely action,² and ³divine Puppeteer² in contrast with his own views of ³functional integrity² and the ³Robust Formational Economy Principle², he seems to want to make God¹s involvement somewhat less direct, giving less control to God and more autonomy to the creature. Apparently, he believes that the traditional views result in a universe where God is the only real agent and that creatures don¹t have properties and powers of their own (and, I assume, free agency, in the case of human beings and perhaps other conscious animals). Howard has begun to argue for process theology and its language of ³God persuaded the creature² to replace our traditional views of divine action in nature. [The ³openness of God² or ³open theism² theology of Clark Pinnock and others has moved in a similar direction, although keep in mind that process theology and open theism are not the same thing. However, most of my comments apply to both.]


At the outset I will say that I regard both process theology (and open theism) as theological movements contrary and subversive to evangelical doctrine espoused by the ASA over its long history. The Biblical doctrine of creation and providence is at stake here, but also the Biblical doctrine of God and the inspiration and authority of scripture.


My appeal is for us to re-examine the traditional views, in particular, views found in the Augustinian and Reformed tradition. Perhaps they have been caricaturized. Indeed Howard¹s use of the word ³coercion² and of the phrase ³apparent creaturely action² betrays a profound misunderstanding of the traditional views.


In the work of Charles Hodge, who lived in the 19th century and who taught Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary throughout his long career, I believe we have a discussion of the traditional views that address some of Howard¹s concerns and is fully able to bear up under the insights of modern science. Hodge¹s magnus opus, the three-volume Systematic Theology,2 has influenced several generations of Presbyterian and evangelical seminarians and remains in print to this day.


Hodge uses the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism to define providence. ³God¹s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.3² Both at the outset and at the end of his discussion he notes that this is really all we need to know and all we do know.


All we know, and all we need to know is (1.) That God does govern all his creatures; and (2.) That his control over them is consistent with their nature, and with his own infinite purity and excellence.4


The fact of this universal providence of God is all the Bible teaches. It nowhere attempts to inform us how it is that God governs all things, or how his effectual control is to be reconciled with the efficiency of second causes. All the attempts of philosophers and theologians to explain that point, may be pronounced failures, and worse than failures, for they not only raise more difficulties than they solve, but in almost all instances they include principles or lead to conclusions inconsistent with the plain teachings of the word of God.5


My impression is that the majority of Christians today reject this view of Providence‹that God governs all his creatures and all their actions. I think that they reject it primarily for philosophical reasons, rather than for Biblical reasons, i.e. as solutions to the ³free will² problem and to the problem of evil. I think that there is very strong Biblical evidence for Hodge¹s view of Providence (not only Hodge but the whole Augustinian tradition). In this paper I will not present that case.6 I will focus mostly on the solution to the ³free will² problem and will touch briefly on the problem of evil. I invite the listener to reconsider this view if your rejection of it has been the result of caricaturization.


Hodge presents several theories of divine governance. One, the theory of entire dependence, ³is founded on the principle that absolute dependence includes the idea that God is the only cause.7² This is, I suggest, what most people immediately think of when they hear that God governs all his creatures and all their action. This is, I suggest, the thought behind Van Till¹s (and others¹) choices of words such as ³coerce,² ³apparent creaturely action,² and ³divine Puppeteer.² Hodge rejects this theory of divine governance saying:


It must be admitted that the devout desire of the Reformed theologians to vindicate the sovereignty and supremacy of God, in opposition to all forms of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian doctrine, led many of them to go to an extreme in depreciating the efficiency of second causes, and in unduly exalting the omnipresent efficiency of God.8


Then Hodge presents the doctrine of concursus. After quoting at length from Turretin and Aquinas and others, he summarizes as follows:


Concursus, therefore, assumes, (1.) That God gives to second causes the power of acting. (2.) That He preserves them in being and vigour. (3.) That He excites and determines second causes to act. (4.) That He directs and governs them to the predetermined end. All this, however, was so understood that ­

1.     The effect produced or the act performed is to be referred to the second, and not to the first causeŠ

2.     The doctrine of concursus does not deny the efficiency of second causes. They are real causesŠ

3.     The agency of God neither supersedes, nor in any way interferes with the efficiency of second causesŠ

4.     From this it follows that the efficiency or agency of God is not the same in relation to all kinds of events. It is one thing in cooperating with material causes, another in cooperating with free agents. It is one thing in relation to good acts, and another in relation to evil actions; one thing in nature, and another in grace.

5.     The divine concursus is not inconsistent with the liberty of free agentsŠ

6.     All the advocates of the doctrine of concursus admit that the great difficulty attending it is in reference to sinŠ9


What I wish to point out here (and throughout) is that creaturely agency is NOT denied. Creatures act authentically‹according to their creaturely capacities. And free agents act freely. There is no coercion. In this view there is nothing contradictory between God controlling the actions of His creatures (even free agents) and their real agency.


Hodge applauds the doctrine of concursus in contrast to the theory of entire dependence.


The points of difference between the two theories are, (1.) That the one admits and the other denies the reality and efficiency of second causes. (2.) The one makes no distinction between free and necessary events, attributing them equally to the almighty and creative energy of God; the other admits the validity and unspeakable importance of this distinction. (3.) The one asserts and the other denies that the agency of God is the same in sinful acts that it is in good acts. (4.) The one admits that God is the author of sin, the other repudiates that doctrine with abhorrence.10


Again Hodge emphasizes that second causes are real and efficient. As quoted earlier, ³His control over them (His creatures) is consistent with their nature.²


Nonetheless, in the end Hodge rejects the doctrine of concursus‹not because it makes God the author of sin (which it does not) and not because it destroys the free agency of man (which it does not). Hodge gives three objections to the doctrine of concursus:


First, that it is founded on the false and arbitrary assumption that denies that any creature can originate action. He argues that this is inferred from creaturely dependence on God or from the belief that God¹s control over creatures and their actions depends on this assumption. Hodge believes that this assumption goes beyond scripture and is contrary to our consciousness.  He writes, ³That we are free agents means that we have the power to act freely; and to act freely implies that we originate our own acts.11² Here again Hodge is asserting that creatures, especially free agents, exercise authentic creaturely action, and yet not outside the divine governance.


Secondly, he says that


it is an attempt to explain the inexplicable. Not content with the simple and certain declaration of the Bible, that God does govern all his creatures and all their actions, it undertakes to explain how this is doneŠWhy then should we attempt to explain how it is that the efficiency of God controls the efficiency of second causes? The fact is plain, and the fact alone is important; but the mode of God¹s action we cannot possibly understand.12


And thirdly, he argues that the doctrine of concursus multiplies difficulties.


By attempting to teach how God governs free agents, that He first excites them to act; sustains them in action; determines them to act so, and not otherwise; that He effectually concurs in the entity, but not necessarily in the moral quality of the act, we raise at every step the most subtle and perplexing metaphysical questions, which no man is able to solve. And even admitting the theory of concursus, as expounded by the schoolmen and scholastic theologians, to be true, what does it amount to? What real knowledge does it communicate? All we know, and all we need to know, is, (1.) That God does govern all his creatures; and (2.) That his control over them is consistent with their nature, and with his own infinite purity and excellence.13


So how does this help us in the current discussion. Howard Van Till sees in his Robust Formational Economy Principle that God has created an amazing world and has blessed it with capacities to produce the rich and variegated physical and biological universe that we now see. The apparent success of cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology suggests that it is unnecessary to invoke special episodic creative acts on God¹s part to account for the present state of affairs. With much of this I can agree.


But Howard seems to think that such insights tell us something new about God¹s interaction with the world.14 I fail to see how this is the case. Let me quote again from Hodge from his discussion of Laws of Nature that immediately follows the concursus discussion:


ŠAs the stability of the universe, and the welfare, and even the existence of organized creatures, depend on the uniformity of the laws of nature, God never does disregard them except for the accomplishment of some high purpose. He, in the ordinary operations of his Providence, operates with and through the laws which He has ordained. He governs the material, as well as the moral world by lawŠGod, however, fills heaven and earth. He is immanent in the world; intimately and always present with every particle of matter. And this presence is not of being only, but also of knowledge and power. It is manifestly inconsistent with the idea of an infinite God, that any part of his works should be absent from Him, out of his view, or independent of his control. Though everywhere thus efficiently present, his efficiency does not supersede that of his creatures. It is by a natural law, or physical force, that vapour arises from the surface of the ocean, is formed into clouds, and condenses and falls in showers upon the earth, yet God so controls the operation of the laws producing these effects, that He sends rain when and where He pleases. The same is true of all the operations of nature, and of all events in the external world. They are due to the efficiency of physical forces; but those forces, which are combined, adjusted, and made to cooperate or to counteract each other, in the greatest complexity, are all under the constant guidance of God, and made to accomplish his purpose.15


There is nothing inconsistent between the Robust Formational Economy Principle and the view of divine providence outlined above. I suggest that the even word ³persuade² is appropriate, i.e. the creaturely entity, is doing its thing according to its own nature or its own volition (in the case of free agents) yet at the bidding of the sovereign Lord of creation. With respect to His Providence, God¹s persuasion is always effectual.


In some ways the view outlined above brings some possible resolution to the debate between the Intelligent Design advocates and RFEP advocates (although neither are likely to be happy with my suggestion). If God providentially governs all that comes to pass, then there is an intelligence or mind behind everything that there is in creation and history. Everything is designed (ID). That governance, nonetheless, ordinarily doesn¹t violate creaturely capacities and divinely instituted creational law. Thus, ³a robust nature takes its course² (RFEP). God accomplishes in every detail exactly what He has purposed (ID). Of course, some in the RFEP school disdain this as inelegant micromanaging16, and some in the ID school will recognize that this removes some of the some apologetic edge of their program. Everything is designed‹BOTH in purposeful planning AND in sovereign governance of creation¹s course.17


Both process theology and the openness of God theology advocate creaturely autonomy much more strongly than the view outlined above, all in the name, it appears, of free agency and authentic creaturely action. I think the problem here is one of our own making‹scripture knows of no such dilemma‹God is fully in conrol‹his purposes prevail in nature and history‹AND creation acts according to its created capacities and human beings act freely and responsibly. The fruit of rejecting this scriptural solution is fast becoming evident‹we end up with a God who is almost as dependent on the contingencies of the world and others as the rest of us‹a God who has to sit back and wait and see what will happen, a God who really isn¹t sure how things will come out in the end, a God who risks, a God who takes chances. This stand opposed to the God revealed in scripture who is the LORD of heaven and earth‹all creation‹who is the Lord of history, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.


He is the One to whom we can entrust our lives because He cares for us and He is almighty‹He is able to care for us. He is the One to whom we can pray because He controls the weather, the beasts, the heart of the king, yes, even evil-doers‹all things. Nothing that comes our way comes to us apart from His purpose in our lives.




1 Van Till, Howard, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 54.1 (March 2002), 67-70.


2 Hodge, Charles A. Systematic Theology, 3 volumes, reprinted 1977, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids).


3 Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q & A #11.


4 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 605.


5 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 590.


6A good thorough discussion of this view of providence and the divine will can be found in John Frame¹s book No Other God: A Response to Open Theism in his chapter entitled ³Is God¹s Will the Ultimate Explanation of Everything?² Using many of the same headings and texts that Hodge uses in his discussion, Frame walks through the Biblical arguments to answer the question with a ³yes.² Here are the headings and the texts: the natural world‹Ps. 65:9-11, Ps.135:5-7, Ps. 147:15-18, Gen. 8:22, Job 38-40, Pss. 104:10-30, 107:23-32, 145:15-16, 147:8-9, Acts 14:17, Prov. 16:33, Ex. 21:13, Judg. 9:53, 1 Kings 22:34, Ex. 9:13-26, Amos 4:7, Gen. 41:32, Matt.5:45, 6:26-30, 10:29-30; human history‹Acts 17:26, Pss. 45:6-12, 47:1-9, 95:3, Gen. 18:25, Ps. 33:10-11, Gen.  41:16, 28, 32, Gen. 45:5-8, 51:20, Ex. 23:27, Deut. 2:25, Gen 35:5, Josh. 21:44-45, Deut. 3:22, Josh. 24:11, 1 Sam. 17:47, 2 Chron. 20:15, Prov. 21:31, Zech. 4:6, Isa. 14:26-27, 10:5-12, 14:24-25, 37:26, Jer. 29:11-14, Dan. 2:21, 4:34-35, Isa. 44:28, 45:1-13, Ezra 1:1, Jer. 30:4-24, Gal. 4:4, Matt. 1:22, 2:15, 3:3, 4:14, Acts 2:23-24, 3:18, 4:27-28, 13:27, Luke 22:22, Matt.24:36; individual human lives‹Jer. 1:5, Eph. 1:4, Gen. 4:1, 25, 18:13-14, 25:21, 29:31-30:2, 30:17, 23-24, Deut. 10:22, Ruth 4:13, Pss. 113:9, 127:3-5, Ps. 139:4-6, Ex. 21:12-13, Ruth 1:13, 1 Sam. 2:6-7, Ps. 37:23, Rom. 12:3-6, 1 Cor 4:7, 12:4-6, James 4:13-16; human decisions‹Gen. 45:5-8, Isa. 44:28, Luke 22:22, Acts 2:23-24, 3:18, 4:27-28, 13:27, Luke 6:45, Prov. 21:1, Rom. 9:17, Ex. 9:16, 14:4, Ps. 33:15, Ex. 12:36, Ex. 3:21-22, Prov. 16:9, 16:1, 19:21, Ex. 34:24, Judg. 7:22, Dan. 1:9, Exra 6:22, John 19:24, 31-37; sins‹Jer.17:9, Ps. 105:24, Ex. 3:19, 4:21, 7:3, 13, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8, 14:17-18, 8:15, Ps. 95:7-8, Rom. 9:17-18, Deut. 2:30, Josh. 11:18-20, 1 Sam. 2:25, 2 Chron. 25:20, 1 Sam. 16:14, 1 Kings 22:20-23, Isa. 6:10, 63:17, 64:7, 10:5-11, Ezek. 38:16, Judg. 14:4, 2 Sam. 24, 17:14, 2 Kings 12:15, 2 Chron. 25:20, Matt. 13:14-15, John 12:40, John 13:18, 2 Cor. 2:15-16, 1 Peter 2:6-8, Rom. 11:7-8, 9:22-26, 11:11-16, 25-32, Acts 2:23, Acts 4:28, 13:27, Luke 22:22, Rev. 17:17, Prov. 16:4 (In this section Frame mentions the ³problem of evil² and comments that there is ³no perfectly satisfying solution to it² and ³Scripture itself regards this problem as a mystery² (Job 38-42, Rom 8:28-39, 9:17-24, Rev. 15:3-4).); faith and salvation‹these are all ³standard² Calvinist texts about election and predestination‹I won¹t list them here; summary passages‹Lamentations 3:37-38, Romans 8:28, 38-39, Ephesians 1:11, Romans 9:21-24. Later in the book Frame highlights the importance of the distinction between God¹s decretive will and His perceptive will for providing a solution to the passages where God appears to change his mind, repent, or relent. In his discussion of the problem of evil on pages 135-141 he writes criticizing the radical revision of the doctrine of God found in the open theism literature, ³Would it not be better to leave the problem unsolved than to resort to such drastic measures? Is there no point at which we should be silent and take God at his word? Open theists do not seem to have considered how large a price we should pay to solve this theological problem.²


7 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 592.


8 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 593.


9 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 600-602


10 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 603.


11 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 604.


12 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 605.


13 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 605.


14 On another point, I suggest that Howard go back and read his own writings. In discussing categorical complementarity in The Fourth Day he suggested that science does not, should not, or cannot tell us how divine governance works (p. 205). This is fundamentally a theological question that should be answered by an appeal to scripture. This is what I think we have in Hodge¹s (and Frame¹s) discussion. Another source of such knowledge is philosophical or theological speculation, if one is willing to engage in such, as is done in process theology. But it should be recognized that in the doing so we are engaging in natural theology. To suggest that the world that we have discovered via science answers questions about governance violates this principle. Such appeals to science as the basis for our theology are similar to those who appeal to science as the basis for their atheism. The key issues involving God¹s being and character‹his infinity, his immanence and transcendence, his relationship to sin and evil‹are theological considerations, some old, some new, that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with how you do theology and what you take to be your authority in doing theology.


15 Hodge, Volume 1, p. 608.


16 I am somewhat perplexed by this criticism. If God is omnipresent, then he is already present ³in² or ³with² even the tiniest subatomic particle in some way that we finite creatures can¹t understand (without being those particles as in pantheism). We also speak of everything in creation being dependent on God¹s sustaining power. So he is already exercising his sustaining power in every detail as well. Why isn¹t governance equally all-pervasive? Scripture seems to say that it is (Matt. 10:29-30). To suggest that governance at the ³all things² level is not the way we would design things is to betray that we are thinking of God¹s working in the world in the same categories as our own working in the world. God¹s infinity is one of those incommunicable attributes that makes him very different from us.


17 As has been noted by others, e.g. David Livingstone¹s Darwin¹s Forgotten Defenders, the 19th and early 20th century Calvinists were less troubled by evolution than many evangelicals because they saw God¹s providence such that he had constant supervision over the whole evolutionary process. Evolutionary processes under God¹s providential hand produced exactly what he wanted. In their view (and mine), using Stephen Jay Gould¹s picture in Wonderful Life, if we run the history of life over again we get exactly the same result‹not because of any necessity in the historical process itself (I do recognize Gould¹s notion of historical contingency)‹but because of divine governance over the whole process.