Concurrence: Secondary Causes

by Herman Bavinck

With that we have now indicated the manner in which God exercises his providential rule in the world—which in former times was expressed by the doctrine of concurrence. This is as richly diversified as the diversity with which God distinguished his creatures at the time of creation. The variety exhibited in God’s manner of government is just as great as that exhibited in his creation.62 By creation God called into being a world that simultaneously deserves to be called a “cosmos” (kosmos) and an “age” (aiōn), and which in both space and time is “a most brilliant mirror of the divine glory.”63 Now, providence serves to take the world from its beginning and to lead it to its final goal; it goes into effect immediately after the creation and brings to development all that was given in that creation. Creation, conversely, was aimed at providence; creation conferred on creatures the kind of existence that can be brought to development in and by providence. For the world was not created in a state of pure potency, as chaos or a nebulous cloud, but as an ordered cosmos, and human beings were placed in it not as helpless toddlers but as an adult man and an adult woman. Development could only proceed from such a ready-made world, and that is how creation presented it to providence. In addition, that world was a harmonious whole in which unity was coupled to the most marvelous diversity. Every creature received a nature of its own, and with that nature an existence, a life, and a law of its own. Just as the moral law was increated in the heart of Adam as the rule for his life, so all creatures carried in their own nature the principles and laws for their own development.

All things are created by the word. All things are based on thought. The whole creation is a system grounded in the ordinances of God (Gen. 1:26, 28; 8:22; Ps. 104:5, 9; 119:90–91; Eccles. 1:10; Job 38:10ff.; Jer. 5:24; 31:25ff.; 33:20, 25). On all creatures God conferred an order, a law that they do not violate (Ps. 148:6).64 In all of its parts it is rooted in the counsel of God, a design that emerges in things great and small. This all comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom (Isa. 28:23, 29).

This is how Scripture teaches us to understand the world, and this is also how Christian theology has understood it. Augustine said that “hidden seeds” (semina occulta), “original principles” (originales regulae), and “seminal reasons” (seminariae rationes) were implanted in creatures, are concealed in the secret womb of nature, and thus are the principles of all development. “Whatever things, by being born, become visible to our eyes receive the principles of their development from hidden seeds, and take the increases in size appropriate to them, as well as the distinctiveness of their forms as though from these original causes.”65 The world, accordingly, is pregnant with the causes of beings. “For as mothers are pregnant with unborn offspring, so the world itself is pregnant with the causes of unborn beings, which are not created in it except from that highest essence, where nothing is either born or dies, begins to be, or ceases to be.”66

The world is a tree of things (arbor rerum), bringing forth branch and blossom and fruit.67 God so preserves things and so works in them that they themselves work along with him as secondary causes. This is not to say that we must stop there. On the contrary, we must always ascend to the cause of all being and movement, and that is the will of God alone. “The ‘nature’ of any particular created thing is precisely what the supreme Creator of the thing willed it to be.”68 To that extent providence is not only a positive but also an immediate act of God. His will, his power, his being is immediately present in every creature and every event. All things exist and live together in him (Acts 17:28; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). Just as he created the world by himself, so he also preserves and governs it by himself. Although God works through secondary causes, this is not to be interpreted, in the manner of Deism, to mean that they come in between God and the effects with their consequences and separate these from him. “God’s immediate provision over everything extends to the exemplar of the order.”69

For that reason a miracle is not a violation of natural law nor an intervention in the natural order. From God’s side it is an act that does not more immediately and directly have God as its cause than any ordinary event, and in the counsel of God and the plan of the world it occupies as much an equally well-ordered and harmonious place as any natural phenomenon. In miracles God only puts into effect a special force that, like any other force, operates in accordance with its own nature and therefore also has an outcome of its own.70

But at the creation God built his laws into things, fashioning an order by which the things themselves are interconnected. God is not dependent on causes, but things do depend on one another. That interconnectedness is of many kinds. Although in general it can be called “causal,” the word “causal” in this sense must by no means be equated with “mechanical,” as materialism would have us do. A mechanical connection is only one mode in which a number of things in the world relate to each other. Just as creatures received a nature of their own in the creation and differ among themselves, so there is also difference in the laws in conformity with which they function and in the relation in which they stand to each other.

These laws and relations differ in every sphere: the physical and the psychological, the intellectual and the ethical, the family and society, science and art, the kingdoms of earth and the kingdom of heaven. It is the providence of God that, interlocking with creation, maintains and brings to full development all these distinct natures, forces, and ordinances. In providence God respects and develops—and does not nullify—the things he called into being in creation. “It does not pertain to divine providence to corrupt the nature of things but to preserve [that nature].”71 Thus, therefore, God preserves and governs all creatures according to their nature, the angels in one way, humans in another, and the latter again in a way that differs from animals and plants. But insofar as God in his providence maintains things in their mutual relatedness and makes creatures subserve each other’s existence and life, that providence can be called mediate. “God immediately provides for all things as it pertains to the exemplar of the order, but as it pertains to the execution of the order he, to be sure, provides through other means.”72 Thus he created all the angels simultaneously but lets humans spring from one blood; thus he preserves some creatures individually and others as species and families. In each case, then, he employs all sorts of creatures as means in his hand to fulfill his counsel and to reach his goal.

Christian theology did not deny these things. On the contrary, following the example of Scripture, it has always emphatically upheld the natural order and the causal nexus of the phenomena. It is not true that Christianity with its supernaturalism was hostile to the natural order and made science impossible, as Draper, for example, and others have sought to demonstrate with such relish.73 Much more in line with the facts is the judgment of DuBois-Reymond when he wrote: “Modern natural science, however paradoxical this may sound, owes its origin to Christianity.”74 In any case, Christianity made science—specifically natural science—possible and prepared the ground for it. For the more the natural phenomena are deified—as in polytheism—and viewed as the visible images and bearers of deity, the more scientific inquiry is made impossible since it becomes automatically a form of desecration that disturbs the mystery of Deity. But Christianity distinguished God and the world, and by its confession of God as the Creator of all things, separated God from the nexus of nature and lifted him far above it. The study of nature, therefore, is no longer a violation of Deity. At the same time and by this very fact it has made human beings free and given them independent status vis-à-vis nature, as is clearly demonstrated by the splendid view of nature we find in the psalmists and prophets, in Jesus and the apostles. For the believer, nature is no longer an object of worship and dread.75 Whereas before God he bows down in deep humility and is utterly dependent on him, in relation to the earth he has the calling to exercise dominion over it and to subject all things to himself (Gen. 1:26). Dependence on God is something very different from living conformably to nature and adapting oneself to circumstances. Many writers argue either in such a way that they attribute all things and events to the will of God and consider resistance impermissible, or they limit God’s providence and place many things in the hands of humans.76

Scripture, however, warns us against both this antinomianism and this Pelagianism; it cuts off at the root all false fatalistic resignation on the one hand, and all presumptuous self-confidence on the other. Bowing before the powers of nature is something very different from childlike submission to God, and exercising dominion over the earth is a matter of serving God. The sea captain who went to his cabin to pray and read the Bible during a storm did submit to the power of the elements, but not to God.77 There is much more real piety in Cromwell’s dictum: “Trust God and keep your powder dry.” It is, moreover, the confession of God as the Creator of heaven and earth that immediately brings with it the one absolute and never self-contradictory truth, the harmony and beauty of the counsel of God, and hence the unity of the cosmic plan and the order of all of nature. “If in a free and wonderful way, on the basis of the full scope of nature, one attributes to the one God also a unified manner of working, then the connectedness of things in terms of cause and effect not only becomes conceivable but even a necessary consequence of the assumption.”78 Scripture itself models to us this recognition of such a natural order, of a wide range of ordinances and laws for created things. And miracle is so far from making an inroad on that natural order that it rather presupposes and confirms it. At all times the Christian church and theology have generously acknowledged such an order of things. Augustine repeatedly appealed to the saying in Wisdom 11:20: “You have arranged all things by measure and number and weight.” At least in the early period they energetically opposed the appalling superstition that crested in the third and fourth centuries, and especially fought against astrology.79 The controversy that often erupted was not a conflict between Christianity and natural science; the alignments were very different; it was usually a struggle between an earlier and later worldview, with believing Christians on both sides.80

This fundamentally correct view of nature, which Christian theology advocated, is nowhere more clearly in evidence than in its doctrine of “concurrence” and “secondary causes.” In neither pantheism nor Deism can this doctrine come into its own. In the former there are no longer any causes, and in the latter no secondary causes. In pantheism the secondary causes, that is, the immediate causes of things within the circle of created things, are identified with the primary cause, which is God. Between the two there is no distinction of substance and effect. Both materially and formally, God is the subject of all that happens, and hence also of sin. At best the so-called secondary causes are opportunities and passive instruments for the workings of God. Whereas this theory only sporadically surfaced in earlier times, in the more modern philosophy of Descartes it came to dominance and so led to the idealism of Berkeley and Malebranche, and to the pantheism of Spinoza, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Strauss, and others. So Malebranche, for example, posits that “there is only one true cause because there is only one true God; that the nature or power of each thing is nothing but the will of God; that all natural causes are not true causes but only occasional causes.” The true cause can only be God because he alone can create and he cannot communicate that power to a creature. If creatures could be the true cause of motions and phenomena, they themselves would be gods. But “all these insignificant pagan divinities and all these particular causes of the philosophers are merely chimeras that the wicked mind tries to establish to undermine worship of the true God.”81 Accordingly, there are only phenomena, representations, and the only reality, power, and substance behind these phenomena is that of God himself.82

Conversely, in Deism the secondary causes are separated from the primary cause and made independent. The primary cause is totally restricted to the creation, the communication of the possibility (posse), and totally excluded in the case of the “willing” (velle) and the doing (facere), as in the original Pelagianism. Or the two causes are conceived as associated causes that work with and alongside each other, like two draft horses pulling a wagon, even though one is perhaps stronger than the other, as in semi-Pelagianism and synergism. In this view the creature becomes the creator of his or her own deeds. Scripture, however, tells us both that God works all things so that the creature is only an instrument in his hand (Isa. 44:24; Ps. 29:3; 65:10; 147:15ff.; Matt. 5:45; Acts 17:25; etc.) and that providence is distinct from creation and presupposes the existence and self-activity of creatures (Gen. 1:11, 20, 22, 24, 28; etc.). In keeping with this witness, Christian theology teaches that the secondary causes are strictly subordinated to God as the primary cause and in that subordination nevertheless remain true causes. The odd theologian, to be sure, diverged from this position, such as the nominalist Biel in the Middle Ages and Zwingli in the time of the Reformation, who believed that secondary causes were mistakenly so-called and preferred to call them instruments.83

The constant teaching of the Christian church, nevertheless, has been that the two causes, though they are totally dependent on the primary cause, are at the same time also true and essential causes. With his almighty power God makes possible every secondary cause and is present in it with his being at its beginning, progression, and end. It is he who posits it and makes it move into action (praecursus) and who further accompanies it in its working and leads it to its effect (concursus). He is “at work” [in us] “both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). But this energizing activity of the primary cause in the secondary causes is so divinely great that precisely by that activity he stirs those secondary causes into an activity of their own. “The providence of God does not cancel out but posits secondary causation.”84 Concurrence is precisely the reason for the self-activity of the secondary causes, and these causes, sustained from beginning to end by God’s power, work with a strength that is appropriate and natural to them. So little does the activity of God nullify the activity of the creature that the latter is all the more vigorous to the degree that the former reveals itself the more richly and fully. Hence, the primary cause and the secondary cause remain distinct. The former does not destroy the latter but on the contrary confers reality on it, and the second exists solely as a result of the first. Neither are the secondary causes merely instruments, organs, inanimate automata, but they are genuine causes with a nature, vitality, spontaneity, manner of working, and law of their own. “Satan and evildoers are not so effectively the instruments of God that they do not also act in their own behalf. For we must not suppose that God works in an iniquitous man as if he were a stone or a piece of wood, but He uses him as a thinking creature, according to the quality of his nature, which He has given him. Thus, when we say that God works in evildoers, that does not prevent them from working also in their own behalf.”85

In relation to God the secondary causes can be compared to instruments (Isa. 10:15; 13:5; Jer. 50:25; Acts 9:15; Rom. 9:20–23); in relation to their effects and products they are causes in the true sense. And precisely because the primary and the secondary cause do not stand and function dualistically on separate tracks, but the primary works through the secondary, the effect that proceeds from the two is one and the product is one. There is no division of labor between God and his creature, but the same effect is totally the effect of the primary cause as well as totally the effect of the proximate cause. The product is also in the same sense totally the product of the primary as well as totally the product of the secondary cause. But because the primary cause and the secondary cause are not identical and differ essentially, the effect and product are in reality totally the effect and product of the two causes, to be sure, but formally they are only the effect and product of the secondary cause. Wood burns and it is God alone who makes it burn, yet the burning process may not be formally attributed to God but must be attributed to the wood as subject. Human persons speak, act, and believe, and it is God alone who supplies to a sinner all the vitality and strength he or she needs for the commission of a sin. Nevertheless the subject and author of the sin is not God but the human being. In this manner Scripture draws the lines within which the reconciliation of God’s sovereignty and human freedom has to be sought.


Source: Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation by Herman Bavinck,

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