Doctrine of Creation (Part 8)

October 11, 2012     Time: 00:36:01

We have been talking in our class dealing with Doctrine of Creation on creatio continuans, or continuing creation. You will remember I said that the doctrine of creatio continuans, or continuing creation, had two sub-areas. One was conservatio, or conservation, of the world in being – God’s preserving the world and everything in it from one moment to the next. Then the other area is called concursus, or concurrence in English. We have now completed our discussion of the doctrine of conservation and so we want to say a word about the doctrine of concurrence.


According to the doctrine of concurrence, God is literally the cause of everything that happens in the world. This is not to say that God is the only cause of everything that happens. That is a doctrine which is called occasionalism which was held to by certain medieval Muslim theologians[1] who said that, in fact, there are no secondary causes operative in the world – God is the only cause of anything that happens and he merely acts on certain occasions to bring about effects. For example, on the occasion of the match being brought into proximity with the gasoline, God causes the gasoline to ignite and explode. The match doesn’t cause it – the flame has no causal power to do anything. It is merely the occasion upon which God causes things. That is the doctrine of occasionalism which says that God is the only cause there is. The doctrine of concurrence is not the doctrine that God is the only cause of everything that happens. Rather, it is the doctrine that God concurs with the operation of secondary causes in the world. And in the absence of God’s concurring with them, nothing would be caused by these secondary effects. Nothing would be produced by them. So everything that happens in the world in a sense has two causes: one is the secondary causes that produce things about us that we see and the other would be God as the primary cause who brings about, or concurs with, the operation of secondary causes to product their effects.

This remarkable doctrine is almost totally neglected in contemporary theology and discussions of God’s relationship to the world. You never hear anyone today (virtually) affirming, or talking about, the doctrine of divine concurrence. Yet, if you reflect upon the doctrine of conservation it seems that the doctrine of concurrence follows, logically, from the doctrine of conservation. As I said last week, the doctrine of conservation is pretty much the only doctrine of creation that most contemporary theologians hold to. They have largely abandoned creatio originans – the originating creation – and simply hold to conservation of the world in being by God. Yet, if you have a serious doctrine of conservation, it seems that concurrence follows logically from it. Think about it. If God conserves some event e from time t to a later time t’ so that God conserves e in being from t to t’ then he must conserve e not just in abstraction but he has to conserve e with all its particularity – with all its particular properties that it has at those moments.[2] Let’s suppose that, at time t, e is, say, a fluffy ball of white cotton which is brought into proximity with a match or a flame. Let’s suppose that, as a result of that, by t’ the cotton becomes black and smoldering and is no longer fluffy white. If God preserves the cotton in being from t to t’ he doesn’t just preserve the cotton in a sort of abstract sense, he preserves it in all of its particularity – its whiteness and fluffiness at t, its being black and smoldering at t’. In order for the cotton to exist in all its particularity with its particular properties, God must bring about its existing at t with its properties at t and he brings it about that it exists at t’ with those particular properties. So conservation would seem to require that God is the cause of the cotton’s being white and fluffy at t and being black and smoldering at t’.

Someone might try to escape this conclusion by saying, “Well, God wills that the cotton be white and fluffy at t but he doesn’t bring it about that the cotton is fluffy and white at t.” It seems to me that that would be incompatible with a doctrine of divine providence. Again, think about it. Either God wills that the cotton is fluffy and white at t or he doesn’t will it. If he doesn’t will that it is white and fluffy at t, and this is true of any event, then it means God is utterly indifferent to what happens in the world. He conserves it in being but he doesn’t have any will with respect to what happens in it. He doesn’t care what happens in the world. That would deny God’s providence. So I don’t think we can say that God is just indifferent to what happens at time t. Suppose then that God does will that the cotton is white and fluffy at time t. In that case, his will is either directive or it is merely permissive. He either directly wills that the cotton be white and fluffy at t or he merely permits it to be white and fluffy at t. But again, if his will is directive, if God wills that the cotton be white and fluffy at t, but he doesn’t bring it about that it is white and fluffy at t then God’s will is impotent – it doesn’t do anything. He wills that the cotton be that way but it isn’t that way as a result. So if God’s will is directive it would follow that God is impotent, which is unacceptable. If you say it is merely permissive, he merely permits the cotton to be white and fluffy at t, then again you seem to be denying God’s providence because God doesn’t directly will anything to happen at that moment. He is indifferent; he just permits things to happen but he doesn’t have any directive will which seems to deny divine providence. So, it does seem that a robust doctrine of conservation of the world in being would imply a doctrine of concurrence. God not only wills that certain things exist and persevere or are conserved from time to time, but he wills that they exist with all of their particular properties at these various times and therefore they do.

It was on the basis of this that classical theologians were able to explain certain miracles in the Bible. For example, in Daniel 3, you have this well known story of King Nebuchadnezzar casting three Israelites, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, into this fiery furnace to be burned alive. Let me read you a portion of the story from Daniel 3:19-25:

Then Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was wont to be heated. And he ordered certain mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their mantles, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were cast into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king's order was strict and the furnace very hot, the flame of the fire slew those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He said to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” He answered, “But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”[3]

Here the flames are so intense, the heat so hot, that it completely roasts the guards that are throwing these three men into the fire but then they are unharmed by the flames. They are walking around inside of this burning fiery furnace unharmed. The way classical theologians explained this was by saying that God withdrew his concurring activity with the power of the flame. So by not concurring with the causal effects of the flame, there was no effect produced on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and so they were unharmed. It wasn’t as though God covered them with some sort of invisible asbestos to protect them from the flames. No. He didn’t concur with the secondary causes in this regard and so that is how the men were unharmed. So this doctrine of divine concurrence was useful to them in explaining certain miracles that were found in the Bible on the basis of God’s concurring activity, or in this case his withdrawal of concurring activity.


Question: Are they saying then that the natural result of fire would be to consume the human body but at that moment God chose to prevent that from happening, which would have been the normal course of events? He intervened into the natural process such as having time stop in another point in Scripture where time literally stopped.

Answer: I don’t think it is that, if I understand your question. It is not as though God intervened to protect them by doing something. It is more that he just didn’t concur with the flames so the effect wasn’t produced. In other words, everything that happens in the world according to the doctrine of concurrence has to be produced by secondary causes and by God. And if God doesn’t concur with these secondary causes, they are impotent. So the flames just had no power to produce any effects on these men.

Followup: So they are saying that this is not just nature alone; that God created the fire and it has certain qualities but he is continually involved in their fulfilling their qualities.

Answer: Yes, that is right. You are right here. This is a much more radical doctrine, I think you can see, than saying God gives secondary causes their causal powers – he gives the gasoline the power of combustibility by giving it a certain chemical composition or he gives to other things in the world solidity by virtue of the way they are composed. No, it is much more radical than that. It is that whenever any cause in the world operates, God has to concur by producing the effect along with the secondary cause or nothing happens. This is a very strange doctrine. We are not used to hearing this but that is the idea. Perhaps an example would be two men pulling a boat up onto the shore, each pulling by a different rope. You have here a sort of over-causation. Each man could pull the boat up by himself but together they both cooperate in pulling the boat up to the shore. That is sort of like concurrence except that the doctrine of concurrence says unless God cooperates then the other man (the other cause) has no power whatsoever to do anything. God has to concur in the operation of the other causes in order for these events to take place.[4]

Question: I think I understand that this is different from the decree of God, like in the Westminster Confession that everything that happens is decreed by God. But the effect seems to be the same that God becomes causally involved in every event and that is problematic, I think, when you have evil activity. Also, it seems to verge on pantheism. Why do we even need a doctrine of continuing creation?

Answer: Ah! Alright, now you are raising a very deep question there. Now, I don’t think its pantheism. Let’s at least get that off the board. Here God is causally distinct from the world, he conserves it in being, and it is dependent on him for its very existence moment by moment. If God were to withdraw his conserving activity, the world would be annihilated in a moment. That is a good word to add to your vocabulary. The correlate of creation is not destruction, it is annihilation. You see the word nihil in annihilate. To annihilate something would be to have it return to nothing. It would be just utterly annihilated; it would just completely cease to exist. If God were to withdraw his conservation of the world in being, the world would just vanish. It wouldn’t exist. So the doctrine of conservation is clearly anti-pantheistic in that the world is distinct from God and radically dependent upon him. The question is: does concurrence follow from conservation? I have given an argument for that that I find pretty persuasive to think that it does follow which might then make you want to back up and say, wait a minute, in light of the unacceptable consequences for, say, the problem of evil, I am going to go back and deny conservation – which is exactly what you said. As I indicated last week, the biblical basis for conservation is not as strong, I think, as the biblical grounds for creation ex nihilo – originating creation. That would be a view that would be contrary to normal Christian theology and doctrine but, as I say, I think conservation isn’t as strongly attested biblically as creation out of nothing and in the beginning. However, when we get to the topic of providence, which is the very next point on the outline, we will talk about whether or not concurrence implicates God in evil. Concurrence has the very uncomfortable consequence that when the murderer plunges the knife into the victim and kills him, God causes the knife to plunge into the victim and kill him. He concurs with the activity of the murderer. Otherwise, the knife wouldn’t do anything; it wouldn’t hurt anybody. So it does give you this uncomfortableness, as you say, with regard to sinful, evil acts that God is causing these to happen. But what the classical theologians would say is that God concurs in the action of the evil secondary agent in producing the effect that the agent wants to do but he doesn’t agree with the agent’s evil intentions and volitions to bring it about. So God isn’t morally responsible for murder. God doesn’t will that that thief murder his victim and God doesn’t cause the murderer to murder the victim, but he concurs with the activity of evil persons in order to allow them freedom of the will and permit them to do these bad things that they do. They would maintain that concurrence just means that God will agree to produce the effect but he doesn’t agree with the motive or the intention that the evil person might have in bringing it about.

Followup: I guess you are going to get to the point of whether you think this doctrine is necessary to a complete understanding of creation, right?

Answer: I am not going to say anything more about that then I do because I don’t have very strong views on this one. It does seem to me that there is a good argument for it from conservation and I am very uncomfortable about giving up conservation in view of the history and the tradition behind that doctrine.[5] So I would be more inclined, personally, to go along with the idea that God concurs in producing these effects but he is not morally blameworthy or responsible for these effects because he doesn’t will the intention or the evil that the secondary agents will in bringing these things about. He has to concur with the decisions of free agents and not nullify them if he is going to allow significant freedom in the world.

Followup: One more comment. It seems like it is hard to swallow that God is sustaining Hitler in existence as he kills the Jews. . . .

Answer: I know! I know!

Followup: . . . that is the same problem that Westminster Confession creates when it says God decrees everything that occurs but God is not, thereby, the author of evil. That is hard to accept.

Answer: See, that is the move I would want to make though. When we get to providence, I think that Molinism, with its doctrine of middle knowledge, will enable us to have a doctrine whereby we can say that God conserves the world in being, he is the cause of everything that happens, he concurs with these effects, and yet he isn’t implicated by the evil that secondary agents do because it isn’t a deterministic doctrine the way the Westminster Confession is and Calvinism is. Hang onto that point till the next item on the outline which is providence and see if the Molinist can offer a solution to this uncomfortable situation.

Question: How does this play in the theory of evolution as it relates to random mutation. It seems like God would have to concur with random mutation. Is there any kind of play in that whole idea?

Answer: The doctrine of concurrence would say that God concurs with every effect that is produced by secondary causes in the world, including mutations. They would be random. When biologists use the word “random” – this is very interesting in debates over evolutionary theory – they don’t mean that it occurs without some sort of purpose because they couldn’t know whether or not there is a God who has allowed these mutations to occur for some purpose. What they mean is that the mutations occur without some sort of natural teleology – some natural goal – for the benefit of the creature to which they are tending. They just happen irrespective of the survivability of the organism which mutates. So it is not what you think it is when they talk about random mutation. It isn’t denying that there is some sort of overarching divine plan or supervision for this. It just means that these things happen without a view toward the benefit of the organism in which they are occurring.

Question: How does this play out with the view of natural evil? A good God could deny his concurrence for a hurricane that kills a bunch of people. And this isn’t preserving libertarian free will, this is just nature. Because God has concurrence, he can just fail to concur with all these horrendous disasters and still allow the world to work properly.

Answer: That is right. God concurs with the earthquake that produces the tsunami that sweeps across the island and kills all these people and he concurs with the flame that burns people or the hurricane or tornado that occurs. It seems to me that anybody who believes in conservation of the world in being is going to have to say, yeah, God conserves the hurricane in being as it happens from one moment to the next and you have to say, I think (boy, this really leads beautifully into the next section on divine providence!) that God has a plan for human history that includes these natural evils as well as moral evils such that ultimately his overriding good purposes for the human race will be achieved through allowing these evils to occur.[6]

Question: We do have a cursed world but I think you touched on it when you talked about purpose. I would overlay God’s various facets of God’s will over this. You have God’s absolute will is his purpose. He is going to accomplish that. He has got a permissive will that he allows people to do certain things. That’s why you and I have maroon shirts on and we step on the break when people stop in front of us and you have orange juice and like that. God isn’t concerned so much if I have orange juice, maybe how much of it, but that is permissive will. Then there is prescriptive will. He has got commandments in the Bible – we don’t have to pray about what we aren’t supposed to do. Then he has an emotive will. He is not willing that any should perish but some do because this is part of the interchange between free will and his absolute plan. All of these things come together. Even hurricanes produce beneficial effects by having carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere.

Answer: Right, what you have to do, if you are troubled with the notion of natural evil and God’s concurring with these things, is go back to the section of the class dealing with the problem of evil because we’ve already talked about that in great detail. Even if you don’t believe in concurrence, God still allows these hurricanes and earthquakes and fires to happen. He could prevent them, right? He could intervene miraculously. In other words, it is not just withdrawing his concurrence; he could step in and do something. But he doesn’t in most cases. So the problem of evil I don’t think arises simply from the doctrine of concurrence. That is going to be there for anybody who believes in an omnipotent creator. I think you are quite right to remind us what we saw then – God has a will for this planet and for the persons on it and evil and suffering of all sorts is permitted only with a view toward accomplishing his good purposes for us. With respect to moral evil, he permits this to happen but doesn’t will it or intend it to happen. On the contrary, it is contrary to his will. But it is his will to have free agents who can do good or evil and he permits them to do it and the doctrine of concurrence would say when they will to do evil, God concurs in producing the effects that these evil agents try to bring about rather than withdraw his concurrence and not allowing these free agents to do their evil deeds.

Question: I prefer to be the optimist and say that God has made this planet to be a special place for life. Look at all the other planets and the storms and the hurricanes that are on Venus or on Jupiter and other places. Sure we have tragedies that happen here; I’ve been in several earthquakes and I’m sure there are people in this room who have had close brushes with tornadoes and all sorts of other disasters. But God does so many great things and I think we can be thankful. When we get to heaven, I am optimistic about all the times that God will say “I intervened in your health” or “I intervened in the weather” or “I intervened in times that you didn’t recognize it.”

Answer: That is a very good point. People often say, “Why didn’t God intervene to stop it?” Well, of course, we don’t know all the cases where he did intervene to stop or prevent something from happening. So we may not realize how good we’ve got it. It could be much worse. That, I think, is a good reminder. Even if God were to prevent a whole lot of the evils in the world that we experience, in a world which he did all that people would still complain about the things that are permitted to happen that are painful. So that is a good reminder, I think.

Question: To avoid the problem of evil, people typically refer to God’s permissive will when you are dealing with concurrence.[7]

Answer: I take it that God’s permissive will will have to do with free decisions of libertarian agents – evil decisions that people freely perpetrate. God doesn’t will the evil that they perpetrate. On the contrary, it is against his will but he gives them permission to do these evil things and then concurrence would say he concurs by producing the effects that these evil agents will. But he does so – and we will talk about this more when we get to providence – he does so only with a view toward his providential plan for human history in which we will see that these things were wisely allowed to happen for achieving his good purposes.


In our closing moments, let us turn then to the doctrine of divine providence. The biblical view of God’s providence is that God has sovereignty over the world and human affairs in the world. The doctrine of providence refers to God’s governance of the world. The world is not simply a haphazardly occurring sequence of events plunging without reason this way and that. Rather, the world is under the sovereign direction of a provident God who governs the world in such a way as to achieve his purposes.

Scriptural Data

Divine Sovereignty

While the biblical passages supporting divine sovereignty over the world are too many to list much less to read, D. A. Carson, in his book Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility published in 1981, lists these passages under four main headings: (1) passages indicating that God is the Creator, the Ruler and the Possessor of all things, (2) passages in which God is the ultimate personal cause of all that happens, (3) passages dealing with God’s election of his people – God sovereignly elects a people to be saved, (4) passages indicating that God is the unacknowledged source of good fortune or success – he is to be praised for anything that is good that happens in your life. [8] I think that nobody who takes these four streams of biblical teaching seriously can hold to a kind of open theism which denies God’s providence over the world. The biblical concept of God’s providence is a very, very strong doctrine of sovereignty, of God’s control and supervision over all things.

Human Freedom

On the other hand, as Carson points out, the Hebrew way of thinking did not imagine people to be puppets or robots in God’s hands. Rather, human beings are also free moral agents. Carson lists nine streams of tradition in the Bible that support this conclusion: (1) people face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God – God holds them morally responsible for their sins and punishes them, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards for their obedience, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative; in other words, God’s election is not just unilateral but the elect have the responsibility to respond to God’s gracious initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God – this is especially evident in the Imprecatory Psalms where the psalmist is crying out in anger to God, (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved. [9] It seems to me that these nine streams of biblical tradition would rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence which would exclude human freedom; a view of providence where God is simply the cause of everything that happens and human beings have no freedom whatsoever. So the question before us is how do you put together these two seemingly incompatible but well-attested biblical truths – the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man? That is what we will grapple with next time when we look at competing views of divine sovereignty.[10]


[1] Al-Ghazali, who has a strong philosophical influence on Dr. Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument you will recall, was one such Muslim. He propounded occasionalism in his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers written in the 11th century.

[2] 4:57

[3] 10:51

[4] 15:17

[5] 20:10

[6] 25:00

[7] 29:43

[8] D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, New Foundations Theological Library (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), pp. 24-35

[9] Ibid., pp. 18-22

[10] Total Running Time: 36:01 (Copyright © William Lane Craig 2012)