Fully gifted conservation

At a couple of separate points in the BioLogos discussion to which Eddie Robinson’s recent piece refers, the question of creation and its sustaining arises. Argon in a comment refers to a well-worn TE phrase (which I seem to have neglected in favour of other equivalent terms on The Hump before), ie “fully-gifted creation,” meaning that God at the point of creation endowed it with all it needs to manage its own affairs and, specifically, evolution.

I, for my part, drew attention to Deborah Haarsma’s repetition of the rather constricted language regarding God’s “sustaining” of creation used by Darrel Falk in 2012. Like him, she appeared, at least, to limit God’s ongoing governance of creation to natural laws, allowing for direct divine action in biblical miracles, but regarding the same in matters of natural events to be controversial:

At BioLogos, “we believe that God typically sustains the world using faithful, consistent processes that humans describe as ‘natural laws.’ Yet we also affirm that God works outside of natural law in supernatural events, including the miracles described in Scripture.” The debate is over how much God chose to use miracles over the eons of natural history, and here BL and DI assess the evidence differently.

Ted Davis chided me for reading too much into her condensed language, but her usage in the context of the BL/ID divide, understood in terms of divine action in evolution, seems to me reasonably clear. Nevertheless, regardless of BioLogos’s official position, there are many to whom God’s governance in creation is strictly limited to sustaining it in existence, lest he be interfering with its liberty. I would argue that the question is not actually just a matter of debate between two approaches to science and faith (if it is that at all, for Eddie is right to say that ID has, once again, been mischaracterised as belief in miracle, rather than belief in design). Rather it is about a major issue on the doctrine of creation itself.

I want to reference one source on this, but let me first just throw out that “fully gifted creation” is one of those rhetorical terms, like virtually all the vocabulary used about creation’s “freedom”, that is calculated to produce a feeling rather than demonstrate truth. For a start, it hints that creation as a whole is conscious and appreciative, for that is what the language of “gift” is about unless it is purely analogical: “I have given my house a new coat of paint”, for example, really means “I have preserved and beautified my house for my own benefit.” The gift is only really for the rational inhabitants of the house.

More importantly, the phrase confers a questionable value-judgement on God’s completing creation upfront and then leaving it to get on. You can see it as being like Abraham making Isaac his heir in all things, which is generous. But it could equally validly be seen as Abraham callously sending Ishmael away with a cash-payment to make his own way in the world. Why would a caring Father not remain active in a son’s life? That question, stripped of metaphor, might be restated, “Why on earth would a Christian want to posit a creation in which God’s role is not actively ongoing?” I’ll return to that question.

Better to avoid the polemic and look at the theological (and metaphysical) issues themselves. Dealing with this before I cited Freddie Freddoso, a Catholic Thomist from Notre Dame, writing on occasionalism and arguing to concurrence. He was the main source for the authoritative article on occasionalism in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Now I will reference Jonathan Kvanvig, an Evangelical from Baylor, also writing in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on Creation and Conservation. I’ll try to précis and simplify his argument, which once more leads to the necessity of a concurrentist position, not so much to replace the article, but to guide you through it.

  • Creation and conservation are essential Christian teachings, and are often treated as two sides of the same coin.
  • Mediaeval science’s preference for an eternal universe led to two alternative understandings of creation: (A) that at some particular time God, alone, created all that is (emphasising creation ex nihilo) (B) that the key thing is ontological dependence of all things on God, even should matter turn out to be eternal (emphasising conservation, or creatio continua).
  • A is vulnerable to Deism, by suggesting that once created, the universe can run on its own as if God were a cosmic clockmaker: but this analogy fails because a clockmaker relies on the ongoing existence of a “causal and spatiotemporal structure” for his clock to keep going. Creation/conservation has to account for this too.
  • The motivation for Deism was that “future activity beyond creation itself was unwanted, since it posed a concern for the success of scientific attempts to understand the cosmos.” This is surely still the commonenst answer to the first question I posed above: “Why on earth would a Christian want to posit a creation in which God’s role is not actively ongoing?” Is ensuring science’s success really the best basis for ones doctrine of Creation?
  • A, however, though congenial to certain current science such as the Big Bang and Cosmic Fine Tuning, thus supporting a theistic version of origins, nevertheless by separating creation from conservation tends to fall short of B (which emphasizes ontological dependence) in the philosophical and hermeneutic interpretation of Scripture.
  • In A, unless God is the Creator of all things, and the sole Creator at that, (a) it suggests he’s not effective in executing his will and (b) it threatens monotheism itself, by suggesting some other agent as co-creator.
  • Therefore the initial creation in A must be “both complete and irresistible.” But since this full doctrine of creation must apply to all contingent things, it leaves no room for any secondary causes in the ongoing universe, so tending to occasionalism, in which God is the only true cause. Conservation is, at least, simply understood as the same process of creation continued, but there are so many disadvantages to this that Kvanvig says this is “one of the few places in philosophy where one can find near unanimity of opinion, that whatever we wish to say about the relationship between God and the created order, we should not utter occasionalist sentiments.”
  • For that reason, A has to apply God’s unique Creatorial role selectively, and this breeds, as has already been described, Deism, in which conservation is either ignored or is remote, God being merely the inititor of the causal chain in a causally closed universe.
  • But even in such a closed Universe, God is still the only cause, operating (as per the BioLogos statement) through natural laws determined by God, and so occasionalism is still the underlying principle. Hence Deism logically must simply refuse to acknowledge conservationism at all.
  • Turning now to B (ontological dependence), creation and conservation can be held together (avoiding Deism) by seeing the latter as an ongoing series of moments of creation, creatio continua. But by thus regarding every moment as the outworking of God’s irresistible creative power, occasionalism soon rears it head again. Secondary powers are illusory.
  • One can attempt to avert this by restricting God’s creation to objects, not events, but this causes many problems, including the fact that scientific events also bring new things into existence (eg in procreation), so the objects-events division is not clearcut.
  • Therefore there is pressure to make conservation (creatio continua) in B less extensive than creation, perhaps limiting its active role to things beyond science’s view, like the creation of human souls, Biblical miracles or, I might add, determining quantum events as per R J Russell’s or John Polkinghorne’s accounts. But this suggests God is not necessary to most of the natural creation.
  • The alternative in B is to make “bringing into being” a stronger concept than “conservation”, so that God is involved in the continued existence both of objects and events, but in a weaker way that avoids occasionalism.
  • But once more the threat here is Deism, if the weaker conservation in question is merely the continuance of the natural causes built into creation. It is hard to see in that case any role for God in ongoing history, whether natural or human. A God outside history cannot be the Christian Trinity.
  • The only way out of this tangle is a theory of concurrence:

Divine conservation of a sort that can have present effects on the basis of things done in the remote past must be supplemented or replaced with the idea of divine concurrence concerning present effects, a concurrence that implies causal responsibility of a certain sort together with immediacy of activity in producing the present effect.

To summarise, in my view the underlying contemporary motivation for positing a “fully-gifted creation” is just the same motive that inspired Enlightenment Deism – the desire for a scientific system that is closed to God’s activity and so fully comprehensible to us. That is why even when there is an insistence that God sustains the universe, the account still sounds Deistic and even uses its catchphrases (like Leibniz and his criticism of the God too incomptent to make self-winding universe).

The overt theological justification for it, ie the preservation of the freedom, liberty, or spontaneity of Nature, is merely poor analogy, so carries no real weight. The theodical justification, ie that God should not be held responsible for natural evils, is equally untenable, as may be discerned by following some of the threads of reasoning on divine causation above: only truly free rational wills (not chance-contingent events) can plausibly be argued to remove God’s ultimate responsibility for outcomes, and even that remains theologically contentious.

In conclusion, the creation in Christian theism is only fully gifted if God gives his own continued involvement in its conservation and governance, as well as supplying its secondary powers. And both Scripture and philosophy suggest he does just that.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Fully gifted conservation

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    So creation is gifted with God’s on-going, governing presence!

    Very profound, Jon. Do we need to curb or encourage our appetite for highlighting the apparently inexplicable as having higher warrant over the apparently explicable for our notice and subsequent praise to God?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Merv

    Exulting over the extraordinary isn’t so bad I guess – the Bible is full of the God of wonders, and Aquinas felt that for God sometimes to act beyond the ordinary was a useful reminder to us of his power.

    The bigger danger, I suspect, is downplaying the role of God in the ordinary: “Not a miracle, so not God.” Or, where that is a danger, “Not irreducibly complex, so not God’s work.” If God is the Creator of all things, we should take seriously the call to praise him in all things.

    Obviously the philosophical line necessarily talen in an encyclopaedia of philosophy emphasises intellectual rigour over worship. They ought to fit together, though.

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