Marking the occasion

A year ago I did a piece on the three philosphical models of divine action. This was mainly to show the inadequacy of the “mere conservation” model that seemed to dominate the BioLogos mindset regarding the natural creation, leaving only the category of “miracle” to account for God’s action in the life of the believer, history and (in extremis) nature.

I deliberately bypassed one view, occasionalism, almost entirely. This is partly because it finds few adherents nowadays, but mainly because it was simpler to contrast conservationism with the prevalent view of historical Christianity (which I share), divine concurrentism. I quoted philosopher Freddie Freddoso on the meaning of occasionalism:

At the other end [from mere conservationism] is occasionalism, where 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.

And I dispensed with it in my column thus:

We can dismiss occasionalism from the discussion here, though it did become dominant in Islamic thinking through al-Ghazali (1058-1111), and is commonly held to have crippled Islam’s scientific progress: occasionalism denies secondary causation altogether, and therefore the possibility of doing science.

I’m re-examining occasionalism here, not so much to promote it, but to illustrate how much of the reason, perhaps, that we discount it altogether is based on an emotional (and Promethean) over-attachment to freedom. So it may help sharpen our thinking a bit to consider it.

In my long one-sided dispute with BioLogos (I’m not sure where they actually stand on the issue now, any more than I was then) I argued against glib talk about creation’s “freedom” and “autonomy”, so prominent in Howard Van Till’s influential input into theistic evolution. I argued then, and argue now, that to merge the unique freedom of action of mankind, and perhaps the more limited self-direction of the animals, with the law-like and chance-like behaviour of inanimate matter is simply incoherent.

But, I suggest, that’s by far the most common reason for dismissing occasionalism, rather than what I would consider the more substantial and subtle reasons to be found in Scripture. So, assuming here the existence of true wills to be an exception to occasionalism, the reason for rankling at the idea that everyday events, such as the attraction of gravity or chemical reactions – or the mechanisms of evolution – are the direct, unmediated, works of God is often an emotional one. To exclude secondary causes would simply be unfair on the creation, and on us as we study it. It would be misleading of God to make it look as if A causes B when, in fact, it had been his own direct action.

In fact, David Hume, no friend to divine action, cast serious doubt on the nature of causality anyway, but leaving that aside, I’m not sure an occasionalist view is really a problem for science, and even less for faith. On reflection, my reason for saying in last year’s piece that occasionalism denies the possibility of doing science only applies if God were inconsistent or capricious in linking events as cause and effect, which is manifestly not the case. The idea of natural law, or the older Aristotelian equivalent of forms and natures, is based on the empirical observation of consistency in the world. If God is willing, and able, to create secondary causes with regular effects, he would be equally willing and able to produce the same effects without ever creating those partly independent causes. Let me expand.


Computer graphic

My Great Uncle Will, pictured here in 1902, at that time had a job as a computer in the Royal Greenwich Observatory. You may be aware that digital computers were named in imitation of the smart mathematicians, often female, who crunched numbers before Turing’s invention. He was an instance of that role-model, only male of course. We can assume that what was desirable in a human computer was, primarily, mathematical consistency – that they would always get the right answers, according to the fixed laws of mathematics. Presumably it would help if they did the job quickly, too. So far, then, we might imagine God as a kind of super-Uncle-Will, doing all the universe’s calculations by hand and so ruling its order by the rules he himself ordained for its good, which we call “laws”.

If that idea touches a raw nerve, then ask yourself why it was that Uncle Will’s kind ever came to be replaced by man-made “secondary causes” in the form of computing machines. It certainly wasn’t because computers can do anything that humans cannot. Computers, after all, only peform the algorithms that humans design them to do – Garbage In, Garbage Out was the old aphorism. No, the reasons we use computers are because (a) people are prone to make mathematical mistakes, (b) people are too slow to get jobs done in the planet’s lifetime and (c) computers release people for less mundane tasks than mere number-crunching. Uncle Will went on to work for HM Customs, a more human task and one more suitable to his aging  grey cells.

But none of those reasons applies to God: he does not make mistakes, he knows all things instantaneously and has infinite capacity to execute algorithms, if that is his desire, whilst giving his whole attention to our individual welfare. I would suggest that, if it were God’s will to dispense with secondary causes we would not have any way of telling the difference, and it’s hard to think how it would have any more moral implications than my deciding to write this post by hand and distribute it by snail-mail instead of employing high technology.

As it happens, I think there are hints in Scripture (rather than in philosophical reason) that God didn’t choose to work that way – there is a sense of nature’s distance from God in the language, from Genesis to Revelation, of God’s controlling and taming nature rather than simply presenting it as a projection of his will. But most objectors to occasionalism aren’t motivated by such deductions from Scriptural teaching, but by an idea that science must be studying secondary causes, as if consistent primary causes would appear any different.

I’ve hinted at the more substantial objection above, that occasionalism would make any kind of authentic human freedom impossible. That would be weighty if God were restricted to working in that way. But Uncle Will provides guidance on this, for even his boughtonlimited human intellect was capable of spending his days calculating astronomical data, and his free-time in relating to others person-to-person. He was active in his Nonconformist church, a good family man, and a keen early photographer; apart from taking interesting pictures of Greenwich Observatory and its environs at the turn of the twentieth century, he took family pictures like this delightful one from 1923 of my mother with her cousin and younger sister. If he could be both a benign uncle and a human computer, we shouldn’t deny the same ability to God, surely?

Now, as I said, this is not a pitch for occasionalism. To me, as to most thinking believers over the centuries, concurrentism ticks more boxes. But I don’t think we’re in a position to know about these things, and a healthy agnosticism ought, I think, to result from an attitude of humility to our Creator. The various philosophical reflections do have some apologetic function in showing the compatibility of belief in the Sovereign God of Christianity both with the world we observe through science and that we experience as free human beings. But we should be wary of ever telling God that, as a result of our reasoning, he has to work that way.


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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16 Responses to Marking the occasion

  1. pngarrison says:

    Jon, maybe it’s just because I’m a simple minded philosopher, but I can’t see what the substantial difference is between conservation plus miracles and concurrentism. Conservation plus miracles means that God causes the universe to run by comprehensible (to us), mathematically summarizable rules most of the time in most places and rarely, when He wants to communicate something big, He does something which obviously breaks the rules. He may also very slightly bend the rules all the time to arrange for answers to prayer, etc. but if He does, there’s no way we can detect that.

    How does concurrentism really differ from this? I suggest by the rhetoric of theologians making a distinction where there is no difference. The first description estimates the sorts of things God has to do to rule his universe. The second emphasizes that it is God who does this. I don’t see how they differ. We are back to agreeing in a sense with pre-scientific people that God has a normal mode and a “signs and wonders” mode, but it’s all His doing, other than whatever it is that we choose, if we do in fact choose anything in any real sense.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      I guess it’s best if readers judge the issues for themselves by looking at Freddoso’s helpful article on the three positions here. You’ll see it’s from a philosophical, not a theological journal, and it’s generally been philosophers who have argued the questions.

      But it seems to me you’ve cut the ground from under your feet by the way you describe conservationism. From Freddoso’s article, you’ll see that in order to consider how God acts miraculously, it was necessary to give an adequate account of how he acts normally, in daily providence.

      Conservationism says he generally acts entirely through the secondary powers of created things – hence the prefix “mere”. He sustains all things in existence, but only in the existence with which he originally endowed them. And so they follow the laws set up for them at the Big Bang or whenever he created those secondary powers. That applies just as much to animate creation – the lions will eat Daniel because that’s their created nature, unless God opposes that nature by a miraculous interference with the creaturely independence he gave them.

      As soon as God is “slightly bending the rules” then either he is working apart from secondary powers (miraculously), or working in harmony – ie concurrence – with them to manage the universe actively. That indeed would cover answers to prayer – which alone would require billions of such interventions every day. But it would also be necessary in any theistic universe where God interacts with his creation as a Father, because conservationism is effectively deistic (even the Deists mostly believed God sustains the universe in existence).

      As I said in the article, it’s dangerous to tell God how he does his business. I was endeavouring to show that, regarding inanimate things acting in lawlike ways, an occasionalist God pushing everything around in a consistent way is indistinguishable from his setting up secondary causes that act on the same consistent principles, only built in to them.

      But if God is active in managing his world, you either have to expand the category of “miracle” beyond the extraordinary to the everyday, or have a view of “natural” processes that goes beyond a scientifically closed system and is open to his guidance.

      Under occasionalism, of course, he would simply be more or less rigorously consistent. But that poses problems, I think, if the answer to your prayer comes, for example, from another person’s change of mind – it seems they have no mind except God’s anyway under occasionalism. Under conservationism, God would have to overrule the person’s will – a moral problem as well as an over-supply of miracle. But concurrence, because it involves God in freely willed events as much as in lawlike ones, enables a free change of mind to be part of God’s providence in answering prayer.

      • Edward Robinson says:


        In most of the accounts I’ve seen of “concurrence,” the term is used even of events where there is no “bending of the rules.” So, for example, when a heavy object falls to the earth under entirely normal circumstances (i.e., when no miracles or answers to prayer are involved), a medieval theologian given to the “concurrence” doctrine would say that the objects falls to the earth because of its own natural properties, but that in order for this to happen, God’s will has to “concur” (literally, run together with) the object’s own natural powers. It is as if God’s active consent — consent contemporaneous with the event in question — is required for every naturally caused event.

        What this would mean, in practice, would be that, when a hailstone falls, God says, at one moment, “I concur with the hailstone’s natural tendency to fall this far”, and the next, “I concur with the hailstone’s natural tendency to fall this much farther,” and so on, all the way down to: “I concur with the hailstone’s smashing into the corn plant and damaging it.”

        In contrast, “mere conservationism” would say that God does not need to actively consent, moment by moment, to natural events; his consent is implied by the fact that he established natural laws or gave natural objects their properties in the first place, knowing full well what sorts of behavior those laws or properties would generate, e.g., making hailstones fall and sometimes damaging corn plants. Merely by conserving the laws of nature (or the natures of things, depending on what century of scientific thought we are talking about), God has given all the consent he needs to give for any natural event to happen. He doesn’t have to approve of each microsecond of change, any more than the Queen needs to be in the room all day, every day, with the Prime Minister, nodding her approval every time the Prime Minister makes an executive decision in order for the decision to take effect.

        Now, note this: The heavy object will fall with exactly the same acceleration and will strike the ground (or the corn plant) with exactly the same kinetic energy, whether God produces natural events by “concurrence” or by “mere conservation.” So the scientist will not need to build a special “concurrence term” into his equations; he will, when doing science, think about causes and effects as if the world worked by “mere conservation.” That is, for the scientist, the notion of “concurrence” does no explanatory work that is not already done by “conservation” (of natural laws). The notion of “concurrence” is of no practical use to him.

        Now let us move from the case of “natural” events to the case of miracles. Preston wants to interpret them as events in which “conservation” is suspended, in which the rules are broken. You want to interpret them as events in which no rules are broken, but rather, in which rules are “bent.” And Preston is saying that the end result is the same, no matter which interpretation you take. You still have to say that the parting of the Red Sea or the Resurrection is not in accord with the normal tendencies of nature, and that the reason for the departure from the normal tendencies is the special divine action of God.

        Another way of putting this is: is there any imaginable event, whether natural or supernatural in our conventional terms, which could not be explained equally thoroughly (a) by the appropriate proportions of “conservation” and “intervention” and (b) by God’s “concurrence” with the natural laws or properties, where those natural laws or properties are somewhat “bent” during the concurrence in the case of “supernatural” events?

        If *any* event can be explained either way, is there any point in insisting that the language of “concurrence” be used, rather than the language of “conservation plus the odd miracle”?

        • Jon Garvey says:


          You’re right in saying, in effect, that a rose by any other name is still a rose – we none of us are privy to God’s actual ways of working (which was partly the point of this piece on the despised occasionalism: how would we know if there were no secondary causes?).

          But bear in mind that “bending the rules” was Preston’s description, not mine, of God’s daily, undetectable activity in such things as answering prayer. My reply was that that is, in essence, concurrentism, for prayer involves the whole fabric of creation. What must happen in the world if “Lead us not into temptation” is not just to be an empty pious phrase?

          I don’t, myself, think in terms of rules being bent or broken, because all such phraseology implies God’s working against what he has already set up, which remains one of the main quasi-scientific objections against divine activity. It was in the Enlightenment a reason to deny all miracles – now “a few” miracles seem to have got a free pass. But call the mode of divine action what one will, what you conceive guides what you expect (or will concede) to happen in the world.

          The BioLogos TEs whose conservationism I rejected allowed for miracles, but implied that too many of them is not only silly, but denies the creaturely autonomy of natural entities, whose laws are fixed by God and therefore sacrosanct. Van Till or Polkinghorne reject a “coercive” God specifically because to do a miracle (in the world of evolution, weather, or good harvests rather than resurrection) means God saying one thing (the law) and then overruling it (the “interference”).

          But as Suarez argued (discussed by Freddoso), the general concept of concurrentism means that God works in conjunction with the creatures’ natures or laws, rather than constantly overruling them.

          No doubt (as in the BL thinking) God’s occasional overruling, by the Resurrection for example, is a welcome mark of his sovereignty. But Christianity has always been a faith in a provident, theistic, God, who doesn’t only work, day by day, through fixed rules but by constant care and wise counsel.

          You mentioned prayer in that regard, and that’s significant enough in terms of numbers of daily “acts of God”, but he is also said to act in common grace, in judgement and so on. His active will permeates the world’s events. And that we find, in experience, is usually through, not despite, the usual processes of the world.

          Historically, “miracle” was always the word for a special sign or a wonder: God’s providential deliverance from a dangerous illness, or daily provision of bread, was always a matter for thanksgiving, not for astonishment. So I say the innovation is the law-conservation-miracle model, which can be defined in such a way that it describes the way the same world works, but which in practice tends towards either making everyday events miraculous, or more often to excluding God’s special providence from all except a few events, usually in the New Testament.

          Finally, how do I think special providence, whether viewed in concurrentist terms or not, interacts with natural law? I would suggest that goes into areas like the statistical nature of most of “our” laws, the fact that they are actually ideal abstractions observed under closely controlled experimental conditions, and the fact that their rigid immutability is a philosophical assumption… and one that, in the end, depends on the conservationist view that came to prominence for the first time in the Enlightenment.

          I don’t like the idea that God bends or breaks the laws of biology to get us here, if his continous action is the law of biology.

          • Edward Robinson says:


            I agree with you regarding the critique of BioLogos. I also agree with you that thinking about events in terms of an immutable nature which God has to “break” in order to achieve certain events is in some ways unsatisfactory.

            On the second point, I was merely pointing out that, unsatisfactory though the conception might be for certain philosophical or theological reasons, it works out fine on a pragmatic level, for making predictions in everyday life and in modern natural science. It even works out fine on the level of popular theology. The average Christian, not given much to speculation or trying to figure out why things happen at a deep level, probably in fact walks around thinking in terms of conservation of natural laws plus the occasional “breaking” of natural laws (which breaking just goes to show how great God is, that he can smash the bonds of necessity that hold the universe together, something we puny humans could never do). It doesn’t take much of an extension for the average Christian to imagine that if God heals a family member after prayer, God does it by suspending or breaking a law of nature, much as he did to part the Red Sea or raise Lazarus from the dead.

            Of course, you can say that I’m speaking of modern Christians who have learned a certain way of thinking about “nature” as an unbreakable nexus of causes, and that not all past Christians would have thought in that way. I would agree. Nonetheless, this modern way of thinking “works” in the sense that it seems to sustain the church life of millions of Christians — whether it is philosophically or theologically adequate or not. In each era, Christians believe in prayer and miracles; what changes is the intellectual formulas they invoke to explain these things. But it could be argued that God doesn’t care what concepts we invoke, as long as we believe in prayer and miracles.

            Regarding BioLogos, what I have in mind is the repeated statements by BioLogos folks which could easily be taken to support “concurrence,” but which are still problematic. For example, Schloss says that God is “mightily hands-on” in the evolutionary process. And the BioLogos folks repeat over and over: “We’re not deists. We believe God is present and active in all actions, not just in miraculous actions, but even in normal natural actions.” Now all of that could be interpreted as an endorsement of “concurrentism.” BioLogos seems to be denying the teaching that God merely sets up the natural laws and then sits back with his popcorn and watches the show. It seems to be agreeing with you.

            But in practice, the way Venema etc. talk about things, it doesn’t *feel* as if God is “mightily hands-on”; it *feels* much more as if God sets up the natural laws, knowing they will eventually produce life and man by such things as random mutation and natural selection. So BioLogos mouths the right words for a concurrentist (what concurrentist could object to “mightily hands-on”?), but I don’t think that in its actual conception of what happens in origins BioLogos is concurrentist at all, but is merely conservationist.

            And this is where my problem with “concurrentism” lies; by positing a God who is sort of a “co-cause” along with natural causes, yet not entering in any way into the chain of efficient causes (which is all the BioLogos people are interested in, as biologists), it seems to make God redundant from an explanatory point of view. Why does God go to all the trouble to create a universe with a complex set of constants, laws, properties, etc., — a universe which, given those very properties, can *entirely naturally* produce planets and life and man — but then insist that he himself “be there” in every single exercise of those properties? To use my earlier analogy, it would be as if the Queen gives the Prime Minister full executive powers, but then insists on being there to authorize his commands every time he orders an emergency helicopter rescue in the North Sea. If God is going to be so insistent on micromanagement as that, then creating laws and essences and virtues and properties of things is a complete waste of time; he could achieve *exactly the same results* via momentary exercises of his omnipotent will.

            In other words, “occasionalism” is, by Ockham’s Razor, a much more *economical* explanation of both the regular appearance of nature *and* of miracles than is “concurrentism,” which has to do complex intellectual twists to maintain that God simultaneously *both* does something necessary to the outcome *and* leaves nature to its created powers (which should be sufficient to guarantee the outcome already).

            I think the BioLogos folks don’t want to go for concurrentism because that would line them up with the God of Islam, and they want to stress that they are Christians above all else; so they have to go for “conservation plus miracles”; but then they are really no different from the ID people they criticize, except that the ID people think that some miracles occurred in creation as well as in the history of Israel. So, as a sort of smokescreen, they turn around and bash the ID people for a deistic or Enlightenment of mechanical conception of God, and say that unlike those dastardly ID people, they think God is “mightily hands-on” — while in fact the BioLogos idea of divine action is not fundamentally different from the conservation plus miracles model.

            If I am right in this analysis, the BioLogos notion of “concurrentism” (i.e., of “hands-on” activity, of actual participation of God in every event) is vacuous.

            So the question arises, is the BioLogos appeal to something like “concurrentism” vacuous because of the basic Enlightenment-conservationist assumptions BioLogos scientists work under, or is the conception of “concurrentism” itself vacuous, an unstable halfway house between “occasionalism” and “conservation plus the odd miracle”?

            By the way, Preston — this discussion is for you as well, so please jump in! Do you see BioLogos as “conservationist” or “concurrentist”? Or do you think their notion of divine action is simply not very clear? And if so, how would you yourself explain how God is involved in the evolutionary process?

            • Jon Garvey says:


              Much to agree on here, so not too much to add beyond the discussion so far. I think the problem with your picture of a “popular” laws + miracles model is that, being superficial, it’s unstable.

              As soon as some sciency type holding it starts thinking seriously about natural laws as being (in the ruling paradigm) inviolable, even by God, then he’s vulnerable to seeing the small daily miracles as “cheating” or “tinkering” or, morally worse, “coercion”. And undermining science, too, which is just unkind. Hence, the laws become overwhelmingly the norm, and the miracles slightly embarrassing and sidelined.

              But because nobody wants to deny prayer, the easiest thing is to have two mental compartments – a scientific one where chance and necessity play out, and a separate religious one where God answers prayer, or even (as in one of Jim Stump’s first pieces) one gives praise for gifts of design – but with no real attempt to integrate them with a law and chance driven science.

              If concurrence really meant scientific business as usual with a divine invisible agent involved, then you’re right in saying it’s mere conservationism – and even Deism – in practice.

              Ones model, to be truly theistic, has to allow for divine choice to modulate divine custom (I’m not here speaking at the empirical, but the theological, level.)
              Occasionalism does indeed allow for both (as in the OP) and Muslim fatalism depends as much on their arbitrary view of divine will as their occasionalism. Concurrentism has no problem with special providence – and historically was developed largely to account for it. Conservationism, as we’ve discussed, necessarily places special providence in opposition to divine law, and so is a danger if taken beyond the folk-religion level, without treating it deeply enough at the theological-philosophical level.

            • Lou Jost 2 says:

              Eddie, you say

              But in practice, the way Venema etc. talk about things, it doesn’t *feel* as if God is “mightily hands-on”

              Seems to me that this is a good example of a religious issue which is not just philosophical. This viewpoint of theirs on evolution, and the corresponding view about reality generally, has empirical content and could be disconfirmed if a god were sufficiently heavy-handed. The fact that there is so little evidence for answered prayer, or for exceptional mutation rates in lineages leading to man, or for any other supernatural teleological breaking of natural laws, seems to me to be strong evidence against such views. Likewise the sterility of the ID research program (their journals sit virtually empty) strongly suggests that this view gives valid insight into the nature of reality.

              • Lou Jost 2 says:

                OOPS:”this view gives” ->
                “this view does not give”

              • Edward Robinson says:


                I’m not sure that Venema would agree with you that there is “little evidence” for answered prayer; in fact, given that he goes to a congregationalist evangelical church, he most likely believes that God answers prayers (unless he is a dispensationalist, which most TEs aren’t).

                The TEs find the idea of God’s breaking the causal nexus in order to create the world intolerable, while they find the idea of God’s breaking the causal nexus in Biblical miracles and in answered prayers OK. But what are the latter things but “tinkering” with nature — the very thing they abhor when it comes to biological origins?

                After all, to say that a man’s rising from the dead involves supernatural intervention — isn’t that just “God of the gaps” reasoning? How does Venema know that some day science won’t be able give a perfectly naturalistic cause for occasional risings from the dead? Or occasional partings of seas? But he doesn’t take that line for any of the Biblical miracles, as opposed to other things he doesn’t have a clue how to explain — like the origin of life or the Cambrian explosion.

                I’ll ignore the gratuitous swipe at ID, which has nothing to do with the discussion over occasionalism and concurrentism. But if you are in a fighting mood, why not take it to Venema? Why don’t you post a question on one of Venema’s columns (now that BioLogos has instituted a rule that columnists must answer at least some questions)?

                How about: “Dennis, as a working biologist like yourself, I admire your defense of seamless naturalism in origins, with no miracles or interventions by God of any kind. But why don’t you take your view of nature all the way, and deny the Biblical miracle reports as well? That would be more logically consistent than your present approach, which adopts a lower standard of evidence for Biblical miracles than you employ for miracles in the origin of life and species?”

                Lou, I wish you’d be as hard on the BioLogos TEs as on others. They are actually more logically inconsistent, from a theological or philosophical point of view, than the other groups whom you criticize. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want all the emotional comforts of good old, down-home, churchy U.S. Christianity, but they also want the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the naturalism of the 19th century. Their minds and hearts are split right down the middle, and the only way they can deal with the split is to hold to an unmaintainable compartmentalism. I wish you would be as hard on their inconsistencies as you are on the alleged inconsistencies of creationists and of ID people.

              • Lou Jost 2 says:

                Eddie, I was always puzzled by the incongruence between Dennis’ excellent straightforward genetics articles and his belief in miracles…But given that he does believe in miracles, the fact that he still sees no evidence of miracles in evolution is significant.

                A couple of years ago when I first started commenting on BioLogos, he and I exchanged polite letters about his reasons for his beliefs. My letter was similar to the one you suggest here.

                I think my swipe at ID was not gratuitous, because it bears on the point of my comment: the debate is not strictly theological but partly empirical, and potentially decidable based on evidence. IDers do make many empirical claims. If they really are (as they claim to be) revolutionaries with unique insights into the true nature of evolution, we might expect to see them leading a rich, vigorous research program. Yet their journals have one or two empirical papers per year (and those are terrible). That tells us something about the power of their framework.

                Maybe they would argue that, like Democritus in ancient Greece, they are so far ahead of their time that the tools don’t yet exist to test their ideas. Yet there is no better time in all of history to be making and testing new hypotheses about evolution and genetics. We’re rapidly making huge advances on every front. If they really had the key that all other biologists had missed, it is surprising that they are unable to open any doors with it.

  2. pngarrison says:

    Jon, I still can’t see the difference. “Concurrence” seems like one those words that theologians or theologically minded philosophers come up with to convince themselves they understand something that no one can understand. Or, somewhat cynically, you could say they want to maintain two incompatible ideas at once, so they designate a word to stand for that uneasy tension, which they deny is uneasy. God pre-determines everything, but He is right to hold us responsible for what we could not have not done. That sort of thing.

    I have no problem with saying God determined what I preferred for dinner last night or that He put it in my mind to think about my friend at the moment that he had a need I could meet. If you want to call that concurrence, it’s as good as any other word for something we don’t know how He does. I just can’t see what it accomplishes that isn’t accomplished by saying God has a normal mode of running things that we call physical (and other) descriptive law and a “signs and wonders” mode that we don’t know how He does, and then there’s our freedom, which is a sticky wicket that not only do we not understand, we don’t even have any good ideas.

    Theology doesn’t really seem like it should by all that complicated for simple creatures like us. There are a limited number of questions that we need to take a position on, and give a brief explanation of why we take the position we do that includes passages of Scripture and a little argument. And then there’s a considerable list of things that we should just say, I don’t know. But theologians write vast multi-volume works that seem impossible verbose. I just got Alistair McGrath’s intellectual biography of Torrance. Short and expensive – that’s what I would expect of a good theology book. 🙂 But Torrance wrote or translated 350 works before retirement and 250 after. And McGrath writes books faster than I could read them if I read nothing else. Theologians are a sub-species I don’t understand.

    I have really important things to do. I’m trying to figure out what Abraham’s Y haplogroup was, and how to get any evidence for it. Should be simple. 🙂

    • Edward Robinson says:


      I’m sympathetic with part of what you say about concurrence and conservation, and intend to address it in a post I haven’t finished yet.

      Yes, McGrath over-writes. He should do more listening and less writing; then his output would be smaller, but better.

      I was trained in theology and philosophy by several people; one of them had published almost nothing, but had a deeper understanding of the philosophical and theological tradition than almost anyone I have ever known; the other was a man who had only published a handful of books in his life; none of them was more than 200 pages long. But they were thoughtful books, each the product of several years of thinking, and they were written powerfully. Academics don’t have to have such bloated outputs as McGrath or Torrance. It’s not “philosophy” or “theology” as such that generates such output, as much as (a) lack of discipline to say things in fewer words, and (b) academic ambition in the publish-or-perish world.

      McGrath recently said some false things about ID. The Discovery Institute attempted to contact him to explain to him that he had misrepresented ID and that his critique of it, based on that misrepresentation, was invalid. He did not reply. Too busy writing new books to make sure that what’s in the books he’s already written is correct! I’m not impressed. But I don’t blame “theology” or “theologians” for that. I blame McGrath.

  3. Jon Garvey says:

    I’m trying to figure out what Abraham’s Y haplogroup was, and how to get any evidence for it. Should be simple.

    Yeah – Just get into Abraham’s tomb in Hebron, dodging the Muslim custodians. It’s signposted, and the only Herodian architecture around. Sample the dust. Job’s a goodun.

  4. Edward Robinson says:


    By “gratuitous” I meant “thrown in on top of something else unrelated to it.” The subject of discussion was the BioLogos understanding of concurrentism versus conservationism. Complaints about the lack of a research program of ID, warranted or not, have nothing to do with that subject and therefore are gratuitous additions to the discussion.

    I would have been glad to hear your opinion on concurrentism vs. conservationism, but your opinion regarding ID’s lack of research program belongs in another discussion.

    That said, did Dennis Venema say anything to you privately that he hasn’t already said on BioLogos? Or was it all the same vague doubletalk, e.g., “I don’t know how to square my belief in God’s non-interventionism with my belief in his interventionism, but that’s Christian faith for you — God is mysterious and we can’t expect a clear understanding”?

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      Eddie, my comment about ID is relevant to the discussion of concurrentism vs conservationism. The point of my comment was that this is not just a theological debate but an empirical one. If god really had a heavy hand in changing or suspending laws, or if certain kinds of teleology were real, then these might be detectable. The failure of ID’s research program strongly suggests that this doesn’t happen (at least not at detectable levels– if there is a god, he hides himself well).

      I’m sure you’ll understand that I can’t comment on Dennis’ side of private correspondence. I just wanted to let you know that my letter was pretty much as you suggested.

      • Edward Robinson says:


        ID is not about changing or suspending laws; it’s only about design detection. Creationism is about changing or suspending laws. So if that is the connection you were making, you should have said “creationism” instead of “ID”.

        Further, both “concurrentism” and “conservationism” are, in the abstract, compatible with a universe in which no laws are broken. So if it appears that no laws are broken, then there is no empirical way of choosing between conservation and concurrence. It then becomes a theological argument whether God sets up the universe, gives it a permanent power source of continued existence, and goes off to play golf, or actively lends a hand to nature moment by moment to keep the universe running by natural laws.

        The BioLogos folks are very unclear which one of these visions they endorse, at least regarding the origins of the earth, life, and man. The only thing that is clear is that they think it all happened through natural causes.

        You are right not to speak in detail about Dennis’s private comments. But I was hoping you would at least be able to volunteer something of a general nature, such as “I was disappointed in his reply” or “I actually thought he gave a much more plausible reply than he has ever posted on BioLogos, though I can’t tell you any details.” But I’ll let that question go.

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