Augustine, omens and divine action

Last month I wrote a post arguing against the neo-scholastic belief (often shared with less than clear understanding by Evolutionary Creationists) that God’s activity cannot on first principles be observed in the world, lest he be regarded as just another cause within the causal system of the cosmos. I argued that though the principle of God’s radical separateness from his Creation is sound, the conclusion that the Creation must be causally complete within itself is not. I argued from the Genesis creation account that established secondary causes are not, theologically, necessarily sufficient to explain all we see around us.

One argument brought against actions of God beyond the “laws of nature” is that they would make the world unintelligible: things would look as if they ought to be explicable by science, but this would in fact be an illusion. I showed in my article that, although this might be true, and therefore a minor hindrance to our scientific guild if they desire omnicompetence in understanding the world, it was never seen as a theological problem by the generations of theologians who took the Genesis 1 account historically, before geology suggested a much older and gradually formed earth.

It’s worth remembering, as I’ve been discovering in greater depth from Francesa Rochberg’s book on Babylonian science, that the idea of a fully interconnected, and therefore potentially fully intelligible realm, of “Nature” is a human construct (invented by the Greeks) with no necessary correspondence to reality – the cuneiform scientists did well without it. The idea that divine action should be excluded from such a cosmos, so that purely material causes form a complete system, is even more recent and entirely culturally conditioned.

This is demonstrated in a passage to which Rochberg directed me in Augustine. Augustine is an author who is often invoked to support this idea of a causally complete universe, but this is at best a gross oversimplification of his thinking. Chapter 8 of City of God, Book XXI, is actually about eternal punishment, and the claim that everlasting burning is “against nature” and therefore impossible. Augustine replies that there is nothing to prevent God altering the natures of anything we are accustomed to seeing, merely by his will. He takes as an example “extraordinary portents”, which are uncommon but not unheard of.

For we say that all portents are contrary to nature; but they are not so. For how is that contrary to nature which happens by the will of God, since the will of so mighty a Creator is certainly the nature of each created thing? A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature.

Note that this is to assert that the “laws of nature” may well not explain some phenomena, because God has, for those events at least, given nature new laws. He goes on to describe how there are no more certain laws than those governing the movements of the heavens: “What is there established by laws so sure and inflexible?” And yet God can alter (and in Augustine’s view has on occasions altered) those laws to create signs of warning in the heavens.

Interestingly, Babylonian science was all about the meaning of omens, especially in the heavens, and their intellectual tradition over two millennia had no sense whatsoever of a background of “natural causes”, but merely saw omens as the language with which the gods expressed their will and brought about the future.

Nevertheless, from a modern scientific perspective it seems (rightly) that Augustine is diminishing the intelligibility of the world, for such portents as he describes have no cause within familiar nature, but only in the will of God. I’m not sure how scholastics like Herbert McCabe would regard Augustine on this, but I’m sure they would discount the idea if anyone else suggested it! For in their view, if there is even a single event in the created world which cannot be linked to causes within nature and must therefore be visibly God’s work, then God would seem to be “just another cause”, rather than “the Cause of all causes”. And so such people dismiss Intelligent Design’s project to demonstrate God’s design from the insufficiency of secondary causes as doomed from the start scientifically, and heterodox theologically.

Nowadays, the tendency would be to dismiss all Augustine’s extensive literary sources for portents outside the course of (accustomed) nature as poppycock, or at least as primitive misinterpretation of purely “natural” (in the newer sense, whatever that is) phenomena. Miracles are a bigger problem for modern soft-scientistic Christians, but the usual recourse seems to be to put a few, like the Resurrection, in a box marked “exceptions, not up for discussion”, and to treat the rest, whether biblical or modern, as in the same “doubtful” category as omens. After all, we seldom see miracles, and can convince ourselves there were other causes when we do.

But hold on a minute. The most fundamental class of occurrence in nature, from which ultimately all the rest is built, is the quantum event. As I argued in my piece about the fallacy of treating statistical chance as a material efficient cause, they are the one class of events that, from the point of view of theoretical science, are genuinely indeterminate rather than merely humanly unknowable. I think most of us would agree that they have been proven by Bell’s theorem not to be caused by local variables, that is by any material cause within nature. And so their cause is not only unknown, but it lies outside the realm we accept as nature, that is, outside the interconnected cosmos of material causes.

Individual quantum events, then, are every bit as anomalous and unintelligible as any of Augustine’s portents. Only by arbitrarily stretching our definition of “nature” to include events with no intelligible material cause can we dare to call them “natural”, in which case we have no rational justification for not allowing in the omens too – as well as the possibility of God’s direct action in other areas, such as creating innovations in the biological sphere.

Notice that I’m not arguing here, as Robert J Russell does in Cosmology – from Alpha to Omega, that quantum events are a back door by which God can influence nature without “cheating” by interfering with secondary causes. Rather, the fact that we can see events that are caused by God (if God is the First Cause of all events) but not by any secondary cause within nature is empirical evidence that the whole philosophical argument that God can only act through scientific secondary causes is flawed. The most basic of physical events, quantum events, lack secondary causes to the extent that atheist Epicureans even say they are “uncaused”. But they have a statistical distribution, showing they are indeed ordered, not uncaused. And the only good alternative to Epicurean chance is God. Either McCabe’s theology is disproved by quantum theory, or his theology disproves quantum theory.

Or maybe the problem is the old one of the limitation of “the God of the Philosophers”. Augustine was no advocate for the univocity of God, but he was grounded enough in the Scriptures to privilege the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Lord Jesus Christ, with all the apparent contradictions, over the God reason prefers.

Intelligibility is not, after all, an absolute.

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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4 Responses to Augustine, omens and divine action

  1. Edward Robinson says:

    Excellent post, Jon. You hit the nail on the head with this sentence:

    “the neo-scholastic belief (often shared with less than clear understanding by Evolutionary Creationists) that God’s activity cannot on first principles be observed in the world, lest he be regarded as just another cause within the causal system of the cosmos. ”

    Jon, I have not read the books of Edward Feser, but I have read many of his blog posts and responses to commenters on this very question. (I have also read many blogs and comments by the Thomist Francis Beckwith, who takes the same party line.) Feser would seem to take exactly the position you are criticizing. He seems to say that ID cannot be valid *theologically* because it *inevitably* involves a false and non-Christian conception of God. (Of course, by non-Christian metaphysics he means non-Thomist metaphysics, since he thinks that the Thomistic formulation of Christian metaphysics is *the* correct one and all other formulations — Platonist, Franciscan, etc. — are philosophically flawed and theologically heretical.)

    On Feser’s assumptions, examining the scientific evidence for ID is *for a Christian* beside the point. It’s not worth bothering to settle the argument ID has with the Darwinists, when ID *couldn’t* be right without “classical theism” and hence classical Christian theology being false. For if ID is right, Feser says or implies, then the right view of God would be the “univocal” one, and then would have a pagan God who is a cause within the world, a sort of magnified Zeus, rather than the transcendent God of Christianity. In other words, a Thomist *must* reject ID for religious and philosophical reasons, even if that Thomist can’t see any flaws in ID’s arguments for design (e.g., can’t pinpoint any difficulty with the claim of specified complexity of the camera eye or of the new body plans of the Cambrian).

    I find it bizarre that Feser, Beckwith etc. devote inordinate amounts of time bashing the allegedly unacceptable theology of ID, but spend *none* bashing the much worse theology of BioLogos and of most American theistic evolutionism (90% of the ASA-ID folks are just as bad theologically as the BioLogos folks). Feser is indignant at the theology of Dembski, Jay Richards, etc., but he’s fine with the theology of Oord (God not only doesn’t but *can’t* compel nature) or Falk (all species have “Wesleyan” freedom and so God would never be so bossy as to force them to evolve into one thing rather than another)? I can’t believe that. I can’t believe that Feser would have anything but intellectual indignation or intellectual contempt for hundreds of theological statements made over the years by BioLogos leaders, BioLogos commenters, and other Protestant TEs. But he never goes after the TEs, only after the ID people.

    Beckwith is the same; he published an insulting attack upon the theology of ID on BioLogos several years ago, even though he as a Thomist could not possibly endorse the theology of BioLogos. And never have I heard him utter a peep against any version of American TE, not the “freedom of nature” motif, nor the “God creates through randomness” motif, nor the “God wouldn’t create evil, so the Demiurge, evolution, must have done it” motif — let alone the heresies of Oord which, in the days of the *actual* Thomas, would have seen Oord punished in most unpleasant ways, and with Thomas’s blessing (if I have interpreted rightly claims I have heard about Thomas’s view on the punishment of heretics).

    Have you any thoughts on why these Thomists should find ID so much more theologically offensive than they find TE? Or on why they see no need at all to combat the many TE heresies you combat here?

    Two or three years ago I wrote to Feser on his blog site about this, but found that he did not seem to get the point, or did not want to respond to it. Why would he “shield” heretical Protestant TEs from theological criticism on a website where he frequently discusses the doctrine of Creation? It just does not add up.

    I know that the problem is not intelligence. Feser is very intelligent, and understands the metaphysical issues very well. For that matter, Feser has mostly the same critique of modern thought that I do. But for some reason, he fails to see what is clear to me, i.e., that BioLogos TE, and most forms of American TE, are in fact products of exactly the same developments in modern philosophy and modern theology that he despises and savages in his articles and books.

    I have thought of one possible answer to my own question, but it’s a rather cynical one. It may be that Feser and Beckwith etc. think that Protestantism is *so* metaphysically and religiously wrong, even in its classical, intelligent Lutheran and Calvinist and Anglican formulations let alone in its vulgar and populist American sectarian formulations, that they are quite content to let the Protestant world wallow in its own errors, leave it to its heresies, make no effort at all to wean Protestants away from such heresies. They would then be concentrating on ID because ID has some traction in Catholic circles, and in the final analysis it is only Catholicism that is worth trying to save from metaphysical error about Creation, since Protestantism is so riddled with metaphysical error through and through that it’s beyond hope of intellectual correction. Is that too cynical?

    Have you come up with any explanation of your own? Perhaps even written privately to Feser and talked about some of these issues with him? I sure would like to know what makes a man like that tick. How he can be so right regarding the errors of modernity, yet fail to see that those errors are far more manifest in current American Protestantism than anywhere else on the planet — I just can’t imagine what’s going on in his mind.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      Is that too cynical?

      It probably is, but I don’t think I have a better explanation. There are several odd positions in the origins discussion – another, for example, is the relative complacency of Evolutionary Creation as a movement about the atheistic scientism prevalent in the Academy and public education. There’s a current piece at BioLogos about the vilification of Francis Collins by the New Atheists, but little serious concern shown about the wider issues of anti-religious propaganda in popular science, or the discrimination against believers in the sciences themselves – even though so many admit it has happened to them. It’s almost as if Christians are saying, “We’re just a fringe cult, so why should we expect public respect?”

      Back on topic, it could indeed be the case that ID is a more popular choice amongst Catholics than the heterodox kind of EC, and therefore more of a target for Catholic scholars. Reading “official” Catholic material, generally there is a much more theological and limited reading of evolutionary theory than amongst Evangelicals now, so that (for example) the special creation of man is not considered problematic by the Pope (genetics or no genetics), and Feser himself seems to support some version of Homo divinus regarding Adam.

      My point in this post, of course, was that divine action within creation does not entail univocity (or rather, that the Scriptural evidence excludes the kind of hardline position of Beckwith et al).

      It seems to me that the Thomist anti-ID assumption probably arose from the particular way modern Thomism has developed in reaction to the Enlightenment, analytic philosophy and so on rather than being a recent direct response to ID. That is, the “God of the Philosophers” has (as in former centuries) been engaging more with other philosophers than with the Biblical narrative and tradition – that perhaps reflects its Catholic background, but I think would not have pleased Aquinas, judging from his biblical commentaries.

      It’s maybe worth remembering Feser’s personal journey: from atheist analytic philosopher to Thomist to Catholic. He came to God through philosophy, rather than to philosophy through faith, and maybe that makes a difference (though the same is not, I think, true of Herbert McCabe).

      • Edward Robinson says:

        Thanks, Jon, for this response. You supply a few good ideas to chew on.

        In Feser — and I say again that I agree with much of his writing — I have definitely noticed what you have pointed out, about Thomists tending to come at things more from a philosophical than from a Biblical approach. I don’t of course belittle the philosophical approach, but it seems to me that modern Thomists exhibit a greater imbalance between the philosophical and Biblical components of theology than Aquinas himself exhibits. Even Feser’s discussions of “classic theism” seem to be derived more from the writings of Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers than from the Biblical way of talking about God.

        And it’s not that I think he is wrong to consider what the theistic traditions have said on the systematic theology level about God; rather, it’s that I don’t feel in him the tension (in my mind a healthy tension) between philosophical and Hebraic elements which has characterized Christian thought at its deepest and richest. I feel almost that the doctrine of God for Feser doesn’t really require the input of revealed texts, because the sort of being God would have to be, if he existed, can be worked out by philosophers from reason, i.e., God’s unity, omnipresence, omnipotence, eternality, etc. are deducible even without revealed confirmation. I feel almost that the Biblical way of speaking about God would at points seem too “mythological” for Feser’s taste — would sound too much like a God who is just another cause (however powerful) within the world. I doubt he has ever said that directly about the Biblical God, but I feel such an undercurrent.

        He might of course say that the “mythological” statements about God in the Bible are concessions to the popular understanding, and that what the Bible is getting at is Aristotelian-Thomist “classical theism”, and so the philosopher can dispense with much the homey Hebraic imagery, which is poetic rather than philosophically accurate, and hang onto the non-poetic philosophical core. But somehow such an argument does not ring true. Yes, there is imagery in the Bible, and yes, the authors did not always mean what they said as photographic description of God (they didn’t think God had hands, for example); nonetheless, I think they did conceive of God as active “in time” or “in history” or “in events” in a way that no Aristotle-based theism could allow. I think that a “classical theism” which does not capture this conception of God will end up being pure philosophy of religion and will fall short of a fully Christian conception.

        • Jon Garvey says:


          The line seems to be (in McCabe’s words) that God, having a different mode of existence to us, doesn’t make a difference to the world, but creates it in its entirety – and creation is not a change. And that makes some sense in terms of the “how” of his agency.

          And yet, undoubtedly, in terms of efficient causation very many things in the Bible – and in Christian experience – display choice-contingency beyond the common range of secondary causes. Not only does that include miracles and judgements, but every communication from God that changes the expected course of events: the call of Abraham, the dreams of Joseph, the vision of unclean beasts of Peter etc, etc.

          These could all be couched, perhaps, in terms that preserve God’s Thomistic transcendence – perhaps by seeing them all as creative acts. But that is a philosophical nicety – in practical terms, common (“scientific”) secondary causes do not account for changes that God brings about.

          Now, that may be so only of God’s dealings with humans, and so not apply to design in nature, but alone it’s enough to cast doubt on the “no possibility of action in the world” thesis.

          I would argue that it gives no good reason for supposing that God’s interaction with the world changed completely with the arrival of man – if God controls the elements in governance now, then he probably did in governing the pre-human world.

          The arguments made against that are quite different – along Leibniz’s line that it’s much cleverer for God to make an automatic universe than one he manages actively. There may be another potential post in showing why that is a weak case.

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