A brief theological history of secondary causes

BioLogos comments, as Eddie’s last piece details, are all over the theological shop at the moment. That’s brought into almost comic relief by a few threads in which outsiders suggest there are theological problems in Evolutionary Creation, only to be contradicted by a host of BioLogians closing ranks in defence of orthodoxy by disputing any of these these problems exist, whilst simultaneously contradicting each other’s theology. I’m not sure how productive it is priding oneself on being a broad church and then defending the soundness of ones theology. It makes for a lively, if ultimately frustrating, talking shop I suppose.

The ensuing thoughts are prompted by at least a couple of instances of claims there that the Genesis 1 creation story implies God’s creation of a quasi-autonomous earth “bringing forth” forms of life whose precise details, it appears, are not determined by God, but by the earth.

I replied in detail to a combined argument made by Joshua Swamidass and George Brooks, but on another thread someone else independently makes the same case, with the implication that no other interpretation is tenable than that nature (or actually specifically the land, and the sea, in the text) is given somewhat free creative rein by God. In other words, with a bit of conceptual banging to shape, Genesis 1 can be made to say that “secondary causes” have an open-ended co-creatorial role in what we actually see, and specifically in the outcomes of evolution.

I won’t restate the case here that, to be blunt, Genesis just doesn’t say that – I’m of the old fashioned school that doesn’t believe a Bible text is so flexible that it can mean whatever you think it means. Instead, I want to add one other line of argument as to why it’s an impossible interpretation, by looking at just how absurdly recently the idea of any kind of autonomous nature capable of creative ingenuity came about in mainstream theology.

As I point out in the BioLogos thread, and at various times here, it was universal in the ANE that all events were caused by what we would now call “intelligent agents”, and where those were not human, they were either gods or lesser spiritual beings like demons or ghosts. Israel’s revelation did not deny this general truth, but attributed all agency to the true God, who remained sovereign ruler over any subsidiary agents like angels, and even over rebellious spirits (see, for example, God’s relationship with Satan in Job).

In this way, although the earth is said to bring forth crops each year, it is God who brings the increase and who either creates abundance or dearth in response to the faithfulness of Israel. God is the one who sends storm, or drought, or snow and hail not only in a generic way as Creator, but directly as a work of his government of the human world. In Ps 104 God replenishes the creatures of the earth by sending his Spirit, and takes their lives by withdrawing it. And so on throughout the Bible.

Now, one interesting question is whether that hands-on view is outmoded “ancient thinking” or is compatible with a modern scientific understanding. I have argued elsewhere that it is probably a good basis for science, though it requires a complete metaphysical rethink in interpreting the world. However, that isn’t the point here – the fact is that the Bible, even up to the New Testament’s partially hellenized viewpoint, is thoroughly imbued with this view of God’s ongoing personal agency in his creation, and has no theological room whatsoever for a view of an autonomous or quasi-autonomous “nature”. For this reason alone, the interpretation of Genesis 1 I dispute is just untenable. It will still prevail at BioLogos, though, because knowledge is theory-laden, and the theory of evolution is the raison d’ĂȘtre of the organisation. Secondary causes will be read into in Genesis by ECs just as absence of animal death is read into it by YECs. It’s the way of the world.

Yet secondary causes, as we understand them, only came into the world’s intellectual currency through Aristotle – whose thought dominated the mediaeval European intellectual climate that generated modern science. To Aristotle, events in nature happened according to the independent powers accorded to the entities or “substances”. These powers, in fact, defined their “natures”. As is well known, he reasoned to a divine First Cause behind all these powers, acting not just as the creative originator of those powers in time past, but as the Prime Mover of every current event. The key thing about this First Cause was that he directs all things, via the efficient causal chains he initiates, towards their designated ends (final causation). The point here is that the natures which creatures possess determine those ends.

Nevertheless, the Aristotelian First Cause was not the Christian God, and it took those like Aquinas to interpret Aristotle in Christian terms. He retained the basic system of secondary natures, but in order to preserve adequately the traditional Christian teaching on Creation, God was acknowledged as the sole free Creator of all those natures, and therefore through creation necessarily determined all the ends towards which he directed them. In other words, created natures were instruments of God’s designated purposes, and not “independent contractors” tasked to co-create along with God.

Also, in order to preserve the traditional doctrine of providence Aquinas emphasised divine concurrence, in which each and every action of secondary powers only operates if God himself completes it. That, and Aquinas’s insistence on the universality of providence (again, traditional catholic teaching) meant that one might correctly speak of God’s acting in nature without mentioning the secondary powers specifically: one could believe heavy objects moved towards the earth but say, without contradiction, that God causes them to fall. There is no sense in Aquinas that God “creates” by dint of letting his ingenious dogs off the leash and seeing where they go.

Some of the scholastic rivals to Aquinas championed occasionalism over his concurrence. Needless to say, since this made God the only true causal agent in the world, any idea of a quasi-autonomous nature was excluded by them as much as it was by him.

But it was Aristotle who led the way to modern science, and against Aristotle that the new mechanical philosophy of Boyle, etc, rebelled. Theologically speaking, excluding God’s activity from the study of nature was intended to preserve his sole sovereignty against what was seen as detraction from it by Aristotle’s secondary causes. Therefore, under early-modern science, the entities of creation lost their powers and became collections of purely passive particles that came to be called atoms, acting on each other mechanically according to divinely ordained, immaterial laws. The only power in nature, then (apart from man with his immaterial spiritual Cartesian soul) was the governance of God’s laws. Under early modern science, not only was the idea of “co-creating” secondary powers blasphemous, but there was no mechanism by which they could exist.

The extreme extension of the mechanical philosophy, in religious terms, became Deism, in which God’s laws replaced all immanent divine action in the world, making God’s Creation into a mechanical automaton, running by Leibniz’s “perpetual motion”. Once more, the autonomy of secondary causes is unthinkable in such a system. It only became thinkable when Enlightenment philosophers absolutized the laws of nature and abolished God, thereby making the whole clockwork system of nature autonomous in one sense. But since it was still clockwork and deterministic, there was still no room for nature having degrees of freedom, let alone creative abilities.

The nineteenth century Epicureanism represented by Darwin’s theory of evolution re-introduced, effectively for the first time since the rise of Aristotle, the possibility of outcomes in nature not specifically planned by God. The early theistic evolutionists like Gray, Warfield and even his co-theorist Wallace parted company with Darwin at this point, to varying degrees.

To Gray, for example, the particular variations which God providently creates (in real time, as it were) lead, under the influence of lawlike natural selection, to more-or-less specified outcomes: once more, he could truly speak of God creating tigers, or scorpions, with the mechanisms of evolution being mere instruments serving his design.

Yet it is doubtful if even Darwin, in his more religious moments, would have couched his theory in terms of the liberty of secondary causes. To him, governed as he was by the Victorian assumption of inevitable overall progress, the chance events of evolution were constrained, by the way things are, to reach a pretty specific goal – perfection. For his time, civilized mankind represented that perfection, albeit in transient form. He foresaw further progress in ages to come, and whilst he could not predict what shape it would take, Nature had a very clear set of criteria built into it which it was bound to fulfil.

And so whilst a personified Natural Selection, itself a proxy for a personified Nature, appears to give secondary causes the status of “agents” rather than mere “instruments”, God (if he existed) had so set things up that their job was tightly circumscribed. So Nature might create, but only “according to the pattern shown it upon the high mountain.”

So although some modern ECs probably occupy something like the same ground as Darwin (but sadly not that of the earliest theistic evolutionists, who insisted on special providence as primary, rather than invoking secondary causes alone), we have to search in the century after him for the idea of secondary powers having “leeway” to bring forms of their own making to fruition in a way that does not directly involve God in design. It seems to me that this idea only really gets off the ground in the second half of the twentieth century, and probably amongst our old friends like Arthur Peacocke, John Haught and so on bringing heady mixes of process theology and panentheism, together with a distaste of the idea of God as a sovereign Creator, into theistic evolution.

Why it should be so popular amongst TEs I don’t know – my guess is that amongst trained scientists it sits well with methodological naturalism and Neodarwinism as stated in the secular literature, and amongst westerners generally it pushes the “freedom” button quite effectively. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that this is the first time in serious Christian theology that anyone has even been interested in making the Creation share the work of the Creator in bringing forth what we see around us.

So if the writer of the Genesis creation account really is taken to imply that “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” means God delegating his R&D work to a historically precocious concept of Nature, one of two explanations is possible. Either Moses anticipated post-Darwinian speculative theology by 3 millennia or so, and then God’s people entirely forgot about it, or … theory-laden evolutionists are reading modern prejudices back into the text in order to baptize a novel theology as orthodox.

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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 A brief theological history of secondary causes

  1. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    Good work against the claim of Swamidass and Brooks, Jon.

    Even on the basis of the English translation (rather than the underlying Hebrew) their reading is dubious, but as you’ve shown, the underlying Hebrew makes the situation worse.

    I’ve seen Applegate and others on BioLogos use the “let the earth bring forth” verse. It’s odd how the BioLogians preach against concordism but then read isolated verses in a concordist way when it suits their needs. But in any case, all of them fail to note that the verbs in that section of Genesis 1 in Hebrew all show a curious (and I would argue deliberate) mismatch: the verb used in God’s command is never the same as that used in the fulfillment. “Let the earth grass (with) grass” becomes “Let the earth bring forth grass”, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” becomes “and God made (living creatures)”, “Let us make man” becomes “and God created man” etc. Thus, if one wishes to suddenly revert to a concordist literalism (as Swamidass, Applegate, etc. seem to do where this verse is concerned), if anything the verse would count against evolutionary creation; the “plain reading” of the text (contra Joshua’s assertion) is that God asked the earth to “bring forth” living creatures in the way it “brought forth” plants, but it couldn’t — and therefore God had to make them himself.

    I’m not insisting on that interpretation of the verse, but it’s more plausible, on the basis of the literalist approach the BioLogians are (momentarily and inconsistently) employing, than their own “nature is co-creative with God” reading. It also fits, interestingly enough, with Aquinas’s view that animals — at least the higher ones — were not produced by wholly natural causes, but required direct divine action to come into being. (But of course, such Thomists who would cite Aquinas on that point will never be invited to post on BioLogos. They don’t fit the BioLogos representation that all Catholics are onside with undirected evolution.)

    I was grateful for your gentle chastisement of beaglelady’s use (which has been repeated many times) of the term “bollocks” with a suggestive edge. I note that instead of showing any sensitivity for your concern, she brushed it aside, with the moderators offering nothing in the way of their usual sermon on keeping discourse gracious. But of course this is nothing comparison with the time, a few years back, when she made the crudest of sarcastic remarks likening original sin to an STD. (No moderator said anything that time, either. Apparently “gracious discourse” means never using expressions offensive to theological liberals, but allows for expressions offensive to theological conservatives. You can liken the core doctrine of Augustinian Christianity to AIDS or syphilis, and that’s OK.) But let us not dwell on that side-issue.

    I would wish to qualify the sense in which Darwin believed in the “progress” or “perfection” of evolution. I read Darwin’s comments on the progressive “perfection” of living forms as relating to greater and greater precision of adaptation to particular ecological niches, as those niches become more numerous and specialized: faster legs for prey, faster legs and sharper teeth for predators, the perfection of a hovering apparatus (as in the special case of the hummingbird), better sonar, etc. Over time, evolution produces more and more “perfect” structures, but not because it is headed anywhere or aiming at anything; rather, those more perfect structures emerge as the most successful means of defeating the evolutionary competition.

    To be sure, I would agree with you that Darwin as a Victorian was shaped by the language of progress, and I don’t doubt that language is brought into discussions of more perfect adaptations, whether unconsciously by Darwin (being a child of his time) or as a rhetorical strategy to make evolution a more attractive notion. But I don’t think that his model of evolution has evolution aiming for perfection, or aiming at anything. Indeed, there are some creatures on the earth who have achieved very little “perfection” of structure, being neither very fast, nor very strong, nor very bright, nor having very sharp teeth, nor very sharp senses, etc. but have been around for millions or billions of years. Being well-suited to a niche doesn’t necessarily require progressive improvement of structures. A sloth is pretty well second-rate at everything, yet somehow sloths survive. So evolution over time produces a greater diversification of specialized structures, but if the sloth survives as well as the hummingbird or the bat or the spider monkey, without being particularly good at anything those other creatures can do, then it’s hard to say that evolution is necessarily progressive.

    Indeed, it seems that Darwin’s understanding of perfection is in some tension with the Victorian idea of progress. Surely the Victorians understood the peak of creation to be man — in particular the English man of the 19th century. For those Victorians who accepted evolution the most natural interpretation was that modern man was the peak of evolution, the goal at which evolution aimed. Man might invent more gadgets to make his life more comfortable, and might understand more and more of the workings of the universe, but it was not desired that man, now capable of securing his future indefinitely through science and technology, would himself undergo such fundamental changes as to become another being entirely. In that sense, Victorianism, for all its belief in progress, was still conservative in its metaphysics of human nature. But Darwin, speaking not as an Englishman but as a biologist, suggests that someday man may be and probably will be superseded by something as superior to man as man is to the monkey, i.e., that nature was never aiming at the production of modern English bourgeois society, global imperialism, cricket, afternoon tea, Oxford rowing contests, etc. (Or, if you will, at Kant and German efficiency, at Voltaire and French secularity, etc.) The kind of progress endorsed by Darwin’s biology (perfection of organic parts, including the brain which so defines man and whose evolution may one day make man as we know him obsolete) ends up making modern European man’s worship of himself as the pinnacle of all cosmic development seem rather parochial and smug.

    This is, however, a mere footnote. I generally agree with the thrust of your argument throughout your column.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for these thoughts, Eddie, with the benefit of your knowledge of the original language. The Hebrew-speaker on BioLogos who was, I think, endorsing the concordist approach also made a similar point about the “disobedience” of the earth to God’s command, but I don’t buy it myself (so am glad you don’t insist upon it). To me it’s more revealing (and in keeping with ancient views) to treat the “commands” and their fulfilment as parallels – in other words, for the earth to bring forth is for God to make, etc, because the earth is his obedient instrument, and not an active agent with a delegated role.

      I was reminded also of the pervasiveness of the Bible’s view of “God as nature” even in post-exilic times, in reading Zechariah 10, where the prophet speaks of the direct link between covenant, prayer and the elements, especiallt=y with regard to earth producing crops:

      “Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime; it is the Lord who makes the storm clouds.
      He gives showers of rain to men, and plants of the field to everyone.”

      That goes far beyond the idea of nature soing its thing whilst God merely maintains its existence.

      I take on board your points about Darwin’s perfectionism. Reading the Origin and other background material I think there was a degree of inconsistency in his thinking. On the one hand, biologists point out that he was on board with the idea that natural selection could cause “degeneration” of features to suit a niche (eg blind cave fish, devolved barnacles etc). On the other, his words about the unknown but glorious future of mankind.

      I think you’re right that he was well on the path to the present denial of teleology in evolution as an Epicurean metaphysical position (even by ECs, sad to say), but suspect that “progress” was such an entrenched wordlview component then that he simply didn’t notice that he held it – a bit like modern New Atheists failing to see how bound to left-wing progressivism they are.

      Incidentally, with N T Wright as keynote speaker at the recent *BioLogos* conference I’m reminded of how clearly he sees (and deplores) Darwin’s Epicureanism in seeing “chance” as a creative pwer, as I wrote back in 2015 here.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


        Glad that we pretty much agree again.

        I don’t know who the Hebrew speaker on BioLogos was to whom you refer, but regarding the “disobedience” of the earth to God’s command, I think that we could say that if earth “disobeys” it is not due to willful defiance (which would suggest a God/matter dualism), but due to inability; i.e., it has enough vital juice of its own to put forth plants (which would make sense given many ancient conceptions of Mother Earth) but not enough creative power to produce animals. The text would then be pointing out to us the severe limitations of “nature” as a complete explication of causes. It can manage “grass” and that’s about it. So it’s not as if the traditional God jealously keeps nature down in an enforced childhood (versus evolution which emancipates nature to adult freedom, Ken Miller would say); rather, it’s that childish productions are all that nature could manage without God’s direct involvement.

        So these subtle uses of Hebrew words would be pedagogical, to teach the reader that nature isn’t self-sufficient, and as a Demiurge would be utterly incompetent. That would fit in with the general interpretation of many scholars of Genesis 1 as a polemic against pagan deification of nature.

        That said, I don’t insist on the interpretation. Your reading may be the right one. The repeated differences between command and fulfillment could be brought into line with your thinking. And my main point was not to push for the suggestion that nature tried and failed, but to say to Swamidass, Applegate, etc. that if they are going to, in literalist fashion, pick out isolated verses that sound as if God used an evolutionary process, they are obliged to take into account all the other verses in the vicinity, which, if read with equal literalness (i.e., paying attention to the exact verbs God uses) negate the idea of nature’s creative competence. They can’t go literalist on “let the earth bring forth [animals]” and then suddenly turn non-literalist when one points out that the earth is never actually said to “bring forth” animals (when by contrast it did produce plants exactly in the manner specified); they can’t say, “Oh, the exact Hebrew verbs used in the passage don’t matter” when their case is based on seizing upon one particular Hebrew verb and milking it for all it’s worth. (More than it’s worth, in fact.)

        The difficulty with BioLogos is that it is determined to make Darwin compatible with Christian theology, by hook or by crook. It will use any means whatever — mythical interpretations, historical-critical interpretations, concordist interpretations, what have you — as long as the result comes out right — as long as Darwin is baptized by the reading. It apparently has no interest in consistent Biblical hermeneutics as an end in itself. It just wants a hermeneutics that allows for Darwin, so that the scientists there can stop thinking about theology and get back to their population genetics and computer programming and immunology etc. That’s why the Hump offers a more principled approach to evolution/creation questions; it is as concerned with theological integrity as with scientific integrity, and doesn’t make Biblical hermeneutics subservient to any particular scientific theory or consensus.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          In a general way our “disputed” interpretation matches the overall theme of the passage: it seems to be widely agreed that the sun and moon are not named on Day 4 so as to drive home that they are not divine; so in theory making the same point about the earth and sea would be appropriate – the sea is not Babylonian Tiamat: the earth is not Egyptian Ge. I’d just have expected a more pointed reference to their creative disability were that the case.

          Certainly, though, given the culture, I can’t see that anyone in the ANE would have entertained the idea of a “naturally creative” earth for a moment. The only alternatives available were either that it was God’s instrument, or that it was itself a divine personage.

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