Final causes and salvation

Here’s some theological musing inspired by the discussion we’ve had on “final causes” connected with the last couple of posts.

The fascinating and contentious issue we were looking at, within science, was whether there is sometimes an intrinsic teleology that actually determines lower levels of organisation. Hence, it might be (in Ian Thompson’s example) that the tertiary structure of a protein might somehow explain the rapid folding of proteins from the top-down, rather than by the summation of lower level causes.

In my earlier example about biological form, I discussed research suggesting that the final shape of an organism might in some way be what determines the cell processes that lead to it, rather than solely being the end result of the efficient causes themselves.

It’s an intriguing set of possibilities, a return to an older way of conceiving reality, and quite radical in its potential to turn the way science is done upside down (or, alternatively, to leave some things inexplicable if science continues to exclude teleology and form). But it’s also, for those very reasons, controversial.

Less controversial, except to eliminative materialists, was my illustration from human life. My final purpose to switch the light on was actually first in order of both time and logic, determining all the individual actions my body took to achieve the goal.

Now, let me turn to the theological question of assurance of salvation, for those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. Which seems to be most current contributors here. Modern evolutionary theory, in its consensus form, treats biological change as open-ended and arbitrary. There are no goals set by the organism, except (metaphorically) the imperative to survive. The environment imposes random constraints that impose immediate direction on what survives. But aside from marginal ideas like convergence, evolution ain’t going anywhere particular.

This is quite different from the nineteenth century idea of evolution amongst thinkers like Herbert Spencer, for whom there was, intrinsic to nature, some kind of goal of perfection towards which all was striving. You see this inner telos in Lamarck, in Tielhard de Chardin and even, as a general assumption rather than a firm principle, in Darwin himself.

In most of these, the kind of concept one gets is of this Shangri-La of perfection being a kind of vision; an ideal that inspires the struggle of life, the striving to attain to it from a state of present imperfection. That idea of the battle for progress against the odds also underpinned the whole modernist myth of political and scientific progress (the forces of reaction and superstition being the enemy to be overcome by strife). It was also a common theme in religion:

Onward, Christian Soldiers
marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus
going on before. (Sabine Baring-Gould, 1871)

I well remember a Methodist fellow-student at Cambridge telling me that it would be arrogant for him to say that he was a Christian, but that he was striving to be one. And who knows, if he kept the goal in view, and with God’s help, perhaps he might even attain to eternal life. Such an understanding certainly makes for spiritual heroism.

But if we return to the idea of final causation, this “struggle to progress” isn’t that at all: the efficient causation of the struggle (biological, political or spiritual) has priority, and the goal is the desired, but uncertain, end point. That, however, is not how it works when I switch on the light. I set the goal of illumination in my mind, and all the efficient causes of physical action and effort follow as a matter of course, barring the floor caving in or my being distracted by the telephone.

Likewise, if in biology there is a final cause in the nature of a “form”, then as we saw in the previous posts, that final cause will determine all that the organism, or the molecule, has to do from whatever its current state it, in order (in fact) to fulfil what it already is by nature. The whole, variable, chain of efficient causes will be seen, and explicable, but it is determined by the existing telos. The route a body of water takes will vary with the terrain, but it will always end up at the bottom of the slope because that is the nature of water, and slopes.

Now the Christian hope consists of eternal life and complete righteousness in the presence of God. This includes some other goodies, such as physical resurrection, and the co-regency with Christ of a new heavens and a new earth. But all that is not just a goal, but a true final cause. And the reason for that is that Christ has already achieved it all – he has achieved perfect righteousness, life from the death, and the rule of all things in the presence of God, “who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 1:4)

Furthermore, and crucially, the Christian is incorporated, from the start, into a spiritual union with Christ. We are as much organic participants in his final purpose as my muscles and bones are in my final purpose to switch the light on. As Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:6:

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.

We’re already there (as it were), in the “already, but not yet” sense that we are incorprated as surely into his telos, firmly established in God’s presence, as my cells are into me. It is the telos that determines the efficient causes of our daily struggle against sin, that conforms our wills willingly to his, that makes our service perfect freedom.

That may not impress you, but is seems a profound insight on the way things are to me. But it makes no sense at all until you understand final causality adequately.

Avatar photo

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.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Final causes and salvation

  1. WayneFair says:

    Jon – I am grateful when I see a scientist feeling after the seamless reality of the physical and the spiritual – against a false and forced dichotomy of Nature and Grace, for “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.”

    I have been reflecting of late on the ontological (not just forensic) reality of the incarnation and the cross wherein we get a glimpse of the unfathomable Wisdom of God within the “great mystery” of God’s plan and purpose (telos) in salvation, “God was manifest in the flesh…” (1 Tim 3:16). So often we find Paul stressing the embodied-ness of what was accomplished on the cross, e.g. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (Col. 2:14) His solidarity with the human race as the Last Adam has very deep implications.

    I am not rambling here – this has everything to do with teleology: Jesus is the true image of God, the very “form” toward which our redemption moves and participates, and the the goal of God’s providence even within our present sufferings (Rom. 8:28), is to “conform us to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29).

    In regards to the overarching teleology of creation AND redemption (I think inextricably linked in Romans 8-11) in what is arguably Paul’s most sweeping theological insight, in his conclusion, at the summit of this crescendo, we are in the rarefied air of the highest kind of revelation, ecstatic at the reach and scope of God’s plan and purpose, he concludes, “For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen!”

    For what I think is a profound insight into all of this (regarding protology and teleology) please see D.B. Hart’s “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho”

    Thanks Jon!

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks Wayne.

    It seems inceasingly important to me that there should be a christological approach to all our questions, so that, as you say, science and theology have a seamless join. Which isn’t to say it’s easy, especially when science is so fixated on its particular vocabulary of concepts and no others!

Leave a Reply