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Neo-Thomist Views of Divine Action

The best way to compare theories of divine action in detail is to ask - what, for each theory, is ‘the causal joint’ at which God - as a transcendent, immaterial world cause - interacts particularly with causative factors in the material world?

Neo-Thomists speak of ‘double agency’, a concept developed by Aquinas and rearticulated in recent theology in particular by Austin Farrer.Farrer, A, A Science of God? (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), Faith and Speculation (London: A&C Black, 1967)God is the primary cause of all that is; in effecting the divine purposes God works always through secondary causes, through the laws of the universe and the activities of human agents. Our experience of God’s activity is always mediated.

God can work through these secondary causes to bring about particular results. But for the neo-Thomist it is quite impossible to give an account of the causal joint, because

  • divine causation differs from any other kind - we should not expect to be able to characterise it within our own terms

  • we have no ‘pure-secondary causes’ to look at - everything is informed by divine causation. We have no ‘control experiment’ by reference to which we might characterise the added causal ingredient of the divine.See Stoeger, WR, ‘Describing God’s action in the light of scientific knowledge of reality’ in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. by RJ Russell, Nancey Murphy...

Anyone giving an account of divine action must respect these two points. But double agency has been much criticised,John Polkinghorne has gone as far as to call Farrer’s account ‘theological doublespeak’ (Polkinghorne, J, Science and Christian Belief: Reflections of a bottom-up thinker (London: SPCK,...not least because of the difficulty in offering any satisfactory analogy which would illustrate it.Perhaps the most pleasing, at least for double agency involving humans as secondary agents, is Tom Settle’s of a ballroom dancer (a human agent) being ‘led’ by her partner (God) - though...

What is clear from Kathryn Tanner’s careful piecing-together of the ‘rules’ for this sort of discourseTanner, K, God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988) pp90-98is that double agency cannot be abstracted from the intricate Thomistic reasoning from which it arose. It thus profits from the strengths of that system and suffers from its weaknesses. One of the latter relates to God and time.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp100-07, 224-25Any system based on the Augustinian-Thomist conception that God gave rise to the whole time-span of creation in the ‘moment’ of its divine inception runs into great difficulty in describing real freedom in other agents with whom God might enter into relation.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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