Primary and Secondary Causes

The extent to which we are free to act independently of the will of God is a central concern in Christian theology. I have recently been listening to some Calvinists really struggling to defend a position that to me makes no sense – that God is in control of our lives and yet we have free will.

I stumbled upon a discussion where a Calvinist was trying to explain the so-called free will paradox in terms of primary and secondary causes. I’ll let you read what this person had to say on the matter, and will offer a few comments in response.

Though God is the primary cause, of things, he is not the direct agent of things. He works in a secondary cause according to its nature and properties. When a dog barks, God has decreed that the dog bark at that moment, and works in the dog to have it bark. He doesn’t have it meow, or chirp, because it is in the nature of a dog to bark. He created the dog with properties such that it barks. So, he works with things according to their nature. But his “working in the dog” is such that the dog’s action is from itself, of it’s own volition, and properly ascribed to the dog. So when a dog barks, we can say that it is both from God, and from the dog, but is performed only by the dog. God doesn’t bark, the dog barks. [bold added]

While I believe it’s appropriate and logical to make a distinction between primary and secondary causes, I would simply point out that the existence of secondary causes doesn’t in any way negate the control of God. To say that God is working in the dog to have it bark and at the same time that the bark happens by the dogs own volition, is a blatant contradiction. If the primary cause of the bark is God, then God is causing the bark, there are no two ways about it.

The reason why this is important is that central Christian ideas such as the fall of man, sin, judgment, salvation, etc, only make sense in a world where we have freedom to act independently of the will of God. For example, if we don’t have free will, this means God is the author of all of those choices we make for which He will subsequently judge us. I hope you can see why this is illogical.

It’s obvious to me that an omnipresent God is necessarily in control of every aspect of His creation. As God is boundless, there can be no freedom from God, as His presence extends to every atom in existence. The fact that God is in control of His creation should cause us to rethink the way we understand the central doctrines of Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions.

Related post: God’s Grand Game
Related essay: An Almighty Predicament

44 comments

  1. Steven, help me understand your thesis here. If God is all-controlling (adding to the belief of all-knowing omnipresent God), what is the source of evil? God? Is it an unintended consequence? A purposed event? Or, is there really no evil at all?
    I understand the pushback on the Calvinist doctrine, but I guess I don’t understand God as controller of the universe thesis. And maybe I’m misunderstanding …

    1. Hi Tim!

      Many thanks for reading and for leaving a comment. I appreciate the opportunity to elaborate a little.

      I believe God is in control of everything humans call ‘good’ and everything humans call ‘evil’. That necessary follows if God is omnipresent. I realise this creates problems in terms of the Christian worldview, but I find it impossible to deny God is in control of His creation. I have discussed why God might create negative emotions and experiences as well as positive ones in depth on this blog, in my essays, and in my books.

      So yes, I believe is God is totally and necessarily in control of all activity in existence.

      If you have any related questions, I’d be happy to answer, and feel free to read the posts to which I linked at the bottom of the post – it’s likely they will answer any further questions you have.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

      1. Thanks for the thought-provoking posts and response Steven. Yes, I did link to those other posts.

        So to take this to real life, was our interpretation of Hitler, or the more recent school shootings, just a misunderstanding of God’s plan or evidence of evil?

        I guess even to look at the writings of the bible, the devil is named and the bible calls out evil. Isaiah (5:20) says “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil.” (For the record, I am not trying to use a single verse in the bible to justify an entire argument, just putting it out there that there are evidentiary biblical writings pointing to “evil.”)

        So how does the devil factor into the equation? It seems more than a human emotional response.

        1. Hi Tim,

          Thank you so much for your response. I believe that the devil may well exist, but as with all things, He is under God’s control (for the reasons I’ve already explained).

          I believe that everything that happens, happens by the will of God. To deny this is to deny His sovereignty and omnipresence, which (in my view) is what Christians are doing when they defend free will.

          In terms of the problem of evil, that’s a big discussion, but essentially I hope (and it is only a hope) that God is merciful to everyone. Those who suffer greatly in this life may find they are rewarded greatly in the next life. Also, my observation is that though people suffer terribly, that suffering is always under control, and limited. God releases people through healing, or death, or in some other way. God could, if He so wished, make every being suffer constantly for eternity, but He seems to be much more merciful than that.

          I don’t want to make my comments overly long but I hope that gives you some idea of where I’m coming from.

          Peace and blessings,

          Steven

          1. God is indeed merciful. And that’s why I struggle with the sense of God controlling bad things that happen. I also believe that the bible tells us that evil, sin, the devil, are outside of God (though admittedly that doesn’t fully answer the question of God’s control). It does, however, bring into question why would God “control” or “create” the devil or sin. Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:12-19 tell the story of the fall of Satan. Isaiah 59:2-3 defines “sin” as a separation from God. So the devil has fallen (separated from) and man sins (separates from). That seems to connote a choice, not a controlled function of a loving God.

            BTW, if a Catholic points to the bible, it MUST be a serious discussion! 🙂

            1. Hi Tim,

              I can understand why you would struggle with the idea of God controlling bad things. I have certainly given that a lot of thought, and free will is certainly an escape hatch from that particular problem. But it seems so obvious to me that God is in control, I mean, have you ever prayed for a good day? Or that God blesses your family? Or that your medical appointment goes well? How can God respond to such prayers if He isn’t in control of our lives and circumstances?

              And I didn’t realise you’re a Catholic, I don’t believe many of my followers are Catholics so I’m grateful for you being here (especially because you’re friendly!). God bless.

            2. Catholics are bound by the same gospel of love made manifest in Jesus. 🙂

              Prayer isn’t answered because God controls the outcome. Prayer is answered because God loves us. Abraham was rewarded for his “obedience” when he was about to sacrifice Isaac. Moses prayed on behalf of the grousing, ungrateful, short-memories of the Israelites and God relented in His punishment.

              I know you believe in God’s love–I see it in your writing. We just have a disagreement about how that is made manifest. I believe that God’s “control” stems from his mercy (for which you hold out hope), not from the predestined existence of man.

              Peace! May you continue to ponder God’s role in your life, live fully in His love, and know the blessings you have already received!

    2. It seems likely that human concerns aren’t at the central theme of creation. But out of vanity and self absorption we tend to see everything from our small perspective of observation. Good and evil are relative perspectives from individuals or consensus groups. The physical universe is coherent and a nonphysical deity does not interrupt this order to intervene with absurdities and incoherence.
      The physical universe is defined by matter, energy, space and time. This is the realm of physics. The nonphysical universe is defined by nonlinear time and this is the realm of religion.
      Western physical science and western religion conflict because they do not know their boundaries.

      1. Hi Robert! Many thanks for your comment. I don’t believe it’s vanity and self-absorption in the case of most people, they are just concerned to understand God, and believing Him to be all-powerful want to know how to understand, serve, and obey Him (hence the reading of Scripture, and the study of theology and philosophy). I’m not sure the different domains of thought are as separate as you suggest because if there is a God, that affects everything. But I’m grateful for the discussion, thank you 🙂

  2. First of all—Calvinists drive me nuts! Kudos on even being willing to read them. Secondly, I think the dog barks of it’s own free will. God has enabled & designed the dog to bark, but the dog chooses when to bark. Thanks for posting. Best wishes & God bless. 😃

    1. Hi there! Thanks for your comment. I appreciate and respect your belief in free will, though I disagree, for the reason given in the post (essentially because I believe God there can be no freedom from an omnipresent God). In any case, have a wonderful day 🙂

  3. Do you think God chooses to be in control and intervenes in everything? Or does He let us live out life in some areas, choosing which areas to intervene so that we can see that He is glorified? Is evil created or just the absence of good? The forbidden fruit wasn’t evil itself, it was just forbidden. It was a boundary set up by God. When we accept God as our savior and live through active Faith, we are in control only to the extent of the boundaries God has set up and stirred up in our hearts.

    1. Hi Spirit Driven Woman! Thank you so much for your comment.

      The very concept of intervention implies that God is separate from existence, which is not a belief I hold. I believe in the literal omnipresence of God, and subsequently that everything in existence is under His control.

      Totally respect your position though, which is a pretty orthodox Christian perspective 🙂

      Peace and blessings, Steven

      1. God may not see it as intervention, however He did set time in motion for humans on Earth, and that is how we see it. The way we see it is how we form a relationship with him. If we saw it as He did we would be gods too.

        1. Thank you for your thoughts. I don’t believe God set the world in motion and then took a step away somehow to watch it unfold. I believe God is in control of existence, unfolding events in accordance with His will. He is a living God, and living not just on a throne in heaven, He is omnipresent – boundless being. I don’t see myself as a God, there is only one God, so there’s something I’m sure we can agree upon 🙂

  4. Steven, I’m not sure where you get your definition of God’s “Omni-” qualities. Scripture paints a very different picture of the qualities of our Creator than you do. And I’m much more willing to go with what the Creator reveals about Himself in Scripture than something reasoned out by His human creatures. So, what are your sources?

    1. Hi Matt! Many thanks for your comment.

      I take a literal definition of omnipresence. God is everywhere present. So there is nowhere God is not – God is boundless and His being pervades the entirety of existence.

      What do you disagree with in that and what’s your definition of omnipresence?

      Many thanks!

      Steven

      1. Steven, I think, then, it’s not necessarily your definition, although I’m not convinced God reveals Himself that way in Scripture. Perhaps what I am confused by is what you derive from that description. Just being everywhere doesn’t necessitate being in control of everything. I think there are enough examples in Scripture of God not getting His way to affirm that He is clearly not in control of everything. I believe that’s by choice, but Scripture doesn’t really explain the why.

        1. Just being everywhere doesn’t necessitate being in control of everything.

          I’m so glad you said this and this is where we disagree. I believe that God being present in every atom of my body leaves no room for anything but God. There is literally no room for free will. God is in control of everything He creates, because nothing is self-existing (except God). Everything in existence is a part of God, and that to me is what His omnipresence means. That’s why I use the puppet analogy.

          1. Ah, and yet Scripture describes a relational analogy. I’m pretty sure no one, not even you, would consider a puppet to have an admirable relationship with the puppeteer. And “puppet master” isn’t an admirable moniker, or at least not a positive one. So, your analogy, in my view, does well to highlight what I see as the weakness and divergence from Scripture in your view. If we were puppets with no volition of our own, why does Scripture describe our Creator as One who regrets in His work among us? What is there to regret if nothing happens out of His control and purpose?

            1. Hey Matt, these are all things I’ve considered deeply, and unfortunately my belief in God’s literal omnipresence doesn’t sit well with a lot of orthodox Christian thought. I understand that, and said as much in the post (as well as writing a whole essay about it), but it’s very difficult for me to simply suppress or cast aside what seems to me to be a very logical and sensible understanding of the nature of God. There are places in Scripture where God’s omnipresence is described (Jeremiah 23:24, 1 Kings 8:27, Colossians 1:17, Proverbs 16:9, Acts 17:18, etc) although of course arguments in favour of free will can be made from Scripture too.

              I don’t have any problems with the puppeteer / puppet analogy. I think it’s a beautiful way of understanding the nature of reality. In any case, I’m less concerned about what’s admirable and more concerned about truth.

              Thank you for the discussion 🙂

  5. Hi Steven!

    As I’ve said before, I’m in two minds about God’s control and Free Will.

    Every argument for Free Will appears to deny God’s sovereignty over us. Any reconciliation between the two appears to me to be some kind of rationalisation. Maybe it’s that His control is gentle through our unconscious minds so that consciously we can maintain our illusions of Free Will. This too is speculation on my part.

    Everywhere I look there are apparent contradictions. If we are free to make choices, how can God know our decisions beforehand with absolute certainty? And if God is timeless then He knew that humanity would conduct wars within itself and would act against the planet earth He provided for us.

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

    1. Hi Dinos! Thank you for some great thoughts. I agree that the arguments for free will deny God’s sovereignty, and it’s because I’m not willing to compromise on God’s sovereignty that I get into all these discussions with everyone 🙂

      I would encourage you to consider God as living and unfolding reality in this moment, rather than it being a case of Him knowing what’s going to happen beforehand. I mean yes, I believe He plans things, but they don’t happen by some kind of mechanical process, they happen because He is actively making them happen.

      Hope that makes sense!

      Peace and love to you too.

      Steven

      1. Hi Steven!

        I get that He is a living God but every plan He has is bound to be successful. Doesn’t that make His plans foreknowledge?

        Peace and love to you,

        Dinos

        1. Yes, I suppose in a sense I agree 🙂 I only wanted to make the point because sometimes people have the idea that God caused the big bang, or set events in motion in some other way, and that subsequent to an initial event the world is unfolding simply by the laws of physics. That’s not what I believe is happening at all.

          I hope that makes sense!

          Peace and love back to you!

          Steven

          1. Hi Steven!

            I think we are in agreement – God is constantly active and never passively watching His creation unfold. He knows what’s going to happen because His plans cannot fail.

            Peace and love to you and all humanity,

            Dinos

  6. For a while I was thinking the same, there is/isn’t free will. But, after all I’ve seen/witnessed this summer, I think the human brain wants one or the other, but then claims uniqueness. Confusing creatures we tend to be; each one, at times. I like the absolutes claim, but it’s rarely (if ever) that simple, especially concerning the God who’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours. If there is no free will, then Jonah’s and The Pharaoh’s stories would be cruel taunts by one who knew they would never choose otherwise. But, His constant approach and questioning tells me that maybe it’s more a unique question of the heart, that only His Holy Spirit can know and judge righteously; determining whether or not the unique heart of that person is WILLING to act according to His will. But, because He’s God, and has patience, the person (spirit) is only allowed so much freedom, as not to interfere with His plan; in remembering that the fight is with the darkness and not what we see. (Basically, since we are still walking around in this flesh, the devil’s still around, and if we were to just simply run free with the smartest and most evilest angel running loose after us, we’d fall into his lap. The freedom is freedom, but it is also protection for those who want it and reign to those who don’t. Just because some don’t want it doesn’t mean they can just do whatever, even if it does look that to us some days with all the chaos everywhere.) Jesus’ sacrificial act on the cross was done according to the Fathers will. He even asked if the cup could be taken from him, if it be His will. Above all, it showed His WANTING to do the will of God. He loves a CHEERFUL giver, no?

  7. Hi Steven. Having read this discussion, I still don’t understand why you don’t believe we have free will. Also, that God’s omniprescence negates intervention. Am I right in thinking that God being sovereign/omnipotent negates choice in your view?
    As the father of a family you know, can I offer my view? I am in control – my children are under my authority, yet they have free will – choice. We live together in relationship yet I choose to intervene at times if they ask me or I judge it necessary. My intervention doesn’t put me outside our family. Although I am the ultimate authority for my children I am also bound by my own rules – otherwise I would be a hypocrite anf unjust. Likewise God. Does that help?

    1. Hi Anthony, good to hear from you and thank you for your comment.

      The parent / child analogy has come up in the comments of other posts on this blog quite a lot. Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t work as God is unique and in terms of His nature and being isn’t comparable to any of His creatures. For instance, you aren’t omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent in your relationship with your children.

      I’ve stated my argument above but will restate it briefly in case you haven’t had a chance to read all the other comments. I believe God’s omnipresence leaves no room for free will. I believe God’s being is boundless and as such all of creation is a part of Him and an expression of Him. It logically follows that everything is under His control. This makes sense as when I pray to God I do so because I know my life is in His hands.

      I hope everything is well with you and your wonderful family and I also hope the recording is going well (I’ve been working on song six today 😊)

  8. This is an interesting blog post Steven. I’m confused when you speak about the omnipresence of God; like when you stated, “It’s obvious to me that an omnipresent God is necessarily in control of every aspect of His creation. As God is boundless, there can be no freedom from God, as His presence extends to every atom in existence.”

    Could you explain this to me because I’m confused about what you are saying.

  9. Steven, thanks for articulating the doctrine of free will as it relates to the sovereignty of God. I like what you said here: “The reason why this is important is that central Christian ideas such as the fall of man, sin, judgment, salvation, etc, only make sense in a world where we have freedom to act independently of the will of God.” I absolutely agree, and I think it is essential to defend free will while also acknowledging the sovereignty of God. Blessings!

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