Four Views of Divine Providence: Omnicausality

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Upon finally finishing up my series of posts on Robert Kane's A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, I will continue on with a related subject: the theology of providence. While the previously mentioned series discusses the philosophy of whether or not man has free will, and in what sense he has it, this series will cover what sort of relationship God has with the universe and how that affects man's free will. This will be the first of four posts in which I will summarize the views of the four authors who contributed to the book Four Views on Divine Providence. I will also summarize each of the author's objections/responses to each other. It should be noted that while I did lean more toward one view than the others before reading this book (in the spirit of being forthright, it was Molinism), I will do my best to convey each author's view in the most charitable and accurate manner possible.

The first view explained in the book is called "Omnicausality," and is defended by Paul Kjoss Helseth. Helseth is Associate Professor of Christian Thought at Northwestern College in St Paul, Minnesota. The tagline of the chapter is "God Causes All Things" because Helseth defends the idea that God actually causes all things that come to pass by decreeing them. This is the view of "pre-motion" held by Thomists on the Catholic side and Calvinists on the Reformed side. Helseth begins his argument by telling a story about Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War from the film Gods and Generals. When asked how he could be so composed and tranquil in the heat of battle "with a storm of shells and bullets raining about [his] head," Jackson replied: "my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death; I do not concern myself with that, but to be always ready, whenever it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live; then all men would be equally brave."1

Providence as Continuous Creation

Helseth explains that while God's preservation, government, and concurrence of the universe are generally thought of as different things, they are all actually different ways to speak about the same idea. This idea is God's providence, which can be described as an act of continual creation. While most Christians hold that God created the Universe from nothing, as an act of pure power, by speaking it into being, Helseth asks us to consider God's relationship with the world, even now, in a similar manner. It is, he says, a relationship of continual creation, moment by moment. The universe and everything in it would cease to exist if God were to stop sustaining it constantly. This makes the universe "radically contingent" in the sense that it is unique from God, yet at the same time utterly dependent on God. This is sort of a middle ground between Deism and Pantheism. Deism considers the universe as a creation of God's which, after being created, is entirely independent of Him. This is usually explained with the analogy of God as a Clock-maker and the universe as a clock-- once wound up, the universe can continue to exist independent from God. On the other hand, Pantheism actually considers the universe to be one with God himself, so that it is dependent on Him, but not unique from Him. Helseth's view could be considered analogous to a musician and the music he creates. While the music is utterly dependent on the musician every moment for its existence, it obviously has a unique (though contingent) existence of its own.2  This means that so-called secondary causes (including any "natural" cause/effect, as well as decisions/actions made by human beings) are "never separate and independent from the primary cause, but are always interpenetrated, as well as embraced in the divine thought and will, and ever is what it is and as it is because of God."3

Summary of the "True View" of Providence

For classical Reformed thinkers, the "true view" of providence "affirms not just that the secondary causes are and remain distinct from God, the primary cause, but also that the primary cause confers reality on the secondary causes and that these causes continue to exist solely as the result of the first."4 Helseth quotes the following summary of the view by A.A. Hodge:

1. Created substances, both spiritual and material, possess real and permanent existence, i.e., they are real entities.
2. They possess all such active or passive properties as they have been severally endowed with by God.
3. The properties or active powers have a real, and not merely apparent, efficiency as second causes in producing the effects proper to them; and the phenomena alike of consciousness and of the outward world are really produced by the efficient agency of second causes, as we are informed by our native and necessary intuition.
4. But these created substances are not self-existent, i.e., the ground of their continued existence is in God and not in themselves.
5. They continue to exist not merely in virtue of a negative act of God, whereby he merely does not will their destruction, but in virtue of a positive, continued exercise of divine power, whereby they are sustained in being, and in the possession of all their properties and powers with which God has endowed them.
6. The precise nature of the divine action concerned in upholding all things in being and action is, like every model of the intercourse of the infinite with the finite, inscrutable-- but not more mysterious in this case than in every other.5

Perceived Weaknesses

Next, Helseth considers some of the weaknesses to which others believe his view vulnerable. The first is essentially that the attitude of independence and autonomy are incompatible with the view of omnicausality. If God really does cause everything, then you and I are completely dependent on Him for both our existence and our action. This means that we are not really free to choose anything other than what God would want us to choose. It isn't hard to anticipate the resistance that the idea of omnicausality evokes from the Modern Western world. Helseth argues, however, that this is really just a result of the pagan context with which we think about this view. In a world in which our contemporaries think less and less of God, it becomes hard for people to accept complete dependence on something other than themselves. Helseth emphasizes that this doesn't make the view wrong in any way, just hard to swallow. The truth isn't always what we want it to be.

Second, Helseth considers the objection that omnicausality is not likely true because it entails a type of determinism, which undermines human beings' moral responsibility. People might argue that this moral responsibility is necessary for the Christian faith as a whole to make sense, so omnicausality should be discarded. Reformed thinkers admit that it is hard to explain how God's concurrence with contingent/secondary causes works, but this doesn't make it untrue. Reformed believers often admit that they do not know how it is that God concurs with all secondary causes and especially with the human will, while simultaneously leaving the liberty of the will unimpaired. The basis for this belief is that Scripture presumes that theological determinism and genuine human freedom are compatible, even if we are unable to explain it. To turn the matter on its head, Helseth argues that libertarian freedom is problematic because it presumes that something exists outside of God's active providence. While the Molinist and Arminian positions hold that all effects are within the providence of God, they minimize God's sovereignty by saying that the causes themselves are outside of God's providence.

The last perceived weakness that Helseth discusses is what he calls the "revulsion factor." Some critics of the omnicausual view, particularly Gregory Boyd (another contributor of this book), will argue that the view lends legitimate grounds for confusing God with Satan. Helseth quotes Boyd saying: "If God, not Satan, is behind all the nightmares of the world, then far from trusting God we should rather follow the advice of W Robert McClelland and consider it our moral obligation to 'rage' against God as our 'enemy.'"6 Helseth responds to this criticism by first insisting, along with other Reformed Theologians, that his view is "the only view that can unambiguously affirm what Scripture affirms with regard to particular evils. Indeed, not only can the Reformed view affirm that God does in fact work in some mysterious way through pain and suffering and evil for the good of His children and the glory of his name, [but it can show that] particular evils happen because He ordained that they would, and He did so for reasons that, while ultimately inscrutable, nevertheless serve to conform believers more and more to the image of Christ."7

Concluding Remarks

Helseth concludes his chapter with three reasons for why he thinks this view deserves a "fresh appraisal" in modern Christianity. The first reason is that the view "encourages us to think about the meaning of the world and everything in it in overtly theocentric, as opposed to covertly anthropocentric, terms." 8 Basically, the view forces us to realize that nothing can be understood independent of the will and sovereignty of God. The second reason given is that the view encourages Christians to no longer think of the world as secular, but rather as sacred. If God really is continuously creating the world on a moment by moment basis, then everything in the world should be seen as a window revealing God. Lastly, Helseth reasons that his view deserves fresh consideration because it "calls believers not primarily to philosophical speculation but to humble faith."9

My next post will center on the objections and responses to this view by each of the other contributors: William Lane Craig, Ron Highfield, and Gregory A. Boyd.


1. God's and Generals, Dir. Ronald F. Maxwell, 2003
2. I think recall seeing this analogy first used by Edward Feser, though I cannot remember exactly where (
3. Helseth, 2011, p. 34
4. Ibid., p. 37
5. Hodge, 1866, pp. 261-262
6. Boyd, 2001, p. 163
7. Helseth, 2011, p. 44
8. Ibid., p. 49
9. Ibid., p. 50
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1 comment :

  1. I am looking forward to your next post. I found it helpful in understanding the book.