White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Concursity of Divine Providence

Published Monday, May 3, 2021 By Seung-Joo Lee

The Christian account of divine providence, Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) states, is not merely a true explanation of the world but also “a source of consolation and hope, of trust and courage, of humility and resignation… It is not a cosmological speculation but a glorious confession of faith” (RD, 2.594). Because of the vital link between the doctrine of providence and the religious life of Christians, Bavinck emphatically asserts that without affirming, appreciating, and assuming God’s providential work, “there is no longer any room for prayer and sacrifice, faith and hope, trust and love” (RD, 2.593).

Readers can find in the recent publication of John Piper’s Providencesimilar expressions about the pastoral values of the doctrine; Piper correctly claims that “God has revealed his purposeful sovereignty over good and evil in order to humble human pride, intensify human worship, shatter human hopelessness, and put ballast in the battered boat of human faith, steel in the spine of human courage, gladness in the groans of affliction, and love in the heart that sees no way forward” (13). Yet, notwithstanding the breadth of the topics covered, and despite the lengthiness of the work, it is worth pointing out that the traditional term of concursus or concurrence does not appear once; the classic term that explained the manner of God’s providential act is not explicitly taught and confessed in Piper’s magnum opus, though other terms such as “preserving” and “governing” frequently appear. Such omission may be intentional for understandable reasons, but, I would argue, it is actually important to include it in the explanation of the doctrine of providence, for the fact that the term helpfully speaks to the crucial issue of the causal order of God’s providential work.

Concursus

To go back to Bavinck, he argues that the relation God stands to creation is “expressed by the word ‘preservation, ‘concurrence,’ and ‘government,’ which over time were viewed as aspects of providence… Preservation, concurrence, and government accordingly are not parts or segments in which the work of providence is divided and which, being materially and temporally separate, succeed one another” (RD, 2.605). In this vein he even contends that “preservation is also government, and government is concurrence, and concurrence is preservation” (RD, 2.605). It is particularly important to grasp the meaning and significance of concursus because it highlights the concurrent interplay between divine and creaturely actions in the execution of God’s providence. The concursity of God’s providential ordering captures the truth that divine actions are interconnected, interlocked, and interplayedwith creaturely actions in the order of creaturely affairs and, as such, uphold “the natural order and the causal nexus of phenomena” (RD, 2.611). In other words, Bavinck notes, “[c]oncurrence is precisely the reason for the self-activity of the secondary causes, and these causes, sustained from beginning to end by God’s power, work with a strength that is appropriate and natural to them” (RD, 2.614).

Primary and Secondary Causes

What this means, in one sense, is that divine actions are the primary movers in the order of creaturely affairs. The primacy in view here is not merely an historical primacy, as God is the first (and only) Creator of the world, but also a metaphysical primacy, as God’s actions are the first and the ultimate causes of all creaturely actions. Francis Turretin (1623–87) helpfully argues: “The first cause is the prime mover in every action so that the second cause cannot move unless it is moved, nor act unless acted upon by the first. Otherwise it would be the principle of its own motion and so would no longer be the second cause, but the first” (Institutes, 1.507). God viewed in this way is regarded as the primary mover of both “previous motions” as well as “simultaneous motions” of secondary causes, which explain the comprehensive involvement of God in the direction and production of creaturely actions.

In another sense, concursus teaches that creaturely actions, specifically human actions, are the secondary movers in the order of creaturely motions, events, and affairs. It is important to grasp the role that nature has in this discussion: creaturely actions are postulated as specifications, determinations, or instantiations of nature. In this regard the conditions of nature would impact the trajectories of creaturely actions and it is why scholastics like Turretin stated that “the mode of working follows the mode of being” (Inst., 1.503). Hence divine providence as conceived by these Reformed thinkers extends to both being and doing, both ontology and economy of created things, and in the doctrine of concursus divine actions are operative in and with creaturely natures in determining the specific course of providence.

Concursus Contra Pantheism and Deism

This doctrine ought to be taught and confessed especially against two erroneous worldviews. On the one hand, pantheistic and deterministic constructions of the created order still grip the imaginations of many people, and there is still a shared assumption that earthly affairs are the consequences of direct and necessary actions of God. That this earthly event happened by necessity because of that divine will does account for the involvement of the transcendent in creaturely affairs, but it does not explain how this earthly event is metaphysically (and morally) ordered to that earthly event: it ignores the contingent order that shapes the flow of creaturely life.

On the other hand, the doctrine of concursus counters deistic and naturalistic frameworks as well, for the simple reason that God, in such views, is completely separated from creation in the order of motions. In this stream of thought all the creaturely causes, motions, and actualizations occur in complete independence from God and, as a result, what is supernatural becomes superfluous. Against these views, it ought to be confessed that, as Bavinck puts it so well, “secondary causes are strictly subordinated to God as the primary cause and in that subordination nevertheless remain true causes” (RD, 2.613).  

In short, Christians in every generation ought to affirm, appreciate, and assume the causal accounts that are aligned with the teachings of the Bible. The doctrine of concursus is a biblically warranted article of faith that informs Christians about the causal relations between divine actions and creaturely actions. Without confessing the concursity of divine providence, pantheistic and deistic errors cannot be fully avoided; and if they cannot be explicitly avoided, they may surreptitiously intrude into the articles of the Christian faith and blur the vital distinction between God and creation. Thus, Christians in every age will benefit from affirming this doctrine as it fills their imaginations with both divine and human layers of creaturely phenomena, regardless of the secular, flat, and naturalistic age they find themselves in. And the pastoral values of divine providence certainly derive from this, that in all the things humans experience in this world, there are always both divine and human layers of actions, causes, and reasons.

Seung-Joo Lee holds an M.A. degree from Westminster Seminary California and is currently finishing his doctoral research through the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Seung-Joo is married to Dasol, and is working at Reformed Theological College in Melbourne, Australia, as Personal Assistant to the Principal.

  • Seung-Joo Lee