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  • Beyond Causation:A Contemporary Theology of Concursus
  • Joshua D. Reichard1 (bio)

Introduction: The Theological Dilemma of Concursus

This article continues a discussion initiated by Edgar Towne,2 Vaughn McTernan,3 and others, concerning divine-human interactivity. Both Towne and McTernan expressed concern about the overemphasis of the God-world dichotomy in traditional theology and thus proposed alternative conceptions of divine action, human interaction, and human interpretation of such interaction. In this article, contemporary theologians such as Wiles, Farrer, and Brümmer are consulted and integrated with contemporary religion-science dialogue, including the work of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and the Vatican Observatory project. Moreover, contemporary investigations into divine action are synthesized and categories, such as the distinction between retrospection and prospection as conceived by Brümmer and Conradie, are explored as a general framework for grouping theological perspectives on concursus. In this way, theological persuasions can be broadly identified as either establishing a formula by which God is said to act in the future or recognizing ways in which the action of God can be identified in the past, in particular, in cooperation with the actions of human beings.

In philosophical theology, the relationship between God and human beings has been historically referred to as concursus: the concurrence, or cooperation, of more than one agent to cause a particular effect. In theological terms, concursus is the cooperation of God and humanity as the causal forces [End Page 117] of some particular effect. Terry J. Wright identified the historical distinction between primary and secondary causes and thereby noted that generally, the primary cause is the "sustaining cause" and God is generally considered the most primary of all causes.4 In such causal terms, concursus has been conceived differently, contingent upon whether theologians emphasize divine activity or activity as secondary causes.5 More generally, however, concursus has been defined as divine activity that runs parallel with the activity of created things; in particular, human beings.

The issue of concursus has been problematic to theologians for centuries, as much as the debate of freedom versus determinism has been problematic to philosophers. For instance, Timothy O'Connor asserted that "those who suppose that God's sustaining activity (and special activity of conferring grace) is only a necessary condition on the outcome of human free choices need to tell a more subtle story, on which God's omnipotent cooperative activity can be (explanatorily) prior to a human choice and yet the outcome of that choice be settled only by the choice itself."6 A logical quandary exists between relying on God as a primary cause or precondition to human action and holding human beings personally accountable for their actions. Similarly, Kathryn Tanner asserted that "it makes as much sense to deny that there are created powers and efficacy because God brings about all that is, as to deny there is a creation because there is a creator. It makes no sense at all, for the same reason in both cases; one would be denying the existence of an effect because of the existence of a cause."7 Tanner thereby argued that it is illogical to say that creatures have no power in and of themselves simply because God created them first. This quandary is the context in which the principal investigation of this article is framed.

Brümmer, Farrer, and Wiles: Contemporary Theories of Divine Action

Theologians from various traditions have agreed that actions of creatures maintain some dependence upon created causes and also maintain some dependence upon the action of God. The difference in opinion concerns the measure and [End Page 118] nature of such dependence. The theological analysis of divine action by Vincent Brümmer, who interpreted the earlier perspectives of Austin Farrer and Maurice Wiles, is examined to this end. Brümmer, Farrer, and Wiles are essential sources for contemporary discussions of concursus.8

Brümmer noted that most theists maintain a principally indirect theory of divine agency: "God is always a primary cause acting by means of secondary causes and never intervening directly on the level of secondary causes."9 In like manner, Ted Peters discussed such "noninterventionist" theories of divine action in terms of God...


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