Leithart, Bavinck, and the Nature of Natures

A few weeks ago, Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart engaged in a debate of sorts on their blogs on the subject of regeneration, which morphed somehow into a debate on natures and substances.  Without trying to delve into all the (often elusive) details of what they were up to, Leithart was particularly concerned with maintaining a strong emphasis on the mediation of God’s actions through creation, which meant, for him at least, that we needed to be wary of doctrines of “natures” and “substances” which reify creatures over against God.  Instead, as he argued in “Do Things Have Natures?“, we need to insist that God is always dynamically at work in and through his creatures, which means that if God is a historical God, one who unfolds his will in a drama of creation, fall, and new creation, then “natures” are not fixed quantities, but potentially take on new properties as God uses and transforms them in this drama.  One way of looking at this issue is to ask, “What are miracles?” For if God is always dynamically at work in his creation, and doing new things in it, then the miraculous is only relative.

Once put this way, the question seems to largely turn on the doctrine of providence, particularly the sub-headings usually called “preservation” and “concurrence.”  Preservation, essentially, insists that the Christian God is not a deist God; his creation is always dependent upon his sustaining power, which preserves it in being.  Concurrence insists that the Christian God is not a pantheist God; he is always and everywhere at work in his creatures, and yet they have a created integrity of their own which allows them to have a certain fixed identity in vis-a-vis God.  In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck offers a wonderfully lucid and balanced treatment of these issues, and a little walk through his text may prove instructive for resolving these thorny issues. 


Bavinck first affirms that we must not blur together creation and providence (which is precisely what is at stake, it seems, in asking whether God changes the natures he has created), but at the same time must hold them together very carefully, never attributing “independence” to the created order (which was Leithart’s overarching concern):

“The two are so fundamentally distinct that they can be contrasted as labor and rest.  At the same time they are so intimately related and bound up with each other that preservation itself can be called ‘creating’ (Ps. 104:30; 148:5; Isa. 45:7; Amos 4:13).  Preservation itself, after all, is also a divine work, , no less great and glorious than creation. . . . Although distinct from his being, it has no independent existence; independence is tantamount to nonexistence.  The whole world with everything that is and occurs in it is subject to divine government. . . . Scripture knows no independent creatures; this would be an oxymoron” (RD II:592)

The two dangers, here, he says, are deism and pantheism, as just mentioned.  Leithart is certainly leaning heavily against the former danger, and one consequence of this is to tend to blur the distinction between miracle and God’s “ordinary” action in creation.  Bavinck says that in pantheism, means that “there is no room for miracle, the self-activity of secondary causes, personality, freedom . . .” and over against it, “it was the task of Christian theology to maintain the distinction between creation and preservation, the self-activity of secondary causes, the freedom of personality . . .” (599) If we emphasize so much the immanence of God in creation, if we make everything a “miracle” because it is the direct work of God, then we also thereby make nothing a miracle, because the natural order has no self-activity.

Bavinck defines the relationship of preservation and concurrence: “Preservation tells us that nothing exists, not only no substance, but also no power, no activity, no idea, unless it exists totally from, through, and to God.  Concurrence makes known to us the same preservation as an activity such that, far from suspending the existence of creatures, it affirms and maintains it” (605).  Both emphases must be maintained.  On the one hand,

“God is never idle.  He never stands by passively looking on.  With divine potency he is always active in both nature and grace.  Providence, therefore, is a positive act, not a giving permission to exist but a causing to exist and working from moment to moment.  If it consisted merely in a posture of non destruction, it would not be God who upheld things, but things would exist in and by themselves, using power granted at the creation.  And this is an absurd notion.  A creature is, by definition, of itself a completely dependent being: that which does not exist of itself cannot for a moment exist by itself either.” (605)  

This side of the question is heavily emphasized in Leithart’s post.

On the other hand, 

“Creation and providence are not identical.  If providence meant a creating anew every moment, creatures would also have to be produced out of nothing every moment.  In that case, the continuity, connectedness, and ‘order of causes’ would be totally lost, and there would be no development or history.  All created beings would then exist in appearance only and be devoid of all independence, freedom, and responsibility.” (607)


Now, his discussion of concurrence is where things get very interesting.  Bavinck argues that we cannot  attempt to speak of development within natures, unless we can talk about existent natures in the first place.  A determinate creation must precede providence.  Otherwise all is mere flux:

“Now providence serves to take the world from its beginning and to lead it to its final goal; it goes into effect immediately after the creation and brings to development all that was given in that creation.  Creation, conversely, was aimed at providence; creation conferred on creatures the kind of existence that can be brought to development in and by providence.  For the world was not created in a state of pure potency, as chaos or as a nebulous cloud, but as an ordered cosmos, and human beings were placed in it not as helpless toddlers but as an adult man and an adult woman.  Development could only proceed from such a ready-made world, and that is how creation presented it to providence. . . . Every creature received a nature of its own, and with that nature san existence, a life, and a law of its own.  Just as the moral law was increated in the heart of Adam as the rule for his life, so all creatures carried in their own nature the principles and laws for their own development.” (609)

It is at this point he brings up miracles, and although making the point that we should not think of miracles as divine interventions in creation, since God is never not working in creation, wants to avoid pushing this line of argument too far:

“For that reason a miracle is not a violation of natural law nor an intervention in the natural order.  From God’s side it is an act that does not more immediately and directly have God as its cause than any ordinary event, and in the counsel of God and the plan of the world it occupies as much an equally well-ordered and harmonious place as any natural phenomenon.  In miracles God only puts into effect a special force that, like any other force, operates in accordance with its own nature and therefore also has an outcome of its own.

But at the creation God built his laws into things, fashioning an order by which the things themselves are interconnected.  God is not dependent on causes, but things do depend on one another.  That interconnectedness is of many kinds.  Although in general it can be called ‘causal,’ the word ‘causal’ in this sense must by no means be equated with ‘mechanical,’ as materialism would have us do.  A mechanical connection is only one mode in which a number of things in the world relate to each other.  Just as creatures received a nature of their own in the creation and differ among themselves, so there is also difference in the laws in conformity with which they function and in the relation in which they stand to each other.  

“These laws and relations differ in every sphere. . . . It is the providence of God that, interlocking with creation, maintains and brings to full development all these distinct natures, forces, and ordinances.  In providence God respects and develops—and does not nullify the things he called into being in creation. It does not pertain to divine providence to corrupt the nature of things but to preserve [that nature]. . . . Thus, therefore, God preserves and governs all creatures according to their nature, the angels in one way, humans in another, and the latter again in a away that differs from animals and plants.  But insofar as God in his providence maintains things in their mutual relatedness and makes creatures subserve each other’s existence and life, that providence can be called mediate.” (610-11)


So yes, things do have natures, determinate ordered causal relations which God has appointed at creation and continues to uphold at every moment.  These natures may unfold in time as seeds do into trees, as God brings them to full development, but in this process, he does not have to remake what he has once made; his providence does not become a form of continuous creation.

Grasshoppers in the Waves

Six days ago, I woke up and after some reading, did my standard early morning web-browsing–sports, stocks, NOAA gauges showing flood conditions on the Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers, Jeff Masters’s weather blog, etc.  I was just ending the ritual when something caught my eye in the comments section of the blog. 

An 8.9 earthquake?  No way. 
In Japan?  Too bad to be true. 
With a tsunami?  Of course, but they’re used to those. 
Ten metres?  Oh s***.  

Within a couple minutes, I was watching the videos that have been haunting our airwaves ever since–an inexorable tide of black water devouring all in its path.  I pulled up Google Earth and scanned the coastline of northeastern Japan–city after city, all under ten metres elevation.  I knew then that this was no ordinary disaster, that this time, the deaths would be measured not in the hundreds or in the thousands, but in the tens and scores of thousands.  And yet as the days have passed since, with image after image of incomprensible destruction, statistic after statistic of the incalculable human and financial cost, hysterical headline after hysterical headline forecasting nuclear doom from the stricken Fukushima reactors, it has become harder, not easier, to grasp the enormity of it.  

Sure, we’ve been here before.  Last year, anywhere from 75,000-300,000 Haitians (the absurd uncertainty of the figure testifies to the meaninglessness of human life in this most pitiful of nations) perished in the Port-au-Prince quake.  Two years before that, the sea swallowed up at least 140,000 in Burma’s Cyclone Nargis, and the earth swallowed up half that many in China’s Sichuan earthquake.  Scarcely more than six years ago, the Great Indian Ocean Tsunami claimed the lives of nearly 300,000.  But somehow, none of these had quite the same shock value.  In Haiti, for instance, the devastation unleashed seemed almost fated, the fitting capstone to decades of misery and poverty; we shook our heads and said sadly, “Yes, that would happen to Haiti…”  In the Boxing Day Tsunami, as overwhelming as it all seemed, it made sense, really, when you thought about it.  Here was an ocean ringed with poor and primitive fisher-folk, dwelling in huts by the sea-side, the source of their livelihood.  They had no warning, and no defence against the sea.  Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later–and let’s face it, how much would they really be missed?  How many people knew or cared of the existence of these villages before they became non-existent?

But this time, things are different somehow.  This time, the most technologically-advanced nation on earth, the nation that with all its resources and preparation, seemed almost impregnable against natural disasters, was brought to its knees.  Here was a country with buildings that would wobble about a bit, but ultimately stay standing, in the midst of the world’s sixth-largest recorded earthquake.  Here was a country with state-of-the-art tsunami warning systems, with seawalls twenty feet wide and hundreds of feet thick.  And yet it didn’t seem to matter.  The all-consuming wave poured over these seawalls as effortlessly as the tide washes over a sand castle.  Whole cities vanished, and the survivors were left shivering without food and water for days.  Nuclear reactors spiralled out of control, almost as if driven by some fiendish spirit gleefully thwarting every human effort to cool them.  The Japanese stock market, despite hundreds of billions of government dollars pumped in to prop it up, plunged 16% in two days, worse than in any two-day span of the 2008 financial crisis. 

There has been a moment or two each day, it seems, where I found myself seriously thinking that it must all be a dream–this couldn’t really be happening now, in 2011.  This was the stuff of a disaster movie, not a real-life disaster.  Numbed by the horror and pain of it, I have tried to pray, but with faltering lips.  What can one pray at a time like this?  With millions in need, where does one begin?  “Lord, please help the Japanese people,” is about as far as I can get.  When praying on my own account, for my own daily needs and struggles, I’ve found myself tempted to think that God couldn’t possibly be listening–with such a deafening outcry of voices lifted up to him in anger and grief on the other side of the world, he couldn’t possibly have time for us ordinary folk anymore.  

And then comes the more troubling thought: what’s the point of praying to God to fix this if he’s the one who did it?  I’ve come to think that if theodicy isn’t a problem that tears at your insides every now and again, then you aren’t really paying attention.  And now is one of those times.  Six years ago, in the wake of the Boxing Day Tsunami, David Bentley Hart wrote and eloquent and deeply moving though ultimately misguided book called The Doors of the Sea, in which he vented at heartless Calvinists who declared that it was all part of the plan and for God’s greater glory, and gestured vaguely at the free-will defence for the existence of evil.  But this just won’t do.  The free-will defence might just about manage to get God off the hook for Auschwitz, but not for depopulating Banda Aceh or Minamisanriku.  There simply was no human agent involved, and if we are going to say that God is not responsible even for the movement of the earth and the sea, then what do we say he’s responsible for?  No, there is no getting round it–God must have caused that earthquake, God must have caused that tsunami.

“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?” (Job 38:4-8)

The free-will defence might still have a role to play, if we wanted to argue that all this death and distortion in the creation is God’s judgment against sin, man’s sin for which man is freely responsible.  But does that then mean that we’re saying that the tsunami was God’s judgment on sin, a judgment on the Japanese people, sort of like how Pat Robertson said the Haiti earthquake was a divine punishment for their “pact with the devil”?  I certainly don’t think we want to say that, and while some might claim Biblical predecent for making such assertions, there is at least as much Biblical precedent rebuking any such attempt (Jesus regarding the tower of Siloam, or the whole book of Job, to cite two memorable ones).  What can we say, then?  Anything?  Is there any way we can give meaning to such episodes?  It is worth remembering we are not the first to be tormented by this lack of answers, which embittered so many Europeans against the inscrutable providence of God in the wake of a similar disaster centuries ago, the Lisbon quake of 1755 that leveled the center of one of the world’s great empires, killing 100,000.


Perhaps we can learn a lesson or two, not so much about God, who remains maddeningly inscrutable, but about us.  First, before we get carried away shaking our fist at God, we ought to take a look at ourselves.  When was the last time Japan suffered a disaster of this magnitude?  1945.  Two American warplanes dropped two nuclear explosives on two Japanese cities, killing 200,000, far more than this quake, and poisoning far more with radiation than anything that happens at Fukushima is likely to do.  Someone once said, “I don’t dare to ask God why there’s all this evil and suffering in the world, because I’m afraid  he’ll ask me the same question” (that was the gist, though the original quote was more pithy and eloquent).  And that was just one small portion of the horror unleashed in that war, by “the good guys” as much as by “the bad guys.”  All of the natural disasters of the twentieth century have killed a tenth as many people as all of the disasters that humans have chosen to inflict on one another, and generally with much less cruelty.  As we grieve for the victims of the waves, let us not forget to grieve for our own victims and seek to make right all that we have made wrong.  

Second, a disaster such as this serves as a fitting, a shocking, rebuke to human pride–to the pride that imagines it can shut out the sea with walls, that it can contain the elemental force that binds together the atoms of the universe within steel rods, that it can predict and protect itself against the movements of the earth itself.  A nation that can make computer chips that can store a lifetime of memories on something the size of a pinhead, that can harness the power of superconductors to propel trains at 360 mph, suddenly can’t even get food or heat or water to hundreds of thousands of its citizens, can’t even supply itself with the electricity that is its lifeblood.  All around us today are amazing monuments of human ingenuity, in which we put our faith and pride with shocking ease, even as we are bombarded over and over with reminders of our relative impotence–snowstorms that shut down almost the whole United Kingdom, an invisible volcanic ash cloud that grounds grounds a whole continent’s air fleets, tides that drown our cities.  

As one of my favorite passages reminds us:

It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity. Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown: yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth: and he shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble.”  (Is. 40:22-24)

But we are not simply to grovel before a great and inscrutable God, stoically taking whatever punishment he dishes out.  This passage also reminds us that hard as it may be sometimes, he is the only one we can trust for comfort and salvation from the terrors that overwhelm us, and he will not fail of that trust:

“Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Is. 40:28-31)

Calvin and Commerce Redux

You may recall that a month and a half back, I was busily blogging my way through David Hall and Matthew Burton’s book Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies, as preparation for a short review I was writing for the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology.  That review will be published in the Autumn edition of the SBET within the next couple weeks (the much longer and more interesting VanDrunen review, alas, will not, having been postponed to the Spring 2011 issue out of space considerations).  If you were following any of my posts on Hall and Burton, you may have noticed that I stopped only a couple of chapters in, and never posted a full review.  This was, to be frank, simply because it became clear that the book wasn’t worth the time.  Hall and Burton did not have really have any coherent arguments, nor any coherence in the way they said them out, and so it became impossible to justify expending the time to patiently analyze and deconstruct the text.

As I put it in the opening to my original draft of the SBET review (omitted in subsequent revisions, but worth stating here):

“In any work of writing, the author’s goal is to bring about a meeting of the minds between himself and his readers, to bridge the chasm between alien consciousnesses, that he might impart information and generate insight in his readers.  This task is never an easy one, and successful execution has at least three prerequisites: a facility in the use of the medium–language; a distinct and readily grasped shape for the content; and a clear conviction underlying the content, that will excite sympathy in the reader.  Unfortunately this volume raises serious obstacles for itself at each of these points.  At many points, neither the language nor the organization are sufficiently lucid to grant the reader insight into just what the authors are seeking to convey, and the driving purpose and assumptions behind this work are never clearly stated.”

However, since many of the arguments they made constitute staples of “baptized capitalism,” I do hope to return to discuss some of the points they made, two in particular, that I will simply flag briefly now (since promising here that I’m going to post something, although far from a guarantee that I’ll actually do so, does help me prioritize it a bit more.)

The first is the notion of what I’ll call reactive, rather than proactive charity, something I find myself coming back to over and over in my theo-economic ruminations (see here particularly).  Basically, the reactive charity paradigm looks something like this: pursue your own legitimate self-interest, build up your wealth and financial stability, seek in every way to prosper, and then, once you’ve done all this, share the benefits of your aggressive acquisition.  This is, after all, how most of the great philanthropists of the past couple centuries have worked.  They’ve been ruthlessly efficient and amoral when it comes to running the business that is the source of their wealth, but then, once they’ve reached the highest echelons of society, they become renowned philanthropists, giving enormous sums to various charities and setting up various endowments named after themselves–Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bill Gates, etc.  But of course by the time they do all this giving their wealth is so massive that it’s small change for them, the interest and not the principal.  I was struck by this in my recent reading of the history of the Rothschilds, in which Niall Ferguson seemed to think that this philanthropy served as a rebuttal of accusations regarding the Rothschilds’ vicious business practices.  

The logic of those who would endorse this approach to charity is impeccable.  As Hall and Burton put it,

“In the late 1990s a Christian baseball pitcher was conflicted about the size of his contract, because of its overwhelming value.  He privately discussed the guilt he felt with a leading Calvinist minister, who admonished the pitcher that had he failed to get the highest value for his work, he was potentially guilty of sin.  The justification for the minister’s counsel was that all men are given talents and abilities and are called to pursue them so that they can make as much as possible (within the law), so that they can in turn save and give frequently.  With regard to biblical economics, anything that impedes or reduces the three key activities of earning, saving, and giving is an inefficiency.” 

If you don’t make the most money you can possibly make, then you won’t be able to give as much later.  

Logical or not, this makes makes me mighty uneasy.  For one thing (perhaps not so much in the case of the baseball pitcher, but certainly in other cases, like that of the Rothschilds), this attitude can serve to justify an amoral or even downright immoral approach to earning and saving.  It doesn’t matter how many people you trample to get to the top, so long as you distribute 10% of your winnings to them once you’re on top (Hall and Burton, as Christians, add the qualifier “within the law,” but I’m still uneasy).  But of course, if the winners weren’t so heedless about trampling people on their way up, then perhaps there wouldn’t be as many losers in need of their charity later on.  Simply from an economic point of view, I wonder whether a society might be much more effective if it were proactively charitable–that is, making sure the fruits of prosperity were more evenly shared at the front end–rather than reactively charitable–letting a few people reap most of the rewards and far outstrip everyone else, and only then share.  

I also have an ethical concern.  The kind of reactive charity that gives 10% of its income–or even 100% of its income–from a securely-established position of ample savings and large income is never genuinely vulnerable.   They are like the Pharisees who stand by and give generously “out of their abundance” while the widow, in faith, puts in the only two mites that she has.  I am not sure that this is what Christ calls us to.  The generosity to which Christ calls believers is one in which we give self-sacrificially, making ourselves vulnerable and putting our faith in God, not our savings.  How all this works with the genuine call to the virtue of prudence, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s something I want to pursue further.


Wow, that was a bit more than “briefly flagging”–this second point shall be much shorter.  Hall and Burton, like many Reformed, like to appeal to the notion of “Providence” as a guide for economic affairs.  We recognize that, in God’s providence, all are not supposed to be equally rich or equally poor–God has allowed some to suffer poverty and others to make enormous profits.  While we should be charitable to those in need, we should not think that inequality is inherently a bad thing, that we should work to overturn.  Rather, we should encourage everyone to embrace and rejoice in the providence God has called him to, and by and large accept the distribution of wealth that we see as a manifestation of God’s providence.  For now I will merely point out that on this line of argument, one could ratify all wars as just wars because they happened in the providence of God.  Indeed, perhaps this is all I need to say, since the argument is so self-evidently vacuous, but I hope to return to the theme at some point to see how Hall and Burton try to use it.