Michael Dodds’s proposal for understanding divine action is fundamentally analogical. It is based on an understanding of ex nihilo creation that also can only be expressed analogically. Because there are different orders or levels of reality, our language of creation in general and causation in particular must be able to stretch across such levels. Whether Dodds commends or critiques a position on divine action depends on whether the theologian has been thinking univocally or analogically.

The Great Distinction

The Catholic University of America Press, 2012

One of the most basic metaphysical principles is the great distinction between God and all else that is not God. Thinking that does not recognize this great distinction will gravitate toward problematic, univocal understandings of divine action. But pondering the original act of creatio ex nihilo should already tilt our minds toward the great distinction—toward a Being and a type of causality that immeasurably surpasses the created beings and causality with which we are familiar. The reliable, repeatable patterns of secondary causality cannot be coherently accounted for apart from divine, transcendent causality. In its study of secondary causality, science has an ongoing debt to the primary causality of creation ex nihilo.

Creation is a divine gift, a prodigious act of grace that leads to a potentially cooperative venture—the interaction between creatures and Creator. Since creation is apparently set up for this divine/human interaction, a good understanding of creation will allow for both divine and human freedom, notwithstanding how disparate and asymmetrical they are. That God would share the freedom of causality with creation is a mark of divine generosity. The source of secondary causality is not going to become its competitor.

Transcendence and Immanence

Dodds rightly argues that both transcendence and immanence are required to understand divine action: “As the cause of being, God both transcends all of creation and is immanently present in it” (164). As subsistent being itself and the source of every creature’s being, God is intimately present to every being. Thus Aquinas: “God is in all things, and innermostly” (ST I, 8, 1, co). In Thomistic metaphysics, God is not “more distant from creatures than they are from one another, but infinitely closer” (p. 169). In addition to this intimate immanence with all created things, God can be uniquely present to human beings through grace (p. 165).

Similarly, William Alston notes that talk of divine “interference” or “intervention” “stems from a deist picture of God as ‘outside’ His creation, making quick forays or incursions from time to time and then retreating to His distant observation post” (p. 254, citing Alston, “Divine Action,” 45). Avoiding the deist picture requires the recognition of different orders (levels) of causality.

While conflating different levels of reality is the misstep that so many in the science/theology discussion have made, Austin Farrer avoided the misstep. Farrer, who coined the phrase “causal joint,” knew that God’s transcendence would prevent finding any one causal joint, such as quantum indeterminacy (Murphy, Russell) or chaos theory (Polkinghorne).In the Thomistic conception, God would of course be present at the quantum level, because God is omnipresent—present to everything in creation.

Any robust theory of divine action should hold that God is both transcendent and intimately present, that the Creator is not absent from creation. Being omnipresent, God can work through secondary causality. In response to God, aligning our secondary causality with the primary cause cooperatively affirms God’s grace. Prayer is a case in point of a conscious attempt at such alignment. Prayer does not change God; it changes the one who prays. In prayer, the order of grace is personal, and thus even greater than the order of natural causality and pattern.

Analogy and Univocity

The Thomistic understanding of the relation between primary and secondary causality closely parallels the Thomistic understanding of how words refer to God. Univocal predication has an off/on, right/wrong quality that is inappropriate to the divine mystery, transcendence, and majesty. AquinasGiven these qualifications in the comparison, creaturely and divine goodness are not univocal, but rather, analogical. argues that “univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures” (ST I, 13, 5, co). In claiming a one-to-one correspondence between the word used and the divine essence referred to, univocity overreaches. Univocity fails to account for the great distinction between God and all else that is not God.

Unlike univocity, analogical predication does respect the great distinction. I can say that my mother is good and mean it literally. Likewise, I say that God is good, and I also mean it literally (Latin: proprie). However, Mom’s goodness is limited in time (she was not always good because she did not always exist) and imperfect (like the time she thought my brother was right). But there is absolutely no limitation on God’s eternal and infinite goodness; there is no goodness which God lacks. God is both the exemplar of goodness and the cause of every creaturely goodness. The divine goodness, like the divine being, is on another level than any being that is not God. Creatures participate in, i.e., have a share of, the goodness of creation; but God is goodness. Given these qualifications in the comparison, creaturely and divine goodness are not univocal, but rather, analogical.

If God’s action is conceived univocally, and if this univocal causality were conceived to be omnipotent, then divine action would overpower creaturely causality, leaving only occasionalism (p. 210). But the problem only arises with univocal causality: “Only univocal causes need to ‘leave room’” (p. 156). By contrast, just as creatures can participate in goodness, secondary causes can participate in “the dignity of causality” (p. 263, citing ST 1, 23, 8, ad 2). As Dodds stresses, “The effect of a transcendent primary cause and a secondary cause is wholly from both” (p. 156).

What Can and Cannot Be Said

Observing an expert pitcher throw a baseball, I can see that the ball curves and drops at the appropriate moment. I can reasonably ask the pitcher, “How did you do that”? He could demonstrate an arm movement and a certain grip and release of the ball that can be clearly understood. But if we were somehow to witness a case of divine causality, it would be very strange to ask God, “How did you do that?”

When reflecting upon incarnation, the ex nihilo creation of secondary causality, or any action believed to be divinely caused, it is unreasonable to seek explanations within the confines of univocal causality. Any understanding of divine action will begin in faith, and an algorithmic explanation will not be forthcoming.


Divine causality does not interfere or intervene with the patterns of creation but enlivens them, fosters them, guides them, and brings them to be what they are—in ways that must to some degree remain apophatic. Whatever we may come to know of divine action,Divine causality does not interfere or intervene with the patterns of creation but enlivens them, fosters them, guides them, and brings them to be what they are. there will always be more that we do not know. As Farrer warned: “God’s action must actually be such as to work omnipotently on, in, or through creaturely agencies without forcing them or competing with them. But as soon as we try to conceive it in action, we degrade it to the creaturely level and place it in the field of interacting causalities” (p. 164, n19). There will always be some role for apophaticism in our discussions of divine action.

While the Creator God is subsistent being itself and the cause of all other being, “God is the cause not only of existence but also the cause of causes” (p. 204, citing ITC, Communion and Stewardship, no. 68). Relying on this Thomistic insight, Dodds argues that of course God acts in the world: “If God did not act, the world would simply not exist” (p. 162). But because God’s being transcends creaturely being, God’s action transcends causality within creation. To seek to locate God’s action in this or that aspect of the world is to look in the wrong place, i.e. wrong level. What science studies cannot directly access God’s action; the causal joint cannot be located. Science can only study effects, while God remains “the cause hidden from every human being” (p. 164, SCG III, 101, no. 1).

In Dodds’s example of a teacher writing on a board with a piece of chalk, both the chalk and the teacher are non-competitive—indeed cooperative—causes of the effect. Being on different levels allows the cooperation in achieving the joint effect. Likewise, because God’s primary causality transcends the level of secondary causality, primary and secondary can work together to achieve joint effects.

More Than Apophaticism

Divine causality is not univocal; nonetheless, God is not locked out of creation: “Given God’s utter transcendence, he may act as a principle cause enabling the creature, as an instrument, to produce an effect beyond its natural capacity” (p. 193).

Because God works through secondary causes, joint, cooperative ventures are possible. Thus Aquinas sees prayer as a secondary cause:

The cause of some things that are done by God is prayers and holy desires. For divine providence does not exclude other causes; rather, it orders them so that the order which providence has determined within itself may be imposed on things. And thus secondary causes … carry out the effect of providence. … it is the same thing to say that we should not pray in order to obtain something from God, because the order of his providence is immutable, as to say that we should not walk in order to get to a place, or eat in order to be nourished; all of which are clearly absurd (p. 246, citing SCG III, 96, no. 8).

Prayer is an alignment of human will (causality) with the divine will. In prayer there is a convergence of the metaphysical consideration of God as primary cause with the religious belief that God is Our Father.

Moreover, “In addition to causing the natural actions of secondary causes, God can also ‘act independently of the course of nature in the production of particular effects’ (De pot. 6, 1, co.), thus producing “effects that are beyond the power of nature” (p. 253). Dodds adds, “He may also restrain secondary causes from producing their normal effects or produce those same effects by his power alone” (p. 253, drawing upon SCG III, 96, no. 14). Additionally, God may use extraordinary individuals as secondary causes, as instruments to effect the divine will. These affirmations go far beyond mere apophaticism.

In conclusion, Fr. Dodds has given us a treasure trove of scholarship and wisdom on divine action. Laboring to “unlock” our conception of divine action, he has demonstrated that univocal conceptions will come to grief. But he has also recovered an analogical alternative, where our efforts can productively proceed.