I am grateful for the opportunity to read and comment on Fr. Michael J. Dodds’s excellent work, Unlocking Divine Action. In the interest of space, I have been asked to confine my remarks to one or two areas of divine action discussed by Fr. Dodds. I have chosen, therefore, to focus on his use of the primary-secondary cause distinction and its relation to special divine acts.

The Primary-Secondary Cause Distinction

The Catholic University of America Press, 2012

Fr. Dodds’s fundamental claim is that if issues surrounding divine action are to be properly addressed then we must conceive causation analogically, rather than univocally. God as the cause of creation must be understood as radically different from any created entity exercising its causal powers within the created world. Secondary causes are real, but the condition of their exercise is God sustaining their very existence. We must, therefore, distinguish between God as primary cause and creatures as secondary causes.

Failure to do so, Fr. Dodds argues, will lead one into inextricable philosophical and theological morasses. Conceiving God univocally as a cause operating on the same ontological level as secondary causes, as intervening in nature, entails, he claims, understanding divine action as “[constituting] a gross interference with the workings of nature” (p. 110). Rejecting the idea of divine intervention in nature allows him to dismiss “the issue of the ‘causal joint’ . . . [since] to posit such a relation or ‘joint’ would be to reduce God to the level of other causes” (pp. 168–169).

Special Divine Acts and the Primary-Secondary Cause Distinction

I agree that distinguishing between God as primary cause and created entities as secondary causes is necessary in discussing issues of the relation of science and theistic belief. The atheist chemist and the theist chemist disagree not over the chemical properties of sodium and chloride but over the condition of there being a material world in the first place.

I disagree, however, with Fr. Dodds’s apparent insistence that God never directly intervenes in nature; that his action in the natural world is always through the instrumentality of secondary causes. He writes, “what God wills to be actualized in the world is always actualized, and it is actualized through the mode of secondary causality that God wills” (p. 210). Taken at face value, this claim is essentially deism. The deists did not deny the primary-secondary cause distinction, nor did they deny that God constantly causes the world to be. For example, the early deist Thomas Chubb, insists “that God, at the creation, put the natural world under the direction of certain laws . . . the divine energy, or those immediate acts of God’s power, by which the system of nature is kept together, and continually upheld and preserved . . . [is] a part of god’s general providence.”Thomas Chubb, “A Vindication of the Author’s Short Dissertation on Providence” in A Collection of Tracts on Various Subjects, Vol II, Pt. I. (London, 1743), 50. Emphasis original.

I say apparently because although Fr. Dodds insists that “on the natural level, one can describe what happens in the world entirely in terms of causes that are open to the investigation of empirical science” (p. 187), he later writes that “the notion of miracle suggests that God might act in the world not only in and through the causality of creatures . . . but also beyond their causality” (p. 230). I have argued elsewhere that this is a correct understanding of what it is for an event to be a miracle; that some events are best understood as God acting directly, not instrumentally through secondary causes. Miracles are events that would not otherwise have taken place in the natural order.Robert Larmer, The Legitimacy of Miracle. (Lanham: Lexington, 2014) 27–46.

Such events will not have a complete explanation in terms of secondary causes, since any attempt to explain them in such terms will contain gaps. These gaps are not expressions of our ignorance of how natural causes operate, but rather evidence of God acting directly, not instrumentally, in the world.There are many instances in which gap arguments are legitimately employed. See Greg Ganssle, “‘God of the Gaps’ Arguments” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, ed. J.B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett (Oxford: Wiley, 2012), 130–139. It is precisely because we do understand the behavior of dead bodies that we understand the return to life of Lazarus upon Jesus’ command cannot be explained in terms of the operation of natural secondary causes. C. S. Lewis puts the point nicely when he writes:

If God annihilates or creates or deflects a unit of matter, He has created a new situation at that point. Immediately all Nature domiciles this new situation, makes it at home in her realm, adapts all other events to it . . . Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy . . . miraculous bread will be digested. The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.C. S. Lewis, Miracles (Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1974) 63–64.

Appreciating this point makes clear that indeterminism in nature is not a prerequisite of belief in special divine acts. If I move a stone away from the earth’s surface, I intervene to change what would otherwise be the case, but the causal powers of natural objects remain intact and no laws of nature are violated. This is equally the case if God were to intervene and move a stone away from the earth’s surface.The objection that such intervention would violate the Principle of the Conservation of Energy is ill-founded. See Larmer, The Legitimacy of Miracle, 40-52. Cf, Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) 78–79. Whether or not nature is deterministic in its behavior is irrelevant to the capacity of God to intervene and produce an event that would not otherwise occur.

Positing that God sometimes pursues his purposes through directly intervening in the natural order does not, contra Fr. Dodds, “turn God into a kind of divine ‘lawbreaker’” (p. 110). Neither does it undermine the understanding of God as transcendent. It would seem very strange to insist that God, the author of all creation, cannot, or should not, ever intervene in its history. Such interventions need not be understood as violations of nature, but as part of the unfolding of divine purposes for nature. Indeed, Fr. Dodds, despite his many comments that to view God as intervening in nature is to reduce God to a univocal cause amongst causes, appears to agree when he writes that “even when God acts miraculously beyond the normal patterns of nature, his action cannot be regarded as against nature, since the fundamental order of nature is always towards God as First Cause” (p. 260).

Fr. Dodds’s tendency to conceptualize God as working exclusively through the instrumentality of secondary causes leads him, in my view, to ignore an important distinction between ‘nomological’ science and ‘historical’ science.See, for example, Paul Draper, “God, Science, and Naturalism” in Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion, ed. William Wainwright. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 272–303. Nomological science deals with repeatable law-like patterns found in nature, for example, the gravitational influence of the moon in explaining tides. Historical science, on the other hand, deals with questions of origin, for example, the origin of the universe and its apparent fine-tuning, or the origin of life and the subsequent geologically abrupt appearance of major new body structures. Claims of direct divine acts in nature are not typically found regarding how things work, but how they came to exist in the first place. That God works instrumentally through secondary causes provides a good account of the relation between nomological science and divine action, but it is far from clear that it serves well as regards the relation between historical science and divine action.

I see no reason to assume that special divine acts, understood as God acting miraculously beyond the normal limits of nature, occur only in the context of human history.

I see no reason to assume that special divine acts, understood as God acting miraculously beyond the normal limits of nature, occur only in the context of human history. To assert, as does Fr. Dodds, that “original terrestrial matter must have somehow had the possibility of existing in the form of the higher living things we find today since they have in fact arisen and evolved from it” (p. 98, emphasis original) begs the question of whether, in the absence of direct divine intervention, secondary causes possessed the power to self-assemble into living entities capable of reproduction. That the progress of science continually decreases, rather than increases, the prospect of providing a purely natural account of the origin of life should give one pause before accepting that science “offer[s] a complete explanation of evolution in terms of natural (secondary) causes” (p. 203).See, for example, James Tour, “Are Present Proposals on Chemical Evolutionary Mechanisms Accurately Pointing toward First Life” in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, ed. J. P. Moreland et al (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 165–191. Too great an emphasis on the primary-secondary cause distinction and the understanding that God acts instrumentally through secondary causes can result in failing to recognizes areas of investigation where God is best conceived as acting directly rather than indirectly in nature.


The primary-secondary cause distinction is essential to a proper understanding of God’s relation to the world. To insist, however, that God acts only instrumentally through secondary causes amounts to deism and its rejection of special divine acts. That God acts miraculously, bringing about events beyond the causal capacity of natural processes to produce, is a foundational claim of Christianity that an undue emphasis on the primary-secondary cause distinction must not be allowed to obscure.