“But God intended it for good” – the problem of double causality in Scripture

Posted: July 29, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
Tags: , , , , ,

Q. 7. What are the decrees of God?
A. The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.

So goes the Westminster shorter catechism. It’s a big, magisterial statement: ‘he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.’ Whatsoever. Impressive. If a little difficult to substantiate from Scripture.

This is the doctrine of double causality. Think of reality like a sponge cake with two layers. The top layer is God’s plans. The bottom layer is our choices and decisions, and everything else that goes on down here.

Whenever something happens, it has two sets of causes  (the Greeks identified more than two sorts, but two will do for now). There are immediate causes, such as your decision to get out of bed in the morning. It was your decision. But behind that decision there is the first cause. God ordained that you should get up, and so that you should make that decision, and moved or caused you to do so. God is the first cause of everything. Whatsoever comes to pass.

This idea of double causation is pretty deeply entrenched in the western mindset. When someone’s house gets burgled, they might ask. ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ A common question in our culture is, ‘If God is good, why are there wars?’ The common assumption here is of God as first cause. Of everything.

It’s a nice tidy doctrine that seems to tie everything together powerfully. Appealing. People like it.

It does have problems however. Moral problems: it’s pretty hard for a first cause to avoid responsibility for the things the cause causes. Like wars…

But the problem I want to explore is about Scriptural backing for this idea. For a concept so foundational to western thinking about God, it’s surprising how little there is in the Bible that expresses or even implies double causality.

Of course in our tradition we like proof texts, and this is particularly embarrassing, because, I mean…where are they?

They’re so thin on the ground, people end up going back to the Joseph story from Genesis to find one. That’s not a good sign, when your doctrine can only found in the OT not the NT, and when it’s only in the oldest part of the OT. Progressive revelation suggests that we should have found out a whole lot more about such an important truth later in the Scriptures. And yet Genesis seems to have to clearest example of this doctrine being taught.

Or does it?

Let’s take a look. We’re in Genesis 50, the final chapter, and Joseph’s brothers are panicking. Their dad has just died, and they’re worried that Joseph will take that as a cue for pay-back time. They sold their brother into slavery once – what will he do to them now he’s in power?

But Joseph reassures them:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear.”    Genesis 50:20-21 (NRSV)

That seems to capture the shape of the doctrine: two parallel causes working simultaneously but for different ends. God in heaven, and J’s brothers on earth. I remember as a youngster hearing Don Carson use this text to teach that exact doctrine. Double causality.

But is that really what Genesis 50:20 teaches? Let’s look more closely.

Tomorrow: conclusion


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