“All of God’s activity partakes of creating”

Narratives of divine action oscillate between two poles. In one series God is asserted (1) to be the real author of all that happens, be it good or evil, and to be so despite the appearances of genuine human agency. The other set places God within the narrative, carrying out specific actions, either (2.1) directly or (2.2) through human actors. The second set may veer close to the first, depending on the texture of human agency woven into the narrative, but the distinction lies in the author’s identifying a specific action within the narrative as God’s action, or making a global assertion about the agency in the narrative. Moreover, all three modes of narrative will have to be parsed in the light of what we know about divine activity in regard to the world if we are to avoid facile descriptions of God’s actions as, for example, “intervention.” Not that narrative accounts are ever dispensable in the face of theorems of philosophical theology but rather that each story functions in a broader context of biblical or Qur’anic affirmations regarding the primary agent, God, and these must needs affect the way we accept the clues each narrative provides for its proper reading.

What do we know? At once very little yet a great deal. Aquinas offers us a handy formula: there is no difference between God’s conserving activity and God’s creating, other than the proviso that creating presumes nothing at all to be already present (ST 1.104.1). In other words, all of God’s activity partakes of creating: all that God can do is to create; God does not “fiddle” or “micro-manage.” If we add to this Thomas’ theorem that the “proper effect of the universal cause of all things is things’ existing” (ST 1.45.5), then God’s activity in the world is ever an instance of or a consequence of bestowing existing (esse). Again, one would misconstrue matters if one thought of existing as a floor provided by the creator upon which and by virtue of which we then accomplished what is ours to do. That is a common enough picture, not unlike the prevailing deist conception of creation as “getting things rolling,” a description which eliminates conservation altogether. Again, if existing were the mere positing in actuality, this picture would be a cogent one, but such a conception of existence—itself generally accepted—effectively denies the perspective of creatio ex nihilo, for it must logically presume a fully articulated “possible world” simply put into action.

So the perspective of creation extends to the current conservation of each existing thing, and does so in such a way as to animate its activities. That is, just as creation without conservation would no longer be creation, so “mere conservation” would not truly be conservation. Aquinas’ way of putting this is that God not only causes each thing to be, and thus makes it able to act, but God also acts in its acting by causing it to be the cause that is (ST 1.105.5).

David B. Burrell

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9 Responses to “All of God’s activity partakes of creating”

  1. Olga says:

    would you comment on the validity of the function of prayer as petition ? Thanks


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Olga. It just so happens that I did a three-part series on Fr Herbert McCabe and petitionary prayer. I imagine that Burrell would, at least in the main, agree with McCabe. The first article begins here: https://goo.gl/OsvF79. The links at the bottom of each article will take you to the next in the series. Let me know what you think.


      • Olga says:

        Well…its like this. Disclaimer: I do not possess the erudition to be able to quote numerous scholars or readings to support my opinions.
        But, having read the three articles you suggested, these are my take aways:
        * I would be delighted to believe that God did not send his only son Jesus to earth to be
        crucified. (What father would do that ?!) score 1 point McCabe
        from “God is Prayer”
        * McCabe is chasing his tail like an ourobouros (sp?) when he says God is with us (yes)
        and that God is doing the praying for us (no) yes, yes–you will say with us, I stand
        by my opinion minus 1 point McCabe
        from “if God is Being, Does Prayer Make Sense” the answer is no
        * I should read Hart’s book and especially the parts on divine apatheia which I have
        personally experienced from “A Companion in Pain or the Savior?”

        It has not been my personal experience that God answers anyone’s prayers, nor that we have any right to ask anything of Him. It is just our nature when we are suffering, so I cut us a break. Otherwise, I believe that as parts of creation, all of which contain a spark of the Divine, we long for a return to the source and that prayer becomes a vehicle for
        that. My forms of prayer are gratitude for the beauty and the goodness in the world, and the talents I’ve been given performed to the best of my ability and given with love.
        “I play my drum for him…” you get the idea. That’s it. I was just kind of hoping you would tell me I was wrong.


  2. tgbelt says:

    Thank you for recommending his Freedom & Creation in Three Traditions.

    As David knows, creatio continua can very easily become (and some argue just is another name for) ‘occasionalism’ which the Church has wanted to stay away from because of its intolerable consequences. And that’s what his last paragraph there is aimed at qualifying—God continually creates, yes, but “in such a way” (and that “way” of course is the whole issue) as to “conserve” created things in the integrity of their identity and agency (thus avoiding occasionalism). It’s a very interesting philosophical question.

    But what I want to point out, Fr Aidan, is how this leads to what I elsewhere recently said (which you thought Pelagian), namely, that the doctrines of creation and of grace are essentially one and the same. David’s statements here imply the same thing: “All God’s activity partakes of creating.” Creation isn’t just a past “act” and here we are now. Creation is also God’s ongoing sustaining/conserving of creation in its identity and the integrity of its powers and, importantly, always sustained purposively & graciously. All God’s creative/sustaining activity is and reveals divine grace, judgment, providence, etc. If all God’s activities are essentially creative acts, and God is unconditionally benevolent, then creation and grace are essentially convertible. We don’t start needing grace when we fall. We need it because we’re finite creatures.


    • Nicholas says:

      All God’s creative/sustaining activity is and reveals divine grace, judgment, providence, etc.

      Yes, I like this. After all, he continues creating and sustaining us no matter how deep into sin we fall. What better evidence for grace could there be?


    • 407kwac says:

      This makes sense to me, too, Tom. My understanding is “grace”, in Orthodox parlance, means “God in His energies (His Self-outpouring in the ecstasy of His love) toward creation,” and creation itself is the result of the Divine ecstasy.

      I would be interested in DBH’s take on it.



      • tgbelt says:

        I can see how the idea might be construed in Pelagian terms. If ‘nature’ and ‘grace’ are convertible (or inseparable, or if they inhere in one another—whatever term is best), one might think we’re saying we can manage ‘on our own’, through ‘our own natural resources’, to achieve union with God ‘apart from grace’. Thus we merit salvation.

        But this misses the entire point behind noting the inseparability of nature and grace. If nature (creation/conservation) is grounded in, empowered by, and absolutely inseparable from the energies of God at work—graciously, lovingly, and purposively sustained—then there literally is no nature which is not already grace at work, no possibility of ‘nature’ doing or being anything ‘apart from’ God—even in rational nature’s God-given power to say ‘No’ to God. Grace is implicit even in that (“complicit” even, but that needs some careful explanation), for even our ‘No’ presupposes the grace of natural capacities irresistibly oriented toward the Good. So there is no ‘No’ by which rational nature can declare itself absolutely over and against God. When we yield to God we require grace to do so, but we are doing nothing ‘unnatural’ whatsoever. And when we say ‘No’ to God, we require grace even to hide ourselves in that.

        To think this Pelagian one has to start by assuming a two-storied worldview in which ‘nature’ is somehow set in motion at a distance from God and that its fulfillment in turn requires an intervention of grace. I’ve understood the Orthodox unanimously to take this to be a mistaken view of nature/grace (but it’s possible I’m wrong).

        We are ‘naturally’ God’s—naturally made for him, inescapably grounded in him, irresistibly oriented toward the Good (even when within our limited perspectives we deny the Good). There literally is no escaping grace, no exercise of natural gifts or powers which is not already graced.

        If DBH disagrees fundamentally with this then I might give up reading all theology altogether (;o) because I take this to be one of his more essential points.



        • tgbelt says:


          DBH from his recent Notre Dame presentation “God, Creation, and Evil” (on creation from nothing, evil and universal reconciliation):

          “…all that exists comes from one divine source and subsists by the grace of impartation….”


          “Thus every evil that time comprises, natural or moral (which may be a worthless distinction since human nature is a natural phenomenon) is an arraignment of God’s goodness.”

          I could be seriously misunderstanding things here (wouldn’t be the first or last time), but it seems to me that both of Hart’s claims are meaningful only to the extent the doctrines of creation and grace are interchangeable.



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