Life + Culture
Do We Live in the Matrix?
The Matrix (1999) is a man-against-the-machines movie about the enslavement of the human race. When we enter the story, human brains have been hardwired together into one supercomputer, forming a single, conscious existence. The machines keep human bodies tranquilized in liquid capsules in order to harvest their energy and heat.
To human intelligence, everything inside the matrix looks and feels like the real world. But the matrix is a mirage, a prison, a complex computer simulator written by machines to keep human minds occupied while their vegetated bodies generate fuel.
Not everyone is fooled, of course. The main leader of the anti-matrix revolt, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), is one of a few enlightened humans who can enter and exit the matrix.
It makes for good fiction, but what if the reality we see when we look out the window is a matrix of its own — a true matrix, not a matrix to blind you to truth, but a matrix of true reality operating in ways you never expected?
Or what if the spoon you hold in your hand is not a static mass of steel but rather a certain number of atoms destroyed and recreated every millisecond, a process happening so fast that when you move the spoon around in the air, the appearance of movement is really nothing more than those atoms being created, destroyed, and recreated in different space at different time in discrete moments?
I’m not suggesting you can bend the spoon with your mind; I’m only describing one way theologians, including Jonathan Edwards (1703–58), have explained how God sustains creation in time and space.
The theory is called continuous creation (also continued or continual creation). At root, it suggests creation and providence are both ex nihilo, out of nothing. The material universe was “created by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3). And the material universe continues to be spoken into existence by Christ, who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).
Mirror, Movie, Matrix
Edwards explained all this with a mirror. Stand in front of a mirror and the reflected image you see is comprised of millions of beams of light bouncing off you, into the mirror, and into your eyeballs. When you move, the image in the mirror seems to move, too, but not really. What you actually see are new beams of light bouncing off new places in space and time, giving the reflected image only the appearance of fluid movement.
Oliver Crisp explains continuous creation in his book Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation.
This is the view according to which God creates the world out of nothing, whereupon it momentarily ceases to exist, to be replaced by a facsimile that has incremental differences built into it to account for what appear to be motion and change across time. This, in turn, is annihilated, or ceases to exist, and is replaced by another facsimile world that has incremental differences built into it to account for what appear to be motion and change across time. (25)
Crisp introduces his own metaphor, of a reel-to-reel movie projector, to explain the concept further.
When watching a movie at the cinema we appear to see a sequence of actions across time represented in the projected images on the silver screen. But in reality, the images are a reel of photographic stills run together at speed to give the illusion of motion and action across time. Similarly with the doctrine of continuous creation: the world seems to persist through time, but in fact it does not. “The world” is merely shorthand for that series of created “stills” God brings about in sequence, playing, as it were, on the silver screen of the divine mind. (25–26)
So is this how creation is sustained? Is cause and effect a kind of illusion? Is fluid reality a succession of discrete moments run before us in hyper-speed? And are natural laws — like gravity — forces merely projected by God?
In other words, do we live in the matrix of God’s mind?
On first brush, this theory is either fascinating or insane — but is it true?
Blue or Red?
Thankfully there’s still time to ignore this article and close your browser. Take the blue pill and the story ends, you wake up in your bed, and you believe whatever you want to believe.
Or take the red pill, and we discover together just how deep this rabbit hole goes. All I’m offering is the search for truth. Nothing more.
In this search we are joined by a philosopher (Walter Schultz, Professor of Philosophy, University of Northwestern), a physicist who deals in quantum theory (Erica Carlson, Professor of Physics, Purdue University), and a pair of young scholars familiar with Jonathan Edwards (Kyle Strobel, Assistant Professor of Spiritual Theology and Formation, Biola University, and Joe Rigney, Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview, Bethlehem College and Seminary).
It’s a dream team assembled for episode 32 in the Authors on the Line podcast.
What follows is a rough transcript of the audio.
In our tumble down into this rabbit hole, we will meet four friends. We start with a Jonathan Edwards scholar, Walter Schultz, who serves as the Professor of Philosophy at University of Northwestern. I began by asking him to explain this more fully. What does Edwards mean when he talks about continuous creation? And how does Schultz try to explain this to his students?
This idea has been debated in history of Christian thought at least since the thirteenth century. Augustine may be the first one that talked about something like it. And whenever it has been brought up, it’s usually brought up in terms of some set of concepts that aren’t necessarily biblical, but aren’t necessarily inconsistent with Scripture. So I try to start from Scripture.
There’s a rhetorical question and it appears in Genesis, Jeremiah, and the Gospels, and it is this: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” So we have this question — it’s a pastoral question, meant to comfort the hearer in every single case. But God wouldn’t have put the question in the mouth of the prophet if he didn’t know the answer. And the answer to the rhetorical question is: “Nothing is too hard.” So now just with that sort of scriptural suggestion, it says that not only is God omnipotent, or to put it another way, omni-competent (his ability to create and providentially control), not only does he have that, but he is aware of it. So not only is he omnipotent, but he is aware of the full extent of his omnipotence.
So you could ask yourself: in being aware of his omni-competence (if you are comfortable with that term), what is it that he is aware of? I think this is what Edwards would say: he is aware of an infinite range of things he could create were he to choose to. In other words, he was always aware, eternally aware, of his omni-competence. So these ideas of what he could have created, and how they could be related, were always part of his awareness of himself.
With that in mind, there are other scriptural passages. God makes promises, has plans. In Ephesians it talks about people’s names being written in the Lamb’s Book of Life before the foundation of the world. So God had ideas in mind before he created, so that — here comes the transition piece — the creative moment is when he enacts his plan in Christ, and he says: “Let there be!” He speaks, he wills, he acts — I think those are all scriptural words that help us by analogy. So when God spoke into existence there weren’t any sound waves.
So what Scripture gives us is a number of different words to say that God is realizing or making exist something that he was aware of before creation began. So what is a good concept for this: making to exist, conferring existence, speaking, willing, “Lazarus, come forth” — what is that?
I think a helpful analogy — and it is just an analogy, but it is helpful — is what happens when we imagine a scenario. So right now suppose we have just been given $10,000 for you to take you and your wife and your family down to Costa Rica for a week. And so now we get on the plane, then we are on the beach in Costa Rica sitting on our beach chairs and it is 72-degrees, a real light breeze, white sand beach, blue green water, lemonade. So right now we have a scenario in mind. I ask my students so they have something in mind. And I ask them to take it from there. So they join in imagining a scenario.
Okay, so this is just an analogy. But the idea is that the scenario is, by analogy, created out of nothing. It exists when and only when the consciousness that is imagining it, thinks it. And I want to suggest that that is exactly the way to think about physical creation. It’s helpful, and it rules out lots of problems to me: it’s not pantheism, it’s not panentheism, it’s not subjective idealism, it’s none of that. But what is more interesting, it is perfectly compatible with quantum physics. This whole notion of the collapse of the wavefunction collapse, namely that every physical system, all matter and energy we know right now, is just a matter of various combinations and structures of two basic things. And those come into existence something like 10 to the -17 times per second, if certain interpretations of quantum mechanics are correct. Well, that fits perfectly with the idea that God is creating discretely moment-by-moment out of nothing. So it is controversial, but I think this is what Edwards was saying: Reality exists in discrete moments.
That was Walter Schultz, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Northwestern. We will talk with him in a later podcast about Edwards. . . . So God is omni-competent, and creation is a projection of his mind. But does this explain providence, and is there evidence for this in the world of physics? Next we need to find a scientist, a scientist with experience in quantum physics. And I know just the person: Erica Carlson. She is the Professor of Physics at Purdue University. She is bright, a respected scientist, a quantum theorist, she’s a Christian, and she happens to be at home right now with an infant. This multitasking mom can help us understand the basics of quantum mechanics, and whether continuous creation makes sense scientifically.
So I am going to explain to you some quantum mechanics. And then that ought to help you kind of understand why people would come up with this idea that maybe quantum mechanics supports this. My conclusion, by the way, is going to be that there are some quantum mechanical ideas that are similar, but there is not evidence to support that interpretation over another interpretation of the data. So you can’t say that science has evidence supporting the idea, but you can say that there are similar ideas running around quantum mechanics and maybe one day somebody can test them.
So the reason somebody might come up with the idea is because in the quantum world things get quantized. They show up in whole numbers like the number of Coke cans in your refrigerator. And so a way that things can get quantized, quantum mechanically, is actual positions can get quantized. So, you know, you can walk across a room and you just do it. You just walk across the room. But imagine a situation that is much more like chess pieces. So chess pieces can’t be just anywhere on a chessboard. They have to be on a square. That is an example of quantized position.
So sometimes what people do in describing quantum mechanics is they will pretend that space is kind of like a chessboard and that particles can only sit on certain places: they can only be on a square, they can’t be between squares. And then if we go back to the chess board analogy, the description they write down about it is kind of like, “I pick up the rook and I move the rook three spaces forward.” The way you would write that down quantum mechanically is, “Delete the rook from its current position and create it at its new position.” That is what I do when I pick up the piece and I put it back down on the board. I remove it from one spot and I put it in another. And quantum mechanically, the mathematical description you can write down is something like, “I destroyed the rook from existence, and then I recreated it at the new spot.” That amounts to the same thing as me picking it up and moving it. The rook was at one position and now it is at another. So sometimes we write down mathematical formulations that are very much like that. Destroy the rook from existence and then recreate it at the new position. That doesn’t mean that that is how it actually moved.
Our math often looks like that. In order for someone to claim that that is really how the particle moves, well, to my mind we don’t have evidence for that, even though we have mathematical descriptions that look like that, we don’t have evidence that that is really how it happens. And I think this must be the origin of people thinking that quantum talks about creation as ongoing.
So now we are going to get really philosophical. So the idea would be that in order for the particle to move not through space, but through time, can you imagine now if time was like a chessboard and you are going to discretize time, and I can move a particle from one second to the next but not in between? So there is a formulation of quantum mechanics that is like that as well. In order to move a particle forward in time I destroy it from one time and recreate it in the next. I think that is probably the origin of this connection to quantum mechanics.
That was Erica Carlson, Professor of Physics at Purdue University. She went on to explain that wavefunction collapse doesn’t mean the wavefunction goes away. It simply means the shape of the wave suddenly changes — it snaps (or collapses) from one shape to another, again no proof that individual particles come into existence many times a second.
Okay, so the scientific evidence for continuous creation seems to lack, or at least raises enough questions for us to now ask a hard question: was Jonathan Edwards simply wrong? Was Edwards wrong to think of providence as the creation and re-creation of atoms in discrete moments of time? Kyle Strobel says yes. Kyle is Assistant Professor of Spiritual Theology and Formation at Biola University. He’s the author of some groundbreaking books on Edwards, like Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation and Formed for the Glory of God. Here’s what he said.
Let me say two things about this. First, there are modern theologians who have done the same thing. Wolfhart Pannenberg was a continual creationist. There are two different doctrines at play here that you mention, there is continuous creation. Continuous creation is simply the idea that God is recreating the world every second, which means there is no such thing as cause and effect. Secondly, there’s Idealism, which is the notion that everything that exists is ultimately mental. And so in the history of philosophy the two big possibilities are Materialism (everything is matter) or Dualism (everything is either matter or spirit). Well, Idealism is a third option (everything is spirit). And as a side note, I actually expect the scientific community in the next fifty years to shift from Materialism to Idealism. And I think when you look at modern notions of matter, it’s actually closer to Idealism than it is to ancient Materialism.
Edwards was an atomist, so he believed in atoms, but he believed that atoms were ultimately God’s ideas that were indestructible. So these little components to reality are God’s ideas. Ultimately what that means is things are fundamentally spiritual. Matter exists, but when you get down to it there are no chunks of matter, it’s non-material in a sense, which is odd. But that was how he conceived the world.
Let me say this was a mistake — I think this is Edwards’s biggest mistake, actually. And it happened because of Newtonian mechanics. Newton flattened out the universe and you end up losing a lot of careful distinctions. What happened then, is that it became an either/or discussion between God and creation. And think this is not what the reformed have done or do. This is not what the Church has done or does in general. I personally think Edwards would have fixed this if he would have lived to write his systematic theology, because I think he would have seen where it led to some serious problems.
But let me explain why he did it. And I think if you understand why he did it, you can see why he would go this way. One of the boogiemen in Edwards’s day, heretically speaking, was Deism. God exists, but he is not interested in the world, he is totally transcendent, totally removed. And even other groups, Unitarians, for instance, which were big in Edwards’s day, even some of the kind of old light folks, were leaning this way, pushing God to the margins. You have the Enlightenment and so mankind is becoming the center of reality.
God created an intricate, working universe. Once you have this mechanistic universe going on, you don’t need God to run it anymore. And so suddenly Edwards is witnessing God being pushed farther and farther out to the margins, because he is not needed anymore. We know what gravity is, so we don’t need God. That became the notion. I mean, you still get this, of course. We discovered the big bang theory, therefore, we don’t need God, which is of course a total misunderstanding of how God relates to creation.
But Edwards’s solution to this was to ingrain God in creation — and, of course, there are biblical mandates for this. In him we live and move and have our being. All things were created for him, through him and in him. And so Edwards was trying to recreate a certain understanding of the world that would show that God was intrinsic, that wouldn’t necessarily undermine the mechanism of the universe, but would show that God is here. So Edwards was trying to solve a problem. We have a mechanistic universe. You can explain everything without God. But God is immanent.
Now the Church has talked about this in a certain kind of way, and I don’t think Edwards knew this, because of where he was located. The churches of long ago kind of figured this problem out with primary and secondary causality, that God’s primary way of working in creation isn’t to break the causal network of things, but it is to work in the midst of creaturely freedom, to work in the midst of this stuff, because God doesn’t relate to his creation on the same kind of causal plane. This is why we read: Where the Spirit is, there is freedom. Well, on the system that we assume that makes no sense, because to be free is to be not related to anything or to have someone else involved. It is the very opposite of that, because our governing assumption is that freedom is a kind of detachment from things. But the Bible gives us something very different.
And so Edwards’s solution to this problem was, okay, you have this mechanistic universe, but if it’s continually created, this is how you reinsert God. So it looks like the universe is doing all these things. It looks like it is atoms bumping into each other, and it looks like the earth revolving all by itself, but actually what is really happening is every moment God is recreating it. Edwards didn’t know how the Church has traditionally handled this topic, which I personally find a much better solution. Because he didn’t know that theology, this is his solution to the problem, and it was to turn to continuous creation. I do think it leads to some unfortunate conclusions. It ends up flattening things out pretty rapidly.
Of course in Edwards’s day the whole kind of philosophical, scientific world was blowing up around him. He was very interested in the new developments. He is reading Newton. He is reading Locke. He is reading all the new figures. And I think he got caught up in an unfortunate movement. I mean how many reformed theologians believe in continuous creation? It is such a radical view. But if you see why he did it, he simply was trapped in a Newtonian metaphysic and so he didn’t see another way out. For him it was either God does all or he does nothing. And I think we need to say: No, that is a false dichotomy.
I want to bring in Hebrews 1:3 and 11:3. The same power, God’s word, creates and sustains. Is there a more nuanced, less radical, way to say that the same word that created all things ex nihilo is the same word that sustains all things?
No, I think this is what primary and secondary causes give us. So secondary causality would be something like miracles. This is unusual. God doesn’t usually relate to the world miraculously. Well, this is the only way God acts, he breaks the causal order. That is what a miracle is, right? It is something unusual, right? Water doesn’t normally turn to wine. It just sits there. So Jesus broke that. That is secondary causality. If you are ever praying God “to enter in,” you are a Deist, because it assumes God is outside normally, and it assumes that he needs to come into his creation. But, of course, “in him we live and move and have our being.” God is not out there, but it assumes that God only works miraculously, where that is actually not usually how God works. God works in ways where he is integrating creation. We are in him. He is guiding it, but that doesn’t break the causal network.
I know that is unusual language. Let me explain this. So if a student asked me, “So wait a second, if God has a plan for me, and he is leading that, then I’m not free.” And I say, “That just doesn’t follow. God can lead and act and guide the world through creaturely freedom precisely because of who God is.” We don’t relate to each other like this. God can relate to the world because he created the world in a way that’s porous to his presence. And so God saturates reality and guides creation. God is able to do all these things, but not in a way that makes you less free. Actually, the more God is engaged in your life, the more you are free because where the Spirit is, there is freedom.
Again, most people say: “Well, I don’t understand about works.” Well, OK, fair enough. We’re not explaining it. This is necessary to the kind of being God is precisely because he is God.
And so this is why in college dorm rooms you have very foolish discussions of free will going on. Because people are assuming there is only one of two options. Either I make free choices or I don’t have any freedom. Because they assume they are on the same causal plane as God. So they want to ask question: was it 30% me, and 70% God? That is just the wrong question.
And Edwards himself understood this. If you were to talk about an action I did, we are going to ask, well, who was it? Edwards says, it was 100% me, and 100% God. Well, that is 200%. That doesn’t quite add up. But what Edwards was trying to say was what the reformed have always said, which is: This is how God relates to us. God doesn’t have to break our freedom to guide and govern the world. God’s providential activity in governance isn’t somehow opposed to us, because God doesn’t function on the same causal plane as we do. It is not 70% God, 30% me. And this is why the reformed have never denied free will. But in Edwards’s account the problem you get, and I think it is Newton, he has collapsed these things mechanistically so that the question literally does become: Well, who is it? Us or God? And Edwards is working really, really hard within a Newtonian framework to try to explain how that can be true, how it can be 100% God, and 100% man.
But the problem is, because he evokes continuous creation to do it, I don’t think you can get out of it being a system that’s ultimately deterministic in unhelpful ways. And I think he knew that, and I think he was really trying to work this out in a framework that didn’t really allow him to.
That was Kyle Strobel, the new Assistant Professor of Spiritual Theology and Formation, Biola University. . . . Okay, maybe Edwards was just wrong about continuous creation. Or, what if Edwards has actually been misunderstood? What if Edwards was in fact protecting from the mistake of a matrix where God becomes the only acting agent in creation? What if he was carefully preserving causes like natural law and gravity? And what if those causes are no less sustained by God than the existence of physical matter? This is the opinion of Joe Rigney, the Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He’s the author of two excellent books: Live Like A Narnian and a book coming out in January, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts. In this portion of the interview we talk less about miracles and more about gravity and natural laws, the causal order — or what we will from here refer to as “secondary causes,” to switch the language up. . . . Here’s Joe Rigney to explain more about the background to Edwards’s battles.
So you have to remember that Edwards lived in the midst of the Enlightenment and is at war with Enlightenment notions of autonomy. Immanuel Kant really played up the notion of autonomy. It was one of the key themes of the Enlightenment. And Edwards is absolutely at war with this notion. And so when you talk about continual creation it has to always be sort of subsumed under this idea that Edwards had, that there can be no autonomy. If God created everything from nothing, then at no point does creation acquire any kind of independent autonomous existence from God.
And so from that it becomes: How do you cash that out? And Edwards scholars argue about the degree to which he cashes that out. There is a famous essay by Oliver Crisp in which he kind of lays out three options for how you could think about the endurance of the world and how God upholds it.
(1) A conservation thesis where God causes the world to persist through time, but the important thing is that the entity, the world, actually does persist through time. It’s the same world at every different moment and it moves through time in that way.
(2) And then you take a stronger form of that and you could talk about concurrentism or continuous creation, in which God is creating the world anew every moment, but he is also upholding the reality of secondary causes. So if you can picture the world on a timeline and if you say underneath it at every point is the immediate power of God, but that he also is sustaining the causal nexus, the laws of nature, and laws of cause and effect, and things like that that we perceive and act upon and study in science and so forth, he is upholding all of that at every point. And so he is doing both. He is upholding everything moment by moment, and he is also upholding the connections between moments.
(3) And then you take it the farthest which is to say that secondary causes aren’t even real. They are only apparent. They’re only our way of looking at things. They don’t have any reality. What we call “causes” is just God doing everything, and this sort of makes God the only actor in the universe, the only real actor. Every other agent is just an illusion.
And Crisp argues that Edwards opts that last option. He takes the strongest one and then Crisp goes on to criticize it. I actually think there is plenty of evidence in Edwards that he was more in that second category, where he didn’t want to insist that creation was in some sense recreated every moment (if you divide time up in that way). But he also wanted to insist that there were connections between moments by virtue of God’s power and God’s will. And so he is willing to talk about the laws of nature.
There is a famous sermon from the early part of Edwards’s ministry, I think in the late 1720s, so whether it reflects his mature thinking or not you could debate that. But in it he talks about how God has established the laws of nature. He maintains them by his constant influence, so that what you see in the sun shining or when your heart is beating or when the rivers are running or food digesting, all of these processes are upheld every moment by the immediate and infinite power of God.
He doesn’t want us to think: Well, in the beginning when there was nothing, God did an infinite speech-act and the world popped into existence, but then after that it took less power to keep it. If you need one gazillion ounces of power to start the thing, you only need a half a gazillion ounces to keep it running. And Edwards is trying to say: No, that gives the world autonomy, it acts as though the world has some kind of independence from God, and it doesn’t. And therefore one of the famous statements in this discussion that Edwards makes, I think, in Original Sin, is that God is preserving created things is perfectly equivalent to a continued creation. So preservation is equivalent to continued creation.
Now does that mean that preservation and creation are identical and you could just interchange them? I am not sure that that would be the case. One came first, creation from nothing. And then preservation is different. But the important thing is they are equivalent. It takes the same amount of power to keep things in existence as it took to bring them into existence in the first place.
And that seems to echo what we read in Hebrews. Edwards is not our final authority. The Bible is. Scripture carries more weight than Edwards. Joe, when you read the Bible, what’s the biblical evidence you see for what Edwards is pressing?
This discussion involves all sorts of disciplines. You know, you get the philosophers to weigh in on it, you get scientists to weigh in on it, and there are all sorts of nitty-gritty issues involved. And I will have to say: I am not a philosopher. I am not a scientist. So if we get into the tall grass on philosophy or science, I am just going to retreat to my Bible verses and shoot people from there.
And so if we take Edwards’s account of continual creation as his way of cashing out, there is no autonomy, then I think you look at the creation account in Genesis one and you see that God’s speech is responsible for everything. Even if he says, “Let the earth bring forth,” he is using sort of some kind of laws of nature or mediation, but it is his word that provides the power for it to happen. And so at one point, I think it is in Original Sin, Edwards says: I think that this is the way it happens. It is this sort of this creation, afresh moment by moment, with the connections established by God between them. But if there is someone comes along and says, no, that is not how it works, present existence is the result of past existence, past actions cause future actions. He says, I will allow that, sure, provided that you remember that then the course of nature is nothing but the agency of God established by the constitution of God. And so he is willing to grant different accounts, provided that you never lose sight of the fact that it is God at every point.
Of course, Hebrews chapter one: He upholds everything by the word of his power. In him all things hold together: Colossians chapter one. Acts 17 when Paul is preaching to the Areopagus and quotes the poet and says: In him we live and move and have our being.
And so these notions that every aspect of reality is sustained and upheld by God, the integrity of these notions depends on God’s continual exercise of power and wisdom, those are the sort of places I am going to go and say: Edwards is on to something, even if, because he is wedded to Newtonian physics, because he is a product of his time, and he is operating within the scientific categories of his day. We might modify it based on later discoveries of how electrons work or whatever the scientists are doing these days. The important thing that we want to insist on is at no point does the world achieve autonomy from God.
One of the challenges of Edwards’s scholarship is that Edwards’s thought does develop over the course of his life. There is continuity in his thought, but at the same time his thought matures.
I would encourage people to take a look at the sermon “God is Everywhere Present,” which he preached early in his ministry. He is preaching from Psalm 139, which is another great Psalm on these issues where God is in front of me, God is behind me, God is above me, and God is beneath me. Where can I go from his presence? I can’t. No matter where you go, it doesn’t matter how high, how low, how far — you can’t get away from him. He is just there. And not only is he there, Edwards says, he is everywhere working, and then you see him just kind of reveling in the sun shining, trees growing, animals moving, our bodies living and breathing and everything else. Look at all this activity and he says, “What I want to say is: God is doing all of this. God is the one who is upholding, sustaining, acting at every point in order to make that happen.”
And so it really stresses that kind of the immanence of God, the nearness of God, without in any way compromising his transcendence. He is not the world, because the world isn’t just sort of a pulsating heartbeat or something like that. He transcends the world, but he is active. He didn’t speak the world into existence and then go off and get a sandwich and leave it to do its own thing, plugged into a battery pack that allows it to keep operating. No, he is present. Edwards, I think, in that sermon says: God is not only everywhere, he is everywhere working. He is engaged. He is involved. I think you do get that sense of sort of the delight of God in overflowing his divine life in that way.
That’s very good. So if Edwards opts for the more moderate option #2 of the 3, as you suppose, then Edwards labors to uphold the reality of secondary causes. This seems to be a big debate here. You’ve touched on this, but let’s press in. Within the causal network, things like cause-and-effect, the force of gravity, and even the workings of the human will, are these things real for Edwards, or are they just illusions?
One of the questions that gets raised in continual creation is the reality of secondary causes. Gravity: is that a real thing or is it only an illusion? If you say it is God in every step, God is active, God is working in all of this, are secondary causes real? And I think what Edwards is going to say at that point is: Yes, they are real, but they are real precisely because God establishes them at every moment. And so, again, there is that autonomy. We don’t want to give them an independence from God. We want to say secondary causes have reality. They’re not illusions, but they only have reality because at one point Edwards will say something like: God that makes the truth in affairs of this matter. God is the one who treats them as causes and, therefore, they are causes. So laws of nature do exist, but they are determined, upheld by God’s continuous activity.
The other thing I’ll say on that note is that there is a great quote. This is Edwards talking about efficacious grace, but I think it applies to his overall perspective on how God as ultimate cause and creator relates to all of the other subsequent actions. He talks about how we’re not merely passive, but it is not that God does some and that we do some, a 50–50 split. But it is that God does all of it and we do all of it, but he wants to distinguish. God produces all of it, and we act all of it, because what he produces are our acts. And so he wants to get this overlap. There’s coherence, a concurrence, so that God is not just the biggest billiard ball that knocks everything. He 100% does everything, because he is writing the story. And yet because he is the one writing the story, that is why we do everything that we do.
That is why when I teach on this I will often draw in the author-story analogy as a way of thinking about God. I think the Bible points us in that direction with: all the days ordained for me were written in a book before one of them came to be. There is God writing a book about my life, all of my days, but it is his writing of the book that accounts for my action in the book. That is why I am doing anything I do, and there is no competition between them.
If Edwards was on to something — irrespective of the Newtonian physics of his day — then what’s the takeaway of Edwards on continual creation?
Over the course of time we discover that there are better ways, for example, to think about time. Edwards wants to treat time as sort of a series of discrete moments; you can break them down into smallest parcel, and kind of divide them up, carve time up in that way. God creates each one anew and then connects all of them. Well, is that the best way to think about time? Should we think of time more as fluid rather than a discrete sort of activity? Are there better ways to think about nature and creation and sort of atoms and matter? Are there more fundamental particles that physicists are working on in quantum mechanics and all sorts of things that are way above my pay grade?
Well, as we explore the world God made, study his works, and find more and more out about these things, that may adjust us from some of the things Edwards says or the particulars of his account. But the important thing that we have to come back to again and again as Christians is the same resistance to any notion of autonomy. It was the lust for autonomy that caused the fall in the garden. We want to be as God in ways that he hasn’t authorized. And so it is that quest for autonomy that is at the heart of sin. And so whatever philosophical accounts, whatever scientific accounts, whatever theological accounts we are going to give of God’s relationship to the world, we must insist in the strongest possible terms that there is no autonomy, that creation is from nothing, that we are always and everywhere dependent upon God for everything.
That was Joe Rigney, Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.
Continuous creation, this idea that God governs the universe by creating ex nihilo all things many times per second seems to be scientifically problematic and theologically marginalized. But there are lessons to learn.
Continuous creation was Jonathan Edwards’ attempt to say there’s not a flower in a field, and not a breath in our lungs, and not a bird in the air, not a nanosecond of time that is not sustained and held together by the word of Christ. Edwards pushed science hard to explain how.
So what we can learn from science? Well as Carlson explained later in the interview, by giving us authority over the earth, God has given us authority to study and to run experiments to discover how physical laws operate according to God’s design. But, she warns us: “God has not given us authority over himself, so we don’t have the same kind of tools available to run controlled scientific experiments on God’s intervention in the universe. Theologically speaking, we are not even allowed to have that kind of privilege. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t give us evidence of himself. He gives us plenty of evidence. But we cannot expect the same level of controlled scientific experimentation on God, because he is not under our authority.”
On the one hand, continuous creation boldly confronts the notion that the world exists in autonomy from God. And Edwards wants to press science hard to make the point. But on the other hand, scientifically, continuous creation presses us right up against a dead end, seemingly reminding us once again that we are finite creatures, and we will perhaps never understand or discover the physics of how God pulls off providence.
So do we live in a matrix? Not in the sense of the movie. But we do live in a story. God is certainly not the only acting agent in creation. He is the Author, and we are living out his cosmic theo-drama. Behind it all is a glorious mystery: Christ holds all things together by the power of his word. And if the shocking imagery of Edwards on continuous creation awakens us afresh to that reality, this podcast has been worth it.
Thank you for listening to episode #32 of the Authors on the Line podcast. As always, this podcast is supported, produced, and distributed by Desiring God in Minneapolis. It comes to you free of charge because our ministry is supported by generous financial donors, like you. So thank you!
To find a full archive of our previous episodes, search for Authors on the Line in the iTunes store, or watch for new episodes online at desiringGod.org/blog. We will be back in a few weeks to talk about one of my very favorite books of 2014, and we will talk with the author of it, about how God’s beauty gives shape to the daily Christian life. I’m your host, Tony Reinke, thanks for listening.