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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 1. Preservation.

God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions. Providence, therefore, includes preservation and government. By preservation is meant that all things out of God owe the continuance of their existence, with all their properties and powers, to the will of God. This is clearly the doctrine of the Scriptures. The passages relating to this subject are very numerous. They are of different kinds. First, some assert in general terms that God does sustain all things by the word of his power, as Heb. i. 3; Col. i. 17, where it is said, “By Him all things consist,” or continue to be. In Nehem. ix. 6, “Thou, even thou art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their hosts, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is there in, and thou preservest them all.” Secondly, those which refer to the regular operations or powers of nature, which are declared to be preserved in their efficiency by the power of God. See Psalms civ. and cxlviii. throughout, and many similar passages. Thirdly, those which relate to irrational animals. And Fourthly, those which relate to rational creatures, who are said to live, move, and to have their being in God. These passages clearly teach, (1.) That the universe as a whole does not continue in being of itself. It would cease to exist if unsupported by his power. (2.) That all creatures, whether plants or animals, in their several genera, species, and individuals, are continued in existence not by any inherent principle of life, but by the will of God. (3.) That this preservation extends not only to the substance but also to the form; not only to the essence, but also to the qualities, properties, and powers of all created things.

The Nature of Preservation.

This doctrine, thus clearly taught in the Scriptures, is so consonant to reason and to the religious nature of man, that is not denied among Christians. The only question is as to the nature of the divine efficiency to which the continued existence of all things is to be referred. On this subject there are three general opinions.

First, That of those who assume that everything is to be referred to the original purpose of God. He created all things and determined that they should continue in being according to the laws which He impressed upon them at the beginning. There is no need, it is said, of supposing his continued intervention for their preservation. It is enough that He does not will that they should cease to be. This is the theory adopted by the Remonstrants and generally by the Deists of modern times. According to this view, God is seated on his throne in the heavens, a mere spectator of the world and of its operations, exerting no direct efficiency in sustaining the things which He has made. Thus Limborch533533Theologia Christiana, II. xxv. 7, edit. Amsterdam, 1700, p. 134. decribes preservation, as held by many, to be merely an “actus negativus . . . . [quo Deus] essentias, vires ac facultates rerum creatarum non vult destruere; sed eas vigori suo per creationem indito, quoad usque ille perdurare potest relinquere.” To this view it is to be objected, —

1. That it is obviously opposed to the representations of the Bible. According to the uniform and pervading teaching of the Scriptures, God is not merely a God afar off. He is not a mere spectator of the universe which He has made, but is everywhere present in his essence, knowledge, and power. To his sustaining hand the continuance of all things is constantly referred; and if He withdraws his presence they cease to be. This is so plainly the doctrine of the Bible that it is admitted so to be by many whose philosophical views constrain them to reject the doctrine for themselves.

2. It is inconsistent with the absolute dependence of all things on God. It supposes creatures to have within themselves a principle of life, derived originally, indeed, from God, but capable of continued being and power without his aid. The God of the Bible is everywhere declared to be the all-sustaining ground of all that is, so that if not upheld by the word of his power, they would cease to be. The Scriptures expressly distinguish the power by which things were created from that by which they are continued. All things were not only created by Him, says the Apostle, but by Him all things consist. (Col. i. 17.) This language clearly teaches that the almighty power of God is as much concerned in the continued existence, as in the original creation of all things.

3. This doctrine does violence to the instinctive religious convictions of all men. Even those the least enlightened live and act under the conviction of absolute dependence. They recognize God as everywhere present and everywhere active. If they do not love and trust Him, they at least fear Him and instinctively deprecate his wrath. They cannot, without doing violence to the constitution of their nature, look upon God as a being who is a mere spectator of the creatures who owe their existence to his will.

Preservation not a Continued Creation.

A second view of the nature of preservation goes to the opposite extreme of confounding creation and preservation. This opinion has been held in different forms, —

1. It is sometimes said that preservation and creation are to be referred to one and the same divine act. So far, therefore, as God is concerned, the two are identical. This ground is taken by many who admit the reality of the world and the efficiency of second causes. They intend by this mode of representation to deny any succession in the acts of God. He cannot be viewed as acting in time, or as doing in time what He has not done from eternity.

2. Others who represent preservation as a continued creation, only mean that the divine efficiency is as really active in the one case as in the other. They wish to deny that anything out of God has the cause of the continuance of its existence in itself; and that its properties or powers are in any such sense inherent as that they preserve their efficiency without the continued agency of God. This is the sense in which most of the Reformed theologians are to be understood when they speak of preservation as a continuous creation. Thus Heidegger534534Heidegger, Corpus Theologiæ, loc. vii. 22, Tiguri, 1732, p. 251. says, “Conservatio continuata creatio Dei activa est. Si enim creatio et conservatio duæ actiones distinctæ forent, creatio primo cessaret, ac tum conservatio vel eodem, quo creatio cessavit, vel sequenti momento inciperet.” This only means that the world owes its continued existence to the uninterrupted exercise of the divine power. He therefore elsewhere says, “Conservationi annihilatio opponitur. Cessante actione conservante res in nihilum collabitur.” In like manner Alsted535535Alsted, Theol. Didaot. Hanoviæ, 1627, p. 283. says, “Conservatio est quædam continuatio. Quemadmodum creatio est prima productio rei ex nihilo, ita est conservatio rei continuatio, ne in nihilum recidat. Deus mundum sustinet.” Ryssenius (whose work is principally from Turrettin),536536Summa Theologiæ, I. 209; Ibid. says “Providentia bene altera creatio, dicitur. Nam eadem voluntate, qua Deus omnia creavit, omnia conservat, et creatio a conservatione in eo tantum differt, quod quando voluntatem Dei sequitur rerum existentia, dicitur creatio; quando res eadem per eandem voluntatem durat, dicitur conservatio.” This amounts only to saying that as God created all things by the word of his power, so also He upholds all things by the word of his power.

3. There is, however, a third form in which this doctrine is held. By continued creation is meant that all efficiency is in God; that all effects are to be referred to his agency. As there was no coöperation in calling the world out of nothing, so there is no coöperation of second causes in its continuance and operations. God creates, as it were, de novo at each instant the universe, as at that moment it actually is.

Objections to the Doctrine of a Continuous Creation.

All these modes of representation, however, are objectionable. Creation, preservation, and government are in fact different, and to identify them leads not only to confusion but to error. Creation and preservation differ, first, as the former is the calling into existence what before did not exist; and the latter is continuing, or causing to continue what already has a being; and secondly, in creation there is and can be no coöperation, but in preservation there is a concursus of the first, with second causes. In the Bible, therefore, the two things are never confounded. God created all things, and by Him all things consist. As to the first mentioned of the three forms of the doctrine of a continued creation, it is enough to remark that it rests on the à priori idea of an absolute Being. It is not only a gratuitous, but an unscriptural assumption which denies all difference between will and efficiency, or between power and act in God. And as to the idea that God’s acts are not successive; that He never does in time what He does not do from eternity, it is obvious that such language has for us no meaning. We cannot comprehend the relation which the efficiency of God has to the effects produced successively. We know, however, that God acts; that He does produce successive effects; and that, so far as we are concerned, and so far as the representations of scripture are concerned, our relation to God and the relation of the world to Him, are precisely what they would be if his acts were really successive. It is the height of presumption in man, on the mere ground of our speculative ideas, to depart from the plain representations of Scriptures, and so to conceive of the relation of God to the world as effectually to make Him an unknown Being, merging all his perfections into the general idea of cause.

The objection to the second form of the doctrine is not to the idea meant to be expressed. It is true that the preservation of the world is as much due to the immediate power of God as its creation, but this does not prove that preservation is creation. Creation is the production of something out of nothing. Preservation is the upholding in existence what already is. This form of the doctrine is therefore a false use of terms. A more serious objection, however, is that this mode of expression tends to error. The natural sense of the words is what those who use them admit to be false, and not only false but dangerous.

To the real doctrine of a continuous creation the objections are far more serious, —

1. It destroys all continuity of existence. If God creates any given thing every moment out of nothing, it ceases to be the same thing. It is something new, however similar to what existed before. It is as much disconnected from what preceded it as the world itself when it arose out of nothing, was disconnected from the previous nothingness.

2. This doctrine effectually destroys all evidence of the existence of an external world. What we so regard, the impressions on our senses which we refer to things out of ourselves, are merely inward states of consciousness produced momentarily by the creating energy of God. Idealism is, therefore, the logical, as it has been the historical consequence of the theory in question. If all necessity for the existence of an external world is done away with, that existence must be discarded as an unphilosophical assumption.

3. This theory of course denies the existence of second causes. God becomes the sole agent and the sole cause in the universe. The heavens and earth with all their changes and with all they contain, are but the pulsations of the universal life of God. If preservation be a continued production out of nothing, of everything that exists, then every material existence, all properties of matter so called, every human soul, and every human thought and feeling, is as much the direct product of divine omnipotence as the original creation. There cannot, therefore, be any causation out of God, or any coöperation of any kind any more than when He said, Let there be light, and there was light. In the same manner He constantly now says, Let men exist with all the thoughts, purposes, and feelings, which constitute their nature and character for the time being, and they are.

4. On this theory there can be no responsibility, no sin and no holiness. If sin exist, it must be referred to God as much as holiness, for all is due to his creating energy.

5. Between this system and Pantheism there is scarcely a dividing line. Pantheism merges the universe in God, but not more effectually than the doctrine of a continuous creation. God in the one case as truly as in the other, is all that lives. There is no power, no cause, no real existence but the efficiency and causality of God. This is obvious, and is generally admitted. Hagenbach537537Dogmengeschichte, II. Zweite Hälfte, p. 288, edit. Leipzig, 1841. says, “Creation out of nothing rests on Theism. It becomes deistic if creation and preservation are violently separated and placed in direct opposition to each other; and pantheistic if creation be made a mere moment in preservation.” “In creation,” says Strauss, “God works all, the creature which is thus first produced, nothing.” If, therefore, preservation is only the continuance of the same relation between God and the creature, it follows that God still effects everything and the creature nothing; hence out of God, or other than God, there are no causes, not even occasional. Leibnitz,538538Théodicée, II. 386; Opera, edit. Berlin, 1840, p. 615. quotes Bayle as saying, “Il me semble, qu’il en faut conclure, que Dieu fait tout, et qu’il n’y a point dans toutes les créatures de causes premières, ni secondes, ni même occasionelles.” And again, “On ne peut dire que Dieu me crée premièrement, et qu’ étant crée, il produise avec moi mes mouvemens et mes déterminations. Cela est insoutenable pour deux raisons: la première est, que quand Dieu me crée on me conserve à cet instant, il ne me conserve pas comme un être sans forme, comme une espèce ou quelque autre des universaux de logique. Je suis un individu; il me crée et conserve comme tel, étant tout ce que je suis dans cet instant avec toutes mes dépendances.” To make preservation, therefore, a continued creation, leads to conclusions opposed to the essential truths of religion, and at variance with our necessary beliefs. We are forced by the constitution of our nature to believe in the external world and in the reality of second causes. We know from consciousness that we are the responsible authors of our own acts, and that we continue identically the same substance, and consequently are not created out of nothing from moment to moment.

This subject will come up again when treating of President Edwards’ theory of identity, and its application to the relation between Adam and his race.

Scriptural Doctrine of the Subject

Between the two extremes of representing preservation as a mere negative act, a not willing to destroy, which denies any continued efficiency of God in the world; and the theory which resolves everything into the immediate agency of God, denying the reality of all second causes, is the plain doctrine of the Scriptures, which teaches that the continuance of the world in existence, the preservation of its substance, properties, and forms, is to be referred to the omnipresent power of God. He upholds as He creates all things, by the word of his power. How He does this it is vain to inquire. So long as we cannot tell how we move our lips, or how mind can operate on matter, or in what way the soul is present and operative in the whole body, it requires little humility to suppress the craving curiosity to know how God sustains the universe with all its hosts in being and activity. The theologians of the seventeenth century endeavoured to explain this by a general concursus, or, as they called it, influx of God into all his creatures. It is said to be an “Actus positivus et directus, quo Deus in genere in causas efficientes rerum conservandas influxu vero et reali influit, ut in natura, proprietatibus et viribus suis persistant ac permaneant.539539Hollaz, Examen Theologicum, edit. Leipzig, 1763, p. 441. But what do we gain by saying that the soul by “a true and real influx” operates in every part of the body. The fact is clearly revealed that God’s agency is always and everywhere exercised in the preservation of his creatures, but the mode in which his efficiency is exerted, further than that it is consistent with the nature of the creatures themselves and with the holiness and goodness of God, is unrevealed and inscrutable. It is best, therefore, to rest satisfied with the simple statement that preservation is that omnipotent energy of God by which all created things, animate and inanimate, are upheld in existence, with all the properties and powers with which He has endowed them.


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