Of Causes and Effects
July 11, 2022

This essay was first published in The Theopolitan, a weekly newsletter for Theopolis Partners. To become a Partner, you must donate at least $500 per year or $50 per month. Give here.

Craig Carter’s Thesis #2 about Trinitarian classical theism (Contemplating God with the Great Tradition) is, “Theology is the study of God and all things in relation to God.” Yes.

Then he elaborates: “Theology begins with the immanent Trinity – that is, with God as he is in himself from all eternity. We know God from his works, from divine actions in the economy: creation, judgment, salvation, prophecy. By reflecting on what God has done, we can know certain truths about God. For example, we can know that every cause is greater than its effect, which means that God is much greater than the world he causes to exist” (52-3).

That’s self-contradictory. “God as he is in Himself” is God considered apart from His works, so we can’t both “begin with” God has He is in Himself and also proceed by knowing God’s works or “reflecting on what God has done.”

It’s also nonsense. We can’t know God as he is in Himself unless He reveals Himself; but revelation is one of His works; and so we can’t begin with knowing God as he is in Himself.

Maybe by “begin” Carter means “the first chapter of a theology text should be the doctrine of the immanent Trinity.” That might relieve him of the charge of self-contradiction, but it opens him to the charge of opacity.

But I’m more interested in Carter’s cast-off claim that “we know that every cause is greater than its effect.”

For starters, it’s ambiguous. “What kind of cause does he have in mind?” alert Aristotelians will ask. Efficient? Formal? Material? Final? And what does “greater” mean? Bigger? More important? More impressive? Longer-lasting? More powerful, or possessing greater potential?

Is the material cause of a bronze statue – that is, the bronze from which it’s made – “greater” than the statue? How? In what respect are the builders of Chartres Cathedral greater than their building? And can we match causes to effects in the way this statement suggests? What is “the” cause of my car?

Plus, it’s just not true. It’s not true of natural causation: Are apple seeds greater than apple trees? Is every father greater than every son? It’s not true of historical causation: Is the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand greater than World War I, or the Defenestration of Prague greater than the Thirty Years War?

Carter might say seeds aren’t the cause of trees and assassinations aren’t simple causes of wars. But that takes us back to the previous point about the nature of causes. I don’t think we have to choose, but if we did, it seems better to choose the opposite principle, namely, that effects exceed causes.

Why would anyone think it’s obvious that causes must be greater than effects? Newtonian physics, perhaps, which describes causes and effects in terms of energy transfers; to overcome the inertia of a stationary object, for instance, we have to exert a force greater than the force of inertia. But that principle doesn’t apply universally. Not all change is a species of, or analogous to, spatial movement.

I suspect there’s a commitment to tragic metaphysics lurking in the background of Carter’s claim, perhaps also in Newtonian physics. Tragic metaphysics is the belief that what comes first must be greater than what comes later.

At bottom, that’s unbelief. Christians are committed by the gospel to believe the contrary: The last shall be first, and the end shall surpass the beginning.

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