Divine Concurrence and Moral Responsibility
To be human is to be a responsible agent, accountable before the face of God. Paganism and secularism alike seek to deny that responsibility — either by denying God or by denying culpability.
Often the unbeliever will decry that since God is in complete control, man cannot be held responsible for his actions. This simple retort fails to understand the doctrine of divine concurrence.
The doctrine of divine concurrence simply means that God and man are both acting and working at the same time, or, concurrently. Scripture does not give a philosophy of the will, of responsibility and accountability, or a systematic approach to ethics. Therefore, it does not explicitly ask or answer these sort of questions that we would like it to. The doctrine of divine concurrence has a direct parallel with the Trinity and the incarnation. We know that God is three and one, that Christ is God and man, and we must find a way to reason about these Biblical truths without denying one or the other. Likewise, we know that God is sovereign and man is responsible. But it helps to first give an account of what action is, in order to understand how both God and man are acting concurrently.
Action is not something that happens apart from a will. If my arm spasms due to a seizure, this was not an action, but an event. If I raise my hand to get someone’s attention, only then was it an action. But an action is always the expression of our intentions. This is why we can justify and excuse ourselves when something happens that was not our intention. If I accidentally break your vase, and I say it was an accident, that I didn’t mean to, then I am saying I am not the author of that event, although I am the cause of it.
There is a difference between being the author and being the cause. A cause is strictly mechanical. For example, one domino hitting another. But a domino does not intend to hit the other. Thus, it is not an author. But when I hit the first domino, I am the author, and by connection, I am the author of the collapsing of the other ones.
We know that intention determines action in our legal system. If I did not intend to kill a man, I am charged with manslaughter; if I did intend to kill a man, I am charged with murder. Thus, we can make a basic distinction between act and action. Let us say that dancing is an act, but dancing-for-the-sheer-joy-of-it, or, dancing-for-money, are distinct actions — separate actions.
But if the action is determined by the intent, then it would follow that my end-goal, my desire, makes the action bad, the intent *simply is* the moral value of the action. Let’s see another example of how the intention determines the action. This is why Thomas Aquinas was able to defend the doctrine of double effect.
Suppose person A intends to enter the house on the corner. Now, this vague sentence can be interpreted in two different ways. Perhaps the “on the corner” part is a crucial element of A’s intention, or perhaps not. Let us annotate the two options this way:
1. Person A intends [to enter a house] on the corner.
2. Person A intends [to enter a house on the corner].
We can easily show that these are two different actions, even though an observer might see them as the same.
Continuing with the above scenario, suppose person A is in a war zone, and our imagined scenario is dark. Suppose further that person A is a soldier trying to get to a house on the corner so as to signal his troops. If A enters a house that is not on the corner in scenario 1, he has not failed to accomplish his intended action. But if A fails to reach the house on a corner in scenario 2, he has failed in his attempt to carry out his action.
Therefore, our intentions determine our actions. And divine concurrence teaches the same act is taking place, but two different intentions, thus, two different actions. God acts through us with a good intention (an action with one intention, and God as the author), and when we sin, our intentions are evil (a separate action, due to a separate intention, and the person as the author). But all this is one, single act.
As Scripture says, “God works in us to will and to do according to His good pleasure,” (Phil. 2:13) but we should notice an interesting fact. God is working 100% and we are also working 100%. As strange as it seems, this is how theological math works!
Let’s summarize with an example. If I do an action, say, kidnap my brother and sell him to slave traders, (cf. Genesis 37) God is also working through me. Not that God works when my will allows Him. Both God and I are at work, 100% in the same act. But, God has a different intention, and thus a different action. This is why Joseph can say, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.”
Therefore, we cannot conclude that man is not responsible for his actions, or that God is not sovereignly at work in a person’s acts. This should be a great encouragement to the worried Christian — for all the immoral actions and injustices that take place — we know that “all things work together for the good of those who love God” (Rom. 8:28), because God is at work 100%. Although another person may have an evil intention towards me, regarding the same act, God is as at work with a good intention.
Robert J. McPherson IISee More Essays
Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.