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Jeffrey Vogel contends that Austin Farrer’s profound wrestling with the question of how best to speak about the divine-world relationship has ongoing relevance for contemporary theology. Though Farrer ultimately denies our ability to grasp the precise manner of God’s activity in the world, his idea that there is a unity between God’s activity in nature and God’s activity in grace makes it possible to bridge the gap that some perceive to exist between scientific and theological accounts of the world. Indeed, he offers an account of God’s intention in creation that allows for scientific investigation and spiritual practice to be mutually enriching. Jeffrey Vogel is professor of theology and ethics at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.


At the end of Faith and Speculation, his last major work, Austin Farrer writes the following: “Our thesis is no more than that the relation of created act to creative Act is inevitably indefinable, and that its being so is neither an obstacle to religion, nor a scandal to reason.”1 A seemingly unilluminating statement, yet it sums up rather nicely Farrer’s position on divine action in the world, the topic I examine in this essay. Farrer’s statement contains two distinct claims: 1) The manner in which God acts, the “mysterious causal joint” by which divine and creaturely activity are related, is inaccessible to knowledge; and 2) This is little concern to the believer, whose chief task is not to “manage a contact with supernatural force,” not to theorize about God’s will, but actually to relate to it, “to set himself in the line of the divine intention.”2 That the indefinability of this relation is also not a scandal to reason is only partially true. It is an open debate among Farrer scholars whether he believed reason can get us to God or only expose the absence of a truly satisfactory account of the world without God. He was clear, however, that if “God” is to have reference to anything, it cannot be to a constituent part of the universe, a factor among factors, but must describe the cause of all acting and doing, that is, a universal cause. Our relationship to so unique a cause is necessarily indefinable, reliant for its description on analogies drawn from the world of our experience.

Though all of this may be true, and though there may never have been a more philosophically astute advocate of the right of the faithful to get on with being faithful, it is also true that one must say what one can on behalf of one’s beliefs and illuminate for others, to the degree that it is possible, what is meant by claims about God’s activity in the world. As Farrer puts it, “We live the belief, and in so doing, we cannot leave it utterly undefined. The idea of the relation of our activity to God’s causality cannot play its part in our imaginations while remaining to us just ‘some relatedness, we know not what.’”3 Farrer applied himself to the question of this relation throughout his career, using first the categories of essence and later what Charles Conti calls the “grammar of action.”4 His profound wrestling with how to conceive of this relation is perhaps his longest lasting contribution as a theologian. At the very least, it is an area of his work that anticipated a great deal in the contemporary discussion about how to conceive of God’s action in a world described wholly in terms of natural causes. Indeed, on this and other matters, there is a seemingly perpetual freshness to Farrer’s theology. Though he frequently wrote with the critiques of mid-twentieth-century positivists in mind, his writing has escaped the fate of being completely defined by them. His thought still has something to add to many current debates, in areas as diverse as atonement theory, onto-theology, and religious epistemology.5

My goal in the current essay is twofold: First, to provide a thorough summary of Farrer’s account of divine action in the world, drawing particularly on his later works. In this task, I will start with God’s activity in the natural world and then move to a discussion of God’s activity among human beings. Though this order seems unadvised in one sense – for Farrer believed we have little access to God’s intention in nature – I find it easiest to lay out his account of God’s physical providence and then to show how God’s involvement in our own lives depends on and intensifies this description. Farrer imagined a kind of scale in God’s relating to the world: greater externality among purely physical things, a degree of intermingling in the case of rational agents, and complete mutual interpenetration in the person of Jesus Christ.6 The path I adopt is similar to Farrer’s own approach in God is Not Dead, his most direct treatment of the relationship between theology and science. Second, I will offer my own assessment of Farrer’s account of divine providence, arguing both for his ongoing relevance to conversations in theology and science and pointing out the limits of his position. My thesis in this section is that Farrer’s account of the unity of God’s activity in nature and in grace allows him to hold traditional theological belief in place even as he gives full credence to the evolutionary account of the universe. Indeed, it enables him to put forward a spiritual outlook in which religious practice and cosmic description are mutually enriching. At the same time, his eschatological vision is ultimately hindered by its lack of a cosmic dimension. This is an area where he requires supplementation.

Such a Tangle: Farrer’s Account of God’s Activity in the Physical World

According to Farrer, the Christian doctrine of creation straddles a kind of paradox. On the one hand, it asserts the universal causality of God or – what is the same thing – the utter dependence of all things on God for their existence. Though our lives are determined by many proximate causes, it is clear that there is no “sheer originativeness” in the world, no cause that does not depend on something else. To believe in God is to assert that, outside of the world of proximate causes, there is such an originating power from which all things derive their existence. True, Farrer says, this belief requires a “jump” beyond what is scientifically demonstrable, but it is equally the case that an unexplained world is “indigestible.”7 To believe in God is further to hold that this power is personal. Belief in an impersonal God à la Einstein reduces, in Farrer’s view, to a pious regard for nature itself. Such a regard may be based on a noble sentiment, but the word “God” adds nothing to it.8 So Farrer insists that God must be a personal being, one he defines most simply as “sovereign will” and “sheer act.” Taken together, these phrases suggest that there is no distinction, as in our own case, between the divine intention and its execution.

Given the creative immediacy of God’s activity to every existing thing, it is fair to wonder about the self-standing of creation – the other component of the paradox of the Christian doctrine of creation. Farrer states this concern well:

What happens, then, if we make a finite reality of this sort the direct object of a divine creative act? The comfortable cushion between creative action and creaturely action vanishes. If God creates energies he creates going activities. What he causes to be is their acting as they do. We cannot even say that he causes them to act, for it is by their action that they are they. The self-being of the creature seems to be annihilated. Its whole active existence is a simple fiat of the divine will.9

In this passage, Farrer both poses the problem and indicates the manner in which he will address it. First of all, he insists that beings do not exist independently from their acting. In acting as they do, they are – a claim applying as much to God as to finite beings like ourselves. This particular way of understanding existence seems only to heighten the problem of the God-world relationship, as the prior causality of God in calling creatures into being – and, therefore, into acting as they do – seems to swallow up any “self-being” we might want to say they have. “What he causes to be is their acting as they do.” If so, is there any independent status to the world at all? According to Farrer, the problem we run into here is that, having borrowed the very idea of causation from our experience of it among finite things and applied it analogously to the divine will in creation, we cannot help but imagine God as a finite cause.10 More specifically, we wind up conceiving of God as a competitive power, vying with finite realities for the claim to have acted in any particular happening. What God does, I must not do – and vice versa. As Farrer sees it, this is to misunderstand the manner in which God can be said to be a cause. God is not a cause among causes, but the springing point of existence, the condition of the possibility of all acting and causing. Too often, in our attempt to think about the God-world relationship, we first assume creaturely existence and then try to apply divine causation to it. But, to borrow language from Thomas Tracy, God does not act upon us, but in us, constituting us as causes in our own right.11 What God creates in making the world is a variety of “going activities.” What God causes to be are causing beings. As Farrer puts it, “The purpose of so fantastic a dialectic is to leave standing the inescapable paradox: to affirm Creative Will is to affirm a power which institutes an activity active of itself, and not a mere phase of creative activity.”12 God wills for creatures to make themselves, to go just as they go, to be, not for God’s sake, but for their own.13 This is the generosity of the divine creative act – not to hoard the power of acting, but to share it on a dizzying multiplicity of levels.

This way of putting things is at the heart of the idea of double agency for which Farrer is perhaps most famous, namely, that there are two distinct causes – God and creature – for an identical act. This is not analogous to the common activity of two finite agents, say, in the combined effort of two people to transport a heavy load. In that case, one could theoretically – if not always practically – distinguish the work done by each person. In the case of God and creature, one has to say that both are simultaneously causing the whole action in question – the one as the power of causation, the other as participant within the finite world of things. To ask what in a creature’s action is God’s activity and what its own is to view God’s causation in a competitive manner, to see the relationship between God and creature as a zero-sum game. “God’s agency,” Farrer writes, “must actually be such as to work omnipotently on, in, or through creaturely agencies without either forcing them or competing with them.”14 What Farrer’s idea of double agency leaves unexplained is exactly how God acts in and through creatures, how God creates “going activities” without also determining them. It is this matter of how God acts that Farrer says is completely inaccessible to us. We simply do not know the modality of God’s activity.15 Just as an amateur artist is incapable of experiencing Rembrandt’s artistry – the manner in which he creates – while at the same time capable of appreciating the art that results from it, the believer in God is “inescapably amateur” with respect to the how of God’s activity in the world, though he reads the world as evidence of a divine art and wisdom. This activity does not strike us in the “springing-point of causes,” but “in the finished effect.”16

For Farrer, this ignorance of how God acts in nature is attributable to the utter hiddenness of that activity, to the fact that God is not a cause among causes. He writes, “If it has a gardener, the natural world is a wild garden laid out with so skillful and so self-effacing an informality that the gardener’s hand can never be convincingly detected in any single feature.”17 Put positively, this hiddenness has to do with the generous gift of God to allow creatures to make themselves. What one sees when looking at the world is simply creatures acting as they do. As Farrer puts it,

To speak of God’s “manipulations” is merely to force the parallel between the work of God and our experimental science. We manipulate the energies of nature, God does not. “Manipulation” is a forcible re-direction through external interference. God simply wills the energies of nature to act in their own way; that is why his doing what he does is invisible. All we see is what he does; and what he does is what, as willed by him, his creatures do.18

No clearer – and yet no more paradoxical – statement of the idea of double agency can be found in Farrer’s work than in that final sentence: Everything we see in the natural world is God’s doing; what God does is to will God’s creatures to go their own way. The “causal joint” – that meeting place of divine and creaturely action – is inaccessible to us. Particularly in the case of merely physical agencies, we do not have the knowledge to say that “they are capable of just so much, and the extra is divine.”19 All there is to see is the going of natural things. Every cause in the world is ultimately traceable to the action of created beings.

In willing creatures to make themselves, God creates a world that is “unbelievably multiple and multi-leveled,”20 made up of “different systems placed in mutual interrelation.”21 We call the world we inhabit a “universe,” suggesting that it is a single totality – and it surely achieves a unity in the divine mind – but in reality, on the ground, it is a free-for-all of forces, energies, and interests. From the lowest elements to the highest, from the energetic activity at the sub-atomic level to the constant struggle for survival that plays out in the animal kingdom, the world consists of myriad realities “busy being themselves at their own level.”22 This accounts for its tremendous vitality; it also accounts for why there is so much suffering. If it is God’s will for the various systems of the world to “run according to their kind,” it is inevitable that they will crisscross and interfere with one another. Indeed, as much as we detest the evils that result from the collision of forces in the world, the possibility of such happenings cannot be removed without at the same time stripping the world of its vitality. Accidentality, Farrer says, is an inevitable accompaniment of the physical world we inhabit.23

This, then, is the heart of Farrer’s theodicy with respect to natural ills. Too often, we make the mistake of imagining God’s purposes in the physical world to be what our purposes would be, of supposing that God thinks humanly about physical realities. Instead, Farrer says, God thinks physically about physical realities and humanly about human ones. Farrer offers the example of an earthquake to make his point:

If an earthquake shakes down a city, an urgent practical problem arises – how to rescue, feed, house and console the survivors, rehabilitate the injured, and commend the dead to the mercy of God; less immediately, how to reconstruct in a way which will minimize the effects of another such disaster. But no theological problem arises. The will of God expressed in the event is his will for the physical elements in the earth’s crust or under it: his will that they should go on being themselves and acting in accordance with their natures.24

The destructiveness of the earthquake does not constitute a theological problem because the physical processes underlying it are good. God wills them always to go on being themselves. But it is a disaster, perhaps even an evil – a word Farrer says ought theologically to be defined as “what God himself detests.”25 The evil is not in the things themselves, but in the occasional collision of interests and forces in the world. “The world is such a tangle,” Farrer writes, “God cannot do for each of his creatures here and now what (we feel) he would wish to do for it, if that creature stood alone.”26 In our groping human language, we might call this a limitation on God’s ability to intervene or talk about the “difficulties confronting God’s providence.” But God is equally the God of particles, stars, rocks and beasts, willing each existing thing to go as it goes. God has called into being a world of bewildering complexity and multiplicity, of which we are a part.

A world in which things run according to their kind is inevitably beset by conflict and wastefulness. But it is plain that the world also exhibits a high degree of organization. In fact, in Farrer’s mind, the story of the world is one of increasing complexity over time. Though he felt the physical evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was somewhat spotty, he did not see any reason to dispute it – particularly the idea of a gradually unfolding universe that it entails.27 More than that, he believed that evolution was a boon to theology, bringing the idea of creation down from its perch at the beginning of time and into the middle of the ongoing processes of life. In other words, if creation is constantly making itself, constantly evolving into new forms, the believer has a better view of God’s creative activity than if – as a simplistic reading of Genesis might suggest – creation was a one-off act of God once upon a time.

But what can we say about this creative activity? Or again, if creatures have the impulse only to be themselves, how are new infusions of form ever fed in? How does a lower form of organization give rise to a higher? A simpler organism lead to a more complex? For one thing, Farrer is insistent that God does not use creatures forcibly, against the grain of their own being. “God uses creaturely powers straight,” he says. “He does not make them only to twist them.”28 Unlike a poor author, who maps out the plot of his story in advance and then fashions his characters to behave in a way that leads inexorably to where he wants to go, God gives life to creatures, lets them be, and through their being themselves leads them into the story that we see.29 This is the wonder of omnipotence, according to Farrer. God wills the multiplicity of beings to be a universe, a harmonious whole, but achieves it, not by imposing a pattern from above, but through the creative employment of actual existences.30 This bottom-up approach to universe-making is, from our perspective at least, unbelievably slow and wasteful. A “super-craftsman” God could achieve beautiful and harmonious patterns much more efficiently, without all of the conflict, evolutionary dead-ends and chance misfirings that lead to deformity and disease. But God has no interest in streamlining a plan, according to Farrer; rather, God wills to realize a world.31 As a consequence, God submits to going with the creatures God has made and achieving any further purposes God has only in and through them.

Farrer’s preferred language for how God brings the creation into new patterns of being is that of the process theologians: leading, persuasion, steering, creative pulling.32 At the same time that God maintains creatures at their current level of existence, God draws them into new patterns of interrelation, new structures of organization and, ultimately, new types of being. There is an openness to this worldview that certainly lines up with much current thinking about the God-world relationship done by theologians interested in the dialogue with science. Farrer would add that it accords well with the biblical emphasis on the patience of God’s creative wisdom. Unlike certain process theologians, however, Farrer was unwilling to give up the traditional divine attributes of omnipotence and omniscience, though he may have re-imagined them. As we saw with Farrer’s idea of double agency, he does not think one needs to restrict God’s power of action to make room for creatures to have their own existence. Neither does God need to be temporal in order to identify with temporal beings. Farrer writes,

It is no doubt a foolish piece of theology which makes the time-transcendent mode of God’s being a bar against his entering into the temporeity of his creatures’ existences by his knowledge of them and his action in them. The first capacity of the infinite is to fill every finitude. But it is a folly no less extreme to think that we bring God and his creatures together by attaching our temporal conditions to his existence.33

What process theologians hope to gain by subjecting God to the same conditions as the developing world is, according to Farrer, already achieved by the idea of God’s infinity. God can see from the perspective of every creature, can “know up every nerve,” as he puts it, precisely because God is infinite and not bound by time or place. As the cause and root of every existing thing, God knows the world from within. How God does this is, again, inaccessible to us. We talk about God’s action, God’s causing things, God’s knowledge of things, and so we must if we are to say anything at all about God. But Farrer insists that we must never forget the necessity of analogical predication when speaking of God. He writes, “God’s way of acting is the infinitely higher analogue of our way, but we cannot conceive it otherwise than in terms of our own.”34

The foregoing presents in broad outline Farrer’s account of God’s activity in the physical world. Though the God he depicts is self-effacing to the point of being utterly hidden beneath the natural activity of created beings, Farrer notes that the believer will see God in the effects of God’s activity – that is, after the fact – and wait for God’s providence in situations where he does not see.35 The effects of God’s activity may be more apparent in the lives of human beings, the topic to which I now turn; indeed, it is from our own lives that we get the clue by which to interpret divine action in the natural world. Before moving on, however, it is important to note that, though Farrer insists on God’s complete hiddenness in nature and says much on behalf of the integrity of natural processes, it does not follow that speech about God in nature is superfluous. As he puts it, “By dropping out the divine thought you do not halve complexity, you take away explanation.”36 Reason demands explanations for the world’s achievement of pattern – and, before that, its very existence – that the world itself cannot give.37

Adoption into Sonship:
Farrer’s Account of God’s Activity Among Human Beings

It would seem less needs to be said about Farrer’s understanding of divine action within human beings – for he believed God’s action in grace and nature to be the same throughout. The same generous choice that causes God to give creative power to non-human creatures and lead them to higher forms of organization also underlies God’s activity in creating and perfecting humanity – the latter case being but a special instance of the more general pattern of God’s providence. And certainly much of our existence – the cells and tissues and electrical currents that make up our bodily life – is of a piece with God’s activity in the physical world. But we are also creatures who can feel the pressure of the divine will, and in that, according to Farrer, we are unique. As he puts it, “We are physical, plus …”38 Human beings are created not only to go as they go, but to do so with the awareness of their creator. The fulfillment of their existence is to unite their wills to the will of God.

More than this can be said. While Farrer was eager to correct overly anthropocentric views of God’s will in creation, and did so by insisting that God thinks physically with respect to physical things and humanly with respect to human things, it is not the case that these two things are equally revealing of God. The physical world does not supply the essential clue to who God is, namely, the notion of wisdom or mind itself.39 Farrer writes,

We have said that the God to whom nature points is a Creator who thinks physical things physically, and all other things similarly as they are and as they act. But though such a power may think physical thoughts about the physical, it cannot itself be physical, for physical things as such do not think. The physical world reveals some part of what God thinks, it cannot reveal what he is. It is only when God makes a thinking creature that his work reveals part of what he is as well as part of what he thinks.40

So it is the personal model, not the physical, that we must use when speaking about God. We speak analogically, of course, using our own minds as the source or clue, but, granting that, Farrer thinks we are nearest to the truth when we think of God as a creative, intentional mind. The believer in God may infer the artistry of such a mind from the evidence of the physical world, but such an inference depends on a prior belief in God as the “prime creative cause.”41 Indeed, for as much thought as he devoted to the God of nature, Farrer felt we could know very little of God on the basis of the natural world. In order truly to know something about God, one must look to human lives.

Farrer famously adhered to what he calls the “empirical principle,” the idea that one can know something only if one is able to do something about it. This is true even of our physical knowledge, our conclusions about things far distant being based on manipulation of things closer to hand. In the realm of interpersonal relationships, Farrer notes, we can only claim knowledge of another person – a friend, for example – by means of a “perpetual try-on” of the friendship. There is in everything an “inseparability of knowledge and activity.”42 This holds true of the God-human relationship above all. One knows God only in the act of relating to God. Unlike worldly entities, which are subject to our experimentation, or our friends, whom we can act on as much as we can be acted upon by them, God is not a manipulable object. God is not available to us in the same way as created objects. So how can we know anything of God? Farrer says that though we cannot act on God, we can open ourselves to God’s action in us. We can sink our wills into the will of God and, in so doing, experience God’s activity within us. Edward Hugh Henderson states this well,

To know a person as a friend, we must be friends with the person. To know God, we must live faithfully with God. And if we do, we can reasonably believe that we encounter God acting within our own action. “We cannot touch God except by willing the will of God. Then his will takes effect in ours and we know it; not that we manipulate him but that he possesses us.” The knowledge that results will be anything but groundless and irrational. The degree of its concreteness and accuracy, however, will depend on how authentically and fully one lives the life of faith.43

Though it seems circular to argue from experience of God to knowledge of God, Farrer felt that no other way to knowledge is possible to us. One must will the will of God if one is to have any hope of encountering God. Thus, religion is a kind of experiment in the embracing of this will, the evidence of its veracity lying in the way that doing so blesses and changes us. Though Farrer did not discount the component of feeling in religion, he ultimately understood religion to be a practical doing, the submission to God’s will leading to a moral outcome in the lives of believers. Indeed, he was adamant that, though the embrace of God’s will takes place in one’s heart, the effect ought not to be confined there, but have “the whole of a man’s conduct for its outward expression.”44 To the degree that one succeeds in embracing God’s will, one discloses God in one’s actions.

The one-sidedness of this relationship puts an obvious strain on the analogy with friendship, in which cause and effect, growth and change, take place in both directions. Our activity in this relationship is to be wholly conformed to the will of God, to “place ourselves in his action as we suppose it to be disclosed.”45 At the same time, God’s will in this relationship is entirely devoted to our self-realization.46 As one comes to embrace the will of God more and more, one becomes more fully oneself. This claim is central to Farrer’s understanding of divine activity in human beings. A competitive model of the divine-human relationship would suggest that my freedom is diminished as God’s will takes hold in my life. For the one to assume primacy, the other must be curtailed, suppressed, overthrown. Farrer sees it quite otherwise. Because God’s will is for the self-realization of creatures – and, to introduce specifically religious language here, their justification, sanctification and eventual perfection – the more one embraces God’s will the more free one is, the more one enacts one’s own true being. The more one is possessed by God, the more self-determining one becomes. Farrer writes of the union of one’s will with God in prayer,

What happens when we pray ourselves, on the day when prayer comes really alive? Does not a better wisdom and a less selfish concern than one’s own take charge of the praying mind? And when it does so take charge, does it displace one’s personal will? Of course not; what would be the use? God cannot inspire me, by removing me, by pushing me off the saddle and riding in my place. No, the more I am inspired, the more I am myself; the will God makes me make is my truest and freest creation.47

As a theoretical statement, this is a puzzling claim. Just how is it that an action can be attributed wholly to God and, at the same time, be my own freest creation? How can there truly be two agents for an identical action? Admittedly, Farrer makes this claim more often than he gives practical examples.48 He notes, however, that to those whose lives are involved in this claim, that is, those who pray and devote themselves to the embracing of God’s will, this claim is a fairly routine description of their own experience. The faithful attest to this coming together of obedience and freedom, seeing their submission to God as leading to the enhancement of their being.49 The paradoxical ring of such talk is unavoidable given that we speak of God as “causing” and “willing” only by drawing an analogy with our own causing and willing. But it is not necessarily unintelligible. Here, again, Farrer calls our attention to the claim that God causes in such a way as to create and give life, not to hoard life or deprive it to others. As creator and redeemer, God is fully for us.

The freest being, then, is the one in whose life God’s will has been embraced most fully, the one whose actions can be attributed wholly to God. For Farrer, Jesus Christ is the paradigm of this simultaneity of divine and human will, the one who has accomplished it in his own life. He is, at once, utterly possessed by the will of God and, for precisely that reason, more himself than any other person.50 This is not, Farrer maintains, a mere parroting of the Chalcedonian dogma. It is rather that the Christ of the gospels gives just this impression. What struck Farrer most about Christ, what he highlights over and over again in his sermons, is the sheer transparency and lack of duplicity of Christ’s character. To provide but one example, he writes, “Christ has no motive to distrust his heart; he speaks as he is minded, he is all one piece. So all the words of Jesus are windows to his mind, not only those which have the special form of self-disclosure.”51 According to Farrer, this directness of Christ’s being, this alignment of intention and action, derives from his unfailing reliance on the will of God. He writes,

He is the Son of God, and his Sonship is simple and unalloyed derivation. We wind up our buckets half empty and spilling as they come out of the well of life; in him the fountain rises to the surface and overflows. It is his glory to be derivative…If the words we write are derived from a model, our work may be decried as derivative. But no one will complain of the derivativeness of the writing, if the source from which it derives is the author’s mind, for that is the derivation which guarantees the life and spontaneity of the work. The Son of God is the Word of the Father, and more alive than any utterance, because he comes new every moment out of the heart of God.52

It is in his willingness to be derived, to rely completely on the will of God even in moments of temptation and suffering, that Christ is most fully himself. At the same time, it is through his complete openness to God that the divine will shines forth clearly through him. In Christ, then, the mutual inter-penetration of divine and human causation is fully accomplished. Neither one is overwhelmed or eclipsed by the other; rather, both show forth with a clarity that makes it necessary to speak of a personal identity.53

Obviously, no such identity is possible in the case of beings of imperfect will. Still, Christ’s way of being, his learning by suffering, is the paradigm of the life of faith for the Christian.54 It is only in embracing the will of God as Christ did that one is freed from the stunted growth caused by sin and set back on the path of realizing one’s true being – which, for Farrer, means coming into the eternal perfection resulting from unity with God. Thus, we come to God by being conformed to Christ, by adopting his attitude and disposition toward God. As Farrer puts it,

There is a divine sonship by nature, before there is or can be sonship by adoption. There is an equal friendship or association of the Father and the Son, into which the Son may bring us by living as man, and by making us the disciples and partners of his life.53

In his more openly Christian reflections, Farrer notes that we are adopted into sonship through the work of the Holy Spirit, who moves our will from underneath, uniting us to the heart of God.54 As is typical of all of God’s activity in the world, the Spirit is not seen but in its effect, in the way that the Spirit opens people up to God and conforms them to the life of Christ.

God is patient with human beings, desiring to effect good in them in no other way than by appealing to their free decisions.55 As with the rest of creation, people, in being made to make themselves, prove at times slow and intractable. Even more, we prove perverse, willing in opposition to the enhancement of our being that God intends. Still, God does not force us against the grain of our being. Farrer finds the same non-violent metaphors of persuasion, appeal and leading that he employs in discussing God’s physical providence to be useful in describing how God acts in calling human beings into greater perfection. At the same time, because God is able to appeal to the minds of human beings, God acts in human history in such a way as to require a decision. God’s grip on us, Farrer says, is somewhat firmer, God’s appeal more urgent.56 The action of God in nature and grace is indeed one, but God acts appropriately in every field.57

If we insist on asking what role, if any, we play in accepting God’s grace, Farrer proves elusive. On the one hand, he notes that, because we do not know the modality of God’s action, the question of the relationship between free will and predestination simply does not arise.58 Neither God’s action nor our own is to be denied in accounting for the uniting of our wills to God’s. More important, from Farrer’s perspective, is the necessity of insisting on God’s initiative in this process. God precedes us in intention, lays down the path which we are called to walk and provides the grace actually to walk in it. It is true that the Spirit uses our free will as its instrument and, in a sense, waits for the action of sinful creatures, but no person who has experienced God’s grace will ever be content to hear it said that he acquired it through his own work; instead, he will attribute it to God. Farrer writes,

But I can’t accept that. My life hasn’t been like that; the life of no Christian ever was like that. Divine goodness has persuaded me, hedged up my path, headed me off, driven me back into the road; that is why I am here. I suppose it is abstractly conceivable that I could have been a greater fool than I was, but that is no reason for saying that I have been brought here by my own wisdom. “You, O Lord, have wrought all our works in us,” the Christian says.59

As with everything else, Farrer maintains that we err when we resolve this tension in the divine-human relationship to one side or the other. God saves us, though we are not saved against our will; God takes the initiative, but we are at our most free when possessed by divine grace. Though it is always possible to distinguish two actors – divine and human – neither being reducible to the other,60 at a deeper level, Farrer says, the believer experiences an identity with Christ that defies easy demarcation. The skeptic looks at the life of such a one and sees nothing but the latter’s own action, no evidence of anything coming in from outside. And so he would be right. But, Farrer says, we are “complex double beings.” He notes,

At a deeper level than that which any science studies, Christ feeds with himself the springs of our action. Nothing comes in from outside; when we act from the resources of divine grace, all the action and all the thought is in us; but it is Christ in us, feeding the deep root of the will; Christ, giving himself to be our self.61

As Christ wills the will of God and so lives out a unity of being with God, the believer in Christ lives with the life of Christ. As with so much else, the believer cannot account for the how of this. But he can deny that this is his experience even less so. And thus we are returned to the quotation with which this paper began: “Our thesis is no more than that the relation of created act to creative Act is inevitably indefinable, and that its being so is neither an obstacle to religion, nor a scandal to reason.”62 Theology has an important task of clarification, but given Farrer’s insistence on the inseparability of action and knowledge in all things, it must always have room in its theory for the practical experience of the faithful.


At the outset of this paper, I noted that Farrer is rightly recognized for having wrestled with the question of how to relate God and world, specifically how to conceive of divine causing in a way that allows for the genuine self-standing of creation. By positing a double will of God in creation – the will for creatures to go according to their kind and the will to draw out of this going new forms and opportunities for creation – Farrer tries to hold together the ideas of a genuinely open creation and the providential steering of God. Not everyone agrees that he succeeds in his effort to mitigate the problem of how God can be said to act in a world that is explainable in natural terms. Maurice Wiles, for example, argues that by the time Farrer is done qualifying the way in which God can be said to “cause” things within the world – God’s way of acting being the “infinitely higher analogue of our way” – it is so remote from anything like what we understand by the word as to be completely uninformative.63 Wiles concludes that, precisely because a thinker of Farrer’s stature worked so hard on this matter and wound up only in mystery and paradox, we must give up any hope of speaking of God as causing things in the world. No fan of Wiles’ seemingly deistic solution to the problem, John Polkinghorne comes to much the same conclusion about Farrer, noting that his idea of double agency proves, in the end, an “elusive” concept, doing very little to advance our understanding of God’s interaction with the world.64

A chief departure from Farrer’s approach to the question of the God-world relationship in the contemporary dialogue between theology and science is the effort now devoted to the “how” of God’s action. Polkinghorne, for example, has looked to the indeterminacy of the quantum world as a place where God may be said to act within grain of the universe – rather than above it or against it – to lead creation into organization and complexity.65 Because there is genuine openness in creation, God is able to influence the direction of chance events without interfering from “outside.” This way of putting things preserves the integrity of natural processes while maintaining a place for God’s providence and continuing creative activity. Polkinghorne, along with many others, conceives of God’s steering of creation in terms of the input of information, the organization that matter takes over time – in the form of elements, genes, organisms and environments, and ultimately the universe as a whole – not being accounted for in purely naturalistic terms.66 Farrer anticipates some of this in his own writing, noting the bias toward the positive in the myriad interacting systems of the world, though, on the whole, he seems less willing to risk identifying specific sites of God’s activity. God feeds in new forms – we know not how. His agnosticism on this matter seems to have been a principled one. Polkinghorne, on the other hand, finds it possible to look for such sites because he embraces the idea that God, in a kenotic act of love, deigns to become a factor among factors in the world.67

Farrer may well have shrugged at the criticism of his description of God as a non-competitive cause that underlies the many going activities in the world. He was particularly keen on using parables in his writing precisely because they allow one to construct and deconstruct a theological vocabulary simultaneously. The language of divine causing or double agency does not escape this necessary dialectic. What it succeeds in doing, in his view, is to articulate the experience of people who know themselves both to be creatures of God and creative agents, “posited and positing.” That awareness, which the faithful possess without any experience of contradiction, is a primary datum in speech about God. Theologians then do what they can.

Farrer’s theology continues to be most relevant to the contemporary conversation in the way that it holds nature and grace together in a coherent pattern, putting forward a spiritual outlook in which faithful practice and cosmic description are mutually enriching. Though he himself notes the common tendency for the “God of nature” and the “God of the Gospels” to fall apart in our minds – the one being stupendously patient, the other making urgent appeal to our decision68 – Farrer’s account of the divine activity enables one to relate the two in a satisfying way. Central to this ability is his claim that the activity of God in nature and in grace is one. At the most basic level, this is simply a claim about the universal causation of God, the idea of double agency applying to every created thing, from the first atom to the manhood of Christ. God gives the power of self-actualization to finite beings and works in and through that power to accomplish God’s providential aim – for the individual in question and for the complex whole that we call the universe. Beyond the metaphysical question, however, it applies also to the manner of the divine activity. Though God thinks physically about physical things and humanly about human, there is yet a single character underlying all of God’s opera ad extra. And it is our experience of God’s activity in grace that offers us the clue as to what this character is.

The decisive action of God in the economy of salvation – the incarnation of the divine Son – reveals a God who does not force or overwhelm creation, but one who transforms it from within, using what is given to bring life to the world. The shape of Christ’s life is a window onto the character of God, for though it is the Son in particular who becomes incarnate – and not bare deity – Farrer says that Christ’s way of being is a translation into temporal terms of an eternal one. In other words, Christ’s sonship reveals something essential not only of humanity, but also of divinity. What is distinctive about Christ, according to Farrer, what enables him to save us, is his openness to the Father, his willingness to submit his will and to find his glory in being derivative. It is in being perfectly open to the will of God that Christ unites humanity and divinity perfectly, achieving what human beings are called to achieve, but cannot. In his unwavering submission to the Father’s will, Christ reveals that created nature finds its fulfillment in being united to God. In it he also reveals that the divine nature is such as to work patiently through created nature to transform it and bring it to completion, to dwell in created nature that is prepared to receive it. Christ’s way of waiting reveals both his divine and human natures, for in it the way of divine action and fitting creaturely response are inseparable. Christ is what it looks like for divine things to be done humanly and human things divinely.

Though Farrer notes the urgent appeal of God to humanity in the person of Christ, the appeal is to be conformed to the pattern of Christ – the very pattern of waiting on God and being derivative that constitute his sonship. The Spirit of God works through our freedom to adopt us into this sonship and so unite us to God. Importantly, the Spirit is never an object of our perception, a vision that would overwhelm or force our decision, but the force that underlies our wills, moving them away from ourselves and toward God. As in creation, God’s activity in saving us is self-effacing. The Spirit does not act violently upon us, but transforms us, bit by bit, into the image of Christ. Prayer, the central act of the religious life, is the act of disposing oneself to be so moved, a waiting on the Spirit to reorient our wills toward God. Thus, both in its origin and in its realization, the salvation offered by God in Christ reveals the utter patience of God in dealing with creation.

When Farrer talks about God’s activity in grace, he can fairly be said to describe both the pattern of Christ’s being to which we are called and the process by which we enter into it. If this is the interpretive lens through which believers look out on creation, it is fitting that there, too, they detect an infinite patience. True, Farrer’s account of God’s patience in nature is due in some measure to his acceptance of the evolutionary account of the world. The appearance of complexity in the history of the cosmos, we are told, depends on an inconceivable length of time. However, if we are to take seriously Farrer’s claim that it is from our experience of religious devotion that we know anything of God, it could equally be said that the evolutionary account of the world is shown to be fitting given the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the manner in which the salvation offered in Christ is appropriated by the faithful. The way that God saves gives us an ability to speak about how God creates. Indeed, without the prior conviction that God works patiently to save creation, that God’s incarnation in Christ is characterized by a willingness to submit to and work through the temporality and also the opposition of creaturely forces, one might not see patience at work in the natural world at all. Patience, after all, is the endurance of a current reality with the aim toward some end. Without this idea of an end, which is central to the Christian account of salvation, one cannot speak of a goal to the creative processes in nature.

Farrer’s theology offers a model in which grace and nature may be brought together into a single pattern – and, thus, a way to lessen the perceived disjunction between the “God of nature” and the “God of the Gospels.” Ultimately, however, God’s intention for the natural world is unknown to us. We are not able to think physically and, consequently, are left only to surmise about its telos in a way that we are not in the matter of grace. What is clear – and what is perhaps not often enough mentioned in discussions of Farrer – is that without some telos, some end that redeems the story, the Christian claim about God’s providence becomes nonsense. Farrer’s defense of God’s goodness in creation depends heavily on God’s making things to make themselves, the cost of which is the permitting of an endless parade of wastefulness and suffering.69 And so it must be, Farrer says, in a world such as ours. But such a story is only tolerable if it is accompanied by a robust eschatology. As Farrer himself puts it,

The workings of supernatural providence are to be understood by reference to their goal. By looking at the universe I could never have divined that it was working towards a sparrow or a thrush, until such creatures actually appeared; and by looking at the whole confusion of the human scene I could not see the life of the World to Come prefigured in it…But to us below, casting about for the path of our ascent on the flanks of the hill, there is no such simple clarity about the ways of God.70

An account of God’s activity in and through the processes of creation is incomplete without a hope that transcends them. Though Farrer was adamant about this, his eschatological vision might have been more compelling if he had allowed a greater place in it for the non-human world. Indeed, for a thinker as convincing as he about the vibrancy of all created things, Farrer was surprisingly narrow on this matter, arguing that because only rational creatures are capable of having their wills united to God’s, they alone are capable of eternal perfection. Absent from his theology is a strong sense of the need for cosmic redemption, of the groaning of creation for liberation. This is partly a function of the efficiency and clarity of his theodicy. It is, in a sense, too neat. Very occasionally he talks about the “rebellion” of natural forces, but for the most part his account of the natural world betrays no interest in speculating about the implications of fallenness for the non-human creation. It seems that his theology stands in need of some supplementation on this point. A more vigorous account of the common need of all creatures for liberation from bondage would do even more to bring his descriptions of grace and nature together. Such criticism aside, Farrer’s understanding of heaven as the perfected community of relations that begins in grace even in this life is an indispensable component of his account of the God-world relationship. And, as with all of his theology, it has an eminently practical application: “Heaven alone gives final meaning to any earthly hopes; and to take it the other way round, we have no way to grasp at heavenly hope, than by pursuing hopeful tasks here below.”71

Cite this article
Jeffrey Vogel, “A Self-effacing Gardener: The Unity of God’s Activity in Nature and Grace in the Theology of Austin Farrer”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:3 , 229-248


  1. Austin Farrer, Faith and Speculation: An Essay in Philosophical Theology (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1967), 170.
  2. Ibid., 142.
  3. Ibid., 143.
  4. Charles Conti, Metaphysical Personalism: An Analysis of Austin Farrer’s Metaphysics of Theism (Oxford: OUP, 1995), 20.
  5. For a recent analysis of Farrer’s religious epistemology, see Robert MacSwain, Solved By Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith (Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2013). MacSwain contends here that Farrer moved to the “possibility of a non-metaphysical foundation for philosophical theology, indeed perhaps to a non-foundational position altogether” (8). For another look at Farrer’s account of religious knowledge, see Edward Henderson, “Valuing in Knowing God: An Interpretation of Austin Farrer’s Religious Epistemology,” Modern Theology 1.3 (1985): 165-182.
  6. On this, see Edward Henderson, “Double Agency and the Relation of Persons to God,” in The Human Person in God’s World: Studies to Commemorate the Austin Farrer Centenary, eds. Brian Hebblethwaite and Douglas Hedley (London: SCM Press, 2006), 38-64.
  7. Farrer, God is Not Dead (New York: Morehouse-Barlow Co., 1966), 34. In his case against faith, the biologist Richard Dawkins has argued that, though an unexplained world may be unsatisfactory, so, too, is an unexplained God. Farrer disagrees. Whereas it is the nature of the world to be made up of component parts and, therefore, to beg for an explanation, God is by definition a “free, untrammeled Spirit.” To ask, as Dawkins loves to do, “Who designed the designer?,” is simply to misunderstand what believers mean by the word “God.” For Dawkins’ view, see The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), ch. 4.
  8. This insistence on the personhood of God accounts for why Farrer always maintained a certain reserve toward process thought even as he incorporated some of its emphases in his later thinking. For an excellent account of his relationship with this strand of modern theology, see Conti, Metaphysical Personalism, especially ch. 5.
  9. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 82.
  10. Ibid., 62. For more on this, see Brian Hebblethwaite, “God and the World as Known to Science,” in The Human Person in God’s World, 65-84.
  11. Thomas Tracy, “God and Creatures Acting: The Idea of Double Agency,” in Creation and the God of Abraham, eds. David Burrell, et. al. (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), 221-237.
  12. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 83-84.
  13. Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961), 91.
  14. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 62.
  15. Though we may not know the “how,” Thomas Tracy argues that we must ascribe some measure of incompatibilist freedom to creatures if we are not to be forced into saying that God causes creatures to act willingly in the manner that God intends. He argues that this freedom is a result of divine forbearance (“God and Creatures Acting,” 235-237).
  16. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 63.
  17. Ibid., 74.
  18. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 97.
  19. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 79. See also Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, where Farrer says that we can never sufficiently plumb the depths of natural action to be able to identify the “overplus of providence” (87).
  20. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 80.
  21. Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, 48.
  22. Farrer, Saving Belief, 50.
  23. If we ask why then the world has to be physical, Farrer believes we are quickly getting out of our depth. God’s choice to create this world rather than that is an abyss, he says. However, he notes that our complaint about physical suffering ultimately reveals just how much we love our physical being. We do not want to be angels. “Because we take the physical creation to be good, we are outraged by the presence of certain distressing features in it” (Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, 57).
  24. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 87-88.
  25. Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, 18.
  26. Farrer, Saving Belief, 46.
  27. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 42.
  28. Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, 84.
  29. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 76-77. Tracy argues that the analogy of God as a playwright works even better than God as an author, as the actors in a play contribute of themselves to the characters they have been given (“God and Creatures Acting,” 234). For further commentary on the analogy of God as author, see Brian Hebblethwaite, “Providence and Divine Action,” Religious Studies 14.2 (1978): 223-236.
  30. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 150.
  31. Ibid., 110.
  32. A primary aim of Conti’s Metaphysical Personalism is to show the increased engagement with process ideas in Farrer’s later work, as well as to highlight the very clear limit to his acceptance of them. Hebblethwaite, too, notes a shift between Farrer’s earlier and later work. For the latter’s account, see Hebblethwaite, “Austin Farrer’s Concept of Divine Providence,” Theology 73 (1970): 541-551.
  33. Ibid., 165.
  34. Ibid., 62.
  35. On this, see Lord I Believe: Suggestions for Turning the Creed into Prayer (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1989), where Farrer writes, “Where I cannot see providence, I do not see improvidence; I simply do not see” (27).
  36. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 81.
  37. Farrer accepted the theory of evolution without hesitation and would certainly have been interested to see some of the additional evidence from the fossil record and from genetics that has emerged since his death in 1968. Still, he was unimpressed by vaunted claims about the theory’s ability to explain everything having to do with the organization and complexity of life on Earth. Too often, he felt, naturalistic proponents of the theory use it sloppily, taking for granted things they are not entitled to – the mechanism of heredity, for example – and speaking overly loosely, even mythologically, about “life” and the “process of evolutionary development.” See God is Not Dead, chs. 3-4.
  38. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 102.
  39. Ibid., 93.
  40. Ibid.,123.
  41. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 38.
  42. Ibid., 22.
  43. Edward Hugh Henderson, “The God Who Undertakes Us,” in Captured by the Crucified: The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer, eds. David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson (New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 66-99. The quotation from Farrer in the middle of this passage is from God is Not Dead, 107.
  44. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 114.
  45. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 57.
  46. Ibid., 55.
  47. Farrer, Saving Belief, 78.
  48. For two thoughtful analogies, see Henderson’s aforementioned “The God Who Undertakes Us” and Rodger Forsman, “‘Double Agency’ and Identifying Reference to God,” in Divine Action: Studies Inspired by the Philosophical Theology of Austin Farrer, eds. Brian Hebblethwaite and Edward Henderson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 123-142. Henderson offers the example of a parent’s role in forming the character of a child and Forsman that of one person changing another’s mind. Though both acknowledge limits to their respective analogies, they use them to call attention to events in our mundane experience that seem to be the result of two agents acting simultaneously.
  49. Henderson, “The God Who Undertakes Us,” 87.
  50. Farrer, Saving Belief, 79.
  51. Farrer, A Faith of Our Own (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1960), 178.
  52. Farrer, Lord I Believe, 39.
  53. Farrer, Saving Belief, 101.
  54. Ibid., 122.
  55. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 110.
  56. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 105.
  57. Ibid., 125.
  58. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 66.
  59. Farrer, A Faith of Our Own, 79-80.
  60. On this, see Thomas F. Tracy, “Narrative Theology and the Acts of God,” in Divine Action, especially 187-196.
  61. Farrer, A Faith of Our Own, 127-128.
  62. Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 170.
  63. Maurice Wiles, “Farrer’s Concept of Double Agency,” Theology 84 (1981): 243-249.
  64. John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction With the World (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), 15-16.
  65. See Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven: YUP, 2008). See also Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 170-171.
  66. For a good discussion of this position, see John Haught, God After Darwin (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000), ch. 5.
  67. Polkinghorne, “Kenotic Creation and Divine Action, in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, ed. Polkinghorne (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 90-106.
  68. Farrer, God is Not Dead, 122.
  69. Brian Hebblethwaite, “God and the World as Known to Science,” 79.
  70. Farrer, Lord I Believe, 28-29.
  71. Farrer, A Celebration of Faith: Communications, Mostly to Students, ed. Leslie Houlden (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970), 118-119. This passage is quoted in Robert Boak Slocum, Light in a Burning-Glass: A Systematic Presentation of Austin Farrer’s Theology (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 37.

Jeffrey Vogel

Hampden-Sydney College
Jeffrey Vogel is professor of theology and ethics at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.