Respicere ad Plurima: Or a Defense of Physical and Spiritual Causality

Michael Lynch
Monday, September 14th 2020
First Witch: Where hast thou been, Sister?
Second Witch: Killing Swine

Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 1, Scene 3)

One of the pleasures of my day job is reading older texts with young people. In my course on the Old Testament, we quickly bump into questions related to how we ought to interpret the Bible in light of scientific claims. For example, if Genesis seems to suggest a young earth, what are we to make of the contemporary scientific old earth consensus? One of the most helpful treatments of this difficult topic comes from A.A. Hodge, son of Charles Hodge and, like his Father, a professor at Princeton Seminary. In his classic Outlines of Theology, Hodge deals head on with how we ought to approach apparent contradictions between what Scripture seems to teach and what science seems to teach. He lists “several principles which should always be borne in mind in considering questions involving an apparent conflict of science and [special or biblical] revelation.”

In this post, I don’t intend to deal with them all—though they are all worth considering. I’m interested in Hodge’s third principle, which he states as:

It follows as a practical consequence from the narrowness of the human faculties, that men confined to particular branches of inquiry acquire special habits of thought, and associations of ideas peculiar to their line, by which they are apt to measure and judge the whole world of truth. Thus, the man of science misinterprets and then becomes jealous of the theologian, and the theologian misinterprets and becomes jealous of the man of science. This is narrowness, not superior knowledge; weakness, not strength.

This principle is an important, though an often overlooked, one. Scientists think and interpret God’s world thinking like scientists. Theologians, on the other hand, think about God’s world as theologians. Accordingly, the same event—say a summer storm—is interpreted by the scientist in meteorological terms, while the theologian considers God as being the true cause of why there was a summer storm. Of course, both interpretations can be and are right, but Hodge is making a more profound observation. Namely, we (whether as theologians or scientists) are prone to habitualize ourselves into to thinking in one or the other way. Perhaps unconsciously, our minds conform to think about the world in ways we are accustomed to thinking.

In their worst forms, the theologian eventually begins to surmise that all events are miraculous or at least effectually caused by some spiritual power and the scientist insists that not only are all events the result of physical processes, but that there can’t be any spiritual cause behind such physical causes. Why was there a storm? The scientist says: “Simple. A cold front […].” He or she doesn’t even bother to consider whether there may be some other cause behind the physical cause of the storm. The theologian, who is accustomed to studying spiritual causes simply ignores secondary, physical causality. The result of such “narrowness” or “weakness” in such habits of thinking is that they can preclude the mind from thinking about multiple levels of causality.

Already in the seventeenth century, the non-conformist theologian Richard Baxter warned against this very problem—especially against those who dedicated their time to the study of physical causes. Some of the scientists he surmised, “look so much at things corporeal, that they over-look the noblest natures; and they reduce all to Matter and Motion, because nothing but Matter and Motion is throughly [sic] studied by them.” In other words, some scientists had become so focused on matter or physical stuff that they began to ignore and even deny spiritual beings or spiritual reality. Indeed, in this period a denial of the immortality of the soul became fashionable precisely because scientists, philosophers, and even some theologians began to describe the human soul in wholly physical categories, something akin to modern Christian physicalism.

According to Baxter, these scientists broke the classic rule of inquiry, the necessity to consider a multitude of things, rather than just a few; or in the Latin: Respicere ad plurima, not respicere ad pauca. To respicere ad plurima is to investigate everything necessary. Respicere ad pauca is to ignore relevant evidence or to overlook other explanatory options.

Not too long ago, a Presbyterian minister was discussing a pastoral matter with me which came up in counseling. A new Christian couple, originally from Africa, were blaming everything that occurred in their lives—good or bad—on spiritual forces. So, the coffee pot breaks? Demon. The car won’t start? Demon. Car starts? God. Et cetera. My minister friend asked me how I’d respond. My first instinct was sympathy. After all, how many of us ever even consider the possibility that various physical problems in our world are ultimately a result of the spiritual forces in our world?

This Christian couple’s error was not that they considered the spiritual forces influencing and shaping the physical world. Instead it was that they respicere ad pauca; they focused on only a few causes—God, angels, or demons. My response to my Presbyterian friend was that he ought fully to support their notion that angelic and demonic forces are at work in our world for our good and evil, respectively. That being said, I noted the Apostle Paul’s advice to Timothy in 1 Tim. 5:23, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” Paul doesn’t say that Timothy’s physical ailment is the result of some demon attacking him—though, perhaps, that could well have been true. Paul also doesn’t recommend prayer to God as the solution to his ailment—though undoubtedly that would have been completely in keeping with biblical wisdom. Instead, Paul advises that this physical ailment may need a physical remedy, a little wine. In keeping with the fact that our prayer to God for “our daily bread” doesn’t preclude us from going to the grocery store, neither should our recognition of natural causes keep us from affirming the spiritual forces at work in our world. After all, as those who confess both body and soul, we must affirm a world beyond what our eyes can see and hands can touch. Because we are all, in the broadest sense, scientists and theologians, we would do well to respicere ad plurima—both natural and spiritual causes.

Dr. Michael Lynch teaches language and humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Monday, September 14th 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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