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God the Author of Nature and the Supernatural
Part One: Creation as a Divine Act

God Keeps the World in Existence Positively, Directly and Immediately

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The present thesis is the next logical step after seeing that God created the world out of nothing. By itself, creation implies only that the world was brought into being by divine omnipotence, without further saying how the once created world is kept in existence. Hence the question and our answer, that except for God's sustaining hand, the world would lapse into the nothingness from which it came.

As the Latin equivalent, we might say, "Deus conservat mundum in suo esse positive, directe et immediate," where the operative word is conservat and the three adverbs describe how the preservation takes place.

It may also be useful to distinguish the scope of our thesis from two other, closely allied issues, namely, divine providence and the divine concursus. Providence is the all-regulating and stable plan by which God, as supreme ruler of the universe, directs or ordains all things to their final end. Divine concurrence or concursus has been described by the Roman Catechism as God's "intimate power (by which) He impels to motion and action whatever things move and act, and this in such a manner that, although He excludes not, He yet anticipates (praeveniat), the agency of secondary causes." In other words, the divine conservation of the world in being (our thesis) is the foundation for providence and concurrence, since a thing must first be kept in existence before we can logically speak of its being directed or governed or how precisely God concurs in the action of secondary causes.


Conservation or preservation are the noun equivalents for the verb "keeps," and may be variously subdivided.

  1. Taken passively, conservation refers to the thing preserved, and is simply "the continuance of something, dependent on some cause." Understood actively conservation refers to the cause on which an object depends for its existence.

  2. Active preservation may, in turn, be either negative or positive. In the first case, we hardly have preservation except in the loose sense of not destroying the object in question. But positive preservation means a real influence which sustains a thing in existence.

  3. Then positive preservation can be merely indirect or direct. It is indirect when the influence means simply the removal of destructive agencies; it is direct when the influence is exercised continuously and effectively, to preserve something in existence.

  4. Finally direct preservation may be either mediate or immediate. If it were done through secondary causes being used as means by God, it would be mediate; but if God keeps creatures in existence by an intrinsic influx of His power, the preservation is immediate.

We therefore defend an active preservation, while implying the passive; and a positive, while admitting a merely negative; and a direct, since the indirect is obvious and rather pertains to providence; and lastly an immediate conservation, although a certain degree of mediate conservative action may be conceded.

In existence should be taken without qualification, as opposed to nothingness, so that if conservation were removed the world would be annihilated.

God is understood as keeping all creation in existence, or esse simpliciter, while we prescind from whether He uses creatures to preserve other creatures in this or that kind of existence, or esse tale. However even this possibility must be ruled out where per se subsistent creatures like the human soul are concerned; these are preserved in being just as they are brought into being by God alone.


The only direct adversaries of moment who deny God's immediate preservation of the world are Deists. Four types of Deists are historically recognizable. For the first, God is only the Creator with no further interest in the world; the second group admit a Divine Providence, but only in the material, not in the moral and spiritual order; the third believe in certain moral attributes of God, but not in a future life; and the fourth accept all the truths of natural religion including belief in a life to come, but reject revelation. Consequently, properly speaking, only the first class would deny God's sustaining the universe in continued existence. But normally the lines are not that closely drawn among different Deists, since nowadays many who go by that name are rather, Agnostics, Rationalists, or pantheistic Naturalists.

There is a basic inconsistency in the Deistic position which deserves emphasis. Ostensibly, on the first level of Deism, God is admitted to exist as Creator but then denied any providential influence in the world. But logically they cannot have it both ways. Either they should admit preservation and providence, if they admit creation; or if they will not have providence, they should also deny creation. As a matter of fact, most nominal Deists are consistent, and while rejecting God's continuous care of the world, they also reject or question His creative action or even His existence as a personal, infinite being, who is really distinct from the universe.

Examples of adversative writers who oppose the thesis are numerous, even when a specific point of their doctrine is more directly against a deity that providentially runs the world than against a preservative providence itself.

1. Albert Einstein: Divine Sovereignty Would Deny Human Responsibility.

"During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man's own image, who, by the operation of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in how own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for fulfillment of their wishes

Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity it is accessible to the most undeveloped mind. But, on the other hand, there are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea itself, which have been painfully felt since the beginning of history. That is, if this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an Almighty Being? In giving out punishments and rewards He would, to a certain extent, be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?

The main source of the present day conflicts between the sphere of religion and science lies in this concept of a personal God. Ideas and opinions of Albert Einstein, 1954, pp.46-47

2. Paul Tillich: The Revolt against the God of Theism.

“The God of theological theism is a being beside others and as such a part of the whole of reality. He certainly is considered its most important part, but as a part and therefore as subjected to the structure of the whole. He is supposed to be beyond the ontological elements and categories which constitute reality. But every statement subjects him to them. He is seen as a self which has a world, as an ego which is related to a thou, as a cause which is separated from its effect, as having a definite space and an endless time. He is a being, not being-itself.

He deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all powerful and all knowing. I revolt and try to make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with the recent tyrants who, with the help of terror, try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in the machine they control. He bceomes the model of everything which the Existentialist revolted against. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against the theological theism and its disturbing implications” The Courage to Be, 1952, pp.175-176.

Dogmatic Value

If we restrict the thesis to Godts preservation of the world, in general and without further qualification, it would be Theologice Certa, as a conclusion from the Vatican definition on divine providence (DB 1784). Or, prescinding from the definition, it may be called De Fide ex Jugi Magisterio, as part of revealed tradition. Theologians are also agreed that a positive and not merely negative divine preservation is Theologice Certa, reasoning from Vatican; or De Fide ex Jugi as for conservation in general.

Most theologians would say the same notes as above apply also to direct and immediate conservation. Others prefer to limit the dogmatic value to Certa et Communis doctrine, which is also our position.

Theological Proof

While never formally defined by the Church as an article of faith, the doctrine of God's preservation of the universe is contained in the deposit of faith, at least by implication, and attested by the teaching of Christian tradition over the centuries.

  1. Ecclesiastical Documents

    1. The Vatican Council defined that, “By His providence, God watches over (tuetur) and governs (gubernat) all the things that He made, reaching from end to end with might and disposing all things with gentleness (Wisdom 8:1). For ‘all things are naked and open to His eyes' (Hebrews 4:13), even those things that are going to occur by the free action of creatures" (DB 1784).

      We argue from this definition to a positive divine preservation, by an a fortiori reasoning. For if God exercises a constant and perfect providence over all creatures, directing them by His will to their appointed end, He must also (to say the least) preserve these same creatures in existence by a positive divine influence. Otherwise He could not logically be said to govern the universe with infinite power and freedom.

      Moreover this preservation is not only positive, but also direct and immediate, as regards the esse simplicter of things. This follows from their instrinsic nature which is contingent and not necessary being. As such they always need the influx of a necessary Being to remain in existence, no less than to come into existence by creation in the first place. Nor may this influence be only indirect, i.e., removing destructive agents, since contingency is built into the every essence of creatures and not merely something to be warded off from the outside. And by the same token the influence must be immediate, again for preservation of the esse simpliciter of things, since they have existence as such from the Creator, and not from other creatures, which, at most, can give them "this kind of existence," as when (in material things) secondary efficient causes produce and conspire to preserve substantial forms or accidental properties.

    2. In the authoritative Catechism of the Council of Trent (Roman Catechism); we are told that, “As all things derive existence from the Creator's supreme power, wisdom and goodness, so unless preserved continually by His providence, and by the same power which produced them, they would instantly return into their nothingness" (part I, art. 1).

  2. Sacred Scripture

    The Scriptures clearly distinguish the need of divine preservation from creation. Thus "How would anything have endured, unless you had willed it? Or that which was not called by You, how would it have been preserved?" (Wisdom 11:26). If this preservative influence were withdrawn, all living things would perish, "When you take away your breath, they die, and turn again into dust" (Psalm 103:29). Familiar terms for divine preservation are "upholding" or passively “indwelling," notably in St. Paul: "God...has spoken to us by His Son...upholding al1 things by the word of His power" (Hebrews 1:1-3); " not far from any one of us. For in Him we live and move awn 'haave our being" (Acts 17:27-28).

  3. Patristic Evidence

    In their commentaries on the Scripture, the Fathers confirm the twofold necessity of God's sustaining power as much as the need of creation to bring the world into existence. Commenting on the statement in the Acts, made by St. Paul to the Athenians, Origen asks "How then shall we live and move and be in God, unless with His power He grasps and holds together the universe?" (Rouet 458).

    Running as a theme in the Fathers is the need for God’s sustaining hand to keep the world from lapsing into nothing. "To hold the universe together is no smaller matter than to have created it. In fact it is something greater. For while the act of creation produced beings, the act of preservation sustains them, lest they return to nothingness" (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. In Hebr. 2:1); "The world would not endure for a single moment, if God were to withdraw His governing power from it" (St. Augustine, In Gen., 4:14).

    St. Thomas summarizes the patristic doctrine by explaining the need for divine preservation. "Being (or existence) is not the nature or essence of anything created, but of God alone. Nothing therefore can remain in existence when the divine activity ceases" (Contra Gentiles, 3:65).

Kerygmatic Development

As the basis for Providence and the divine concursus, preservation of the world by God opens up the whole panorama of consequences that follow on His nearness to the creatures He sustains and the love with which He cares for them.

  1. God's Presence in the World. St: Ignatius in the Contemplation for Obtaining Divine Love urges the need for reflection on God's manifold benefits to stimulate our love. Among these he stresses the fact that "God dwells in creatures: in the elements giving them existence, in the plants giving them life, in the animals giving them sensation, in man bestowing understanding. So He dwells in me and gives me being, life, sensation, intelligence, and makes a temple of me." Moreover "God works and labors for me in all creatures…Thus, in the elements, plants, fruits and cattle, He gives being, conserves them, confers life and sensation." The implications for arousing gratitude are countless, especially if we recognize that this indwelling in creatures is a sheer gift of the same Creator who brought the world and ourselves out of nothing. Correspondingly we should react in kind, spiritually "putting ourselves" into what we give to God and do for Him, with a generosity that imitates His own.

  2. Nearness of God. St. Augustine is warrant for the statement that "God who made things is more nigh to us than are those many things which He has made" (De Genesi, 5:24). Necessarily because no matter how close other things are to us, or how much we depend on them, yet God is closer in the deepest sense of nearness of a cause to the effect it produces. For otherwise than secondary causes, God is the continuous Primary Cause of all things, not only bringing them into being but so utterly sustaining them that, except for this sustenance, they, would not only be changed, or weakened, or even merely destroyed, but simply cease to be.

  3. Responsiveness to God's Presence. In as much as God is so near to us, we have only to recognize this nearness to profit from the reality. It puts new meaning into the Catechism answer that, "God is everywhere," by focusing our attention not on a pious fancy but on the metaphysical fact that God dwells in us with the kind of proximity that beggars description. Realization of this truth produces confidence in having God so near, reverence at being so close to the Infinite, humility at the condescension of God towards His creatures, prayerfulness in being able to address Him in our own souls, a sense of power in knowing that His power is so near at hand, reverence at living in such intimacy with the Deity, and a wholesome fear at the thought that nothing we do could possibly escape Him.

  4. Answer to Deistic Mechanism. It is this dogma of God’s continuous preserving providence that lies at the basis of our answer to an all too common notion of the Deity, even among certain Christians. They conceive God as a distant clockmaker who is twice removed from the world and mankind: once by the distance of space and time since the dawn of creation, and again by His unconcern about the world which He once made. Not only is this bad theology, it is impossible philosophy. God could not make a world like that. Just as it needed His almighty power to come into being, so it needs that same power to keep its intrinsic contingency from falling into nonentity.

  5. Possibility of Miracles. Behind the Deistic notion of an "absentee God!' who once made the world and then let it run on its own, is the motive we find in those who claim this position. They want to rule out the possibility or at least the need of miracles, by arguing that the universe is so self-sustaining it never requires divine intervention. Divine preservation is, indeed, not intervention, but it lays the groundwork for making miraculous intervention both rationally possible and (given a special purpose on God's part) logically necessary. For if, as is true, God must continually uphold the world in existence, why can He not alter the mode of His providence? And if the world depends absolutely on God not only for creation but for constant preservation, what prevents Him from exercising mastery over the world in a way which to us appears miraculous, but which from the viewpoint of God is no more difficult than His ordinary providence?



  1. What is the relation between the present thesis and the previous one?

  2. Define providence and distinguish it from divine preservation.

  3. Define divine concursus, and distinguish it from both Providence and divine preservation.


  1. Is there any difference in connotation between the English words "preservation" and "conservation"?

  2. Distinguish each of the following pairs of terms, descriptive of preservation:

    • passive and active
    • negative and positive
    • direct and indirect
    • mediate and immediate

  3. What kind of preservation do we defend in the thesis? Explain.

  4. Explain the meaning of "in existence," i.e., in suo esse.

  5. In what sense is “God" understood in the thesis, i.e., as operating in what capacity?


  1. What are the four types of Deism commonly distinguished historically?

  2. In what way are Deists inconsistent when they deny divine conservation or Providence in the world?

  3. Name several modern writers who deny the thesis because of their philosophical position.

  4. What is Einstein's argument against the divine sovereignty, and therefore against a divine conservation of the universe?

  5. What does Tillich substitute for theological theism which he opposes?

Dogmatic Value

  1. Give the argument by which we conclude to Theologically Certain for the thesis, arguing from the Vatican definition?

  2. Distinguish and explain the dogmatic value of the thesis, when divine preservation is taken as "direct and immediate."

Theological proof

  1. Using the Vatican definition (DB 1784), explain the meaning of the following terms with a view to proving the thesis: condidit…tuetur…gubernat.

  2. Why must the preservation of the world by God be direct and immediate?

  3. Give the text of the Roman Catechism which states the thesis in so many words.

  4. Quote one text each from the Old and New Testaments, in support of our thesis, and explain its probative force.

  5. Why should Chrysostom say that preservation of the world is something greater than creation?

  6. Since the Fathers speak so much about the world lapsing into nothingness except for God's power, may we say that God sometimes withdraws this power and annihilates things? If not, why not?

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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