Providence of God (Theology of)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


God's providence, which pertains to His intelligence and will, is the act whereby He causes, cares for, and directs all creatures to their particular ends, in attaining which each one contributes to the final purpose of the universethe manifestation of His external glory. (see glory of god [end of creation].) Other related questions arise: how is the existence of providence consistent with the presence of evil in the world and with the existence of human freedom? The definition, while precise in Catholic theology, undergoes various modifications in other cultures, depending on their understanding of God's nature and attributes and of the destiny of man.

In Greek Philosophy. For the present consideration, among the Greek philosophers Aristotle is taken as the focal point. Democritus and the atomists, Socrates, and Plato precede him; the pantheism of the Stoics and the materialism of the Epicureans follow.

The atomists denied providence, explaining the world not by intelligent purpose but by an accidental and mechanical interplay of atoms. For Socrates the principle of causality pointed to the existence of the gods; yet he was not especially concerned with monotheism. Whatever has a use must be the work of intelligence or wisdom. This is present in all things, determining them according to its good pleasure. Plato's thoughts on the subject were conditioned by contemporary mythology. He seems to have admitted a threefold providence: (1) that of the supreme god, whose main concern is for spiritual beings and then for universal categories, such as classes, species, causes; (2) that of lesser gods, who move the heavenly bodies and take care of individual things; and (3) that of the demons, who are midway between man and the gods and who look after human affairs.

Aristotle held to one god, whose life is contemplative thoughtwith which the exercise of providence over individual things would be incompatible. Ordinarily his care extends to species only. He is interested in particular things only insofar as they share in this common nature (cf. St. Thomas, In 1 sent. 39.2.2).

An interpretation of providence according to the Stoics must take into consideration their teaching on god as the soul of the universe. There are two ultimate principles, matter and force. The first is without motion and form; the second is active, inseparably joined to the former. In the universe this force is god; in man it is the soul, which is part of the deity. Epicurus, accepting the atomism of Democritus, found it unnecessary to postulate mind as a moving cause. The gods exist, but interest in human affairs would be inconsistent with their happiness. Under the influence of fear and ignorancethe basis of religionmen attribute natural happenings to providence.

In Jewish Thought. The term "providence" (πρόνοια) is used in Jewish literature for the first time in the Septuagint. The idea, however, is biblical. Among these people the notion of the Divinity was more exalted than that held in pagan circles. Likewise, under successive revelations their knowledge of the future life, of human responsibility, and of the problem of evil became more explicit. God is the omniscient author of the universe and cares for all creatures. Everything happens according to His plan. A distinction is not always made between His absolute and permissive will; at times there is a tendency to consider the effects of secondary causes as His direct action.

Among the Hellenistic Jews Philo showed a somewhat different development. He firmly held to divine providence; he wrote a book on the subject. Yet he followed the Platonic notion that God can have no direct contact with finite beings. His explanation of the production of the world through the Logoi, as the intermediaries of the divine action, is a mixture of Plato's teaching on preexisting ideas, of the Stoic idea of world-soul, of the biblical account of the angels, and of the Greek concept of the demons in their mythology.

The traditional Jewish teaching on providence was also affected by later considerations on man's free will. In Josephus's account (Antiquities 18.1.4) the Sadducees, to safeguard human freedom, denied divine influence. In general, at the time of Christ, it was held that God acted on external events, particularly those of a national or worldwide character. Two opinions were prevalent about His operation in man's inner life: He either gave virtue or persuaded man to exercise it.

Patristic Period. With the more complete revelation of man's final destiny, the notion of providence undergoes greater precision. Thus Redemption by Christ, action under grace (sanctifying and actual), predestination to eternal life, and final reprobation are within its scope. (see providence of god [in the bible].)

Augustine's teaching is representative of early ecclesiastical writers. All things are caused by divine omnipotence. If at any time this power were withdrawn, everything would cease existing (Gen. ad litt. 4.12.22; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 271 v., indexes 4 v. [Paris 187890] 34:304). This care extends to the whole world and to its smallest part (Conf. 3.11.19; Patrologia Latina 32: 692). No one is released from sin except by the grace of the Redeemer (Pecc. orig. 29.34; Patrologia Latina 44:402). In his actions man is free (Serm. 125.5; Patrologia Latina 38:692693). To react against the evils in this world by denying God's existence, or providence, or justice is great impiety (In Psalm. 31.25; Patrologia Latina 36:273). These evils, if borne properly, are useful in proving one's love for the Creator, in making satisfaction for faults, in leading one to desire and strive more fully for heaven, where true happiness exists. (Trin. 13.16.20; Patrologia Latina 42:1030). Future good things have been prepared for the just that the unjust will not enjoy; and evil things for the wicked with which the virtuous will not be tortured (Civ. 1.8.1; Patrologia Latina 41.20).

In early Christianity, however, there were false views on divine providence, as, for example, those given by gnosticism and manichaeism. The first, introduced by Marcion in the middle of the 2d century, made a distinction between the father-god, the supreme cause of all being, and the creator and law-giver of the OT, who held a subordinate rank. In the 3d century Manes, a Persian convert, taught the concept of two eternal principles, one good, the other bad. From this latter comes all evil, physical and moral.

Boethius greatly influenced later Christian thought. He gives the classical definition: providence is the divine intelligence that is above all things and directs them (De consol. phil. 4 prosa 6; Patrologia Latina 63:814). God is responsible for the production, change, and motion of everything. Some interrelated philosophical and theological problems are also discussed: fate, chance, divine knowledge and predestination, and freedom of will.

St. Thomas Aquinas. The teaching of St. Thomas, together with the pronouncements of the magisterium, gives a very detailed picture of providence. Thomas considers this the principal part of the virtue of prudence, whose object is the proper ordering of things toward their end, or purpose (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 49.6 and ad1). Divine providence is twofold, insofar as it is conceived as directing things to a natural end or intellectual creatures to one that is supernatural.

Existence of Providence. Several proofs can be given for the existence of this natural providence. One proceeds from God to creatures. He is the first and universal cause. Since His divine simplicity excludes any composition, His intelligence and will are identified with this causality, and thus He knows and wills all things (Summa theologiae 1a, 45.5; 19.4).

Another is based on an analogy between the activities of the creature and the Creator. If a person enters a well-arranged house, he can safely assume a reasonable cause behind the order. In the world, in the great majority of cases, there is a pattern whereby things turn out for the better. This regularity cannot be explained except in terms of the overall directing providence of the author of the universe, God (Summa theologiae 1a, 103.1).

The same argument is presented with a slight variation. All good must be attributed to God. This would include not only the mere existence of individual beings but also the order found in and between them, e.g., the regular succession of seasons or the benefits of living in a well-organized society. These things, clearly recognizable as good, are the work of divine providence (Summa theologiae 1a, 22.1).

Providence Described. While the analogical argument is based on similarities between the things compared, it still recognizes their differences. So divine providence is quite unlike its human counterpart. It is infinite and eternal, not limited and temporal. It exists in God's intelligence and presupposes His will, yet it is not multiple or successive, but one simple act identified with His essence (Summa theologiae 1a, 21.1 ad 3). Man can direct himself and others toward a goal. God, the last end of all things, is incapable of any determination to something outside Himself; His providence extends not to Himself but only to creatures (Summa theologiae 1a, 22.1).

God, the first cause of all things, disposes them to the end that He intends (Summa theologiae 1a, 22.2). Everything is eternally in Him, and in this way He immediately cares for them. This is the meaning of providence in the strict sense. The execution of His plan, however, takes place in time and is called governance (Summa theologiae 1a, 22.1 ad 2). For it He usually employs instruments, and thus His watchfulness is also mediate. Such use does not imply any defect in Him. It is rather a sign of His infinite goodness, whereby others are allowed to share in His causality (Summa theologiae 1a, 22.3).

Creatures either possess or lack intelligence. The former are free, capable of self-determination. The others are without freedom. They tend toward an end that is either apprehended by the senses (as the actions of brute animals indicate) or completely unknown (as in the case of plants and minerals). This diversity in beings is the work of providence and contributes to the perfection of the universe (Summa theologiae 1a, 22.4; 1a2ae, 1.2).

In addition to existing on the natural level, man is also destined by divine providence to a supernatural last end, God as He is in Himself. Human reason alone cannot prove this; an appeal must be made to revelation. As Vatican Council I stated: Revelation must be said to be absolutely necessary, "because God out of His infinite goodness ordered man to a supernatural end, namely to share in the divine goods, which completely surpass the understanding of the human mind" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 3005).

Such a direction of man, or predestination, falls under divine providence; yet differences are to be noted. These are to be considered only from the part of the creature affected and from the end toward which he is directed. In God there is no distinction. Providence is the more general term. It applies to all things, rational and irrational, good and evil, and to both natural and supernatural orders. Predestination considers only the intellectual being and his principal purpose, his final union with God, something above the power of unaided nature. It touches on such things as the eternal choice for glory, sanctifying grace, actual grace, and other means in this order (De ver. 6.1).

Difficulties. Providence involves both God's foreknowledge and His omnipotence. Relative to these attributes some difficulties, philosophical and theological, arise. There is the riddle of good and evil. If God has care of all things, how can evil, both physical and moral, be explained? There is also the question of human freedom. If from all eternity man's actions are divinely known and willed, how can he be free?

Insofar as these problems deal only with the natural order, human reason supplies an answer without leading to complete understanding. Its knowledge of the divine essence is analogical, which by its very nature is not exhaustive. Thus God wills evil not in itself but for the good toward which it is directed. For example, a man in charge of a single thing will exclude a defect from it insofar as he can. One with more extended authority may permit some imperfection in a particular thing under his charge to ensure the general welfare. Since He cares for all things, God allows deficiencies in individual instances to bring about the good of the universe (Summa theologiae 1a, 19.8, 22.2 ad 2).

Likewise on the purely natural level it cannot be said that God's providence destroys man's free will. God is the first and universal cause of all things. As such He moves all things according to the nature He has given themirrational creatures without freedom, rational beings with the possibility of choice. To be free one need not be primary cause of his actions; as a secondary cause, however, he must be capable of true self-determination (Summa theologiae 1a, 103.7, 83.1 ad 3).

When these same difficulties are placed in the supernatural order, however, it is impossible for human reason alone to give an answer. Here entrance is had into the realm of mysterypredestination to eternal life, the supernaturalization of the soul and its actions, the freedom of the will under the influence of actual grace, final reprobation, the sufferings of the just in this life and the good fortune of the evil. Recourse must be had to the teachings of faith.

Magisterial Teaching. In various documents the Church clearly sets forth the nature of divine providence. Its universality is declared in the profession of faith required of the Waldensians desirous of returning to unity: "we believe also the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be the creator, maker, ruler, and disposer of all things" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 790). Vatican Council I enunciates the same truth, making mention of man's freedom: "All things that He founded God by His providence protects and governs, 'reaching from end to end mightily and governing all things well' (cf. Wis 8.1). 'For all things are naked and open to His eyes' (Heb 4.13), even those things which are future by the free action of creatures" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 3003).

From several local councils there are indications on predestination. Thus the Council of Quiercy (May 853) substantially follows Augustine: "The good and just God according to His foreknowledge chose from the same mass of perdition those whom through grace He predestined to life, and for them he predestined eternal life: the others, however, whom in the judgment of His justice He left in the mass of perdition, He knew would perish, but He did not predestine them to perish, although He predestined eternal punishment for them, because He is just"(H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 621). The Council of Valence (Jan. 8, 855) states: "this foreknowledge of God has not imposed necessity the evil perish not because they could not be good but because they did not want to be good" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 627).

Divine providence allows both moral and physical evil in the world. God permits man's sin, without being its cause; the human being is responsible for his actions. The Council of Trent decreed: "If anyone says that it is not in man's power to make his ways evil, but that God works evil as He does good, not permissively only but properly and per se let him be anathema" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 1556). In his encyclical Libert as praestantissimum, Leo XIII touches on the question of the physical evils that afflict man. "Although this most provident God is of infinite goodness and can do all things, yet He allows evils in the world, partly that greater goods be not impeded and partly that greater evils be prevented" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 3251). A correct perspective on these evils is indicated elsewhere. Against M. Baius Pope St. Pius V stated that the afflictions undergone by the just are not always a punishment for sins (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 1972). Clement XI, rejecting the position of Pasquier Quesnel, taught that God does allow the innocent to suffer, that these troubles are not always a punishment for or a purification from sin (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 2470).

See Also: destiny, supernatural; evil; free will and providence; god, articles on; grace, articles on; mercy of god; omniscience; scientia media; will of god

Bibliography: h. d. simonin, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 13.1:941960. a. rascol, ibid. 961984. r. garrigou-lagrange, ibid. 9851023; Providence, tr. b. rose (St. Louis 1944). "Vorsehung," Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) v. 10. thomas aquinas, Providence and Predestination, tr. r. w. mulligan (Chicago 1961). st. augustine, Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil, ed. and tr. r. p. russell (New York 1942). c. f. d'arcy, Providence and the World Order (London 1932). m. c. d'arcy, The Pain of This World and the Providence of God (New York 1952). c. s. lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York 1944). j. m. marling, The Order of Nature in the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (Washington 1934). a. g. sertillanges, Dieu gouverne (Paris 1942). p. siwek, "God and Evil," Homiletic and Pastoral Review 58 (195758) 879885, 961970. j. harrington, "The Concept of Chance and Divine Providence," American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting 28 (1954) 176183. h. d. roqueplo, "Est-il possible que Dieu s'occupe de nous?" La Vie spirituelle 106 (1962) 319335. w. l. ysaac, "The Certitude of Providence in St. Thomas," Modern Schoolman 38 (1961) 305321.

[e. j. carney]