Why this Question Matters.
In the next three questions, Aquinas turns to the subjects of providence and predestination. Given that God’s causality simply is what causes everything to be, it might seem that what He plans for creatures has an inevitability that removes all freedom from those creatures. Even more specifically, it would seem to reduce Christianity (or any other religion that recognizes God as first cause) to the playing out of an inevitable Fate. In this question, Aquinas concentrates on providence; that is, God’s plan for His creation. In following a strategy similar to that of Question 19, Aquinas has to tread a careful line between absolute determinism and total incoherence in his argument that God’s creative power enables His creation to play a true causal role in the unfolding of the plan that God has for it.
The Thread of the Argument
A1: Aquinas asks whether it is appropriate to associate providence with God. Following a fairly well established pattern, the point of this question does not lie in a yes/no answer but in clarifying what we mean by providence when we use it in relation to God as opposed to other possible meanings. The answer is, of course, “yes”: God’s goodness is not only expressed in the creation of things and in His holding them in existence, but also in His ordering such created things to their end. When we talk about providence with respect to God, what we mean is the plan in God’s mind that orders all created things to their end. Aquinas goes on to connect this notion with the virtue of prudence because, humanly speaking, prudence is itself associated with the correct ordering of affairs. In the reply to the first objection, Aquinas quotes Aristotle to the effect that “prudence…commands what good deliberation well advises and what understanding correctly decides upon”. So there is a certain connection between prudence and providence in human affairs. When we consider God, however, we have to remember that this is an analogy and that He does not deliberate and that His act of understanding itself is creative of what is correct.
A2: If God’s providence were to extend to everything in the created world then there would seem to be a number of problems. How could anything occur by chance if everything was ordered by God’s providence? If God were providing for everything, how could misfortune befall anything? How could people make decisions for themselves if their lives were mapped out by providence? Aquinas simply reasserts that providence is God’s ordering of all created things to their ends and that God’s causation (being the first efficient causation) reaches to every secondary cause. In answer to the objection that chance would seem to be ruled out by universal providence, Aquinas points out that we consider events fortuitous or down to chance when particular causes are frustrated by other particular causes or when seemingly unrelated causes interact. Aquinas gives the example of two servants who meet by chance (as far as they are concerned) when carrying out the orders of a master who has foreseen their meeting by his intentionally sending them so they would meet. Particular causes may give the impression of chance to their agents, but from the point of view of the universal cause such chance events are foreseen. To the objection that misfortune and the occurrence of evil affecting individuals would seem to rule out universal providence, Aquinas points out the difference between particular and universal providence. Someone with care for an individual would indeed do their best for that individual, but one tasked with universal providence would preserve the good of the whole. Omelettes cannot be made without eggs being broken and lions cannot flourish without the death of their prey. Aquinas quotes Augustine: “Almighty God would in no way permit any evil in His works unless He were so good and powerful that He could bring good even out of evil”. In answer to the objection that free choice would seem to be incompatible with providence, Aquinas gives an answer that has some similarities with that of Question 19 Article 8 where the problem of reconciling contingency with the seeming necessity of things caused by God’s will is tackled. The very act of free choice itself goes back to the manner in which God’s causality acts. God’s providence assures the freeness of our particular choices that are themselves ordered to the end to which we are directed by God.
A3: God provides for everything but does He provide directly for everything? Were He to do so, it might seem to remove all causality from created things and would also seem, for example, to make God directly responsible for evil. To answer this, Aquinas distinguishes between providence and governance. The former involves the “idea or planned purpose” for things, the latter involves the execution of this planned purpose. Having made this distinction, Aquinas argues that God’s providence is universally direct but that his governance is executed indirectly through intermediaries (that is, the beings that He has created). As in Question 19, the idea here is that God acts as universal cause, laying out the plan for all creation but that as part of that creation he creates true secondary causes that execute that plan. Those causes are all ordered to their end though God’s provenance.
A4: Finally, Aquinas turns to the question of whether God’s providence imposes necessity on the things for which it provides. Given the answers to the last two articles, and Aquinas’s general overlying idea of created secondary causes acting under the providence of the primary cause, his answer that such necessity is not imposed on all things does not come as a surprise. Aquinas adapts and reiterates the teaching of Question 19 Article 8 that God’s providence prepares necessary causes for some effects, so that they come to be of necessity and that He prepares contingent causes for other things, so that they come to be contingently.
The idea that God prepares contingent causes (Article 4) is difficult to reconcile with what we might understand by contingency. See also Question 19.