Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Question 26 - God's Beatitude

Why this Question Matters.

This is the last question “concerning what belongs to the unity of God’s essence”, the so-called “Treatise on the One God”. Aquinas has already reflected on beatitude as the last end of rational creatures; but now it is time for Him to consider how we might pre-eminently attribute beatitude to God Himself.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas needs to define what he considers beatitude to be, so that he can overcome objections that suggest beatitude is to do with the accumulation of goods or is to do with being the reward for merit (which would make no sense for God). He states that beatitude is the “perfect good for an intellectual being” where that being is capable of grasping its own satisfaction with the good it possesses; is capable of doing well or badly; and is master of its own actions. From this definition, it is clear that beatitude belongs especially to God.

A2: When we think about God, although He is entirely simple, we can think about Him under different aspects. We can think about Him from the point of view of His essence or from the point of view of His will or of His intellect. How should we be thinking of Him when we consider His beatitude? One might consider beatitude, as it is to do with the good, to be to do with essence; similarly, as beatitude is to do with an end, one might also consider it under the aspect of the will. However, Aquinas insists that God’s beatitude is associated with His intellect. Everything with intellect desires to be blessed and the most perfect thing in an intellectual creature is the intellect by which it grasps all things. Hence the beatitude of an intellectual creature lies in intellectual activity. In God, being and understanding are really identical, but we can understand them in different ways. So it is appropriate for us to think of God’s beatitude in terms of His intellect.

A3: We might be inclined to simply identify the beatitude of those who are blessed with God Himself. Aquinas takes care to distinguish between intellect thought of as having an object to understand and intellect as the thing that does the understanding. In the first sense God is indeed beatitude as He is the object of the understanding intellect. But in the second sense, we should understand beatitude as something actually created in those who are blessed.

A4: Finally, Aquinas asks whether God’s beatitude encompasses all beatitude. As beatitude is a kind of perfection and God’s perfection includes every other sort of perfection (Question 4 Article 2) the answer is a straightforward “yes”. Anything desirable in a beatitude pre-exists in God’s beatitude. Aquinas takes this opportunity, at the end the “Treatise on the One God”, to offer a brief hymn of praise to God’s glory.

Question 25 - God's Power

Why this Question Matters.

Having talked about God’s willing and His knowledge, together with things such as His providence that arise from them, it is quite natural for Aquinas to discuss God’s power; that by which God acts as an agent. We commonly call God infinitely powerful and also omnipotent, but what do these mean? A common objection to the notion of omnipotence is that it implies contradictions: if God is omnipotent what is to stop Him from creating a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it? Aquinas’s strategy is to pursue a careful line of enquiry as to what these terms mean, turning the common objections on their heads.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas begins his discussion of the power of God by asking whether there is power in God. This does seem a very curious question but the very first objection against the thesis indicates the need for the precision that Aquinas will bring to bear throughout this question. The Latin word potentia, which is here translated as “power” can also be translated as “potentiality” and, as we have seen, God is pure actuality with no admixture of potentiality. This play on words indicates the need to distinguish between two kinds of potentia: a passive power that corresponds to the ability to be acted on by an agent, and an active power facilitating acting as an agent on other things. Clearly God has no potentia in the first sense but has it pre-eminently in the second sense. A number of objections are made that are each based on confusion about God’s simplicity. For example, power is a source of action (or actuality) but God’s actuality is his essence but His essence has no source. Aquinas replies that power, in the context of God, should properly be thought of in terms of the source of effects rather than of actions and this approach frees us from the contradiction. Similarly, as God’s knowledge and will are the cause of all things, the notion of power seems to be redundant. As before, Aquinas is willing to distinguish between what is real in God and what is conceptually useful for us in talking about God.

A2: We commonly think that there can be no limit to God’s power both in terms of amount and extent but this would seem to lead to problems when God applies His power to the created world. Any infinite power would seem to bring about an infinite effect; in particular, infinite force acting on a body would accelerate it to infinite velocity. But these are impossible. God’s active power clearly has to be infinite, as God’s essence is infinite (Question 7 Article 1), so the apparent contradictions must lie in confusion about How God’s power acts in creation. The confusion is twofold but basically arises from pushing the analogy of action within creation with God’s action too far. If a body were acting on another body with infinite power then we do indeed reach a physical nonsense. However, God is not a body nor does He act as a univocal agent. When the first body acts on the second its power is ordered entirely towards the single end of moving the second body. It has no “choice” in how it acts on the body; its action is strongly coupled and subordinated to the end of moving the second body. When God acts in creation He acts as a non-univocal agent whose power is not subordinate to any of its effects as an and. He chooses the end He wishes to achieve and uses as much of His power as is appropriate.

A3: Having dealt with the question of the infinitude of God’s power, Aquinas now turns to the question of the extent of God’s power: is God omnipotent? The problems that Aquinas has to face in this article are made clear in the objections: surely omnipotence means “being able to do anything”? But if God is omnipotent then he can act upon Himself; He can sin; He can create a weight that He cannot lift! Moreover, if God can do anything, then it would seem that what there is in the world and how it all fits together is entirely down to God’s will; there can be no notion of necessity in the world at all. Aquinas confesses that God is omnipotent but immediately admits that what omnipotence amounts to is non-trivial to determine. Aquinas’s solution is that God can do anything that is possible. What then does “possible” mean? According to Aristotle, one of the meanings of “possible” relates to what is possible to a particular power (this is called relative possibility). I can lift a fifty kilogram weight, but I cannot life a hundred kilograms. We might think that what is possible to God is simply the sum of all that is possible to created powers, but this seems far too restrictive. Neither can we say that God can do what is open to God’s power, as that would be circular. Aristotle’s second meaning of “possible” relates to what is absolutely possible. In this sense something is possible if it doesn’t involve an inherent contradiction. Put another way, a state of affairs is absolutely possible if it can have being. Nothingness is the only thing that contradicts being, so whatever simultaneously implies being and non-being cannot be absolutely possible and is beyond the remit of God’s omnipotence. Aquinas coins a neat way of putting it: “the best thing to say, however, is that they cannot be brought about, not that God cannot bring them about”.

A4: Having determined that God’s power stretches to all that is non-contradictory, Aquinas asks whether He can make the past not to have been. In other words (given article 3), is the mutability of the past inherently contradictory? In Question 10 Aquinas discussed time, aeviternity and eternity and it was clear there that understanding the relationship between a being that exists “in eternity” and beings that exist “in time” is a tricky philosophical problem. If one thinks of the analogy where God “looks” down on the four dimensional space-time universe, grasping all of it in one go, then it would not be too difficult to imagine that God may fiddle with what is in the past (as far as we are concerned). However attractive this analogy may seem, it can be misleading and Aquinas claims that to be able to change the past is inherently impossible. We feel perfectly at ease with the idea that saying Socrates is both seated and standing is a contradiction; Aquinas claims that to say Socrates was seated and was standing (simultaneously) is also a contradiction. If this little argument is not enough, the authority of Augustine and Aristotle are called on to bolster the argument.

A5: Since God foresees and pre-ordains what He actually brings about it would seem that God is unable to bring about what He does not bring about. In other words, God is constrained in what He brings about by what He actually brings about because of the way that He brings it about. Aquinas has already pointed out in Question 19 Article 3 that God’s will is not constrained by any natural necessity, so the fact that things have come about from God in the way they have is not a constraint on God. God was perfectly free to create the universe in whatever way He pleased. Similarly it is not correct to think of God’s plan of wisdom and justice as constraining Him. The confusion seems to lie in the fact that God brings all things to be in His single act of being; because we think of His single act of being under a number of different conceptual guises (His being, His essence, His power, His justice, His providence and so forth) we are liable to think of these different aspects constraining each other. We have to be careful not to allow these different conceptual approaches to God to obscure the single underlying reality. A further useful distinction to make that allows us to think coherently in terms of these conceptual distinctions without falling into the trap of thinking that their mutual inter-relationships constrain God, is between the Absolute Power of God and the Ordained Power of God. The absolute power of God refers to His radical freedom to bring about whatever He wills to bring about. His ordained power refers to His power to bring about whatever He has pre-ordained to bring about by reason of His just will.

A6: Having shown that God, by His absolute power, is not constrained in what He brings into being, we might ask whether He can make things better than He does. Aquinas answers this question by making a number of distinctions about how things could be made better. If we think of a particular thing then, as far as its essence goes, God cannot make it any better than it is because to do so would be to change its essence and therefore make it something different. He can, of course, make something different instead of what He has actually made. Although God cannot improve the essence of something without changing what it is, He can make its non-essential characteristics better; so a human can become wiser or more virtuous, for example.

Handy Concepts

  • God’s power refers to His active power rather than to any notion of passive power or potentiality.
  • God’s omnipotence reaches to everything that is consistent with being. This is sometimes formulated as the “Principle of non-contradiction”, that something cannot simultaneously be and not be.
  • We distinguish between the Absolute Power of God and the Ordained Power of God. The former refers to His power to bring about whatever He wills, the latter to His power to bring about what He wills.


  • In Article 3 Aquinas claims that God can only do what is inherently possible, in the sense of not involving a contradiction. He also states this in the form of saying that a state of affairs cannot simultaneously be and not be. Later thinkers such as Descartes claimed that part of God’s creative activity involves determining what the laws of logic themselves are. Therefore Aquinas’s “Principle of non-contradiction” is itself under God’s power. God could have made creation with different logical rules. This point of view is related to later medieval developments in the idea of the absolute power of God. As Aquinas himself observed, this idea is rationally incoherent, as our minds are subject to the laws of logic and anything outside this cannot be thought about: it is not to hard to turn the assertion itself into a contradiction (as far as our laws of logic are concerned!)
  • The argument in Article 4 that the past cannot be changed depends on something in the past having a sort of absolute existence. To assert a different past is therefore to assert a simultaneous being and non-being, because the event in the past has real being. But what happens if one attempts to argue that God “changing” an event in the past involves that event never having had existence? It would seem that to do so, one would have to leave any coherent notion of philosophical realism behind.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Question 24 - The Book Of Life

Why this Question Matters.

Several times in scripture, both in the Old Testament and in the New, reference is made to the “Book of Life”. Clearly this book has something to do with the ultimate destiny of individual humans. In the article Aquinas clarifies the meaning of this term and reconciles some different accounts of its meaning found in the Christian tradition.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: As the “Book of Life” has something to do with the ultimate destiny of individual humans, a good question to ask is if this “book” is identical to predestination. Aquinas answers that, primarily speaking, the “Book of Life” is God’s knowledge of who He has predestined to eternal life and that the terminology of a “book” is a metaphor with the human activity of recording facts in books. However, Aquinas is willing to concede that the term “Book of Life” is open to more than one meaning. In particular, it can also refer to the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible inasmuch as the latter record those things that lead to life and it can also refer to the divine force which enables all to remember their deeds inasmuch as they lead to life. So although the “Book of Life” is about predestination there is a conceptual distinction between the two.

A2: One may also ask whether the “Book of Life” refers only to the elect predestined to glory or whether other things (such as God’s life or the life of all of nature) are recorded there. Aquinas insists that the “Book of Life” refers to those destined to glory because it is primarily to do with election to something beyond the natural. Neither God’s life, nor the course of the natural world involve election beyond what is natural to them, therefore they are not the subject of the “Book of Life”. In replying to the last of the objections, Aquinas observes that the life of grace is not in itself the end of life, but rather a means to the end. So one is only elected to the life of grace insofar as one is elected to the life of glory; conversely the fact that one is at some time granted grace does not imply that one is therefore predestined for glory. Those who ultimately fall from grace are said to be conditionally elected and their names are written in the book of life conditionally rather than absolutely. Aquinas will return to this point in the third article.

A3: It would seem that if one’s name is written in the “Book of Life” then it cannot be erased from there, as the election to eternal life is infallible. Aquinas recognizes that sometimes something is said to be done when it becomes known; therefore one might argue that one can say that a person is entered into the “Book of Life” when their grace becomes known and their name erased when it is clear that they have fallen from grace. Having said this, Aquinas still insists that human opinion is of secondary importance here; the “Book of Life” concerns objectives facts rather than human opinions. However, continuing the thread of argument in the reply to the final objection in Article 2, he recalls that the “Book of Life” is to do with elevation to the supernatural order and that therefore the “Book of Life” also contains the names of those who are conditionally elected. It is almost as if the “Book of Life” contains two sections: those unconditionally elected to glory and those conditionally elected. The names in the first part cannot be erased, but those in the second part can.


  • It seems a little curious that Aquinas makes no mention of the other books referred to in Apoc. 20: 11-12 out of which the deeds of all (predestined and reprobated) are recalled.

Question 23 - Predestination

Why this Question Matters.

The predestination of the elect to glory is one of the great mysteries of the Christian religion. Consideration of predestination in general leads to a range of difficult questions: Why do some go to heaven and some to hell? If God is all-powerful why does He not redeem everybody? How can it be just that the elect are chosen irrespective of their merits? How does predestination differ from predetermination? If predestination is true, why should we not all be fatalists? Aquinas sees predestination as a special case of God’s providence which itself originates in God’s will. In this article he brings all the resources that he has developed in the previous questions concerning God’s will to bear on the question of predestination. In doing so, Aquinas set the parameters for discussion of predestination and the co-operation of primary and secondary causes for the next seven centuries.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: In this introductory article, Aquinas recalls that providence is the ordering by God of created things to their end and that everything falls under His providence. He goes on to identify that the destiny of a creature may simply be proportionate to its created nature or it may exceed its nature. For rational creatures, this latter is eternal life which consists in the vision of God. If the destiny of a creature is to exceed its created nature then it has to be lifted up to such a destiny by God. Such a destiny pre-exists in God and this planned sending of the rational creature to eternal life is called predestination. Therefore predestination is a part of the providence that applies to some humans and angels. Predestination is therefore not predetermination which implies a necessity of the end.

A2: Aquinas has identified that predestination is that part of providence to do with the sending of some rational creatures to eternal life. He now asks whether those predestined to eternal life carry a mark of their destiny within themselves. Here he seems to be thinking in terms of a parallel to the baptismal seal on the soul. Despite this attractive parallel, Aquinas denies that the predestined are identified in such a way. Predestination is part of providence and as such exists in the mind of God. However, recalling the distinction made in Question 22 Article 3 between provenance and governance, Aquinas distinguishes between “active” part of predestination that exists in the mind of God and its “passive” part that exists in the predestined: the predestined carry out the plan of predestination as a “calling” that can be attributed to them.

A3: Predestination is the sending of certain rational creatures to their eternal destiny in the divine vision. If some, but not all, rational creatures are sent to such a destiny, does this not imply that the remainder are sent to a rather less fulfilling destiny in a similar fashion? There are two questions wrapped up together in this article: does God reprobate some rational creatures to eternal damnation and is such reprobation a parallel to predestination so that there is a so-called “double predestination” (to heaven and to hell)? Aquinas’s answer to these troubling theological questions has become the standard account: God does reprobate some rational creatures but their reprobation is not a parallel to predestination. Predestination is a part of providence and, as was pointed out in Question 22 Article 2, the workings of providence may allow for failures. Therefore predestination is to do with those who are destined to eternal glory whereas reprobation pertains to those who will fall short of this goal. Aquinas notes that reprobation is not simply to do with God’s foreknowledge of those who will fail but also involves the intention to permit the reprobate to fall into sin and to impose the consequent punishment. In reply to the objections, Aquinas points out that although God loves all rational creatures and wills certain goods to all of them, He does not thereby will every good to all rational creatures. Dealing directly with the objection that reprobation must be to a person rejected like predestination to a person predestined, Aquinas answers that causality differs between the two cases. Predestination causes both the future gift of glory and the present gift of grace in the predestined. Reprobation does not cause anything in the present; that is, it is not the cause of sin which is to be attributed to the free will of the reprobate. It is the cause of the abandonment of the sinner by God and of the eternal damnation that is the just penalty for the sin freely willed by the reprobate. But if someone is reprobated by God, how can he be held accountable and punished for what he cannot avoid? Aquinas answers that lacking the gift of grace does not take anything away from the rational creature that he previously had; he remains responsible for his inability to avoid sin and is therefore justly punished.

A4: The fourth article asks what may seem to be a curious question: are the predestined elected (that is, chosen) by God? At first it may seem unclear what the question even means! A guide to what is going on in the article is found in the answer that Aquinas gives: predestination logically presupposes election, and election logically presupposes love. He wants to make a contrast between election (or choice) and love in us with that in God. We are spurred to love someone by a pre-existing good in that person; we choose that person because of that good and then we love them. So in us, a good precedes election which precedes love. The important point is that this order is reversed when it comes to God. God’s love for someone creates the good in them; so that God’s love for that person singles them out (or elects them) and creates the good (predestining them to glory). From Question 20 Article 3, we know that although God loves all of creation, he also loves some more than others. This inequality implies choice of some over others.

A5: One of the most puzzling questions about predestination is this: why are some predestined to glory and others not? An obvious answer might seem to be that God has foreknowledge of those who would be meritorious in response to the gift of grace and of those who would not be, and restricts the gift of grace to those who will. So, if we put it formally we might ask: is foreknowledge of merit a cause of predestination? This might appear a very appealing position to take, not least because it avoids the awkward conclusion that God would otherwise appear to be arbitrary and unjust. However, it must be pointed out that this solution has it own problems. After all, God creates the beings whose reactions He foresees, so it would seem that the problem of arbitrariness is simply pushed back to His creative decisions: why would God create some who would react well to grace and others who wouldn’t?

Aquinas starts his considerations of this question with a reminder of the conclusion of Question 19 Article 5 that it impossible to assign a cause of God’s act of will from the point of view of the act of willing itself. All we can do is to explain those relationships between acts of will where God wills one thing to exist for the sake of another. Aquinas is usually respectful of opinion with which he disagrees, but here he is willing to describe as “crazy” those who might be foolish enough to consider merit to be a cause of the very act of predestining. The questions that are valid concern whether there can be any relationship between merit and predestination and if so, what? The idea that those meritorious in a previous life are predestined in this life is rapidly dismissed. Similarly dismissed is the Pelagian argument that the first movement towards God in a human is made by the human themselves.

Aquinas now turns to the question of God’s foresight of the merits of those predestined. He immediately points out a central weakness in the thinking of those who propose this position: there is an incorrect separation between God acting as first cause and human free will acting as secondary cause, as if they were two independent modes of causality. The correct position is that secondary causes act concomitantly with the first cause; if we grasp this then we realize that human acts of freewill are themselves part of predestination. “God’s providence produces effects through the operation of secondary causes, so what comes from freewill comes from predestination.”

However, instead of finishing there and dismissing the question with a firm “no”, Aquinas goes on to make a subtle distinction. If we look at the predestination of an individual as a whole process, then we simply cannot assign a cause to it other that God’s particular act of goodness. However if we look at the internal structure of predestination (again following the lead of Question 19 article 5) we can see that we can attribute causal relationships between the components of predestination. A later effect of predestination may be considered a final cause of an earlier effect, for example. In this restricted sense, we can say that God preordains glory to someone because of his merits, but we must simultaneously say that He preordained that He would give him the grace required for him to merit that glory.

The third objection to this question is based on the argument from injustice: if God arbitrarily chooses some for predestination to glory (not based on any feature of those chosen or not chosen), then this is fundamentally unjust and so cannot be said of God. Aquinas’s reply to this objection is a long reflection on God’s goodness, which essentially concedes that we have reached the point where rational explanation gives way to mystery. God’s predestination is based on God’s goodness and Aquinas argues that the fact that some are chosen for glory whereas others are reprobated for punishment simply reflects that we have to consider the common good of creation as a whole: “God permits certain evils to be effected lest many goods should be impeded”. It appears that it has to be so for the greatest good of creation as a whole. However, when we turn to the question of why any particular individuals are predestined or reprobated, explanation runs out. Aquinas makes an interesting parallel concerning the composition of natural objects: why does God choose this particular bit of prime matter rather than any other bit of prime matter to be informed to become this particular rock? The reason lies in God’s will and is not open to our view. As to whether this is unjust, Aquinas points out that the gift of grace is exactly that: a gift that is owed to no-one. It cannot be considered unjust that God chooses to give a gift to some but not to others.

A6: Predestination, emanating from God’s will, might seem to be infallible. But equally, one might imagine circumstances where one of the elect happens to die suddenly whilst not in a state of grace. Aquinas reiterates that the order of providence and therefore that of predestination is infallible. However, this does not impose necessity on the course of events. As was argued before (Question 22 Article 4), God arranges contingent causes to bring about effects contingently and necessary causes to bring about necessary things. If someone is predestined, then in a hypothetical sense they could lose that predestination, but actually they cannot.

A7: Are there a fixed number of the predestined? Aquinas answers that there are and that this fixed number is made up of specific elect individuals rather than simply being a fixed number of vacancies to be filled up by unspecified individuals. This follows simply from what he has said in the previous article. As so often when there is a straightforward answer to the question, Aquinas probes deeper. He points out that it is not simply the case that God knows how many of the elect there are, but that His knowledge of this number is (through His determination) creative of that number. To illustrate this, Aquinas points out that in construction projects there are certain elements that are essential to the construction (knowing how many rooms there are to be, for example) and there are certain elements (the exact number of bricks, for example) that are incidental to the project. Something analogous pertains to the universe: there are elements within creation, the exact details of which don’t really matter; there are also other elements that do matter. One of those things that matters for the purpose of the universe is those rational souls that attain the beatific vision; hence God has planned their exact number and their identity in creating the universe. Aquinas will not speculate as to the number of the elect.

A8: Finally, Aquinas asks whether the prayers of the holy can contribute to predestination. The answer might seem to be an obvious “no” because whether or not someone is elect is determined in God’s will. However, Aquinas’s answer is much more subtle than that and gives us an important insight into how Aquinas regarded prayer. We can generalize from the context of predestination: what effect can prayer have on God’s will? Aquinas deals first with the simplistic approach that prayer is simply superfluous by observing that scripture admonishes us to pray, therefore it cannot be entirely irrelevant. He goes on to dismiss the contrary position that God’s predestination is changed by prayer again by appeal to scripture. To answer the question, Aquinas observes that as far as the very act of predestining itself is concerned, prayer has no effect. But if we consider the internal structure of predestination (following the lead of Question 19 Article 5 yet again) then we can see that God provides secondary causes that work together to effect the fulfilment of God’s primary-causal act of predestining. Prayer is one of these secondary causes; therefore it is quite appropriate to pray that someone may be predestined and that the predestined pray for themselves, for these prayers are all part of the matrix of secondary causes that God has ordained to bring about the purpose of the first cause.

Handy Concepts

  • Article 1 provides some of the material concerning the effect of grace in elevating rational creatures beyond their natural powers that became so important in the twentieth century arguments over the supernatural.
  • Aquinas makes extensive use of the argument in Question 19 Article 5 concerning the attribution of causes to God’s will. The act of willing itself is beyond causal analysis, but the internal structure of the effect of the act of will may be so amenable.
  • Despite Aquinas demolishing the idea that predestination may be associated with God’s foreknowledge of merit in the elect (Article 5), the idea came back in the form of the scientia media of Molinism. A good punch-up was had at the end of the sixteenth and into the start of the seventeenth century between the Jesuit supporters of Molinism and the Thomists concerning such relationships between grace and freewill in general. The Congregatio de Auxiliis was formed by the pope in order to decide between the warring factions, but no conclusion was reached save for an order to the parties to stop accusing each other of heresy. The decision was reserved to the Holy Office and we are still awaiting their decision today.
  • In the reply to Objection 3 in Article 4, Aquinas revisits the notion of God’s antecedent will and His consequent will (which we saw in the reply to the first objection in Article 6 Question 19). Antecedently and relatively speaking, God wills all to be saved; according to His consequent will and simply speaking, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. Later in the summa, when Aquinas comes to the topic of grace, he will discuss how this works in more detail and he will lay the foundations for the doctrines of efficacious grace and sufficient grace that follow from these aspects of God’s will.


  • Article 3’s distinction between predestination and reprobation may seem an artificial construct to avoid the notion of double predestination. Indeed, Calvinists rejected this distinction and affirm that God does predestine the elect to glory and the rest to hell.
  • In article 5, Aquinas concedes that we cannot know why God elects some but not others. He makes a strong argument that such election is not unjust, but perhaps the flavour of unfairness remains. The nature of God’s love for the reprobated remains one of the great mysteries.
  • The argument of Article 7 depends on some elements of the creation being so key to the good of creation that God specifies them exactly and that other elements are not so important. For these latter, God knows them but his knowledge does not specify them exactly. For example, God specifies that there are enough of a species of animal for that species to flourish, but he does not specify the exact number of that species, leaving the latter to the playing out of secondary causes. This is another example of God creating necessary causes for some things and contingent causes for others.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Question 22 - God's Providence

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.