The Notion of Providence

Having spoken of those Divine perfections which the notion of providence presupposes, we must go on to consider in what this providence consists. What revelation has told us about God's wisdom and His love will give us a clearer insight into its teaching concerning the Divine governance. This teaching far surpasses that of the philosophers, many of whom maintain that providence does not extend beyond the general laws governing the universe; that it does not reach down to individuals and the details of their existence, to future free actions and the secrets of the heart. On the other hand, certain heretics have held that since providence extends infallibly to the least of our actions, there can be no such thing as liberty. The revealed teaching is the golden mean lying between these two extreme positions and transcending them.

Providence, as we shall see, is a sort of extension of God's wisdom, which "reacheth from end to end mightily and ordereth all things sweetly" (Wis. 8:1; 4:3). "Since," says St. Thomas, "God is the cause of all things by His intellect (in conjunction with His will), it is necessary that the type of the order of things toward their end should pre-exist in the Divine mind; and the type of things ordered toward an end is, properly speaking, providence" (Ia, q. 22, a. 1). [1] As for the Divine governance, though the expression is generally used as synonymous with providence, it is, strictly speaking, the execution of the providential plan (Ibid., ad 2um).

St. Thomas (Ibid.) also points out that providence in God corresponds to the virtue of prudence in us, which regulates the means with a view to the attainment of some end, which exercises foresight in anticipation of the future. We have, besides a purely personal prudence, that higher prudence which a father must exercise to provide for his family's needs, and higher still, the prudence demanded in the head of the state that should be found in our lawmakers and other government officials for the promotion of the common interests of the nation. Likewise in God there is a providence directing all things to the good of the universe, the manifestation of the Divine goodness in every order, from the inanimate creation even to the Angels and Saints in Heaven.

And so by a comparison with the virtue of prudence is formed the analogical notion of providence, a notion accessible to commonsense reason and abundantly confirmed by revelation. A prudent person will first desire the end and then, having decided on the means to be employed, will begin using them; thus the end, which held first place in his desire, is the last in actual attainment. So we look upon God as intending from all eternity first the end and purpose of the universe and then the means necessary for the realization or attainment of that end. This commonsense view is expressed by the philosophers when they say that the end is first in the order of intention but last in order of execution. This point is of paramount importance when we are considering the end and purpose of the universe of material and spiritual beings.

From this general notion of providence we deduce its characteristics. We will briefly indicate them here before looking for a more vivid and detailed account of them in Scripture.

1) The absolute universality of providence is deduced from the absolute universality of Divine causality, which in this case is the causality of an intellectual agent. "The causality of God," says St. Thomas, "extends to all beings, not only as to the constituent principles of species, but also as to the individualizing principles (for these also belong to the realm of being); it extends not only to things incorruptible but also to those corruptible. Hence all things that exist in whatsoever manner are necessarily directed by God toward some end" (Ia, q. 22, a. 2). This is demanded by the principle of finality, which states that every agent acts for some end and the supreme agent for the supreme end known to Him, to which He subordinates all else. That end, as we saw when speaking of the love of God, is the manifestation of His goodness, His infinite perfection, and His various attributes.

As we shall see, it is constantly asserted in the Old and New Testaments that the plan of providence has been fixed immediately by God Himself down to the last detail. His practical knowledge would be imperfect, were it not as far-reaching as His causality, and without that causality nothing comes into existence.

 Obviously, therefore, as was stated above, any reality or goodness in creatures and their actions is caused by God. This means that with the exception of evil (that privation and disorder in which sin consists), all things have God as their first if not exclusive cause. [2] As for physical evil and suffering, God wills them only in an accidental way, in view of a higher good. [3] From the absolute universality of providence we deduce a second characteristic.

2) This universal and immediate sway exerted by providence, does not destroy, but safeguards the freedom of our actions. Not only does it safeguard liberty, but actuates it, [4] for the precise reason that providence extends even to the free mode of our actions, which it produces in us with our co-operation; for this free mode in our choice, this indifference dominating our desire, is still within the realm of being, and nothing exists unless it be from God. [5] The slightest idiosyncrasy of temperament and character, the consequences of heredity, the influence exerted on our actions by the emotions --- all are known to providence; it penetrates into the innermost recesses of conscience, and has at its disposal every sort of grace to enlighten, attract, and strengthen us. There is thus a gentleness in its control that yields nothing to strength. Suaviter et fortiter it produces and preserves the Divine seed in the heart and watches over its development (Ia, q. 22, a. 4).

3) Although providence, as the Divine ordinance, extends immediately to all reality and goodness, to the last and least fiber of every being, nevertheless in the execution of the plan of providence, God governs the lower creation through the higher, to which He thus communicates the dignity of causality (Ia, q. 22, a. 3).

These various characteristics of providence we will now consider as they are presented to us in the Old and New Testaments. No better way can be found to make our knowledge of them not merely abstract and theoretical, but living and spiritually fruitful.

1. See Part I, chap. 2: "On the order in the world."
2. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q. 79, a. 1, 2.
3. Physical evils, sickness, for instance, are not willed by God directly, but only in an accidental way, inasmuch as He wills a higher good of which physical evil is the necessary condition. Thus the lion depends for its existence on the killing of the gazelle, patience in sickness presupposes pain, the heroism of the Saints presupposes the sufferings they endure. (Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q. 19, a. 9; q. 22, a. 2 ad 2um.)
4. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q. 83, a. 1 ad 3um: "God, by moving voluntary causes, does not deprive their actions of being voluntary, but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them." Cf. also, Ia, q. 103, a. 5-8; q. 105, a. 4, 5; q. 106, a. 2; IaIIae, q. 10, a. 4 ad 1um et ad 3um; q. 109, a. 1, etc.
5. The free mode in our choice consists in the indifference that dominates our will in its actual process of tending to a particular object presented as good under one aspect and not good under another, and consequently as unable to exert an invincible attraction upon it (IaIIae, q. 1O, a. 2). This free mode in our choice is still within the sphere of being, of reality, and as such comes under the adequate object of the Divine omnipotence. On the contrary, this cannot be so with the disorder of sin. God, in His causation infallible, can no more be the cause of sin than the eye can perceive sound (IaIIae, q. 79, a. 1, 2).