Summary Against Modern Thought: On Divine Providence

Summary Against Modern Thought: On Divine Providence

Previous post.

We’ll let our good saint provide the summary: either providence cannot be certain or else all things happen by necessity. This is an extremely important article. Take it slow.


1 Now, there is a difficulty that arises out of the foregoing. If all things that are done here below, even contingent events, are subject to divine providence, then, seemingly, either providence cannot be certain or else all things happen by necessity.

2 In fact, the Philosopher shows in the Metaphysics [V, 3] that, if we assert that every effect has a direct cause, and again that, given any direct cause we must necessarily grant its effect, it follows that all future events come about by necessity.

For, if each effect has a direct cause, then any future effect will be reducible to a present or past cause.

Thus, if we ask whether a certain man is to be killed by robbers, the cause preceding this effect is his encounter with the robbers; and, in turn, another cause precedes this effect, namely, the fact that he went out of his home; still another precedes this, that he wished to look for water; and a cause precedes this, namely, his thirst; and this was caused by the eating of salted foods; and this eating is going on now, or was done in the past. Therefore, if it be so, that, granted the cause, the effect must be granted, then necessarily, if he eats salt foods, he must get thirsty; and if he is thirsty, he must desire to get water; and if he desires to get water, he must go out of his home; and if he leaves his home, the robbers must encounter him; and if they encounter him, he must be killed.

So, from the first to the last, it is necessary for this eater of salty foods to be killed by robbers. Therefore, the Philosopher concludes that it is not true that, granted the cause, the effect must be granted; since there are some causes which can fail. Again, it is not true that every effect has a direct cause, for something that comes about accidentally, for instance, that this man who wishes to look for water encounters the robbers, has no cause.

Notes Keep “has no cause” in mind. It wasn’t the going out to seek water that was the cause of the robbers appearance.

3 Now, by this reasoning it appears that all effects that may be reduced to some direct cause, present or past, which when granted requires that the effect be granted must of necessity happen. Either, then, we must say that not all effects are subject to divine providence and, thus, that providence does not apply to all—but we showed earlier that it does; or else it is not necessarily so, that, granted providence, its effect must be granted, and thus providence is not certain; or, finally, it is necessary for all things to happen by necessity. For providence is not only in present or past time, but in eternity, since nothing can be in God that is not eternal.

4 Again, if divine providence is certain, then this conditional proposition must be true: If God foresees this, then this will happen. Now, the antecedent of this conditional proposition is necessary, for He is eternal. Therefore, the consequent is necessary, for every consequent in a conditional proposition must be necessary when the antecedent is necessary. So, the consequent is like the conclusion of the antecedent, and whatever follows from a necessary proposition must be necessary. Therefore, it follows that, if divine providence is certain, all things must occur by necessity.

Notes To foresee is not equivalent to to cause.

5 Besides, suppose that something is foreseen by God; for example, that a certain man will become a ruler. Now, it is either possible that be will not rule, or it is not. But, if it is not possible that be will not rule, then it is impossible for him not to rule; therefore, it is necessary for him to rule. However, if it is possible that he will not rule, and if, given the possible something impossible does not follow, then it does follow that divine providence will fail; hence, it is not impossible for divine providence to fail. Therefore, it is either necessary, if all things are foreseen by God, that divine providence be not certain or else that all things happen by necessity.

6 Moreover, Tully argues as follows, in his book On Divination [II, 7]: if all things are foreseen by God, the order of causes is certain. But, if this is true, all things are done by fate. And if all things are done by fate, nothing is within our power, there is no volitional choice. Therefore, it follows that free choice is taken away if divine providence be certain. And in the same way it will follow that all contingent causes are taken away.

7 Furthermore, divine providence does not exclude intermediate causes, as we showed above, But, among causes, some are contingent and capable of failing. So, it is possible for an effect of providence to fail. Therefore, God’s providence is not certain.

Notes Here comes the big if!

8 However, for the purpose of answering these arguments, we must repeat some of the observations put down before, so that it may be made clear that nothing escapes divine providence; also, that the order of divine providence cannot possibly be changed; and yet that it is not necessary for all things to happen of necessity simply because they come about as a result of divine providence.

9 First, then, we must consider the fact that, since God is the cause of all existing things, giving being to all, the order of His providence must embrace all things. Indeed, on the things on which He has lavished being He must also lavish preservation and guide them toward perfection in their ultimate end.

10 Now, two things must be considered in the case of any provident agent—namely, premeditation of the order, and the establishment of the premeditated order—in the things that are subject to providence. The first of these pertains to the cognitive power, while the second belongs to the operative.

Between the two there is this difference: in the act of premeditating the order, the more perfect that providence is, the more can the order of providence be extended to the smallest details. The fact that we are not able to think out, ahead of time, the order of all particular events in regard to matters to be arranged by us stems from the deficiency of our knowledge, which cannot embrace all singular things.

However, the more a person is able to think ahead about a plurality of singular things, the more adroit does he become in his foresight, while the man whose foresight is restricted to universals only participates but little in prudence. Now, a similar consideration can be made in regard to all the operative arts. But, in regard to imposing the premeditated order on things, the providence of a governing agent is more noble and perfect the more universal it is and the more it accomplished his premeditated plan by means of a plurality of ministers, because this controlling of ministers occupies an important place in the order that pertains to foresight.

Moreover, divine providence must consist in the highest position, since He is absolutely and universally perfect, as we showed in Book One. So, in the function of providential foresight, by means of the sempiternal meditative act of His wisdom, He orders all things, no matter how detailed they may appear; and whatever things perform any action, they act instrumentally, as moved by Him. And they obediently serve as His ministers in order to unfold in things the order of providence, which has been thought out, as I might say, from eternity. But, if all things able to act must serve as ministers to Him in their actions, it is impossible for any agent to block the execution of divine providence by acting in opposition to it. Nor is it possible for divine providence to be hindered by the defect of any agent or patient, since every active and passive power is caused in things in accord with divine disposition. It is also impossible for the execution of divine providence to be impeded by a change in the provident Agent, since God is altogether immutable, as we showed above. The conclusion remains, then, that divine foresight is utterly incapable of being frustrated.

11 Next, we must consider that every agent intends the good and the better, in so far as he can, as we showed above. But the good and the better are not considered in the same way, in the whole and in the parts. For, in the whole, the good is integrity, which is the result of the order and composition of its parts. Consequently, it is better for there to be an inequality among the parts of the whole, without which the order and perfection of the whole cannot be, than for all its parts to be equal, even if each of them were to exist on the level of the most important part. However, if the parts are considered in themselves, each part of a lower grade would be better if it were on the level of the higher part. This is exemplified in the human body: in fact, the foot would be a more worthy part if it possessed the beauty and power of the eye, but the whole body would be more imperfect if it lacked the functioning of the foot.

Therefore, the intention of a particular agent tends toward a different objective from that of the universal agent. Indeed, the particular agent tends to the good of the part without qualification, and makes it the best that it can, but the universal agent tends to the good of the whole. As a result, a defect which is in accord with the intention of the universal agent may be apart from the intention of the particular agent.

Thus, it is clear that the generation of a female is apart from the intention of a particular nature, that is, of the power which is in this semen which, as much as possible, tends to a perfect result of conception; but it is in accord with the intention of the universal nature, that is, of the power of the universal agent for the generation of inferior beings, that a female be generated; for without a female the generation of a number of animals could not be accomplished. Similarly, corruption, decrease, and every defect pertain to the intention of the universal nature, but not of the particular nature, for each thing avoids defect, and tends to perfection, to the extent that it can. So, it is evident that the intention of the particular agent is that its effect become as perfect as is possible in its kind, but the intention of the universal nature is that this individual effect become perfect in a certain type of perfection, say in male perfection, while another would become so in female perfection.

Now the primary perfection among the parts of the whole universe appears on the basis of the contingent and the necessary. For the higher beings are necessary and incorruptible and immobile, and the more they fall short of this condition, the lower the level on which they are established. Thus, the lowest things may be corrupted even in regard to their being, whereas they are changed in regard to their dispositions, and they produce their effects not necessarily but contingently. So, any agent that is a part of the universe intends as much as possible to persevere in its actual being and natural disposition, and to make its effect stable. However, God, Who is the governor of the universe, intends some of His effects to be established by way of necessity, and others contingently. On this basis, He adapts different causes to them; for one group of effects there are necessary causes, but for another, contingent causes. So, it falls under the order of divine providence not only that this effect is to be, but also that this effect is to be contingently, while another is to be necessarily. Because of this, some of the things that are subject to providence are necessary, whereas others are contingent and not at all necessary.

12 So, it is obvious that, though divine providence is the direct cause of an individual future effect, and though it is so in the present, or in the past, indeed from eternity, it does not follow, as the first argument implies, that this individual effect will come about of necessity. For divine providence is the direct cause why this effect occurs contingently. And this cannot be prevented.

Notes Divine first cause.

13 From this it is also evident that this conditional proposition is true: If God foresees that this event will be, it will happen, just as the second argument suggested. But it will occur in the way that God foresaw that it would be. Now, He foresaw that it would occur contingently. So, it follows that, without fail, it will occur contingently and not necessarily.

14 It is also clear that, if this thing which, we grant, is foreseen by God as to occur in the future belongs in the genus of contingent beings, it will be possible for it, considered in itself, not to be; for thus is it foreseen, as something that is contingent, as able not to be. Yet it is not possible for the order of providence to fail in regard to its coming into being contingently. Thus the third argument is answered. Consequently, it can be maintained that this man may not become a ruler if he be considered in himself, but not if he be considered as an object of divine foresight.

15 Also, the objection that Tully offers seems frivolous, in view of the foregoing. Indeed, since not only effects are subject to divine providence, but also causes and ways of being, as is obvious from what we have asserted before, it does not follow that, if everything be done by divine providence, nothing is within our power. For the effects are foreseen by God, as they are freely produced by us.

Notes Again, foresight is different than direct cause. You might foresee what your child would do, say, take this powdered donut rather than that plain one, but that does not mean you caused it to take the powdered donut.

16 Nor can the possibility of failure on the part of secondary causes, by means of which the effects of providence are produced, take away the certainty of divine providence, as the fifth argument implied. For God Himself operates in all things, and in accord with the decision of His will, as we showed above. Hence, it is appropriate to His providence sometimes to permit defectible causes to fail, and at other times to preserve them from failure.

17 Finally, those arguments in favor of the necessity of effects foreseen by God, which might be drawn from the certainty of knowledge, are solved above, where we treated of God’s knowledge.


  1. C-Marie

    Not sure….of all of the above. But, I am sure that God is all-knowing, all-seeing, so is omniscient, knows all that has ever been, knows all that will ever be, alone is the Creator, created all in perfection, gave man free will, allowed man’s use of man’s free will to rip apart our relationship with Him, provided the only Sacrifice possible to fully restore that relationship, gave us all we need to know and to do to repair our relationship with Him, does intervene as He will in the affairs of creation as He will,
    at times allows dreadful happenings as “last resorts” to help us return to Him…………
    He knows that the man getting water will be robbed and killed….we do not know the whys or the wherefores…..God knows all of the choices in the lives of the thirsty man and others in His life as well as full knowledge of the robbers and their lives….He knows the whats, whys, and wherefores……in some situations He intervenes and in some He does not…..He is Love….so all that He does do and does not do are perfect.

    God bless, C-Marie

  2. swordfishtrombone

    @ C-Marie

    “He will, at times allows dreadful happenings as “last resorts” to help us return to Him”

    The behaviour which your excuse endorses is condemned in your own Bible (Romans 3:8).

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