Aquinas on Job and Divine Providence

A couple of weeks ago, my husband gave a sermon on the end of the Book of Job. Briefly, Job is a righteous man who is rewarded in life with a big family, a fine home, lots of property and animals, and excellent health. When God brags about his servant Job’s righteousness to Satan, Satan challenges God saying that if Job did not have so many blessings, he would surely not be so righteous. Take away his blessings, challenges Satan, and God will discover that Job will curse his name.

So God accepts the challenge. Job eventually loses his wealth and possessions, his children, and even his health. Destitute and covered with boils, Job still does not curse God. He does, however, demand an explanation of God. Confident in his innocence, Job wants to know what reason God could have for sending such misfortune on him.

So God answers Job:

Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said:
Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it?
Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
And who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb;
When I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door,
And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!
Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place For taking hold of the ends of the earth, till the wicked are shaken from its surface?

God basically answers that He is sovereign, that He created the world, and that Job, as a mutable creature, has no right to question the wisdom of God. So Job repents in dust and ashes.

The book of Job is often used to talk about one of the major problems in modern theology which is the problem of the existence of evil and suffering in a world in light of the belief that God is both all-good and all-powerful. This is sometimes known as “theodicy” or as Harold Kushner posed the question in his very famous book on the subject, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” In light of the conversations that my husband and I have been having since his sermon, I am going to do a series of blog posts on some of the issues raised by the modern theodicy question.

The reason I say that the theodicy question is a major problem for modern theology is that historically in Christian theology, the problem of evil does not really bring into question the goodness or omnipotence of God. Thomas Aquinas is actually not all that concerned with this question. In fact, he wrote an entire commentary on the Book of Job, which would seem like the perfect place to talk about theodicy. But even in discussing Job, the theodicy problem is not a central concern.

What is a central concern for Aquinas in his commentary on Job is the question of providence, which will be the subject of this post. By providence, I mean that God is in control of things, directing worldly events to their rightful conclusion.

The primary view that Aquinas wants to reject in his commentary on Job is that of fatalism or determinism. By fatalism, I mean the idea that God is somehow not personally involved in the lives of people, that people are subject to the vicissitudes of nature in a way that God is somehow indifferent to. This is the deist argument that God has taken a “hands-off” stance after the creation of the world.

In opposition to a fatalistic viewpoint, Aquinas explains that the way God’s providence works is through a hierarchy of causes. God who is the universal cause of all creation, ordained that the universe would be governed by a series of inferior or secondary causes. One simple example of this is that God made a universe in which small objects would be attracted to larger ones, which we call the force of gravity. By allowing such inferior causes to operate, God made a universe in which He does not have to be the direct cause of every stone falling to the ground.

In this way, Aquinas explains how God created a world which is infused with dignity because God has imparted causality, which God is ultimately responsible for, on creation. Thus, even though it is not necessary (that is, God could have ordained a universe in which gravity did not exist), we can know the outcome of certain contingent events like stones falling. We do not have to wonder about God’s will every time a stone falls to the ground, even if it strikes us on the head when it does. God has given us a secondary cause—the force of gravity—that is directly responsible for each stone’s earthly plummet.

So Aquinas strikes a balance between fatalism (or determinism) that says that God is in control of everything, and Divine indifference that says that God is hands off in dealing with the world. More importantly for the question of evil, Aquinas finds a way of maintaining God’s omnipotence (the idea that he is all powerful) without it therefore inevitable that God is responsible for evil.

Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People comes up with a similar conclusion to Aquinas that differs in one major way. Kushner claims that God cannot stop contingent events from happening. He has created a universe in which he is powerless to stop things like hurricanes or natural illnesses, and that this is actually a good thing. If God let himself control every little thing that happened on earth, then He would have an obligation to reach out and save good people from horrible deaths, and innocent people from suffering. Kushner writes:

Would this be a better world if certain people were immune to laws of nature because God favored them while the rest of us had to fend for ourselves? A world in which good people suffer from the same natural dangers that others do causes problems. But a world in which good people were immune to those laws would cause even more problems. (59)

Kushner’s interpretation of God’s hands-off attitude saving seemingly righteous people like Job has its appeal, but I think it is wrong to conclude that God must be powerless to stop contingent events. According to Aquinas, God’s universe in which God ordained not to be the direct cause of contingent events is indeed better, but this in no way detracts from his omnipotence. God could indeed have created a perfect world in which he was in control of everything and there was no secondary causation, no contingency, and hence, no suffering. Aquinas says that it was in God’s wisdom to ordain not to be responsible for all contingent events, and even in God’s wisdom to allow that there be defects in certain secondary causes (e.g. that the movement of the earth’s plates might result in a city being destroyed). God allows defects in secondary causes to exist because this contributes to the greater good of the whole:

Hence, corruption and defects in natural things are said to be contrary to some particular nature; yet they are in keeping with the plan of universal nature; inasmuch as the defect in one thing yields to the good of another, or even to the universal good: for the corruption of one is the generation of another, and through this it is that a species is kept in existence. Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals (I, Q. 22, art. 2).

Human beings, as part of nature, are subject to these contingent events. Human beings get sick, they fall victim to disasters, they get rich and they get poor. Human beings get in the way of all these secondary causes that God has established like the movements of the stars, the change of the tides, and the replication of viruses.

But for Aquinas, this is not the end of the lesson on providence that the book of Job offers. Remember, Job questions God, and what does God do? He answers Job. From this, Aquinas draws two important conclusions about Divine Providence:

(1) God is a personal God
(2) God’s grace is utterly gratuitous

God does not leave Job alone in his time of need. He answers Job’s questions in his time of need. He provides him with grace to endure his trial. He does not make Job immune to the contingent events of nature, but he does help him deal with these contingencies. In the Christian tradition, this Divine Assistance is known as grace.

Furthermore, God’s answer to Job indicates that Job does not deserve this help. Job is in no position to demand anything from God. The chasm between him as a creature and the creator who created him out of nothing is too great. God’s answer to Job is a gift, just as Job’s life and every other good thing that he has is a gift. Job is in no position to demand from God anything; he is only in a position to ask and to accept.

This aligns well with what Kushner concludes regarding God’s involvement in the effect of evil on human beings. We writes, “God stands for justice, for fairness, for compassion. For me, the earthquake is not an “act of God.” The act of God is the courage of people to rebuild their lives after the earthquake, and the rush of others to help them in whatever way they can” (60).

Aquinas would quibble with Kushner slightly. The earthquake is indeed an “act of God,” but it is a contingent act of God, caused not directly by God but by God’s ordained secondary causes that move the earth’s plates. God is not the direct cause of the earthquake; he ordained the universe so that inferior causes (some of which we are aware of, others that we are not) would cause earthquakes. Ultimately, God made a universe in which earthquakes exist, but God did not cause an earthquake at a specific time and a specific place to punish or to reward the human beings that might fall victim to it. The earthquake, in other words, is not necessary.

But Kushner is right that the courage and strength that comes from the response to the earthquake is an act of God, that this is God gratuitously and personally involving His very self in the lives of His creatures. And this, says Aquinas, is the lesson of Job.

12 comments so far

  1. Dale on

    Good stuff on job, Aquinas, and Kushner.
    St. Paul also had something to say – see Romans 8:19-22.
    One might wonder if earth’s plates would shift if the Fall had not occurred.

    • everydaythomist on

      I definitely think the plates of the earth would have shifted if the Fall had not occurred. I think the original state of righteousness was one of supernatural elevation whereby human beings were protected from “natural” suffering by God’s grace. That is, the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love were still supernatural (and hence, divinely infused) but all humans had them. After the Fall, we lost that state of original righteousness, and now we aren’t born with faith, hope, and love, and in addition, we suffer the pains of punishment, meaning we suffer. So faith and hope were necessary before the Fall to know God, but not do endure the vicissitudes of corporeal life which we need now. This is why the supernatural virtues both elevate nature, and heal nature.

      As for the passage, I like to read it in light of the beginning of Romans where Paul talks about how God can be seen in creation (Romans 1:19-20). God ordained that the world would reveal him (John Calvin is especially good on this point, saying that the earth was supposed to be a ‘playground’ for humans and the divine) but as punishment for sin, God is revealed now only imperfectly in creation (we might say that the philosophers’ God is revealed in creation, but not YHWH). This is because human nature is fallen. Human nature is corrupted, it can’t see right, and so it anxiously awaits the glory of God. We need scripture to reveal God now in the way that creation cannot. So the earth groans now because it is meant to bear the divine imprint, to reflect God, but because we see so darkly, nature is not doing what it is meant to do. Nature can actually obscure God now, like when the plates move underneath a city and people die. So rather than seeing the glory of God in creation, we have to see the glory of God only in faith and hope until God’s glory is fully revealed to us as was intended at the founding of the world.

  2. Matthew on

    Aw. I’m catching up on posts, and I’m disappointed to see that there were no comments on this one. Guess I can only blame myself. =)

  3. Matthew on

    Sorry, Dale. Rather than “there were no comments”, I should have written “there was no lengthy discussion”.

  4. Bob MacDonald on

    There needs to be more discussion. After having just finished a four-month exercise translating Job, I conclude along with some others, that theodicy is not the issue at all.

    You write
    “The chasm between him as a creature and the creator who created him out of nothing is too great.”

    This seems to me to be the opinion of the false comforters – not of Hashem. In revealing himself to Job (with many plays on the role of ‘arbiter’ – see Ticciati, Susannah, Job and the Disruption of Identity for a good discussion) the book becomes a ‘parable of dust and ashes’ and Job is satisfied to be that representative – ‘whose misery will be studied for all time until all iniquitous mortals turn’. (See Elihu’s speeches for that thought.)

    The chasm is bridged.

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks for your comment. You are right in indicating that word “chasm” is misleading. What I meant is that God is that God is completely other from creatures. But even this is insufficient. Metaphysically, we can say that we participate in God’s being and bear the imprint of the divine image, all of which connects us to the Creator God in a way that precludes God from being wholly and completely other. And what Christians hold is that God is personally involved, that God is not the wholly transcendent completely distant god of the metaphysicians. To see more of my thoughts on that, see my recent posts on Matthew Levering’s Scripture and Metaphysics where I explore how metaphysics can help illuminate the meaning of scripture in the way that non-metaphysical exegesis does not.

      I don’t think that we can say that there is a complete bridge to our chasm. God, while being fully personal and hence not aloof or uninvolved in the affairs on earth is still transcendent. And all human reflection about God’s ways will be insufficient to capture the divine essence. So we must speak analogically. Now, this does not mean that we cannot say anything about God, because God, like you say, has revealed himself. So we are better off than the Greeks, but it means that we cannot ever say enough about God.

      • Bob MacDonald on

        Beth, I am glad to read your thoughts. I consider that the bridge is the cross and the veil of the flesh of the one who died there – a means of approach and the rent veil, the means of entry, into the Holy place per Hebrews. I think this is a present reality to be tested by all our turnings. It is inexhaustible as you say. (Years ago I wrote a story on this chasm. Perhaps I should take it up again…)

    • everydaythomist on

      Is the translation of Job going to be published? If so, when?

  5. Bob MacDonald on

    My translation of Job is a work in progress – but it is available on my Sufficiency blog – probably too many questions to consider since I am just three years old with respect to Hebrew. But you might enjoy it – it only takes 2.5 hours to read out load.

    Draft 22 is here

  6. Bob MacDonald on

    out loud – I mean 🙂

  7. Scott Haile on

    You quote Kushner engaging the problem of evil by asking whether we’d rather God just step in to stop bad things from happening to good people. And certainly that’s an aternative world that it’s pretty easy to dismiss as untenable.

    But it’s not the only kind of alternative world we can imagine. What if God could have come up with a different system of secondary causation by which there would be less suffering or in which suffering wouldn’t be as bad? Obviously pain is useful and necessary, but what if God could have devised a way for it to be just as useful but less acute? Obviously human freedom can lead people to become violent, but why did God have to make it possible for some people to be violent seemingly from birth, even with good parents?

    I’m not saying we can’t explain these things if we start with the assumption that this *is* the best possible kind of world, with the best possible system of secondary causation (which is what Aquinas seems to do). C.S. Lewis argues, for example, that we can’t have love without the possibility of hate, so God couldn’t have created such a good world without it having all the bad things we want explanations for. All the evil in the world is the price of freedom, if I remember his argument right.

    But for those who question God’s goodness, you have another set of problems. What if this *isn’t* the best possible kind of world? What if God *could* make a world with sin but no sociopaths, or with pain that our body stops processing before it gets quite so painful? Wouldn’t that have been better?

    I think this is a fair question, but it also quickly becomes unanswerable. Even if we could imagine a different (i.e., “better”) system of secondary causations by which the world could run, we could never analyze with enough depth to prove the actual outcome would be better than what we have now. And on the other hand, C.S. Lewis, however he describes the courage that can come from pain or the love that can come from freedom, also can’t prove that all those good things demand a world with so much pain or so much wickedness. For all we know in our rational arguments, God could have made a world that would work better.

    In light of this, it makes a lot of sense for Christians to come to creation with humility, and not assume God could have done better. It is noteworthy that Lewis was an atheist before he became a Christian, and that he never claimed (to my knowledge) that his conversion had anything to do with finding answers to the problem of pain. Rather, conversion led him to rethink things like the problem of pain, if I remember correctly. His books do more to help Christians to keep from feeling bullied by secular voices that want to tell us God *can’t* be worshipped because of the evil in the world.

    It seems like Aquinas’ explanation of suffering isn’t really satisfying for a lot of modern questioner, because Aquinas isn’t interested in how the world otherwise could have been. And he’s not interested (as you’ve often reminded me, Beth) in starting with rational principles and convincing people to have faith, because faith has to be given as a gift of God anyway.

    This make Aquinas a curious (and often frustrating) figure from a modern perspective, since he won’t even consider the possibility that God isn’t good–which is exactly what many moderns want to question when they talk about theodicy. It means that Christians who believe Aquinas’ position — and I think it’s a good one — can’t expect to convince non-believers to become Christians, at least not directly.

    Rather, we’re left saying something more like, “Here is what we belive as Christians, and we welcome you to join us if God moves you to the faith that sees the world this way.” When a question has no provable answer from pure rationality, I suppose this is what we should expect as the approapriate Christian witness.

  8. interested on

    It seems if one takes a middle path between fatalism and free will, one simply avoids the question of theodicy. The extent of both sin and suffering is the real issue lying behind theodicy, as is also the converse injustice of the “just.” All of this is measured from our present perspective, so that if we ascribe to Aristotelian anthropology, theodicy succumbs to Providence in the quest for the ultimate ends and perhaps hence Aquinas never dealt with it, at least in the Book of Job where it most obviously would arise as central. Predestination also becomes a subset of Providence so that we can all be comforted by the naturalism of a heightened sense of free will, that all this unjust suffering in the world, is at least kept in check by the concept that we are all Providentially destined to our proper ends of happiness in God, which we can with God’s grace still choose. But if this is truly so then is Aquinas truly “sola gratia?” If Aquinas is truly grace alone then are we free before conversion to make the right choice of Him? Yes, if we already subcribe to “healed nature,” as though continuity between the old and new creations outweighs the disruptive revolutionary character of salvation. In other words salvific grace has to become ours in bits and pieces and chiefly by way of congruance, which is another avoidance of the real question, in this case of free will versus election.

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