Archive for the ‘determinism’ Tag

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.