Narratives of divine action oscillate between two poles. In one series God is asserted (1) to be the real author of all that happens, be it good or evil, and to be so despite the appearances of genuine human agency. The other set places God within the narrative, carrying out specific actions, either (2.1) directly or (2.2) through human actors. The second set may veer close to the first, depending on the texture of human agency woven into the narrative, but the distinction lies in the author’s identifying a specific action within the narrative as God’s action, or making a global assertion about the agency in the narrative. Moreover, all three modes of narrative will have to be parsed in the light of what we know about divine activity in regard to the world if we are to avoid facile descriptions of God’s actions as, for example, “intervention.” Not that narrative accounts are ever dispensable in the face of theorems of philosophical theology but rather that each story functions in a broader context of biblical or Qur’anic affirmations regarding the primary agent, God, and these must needs affect the way we accept the clues each narrative provides for its proper reading.
What do we know? At once very little yet a great deal. Aquinas offers us a handy formula: there is no difference between God’s conserving activity and God’s creating, other than the proviso that creating presumes nothing at all to be already present (ST 1.104.1). In other words, all of God’s activity partakes of creating: all that God can do is to create; God does not “fiddle” or “micro-manage.” If we add to this Thomas’ theorem that the “proper effect of the universal cause of all things is things’ existing” (ST 1.45.5), then God’s activity in the world is ever an instance of or a consequence of bestowing existing (esse). Again, one would misconstrue matters if one thought of existing as a floor provided by the creator upon which and by virtue of which we then accomplished what is ours to do. That is a common enough picture, not unlike the prevailing deist conception of creation as “getting things rolling,” a description which eliminates conservation altogether. Again, if existing were the mere positing in actuality, this picture would be a cogent one, but such a conception of existence—itself generally accepted—effectively denies the perspective of creatio ex nihilo, for it must logically presume a fully articulated “possible world” simply put into action.
So the perspective of creation extends to the current conservation of each existing thing, and does so in such a way as to animate its activities. That is, just as creation without conservation would no longer be creation, so “mere conservation” would not truly be conservation. Aquinas’ way of putting this is that God not only causes each thing to be, and thus makes it able to act, but God also acts in its acting by causing it to be the cause that is (ST 1.105.5).