St John of Damascus on the Providence of God

“God is both Creator and Provider,” writes St John of Damascus, “and is power of creating, sustaining, and providing is his good will. For ‘whatsoever the Lord pleased he hath done, in heaven, and in earth’ [Ps 134:6], and none resisted his will. He willed all things to be made and they were made; He wills the world to endure, and it does endure; and all things whatsoever He wills are done” (On the Orthodox Faith II.29). Here John confesses the triadic Deity as eternal Creator. God is power who has brought the world into being from out of nothing and perpetually sustains it in existence—but not only this: he also providentially leads creation to its proper end and fulfillment. His providence is general and particular, metaphysical and historical. Conse­quently, John affirms, everything that has occurred “has quite necessarily come about in the best manner and that most befitting God, so that it could not have happened in a better way” (II.29).

John deduces the providence of God from both the testimony of Holy Scripture and from the divine nature. Because God is good, we know that he provides for his creatures, for one who does not provide is not good. Because God is wise, we know that he provides for his creatures in the most appropriate and best way; otherwise he would not be wise. The workings of divine providence, therefore, rightly elicit from humanity admiration, praise, and unconditional acceptance. In our hymns we glorify God for his care and solicitude of the world he has made; in our prayers we embrace his will for us in our present circumstances. “For those who accept them with thanksgiving,” John remarks, “the attacks of adversity redound to salvation and definitely become instruments of aid” (II.29). Consider the following counsel from the Philokalia:

A truly intelligent man has only one care—wholeheartedly to obey Almighty God and to please Him. The one and only thing he teaches his soul is how best to do things agreeable to God, thanking Him for His merciful Providence in whatever may happen in his life. For just as it would be unseemly not to thank physicians for curing our body, even when they give us bitter and unpleasant remedies, so too would it be to remain ungrateful to God for things that appear to us painful, failing to understand that everything happens through His Providence for our good. In this understanding and this faith in God lie salvation and peace of soul. (St Antony the Great)

Surely John would concur. He is aware, of course, that things happen to us that seem unjust and senseless. Disease, accidents, misfortunes, and disasters deprive us of health, prosperity, well-being, and life itself. But, he reminds us, “God’s providence is beyond knowledge and beyond comprehension.” John’s appeal to our finite limitations draws on the lengthy discussion of providence by the 4th century bishop and philosopher Nemesius:

If the doctrine of a providence over particulars exceeds our comprehension—and surely it does that, as it is written, “How unsearchable are thy judgements, and thy ways past finding out”—still we ought not, on that account, to deny that such providence exists. For we cannot measure the waters of the sea, or count the grains of sand. … It follows of necessity that a providence that will fit itself to each particular must extend to embrace every difference, intricacy, divergence, and convergence, in all the teeming details that exceed the comprehension of man’s mind. It must be thus, if providence is to be suited to each individual and to each thing that he does; if, in short, the work of providence is to prove wholly appropriate. The differences between particulars are endless, and so, for sure, must be the resources of that providence that shall attend upon them all. Now if those resources are infinite, providence is beyond our comprehending. For that reason, our natural incapacity to comprehend it must not lead us to put out of court divine care for every creature. For, suppose that there is some situation that seems to you not to be well ordered. The Creator knows that it happens in that way for a very good reason. You, on the other hand, know nothing of that reason, and declare that there is no reason about it. For we experience in regard to the works of providence exactly what we experience in regard to other things that pass our comprehension.  (Of the Nature of Man 68-69)

The world and its processes are too complex for any single finite mind to comprehend. How then can we presume to assess and judge providence? Nemesius goes on to identify various evils that the Lord might allow to befall us, in each case bringing forth good out of evil. “Well then, we conclude that the works of providence are well and fittingly done” (69).

The Damascene is clear that God does not will evil and death. He certainly does not will the sins of rational beings. “It is definitely wrong,” he declares, “ever to ascribe immoral and unjust actions to God” (Orthodox Faith II.25). Nor may sins be attributed to necessity, fate, nature, or chance. “Indeed, nothing remains but the fact that man himself as acting and doing is the principle of his own works and is free.”

John carefully distinguishes between those events that occur by divine approval and those that occur by divine permission. The former are undeniably good, coming directly from God and relate to the good order of creation and its eschatological consummation in Christ. The latter, however, originate in the free actions of rational beings, both angelic and human, and must be understood neither as divine acts nor as expressions of the divine providence. Those things that depend upon us, namely, our free decisions and choices, “do not belong to providence, but to our own free will” (II.29). God does not cause our free acts; we do. He permits our evil actions, because he wants us to freely love and obey him. He permits others to suffer these evils, in order to exhibit his power to redeem:

Thus, He often permits even the just man to meet with misfortunes so that the virtue hidden in him may be made known to others, as in the case of God. At other times, He permits something iniquitous to be done so that through this apparently iniquitous action some great and excellent thing may be brought about, as was the salvation of men by the Cross. In still another way, He permits the devout man to suffer evil either so that he may not depart from his right conscience or so that he may not fall into presumption from the strength and grace that have been given him, as in the case of Paul. Someone may be abandoned for a while for the correction of others so that by observing his state they may be instructed, as in the case of Lazarus and the rich man. For we are naturally humbled when we see the sufferings of others. Someone may also be abandoned not because of his own sins or his parents’ but for the glory of another, as was the man born blind for the glory of the Son of Man. Again, someone may be permitted to suffer as an object of emulation for others so that because of the greatness of the glory of the one that suffered they may without hesitation accept suffering in hope of future glory and with a desire for the good things to come, as in the case of the martyrs. A person may even be allowed at times to fall into an immoral action for the correction of another and worse affliction. (II.29)

A distinction between God’s ordaining will and permissive will is theologically helpful (though strict Calvinists will disagree). Yet even so, one may doubt whether it will persuade many who have experienced disaster and war. Where was God in Auschwitz? Where was he in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake or the 2004 tsunami? At some point evil becomes so horrific that explanations like those of the great Eastern theologian become virtually in-credible. Christians must nonetheless continue to assert the power of the Holy Trinity to redeem even those evils that overwhelm—yet only as we stand silently at the foot of the cross.

At the conclusion of his discussion of divine providence, John distinguishes between God’s antecedent and consequent wills, which appears to roughly map onto the distinction mentioned above between God’s good and permissive wills:

One should also bear in mind that God antecedently wills all to be saved and to attain to His kingdom. For He did not form us to be chastised, but, because He is good, that we might share in His goodness. Yet, because He is just, He does wish to punish sinners. So, the first is called antecedent will and approval, and it has Him as its cause; the second is called consequent will and permission, and it has ourselves as its cause. This last is twofold: that which is by dispensation and for our instruction and salvation, and that which is abandonment to absolute chastisement [eternal damnation], as we have said. These, however, belong to those things which do not depend upon us. (II.29)

Dr Peter Bouteneff elaborates upon this distinction:

The primary will of God, his essential will, is his own—and John describes it as ‘the will that all be saved, and come to his kingdom’ (cf. 1 Tim 2:4). The secondary or consequent will, which John equates with permission, comes into play through interaction with free human beings—its source or cause is us. … For John, providence can be called the secondary will of God, one which is brought to the service of his primary will. This latter is effectively God’s essential will for universal salvation, while the secondary will permits things to happen which may seem quite contrary to that goal of salvation. They are ‘willed’ nonetheless, in the full knowledge that they may become the very means of return and growth God-ward. (“The Two Wills of God,” pp. 295-296)

Curiously, Bouteneff leaves out John’s inclusion of absolute abandonment (i.e., eternal damnation) in God’s consequent will. Whatever else damnation is, it most certainly does not have redemptive value. I suspect one needs a Latin scholastic to clarify these distinctions and probably make a bunch more.

My question for St John is this: once the free actions of rational beings are exempted from God’s providential working, does not the notion of providence lose its theological traction? Fr Andrew Louth has also raised this question in his book St John Damascene. Noting that John excludes free actions from the divine providence, he comments: “it is not clear to me that it is an exception that could be carried through without effectively denying God’s providential care over human affairs” (p. 142). Louth thinks that the Damascene recovers when he later includes free human actions within God’s consequent will, but given his emphatic separation between divine and creaturely agency (reiterated in his rejection of divine predestination), I’m doubtful. Louth’s initial reservation sounds just about right.

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18 Responses to St John of Damascus on the Providence of God

  1. we seem to be dwellings on the same topics of late Al. you may gen interested in mind here. i’ve got another one planned regarding mccanns view of creation and it’s implications regarding God causing sin.

    https://notesonthefoothills.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/gods-timelessness-permissive-decree-and-omnicausality/

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  2. i can’t even begin to explain the auto correct from my phone, nor the inability to edit posts once they’re made. my condolences.

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  3. Grant says:

    The problem of evil is I think the strongest argument against the Christian theistic claims (excluding strong Calvanism perhaps) and also at least to an extent Judaism. For others this is less a problem, but though I see some ways forward I think it is worth acknowledging the power of this question.

    As so often I find so many answers given, even by such as St John of Damascus above insufficient, and some answers that some give tend to make me angry, for example essentially dismissing suffering as something necessary to refine people’s souls that includes both small and large scale (it came to mind having read such an article recently).

    There is, no doubt unintended callousness in this view to me, and while I know that in confronting pain and suffering a person can find triumph and deeper insight and love, and can be an opportunity to know the resurrecting power and love of Christ in the face of death. But that I would see in spite and against death and suffering not because of it.

    After all, pain and suffering would be the most blunt and inefficient tool to accomplish this goal, to often despite what I said above I’ve seen the opposite, people broken and twisted by suffering, pain and hurt lingering and causing the shattering of relationships and bitterness and grief becoming part of their lives, being a poison that destroys all around it. As it does on larger scales with whole cultures ravaged and torn. And it forgets or doesn’t emphasis that our persons develop as much if not more through the moments of joy, of love, beauty, of the growth of relationships that moments of suffering.

    This becomes acute with natural evil, here questions of human actions have no real place, a tsunami or ebola virus are not the result of human action, neither is various cancers ir congenital defects that torture people and kill them, that take parents from children, and children from parents, brothers and sisters from their siblings and so on. There isn’t a giving rational beings the ability to choose that happens here yet it happens consistently, often, and is something that cripples so many and brings tragedy, that cannot be explained by by human misuse of freedom extra. I suppose angelic choice might be referenced but it seems both that wouldn’t cover all, and who knows what and how the angelic and other spiritual entities actual are and interact with the rest of creation? And natural evil seems to be something that has happened long before humans came, with whole species wiped out in numerous natural disasters.

    I guess in the end, the question that if completion of creation depends on such suffering is a haunting one, and leads to disturbing questions over should that be accepted, if it were so, should such a God be loved and worshipped or is it just something to fear and despair at? And even if not is such suffering to be thought worth it, or at least to be resolved that makes it’s allowance worthwhile, in the final completion and unavailing of things. Is the suffering and death of one child by a hideous disease worth it?

    I think I can only hope it is and hold onto the hope in overcoming love and resurrecting power and victory over death in Christ and the promise of this for all creation and everything that is or has been in it.

    But it is a question particularly in natural evil that haunts me, I see it’s destruction sometimes without hope or any good outcome or even a small sliver, even been part of such a tragedy whose effects still go on today after so many years (and mine is common experience that many will have in their lives in some way or other). There seems no hope or good for any, and the answers given either seem woefully inadequate or downright insulting, at least for me. I don’t begrudge them if they help others but not myself really.

    As I said it is probably the greatest argument against the Christian theistic position, and sometimes all you can do is hold on to what you see in Christ, if possible, which sometimes it doesn’t.

    It is a haunting question, in which sometimes there is only silence.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      One inadequate thought is that natural disasters are by their very nature natural: they are an inexorable consequence of the very physical laws by which we exist at all. Tsunamis are the consequence of the existence of oceans and tectonic plates (or what-have-you, i’m not a geologist) and you can’t have one without the other.

      The proposition, I suppose, is that permitting such things is an inevitable corollary of the universe existing as it is; the assertion is that the goodness if God’s creation as a whole is worth it and the hope is in the promise that God will make good all things for everyone in the end.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Good point, Iain.

        As far as I know (and regarding the Damascene, I don’t know a lot), St John does not develop a distinction between divine and secondary causality. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

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      • Grant says:

        The problem though is the universe is how God wishes it to be, He creates freely, all things and secondary causes are known and enfolded into that Act, He is not constrained by anything else than His Own nature, reality is as it is because it comes from, participates and is sustained and has it’s being because of Him, and is as He intends it to be. It is not really the best of possible worlds, it is the only creation envisaged, the only one intendThisat
        Yet it is one that is as destructive as it is beautiful, full of death and suffering as of joy, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, meteor strikes have and do cause death on massive scales, now and even more in the far past, with mass extinctions. This is part of creation as intended at least for now, as you say it is a part of how the universe works, yet with life present it can be immensely destructive, and cause widespread suffering, and it can’t be laid at the feet of human responsiblity. The buck does seem to stop with God here, as with disease, cancers etc, it could be birth pangs as St Paul possibly alludes to in Romans, and is everything is far from complete that all things are complete all will be redeemed and it will be healed and made sense of, that is what I hope for.

        But the question remains at the present, why would it need to be healed in the first place, why would this be a natural, normal part of the universe, of reality, if God is love, if He is good, why does suffering seemed interwoven in the nature of the universe where anything living exists? Is it a part of allowing things to become what they fully are and giving them the freedom to be that, but still without any rational choices in the mix why is it this way, why is it a natural part of how the universe works, that is the very question that haunts, and brings me back to where I ended my post. I just have to hold on that there is a reason, look to Christ and that in the final completion of all things this will be understood. For now there is mostly silence, and at times it is disturbing and does not illuminate in this area, leaving only uncertainty and fear.

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          The largest and most relevant natural process that I can think of is evolution. Perhaps for us to be in a sense self-created and not manufactured in our final form an evolutionary process is necessary. If this is the case, death and the struggle for survival are in inherent requirement for evolution to operate. (We can scarely complain of e.g. the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, without which we would not exist.)
          Another thought is that we are created not just to love God but also each other: would this be possible if we could neither help nor hurt each other by our actions, and everything we could want or need was provided for us without anything we needed to do for ourselves, or any dangers or struggles requiring us to provide each other with mutual help?
          None of the above us full or adequate, but it does help me to trust that there is an answer which we cannot at present grasp.

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  4. Michelle says:

    I often wonder why most (but not all) of the Saints and Church Fathers seem totally cool with something us modern people see as clearly unsatisfactory? Did they know the secret that hides from us that’s explains this conundrum away? Or were people back then simply just more callous? I really don’t know.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Surely they were not more callous than we are. We moderns are willing to kill millions and millions in our wars, without a blink of an eye. If anything, we are more callous than previous generations. But you are right, Michelle. We are more concerned with questions of theodicy than were, say, the Church Fathers. Why do you think that might be?

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      • Michelle says:

        Maybe be it’s not a special “hidden” intellectual knowledge that the Fathers possessed. Us moderns like to approach theodicy with the intellect, and turn the Fathers into philosophers instead of pastors. Maybe what we lack today is a common community and communal understanding that elicited a more pedagogical/pastoral reception and understanding of their words. We immediately take their words and turn them into systematic theories and mechanisms. Why we moderns do this is probably because the Church has been fractured into thousands of pieces (denominations) by various differing nuanced theories, most all of them conjured up by the intellect. It’s like having parents that have gone through a particularly nasty divorce, causing the kids to have some serious trust issues (especially if mom’s new boyfriend in John Calvin, lol). Losing the sure guidance of a single trustworthy communion to the faults of the human intellect is probably why us modern are more callous, as you pointed out (it didn’t take much thinking over to realize you are right about this, lol. I stand totally corrected ). Now that we’ve been made more callous, and look around at everyone else and their odd theologies (now including the Church Fathers) with suspicion, the problem of evil has become a seemingly appropriate question to ask these days. And, unfortunately, we moderns have been duped into believing that the cause of our problems (intellectual systems and theological mechanisms) will also be the solution, when in reality us kids just need some good post-divorce counseling and healing. Thanks for the question! It gave my brain a healthy, pensive workout!

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  5. John H says:

    Hi Michelle,

    To me the problem of evil is a universal conundrum that has been discussed by theologians and philosophers throughout the ages. In Greece the problem was first succinctly stated by the philosopher Epicurus around the time of Plato. Within Christianity the church father Origen proposed the doctrine of the pre existence of souls to account for the fact that both good and bad fortune seem to occur randomly without rhyme or reason. And Aquinas devoted an entire article of the Summa to the objection raised by non believers that the Christian God could not possibly exist due precisely to the widespread presence of evil and suffering throughout creation. Theodicy is by no means an exclusively modern concern.

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    • Michelle says:

      I don’t disagree with you, John H. People have always been a little befuddled by the presence of evil in the world. Its nothing new. I guess I was focusing more on the apparent peace the members of the early Church had with teachings concerning eternal hell compared to how us modern Christians are more inclined to be unsettled by it. And I was contemplating it from my own personal experiences and extrapolating them back into history. For example, when I was a Protestant the idea of limited atonement was a thorn in my side that compelled me to search out a satisfactory theodicy to help me cope with its obvious injustices. When placing this source of anxiety in the context of Church history I soon learned that I can trace its birth back through a secession of differing emerging philosophical ideas that had been married to Christian thought. And these intellectual endeavors were anything but smooth, peaceful transitions from one to the next. No, rather, the complex history of the fracturing of the Church has been nasty and bloody. I learned that the evil injustices I suspected in God’s character were possibly just the fabrication of feuding church men, and that it was impossible for a simple layman like myself to navigate through this messy history, let alone use my own inadequate brain power to disect and discern the intellectual insights these various men (often geniuses) were selling (who is smarter, Luther or Calvin? Which ever guy has the better argumemt wins your soul’s devotion, for better or worse. Good luck!). So, now did I not only mistrust God, but also the whole of Christian thought wrought throughout history. And no amount of intellectual endeavor was going to give me peace. So maybe the early Church, whose members did seem to have peace with the teachings they received on eternal hell, were enjoined to something fundamentally different than myself. And I have found the Orthodox Church to be fundamentally different from the West in that its theology is much more pedagogical and pastoral, in both its understanding of the Church Fathers and its treatment of eternal hell. I have found a great deal of peace in the Orthodox Church without the need of a theodicy.

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      • Michelle says:

        This has been really good for me, to actually sit down and think about this. It didn’t take me long to see that I probably don’t really have a problem with Church Fathers’ themselves, and their treatmemt of eternal hell, so much as with the treatment of the Fathers that I’m used to hearing.

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  6. Ed says:

    Here is a difficulty I have with St. John’s statement that “God wishes to punish sinners” (on the supposition that he means by this, the eternal punishment of sinners). If love is the very essence of God and if love means willing the good of the other then it is impossible that God could ever will evil for anyone. But eternal punishment, which involves alienation from God, is surely an evil. Hence, it would seem that God could never will it for anyone, neither in this world nor in the next. God could certainly will punishment for an individual, but only as a means of bringing about some good for that individual.
    For the record, I am not arguing agains the possibility of eternal punishment for sinners. I merely point out what appears to me to be a difficulty with that view.

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  7. Per the Damascene: “It is definitely wrong ever to ascribe immoral and unjust actions to God. Indeed, nothing remains but the fact that man himself as acting and doing is the principle of his own works and is free.” And also: “He permits our evil actions, because he wants us to freely love and obey him. He permits others to suffer these evils, in order to exhibit his power to redeem.” <<<<<

    In each defense or theodicy there are presuppositions regarding whether or not an evil is 1) genuine or illusory; 2) in/compatible with omnipotence; 3) essential (consequentialist, directly intended) or unavoidable (nonconsequentialist, indirectly intended); 4) instrumentally apt or irredeemable; 5) non/moral?

    It appears that St John employs a nonconsequentialist theodicy, wherein genuine but unavoidable evils, both moral and natural, are compatible with an omnipotent Creator with the power to redeem?

    Based on his overall thrust, it seems that he might have better said that "God permits others to suffer these evils but exhibits his power to redeem." Saying "in order to exhibit" sounds too consequentialist, contradictory of his general stance. In other words, for St John, while evil would not be essential to the divine economy, instrumentally, it can be redeemed therein?

    To paraphrase Dr Bouteneff's words, our contrary acts are ‘willed’ nonetheless, in the full knowledge that they MAY become the very means of return and growth God-ward, which is not to say that they MUST become the means, as God, for example, could have otherwise ordained, antecedently, epistemic distancing (ontic privations) with theosis as the sufficient soteriological means toward His eschatological ends that all be saved and attain to His Kingdom. This is to suggest that the redemption of our sinful acts and selves remains sufficient but certainly wouldn't be necessary if we humbly availed ourselves of sophiological, theotic processes.

    Fr Al puts forth a question for St John: "Once the free actions of rational beings are exempted from God’s providential working, does not the notion of providence lose its theological traction?"

    Here we might use Hugh McCann as a foil, dedicated as he is to a very robust divine sovereignty?

    What if, with McCann, we take free human intentions and acts to be directly and immediately created by the antecedent divine will, but any human "motives" (variously free per formative, deformative and transformative dynamics) as willed permissively by God's secondary, consequent will?

    Human intentions and actions would be provided, providentially, but nonmorally or pre-morally, while our motives would be caused, solely, by ourselves, who would determine their moral character, which would be known to God via His consequent will and defined by God per His antecedent will.

    Any good (moral), loving (including supererogatory) motives would entail synergistic participations in divine activities and energies.

    Any exculpable a-synergies (failures to participate due to our early stages of formation) and dys-synergies (failures to participate due to deformative influences) would result from our theotically necessary epistemic distancing, while culpable anti-synergies would be due to our sinful refusals to participate. (I've borrowed the asynergetic-dyssynergetic distinctions as analogies from medical terminology, not that I'm not occasionally guilty of idiosyncratic neologisms).

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    • As a follow, since certain questions would beg, I only mean to explore a possible logical consistency to McCann’s robust sovereignty and not to argue, necessarily, for its evidential plausibility (as I’m anti-theodicy). In the vein of plausibility, though, following the injunctive not to judge, might we not reasonably hope that most human behavior is either laudably synergistic or exculpably asynergistic or dyssynergistic rather than antisynergistic? Might this hope, when coupled with at least a slightly more robust notion of divine sovereignty, a tad more narrower – yet meaningfully essential – conception of human freedom, not further bolster, also, our hope in a universalist eschatology? I refer to a practical not speculative universalism.

      As to the distinction between moral and pre-moral or ontic evil, I only affirm virtually (not absolutely) intrinsic evils as I view the concept of intrinsic evil as a cluster concept, which imports evaluative and normative aspects into descriptive accounts.

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      • Janice Dietrich says:

        I cannot thank Father Kimmel enough for putting this essay in his blog. The issue of Providence has been central to me for decades and I have been in many different Christian denominations, always searching for an answer. The Orthodox Church ( I’m a convert of over 20 years)is probably not the best place to learn about Providence. They don’t seem to write about the issue much, or develop it , so I was glad to see this essay.It is as I suspected, they don’t really believe in Providence in any meaningful way :” it is not clear to me that it is an exception [ i.e. men’s evil acts not being part of God’s Providence] that could be carried through without effectively denying God’s providential care over human affairs.” This sentence rings over and over in my mind as being exactly the case.Why is Providence treated so shabbily in the Orthodox Church ? I think it is because of an over emphasis on man’s free will :

        …..why is all this emphasis placed on man’s will to ruin himself, rather than on God’s
        will to save? Is man the pivot on which all hinges? To me it seems bad philosopy and
        even worse theology , not to recognise God as center,and His will and purpose as
        supreme. ( Christ Triumphant , p27)

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