“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.