God is the Doer: Providence and Human Freedom in Julian of Norwich

Meditation upon the passion and death of Christ leads Dame Julian into a deeper understanding of God’s creation of the world, which in turn prepares her for the third showing—the presence of God in all:

And after this I saw God in a pointe—that is to say, in my understanding—by which I saw that he is in al thing. I beheld with avisement, seeing and knowing in that sight that he doth alle that is done. (LT 11)

Not only is God present in his creation by his goodness and love, but he is present by his transcendent causality, as the doer of all actions and all events. This apprehension of the divine omnipres­ence immediately raises for Julian the question of God’s responsibility for evil. We will discuss this question in the next article; at this point we need only observe that in this showing Julian does not apprehend sin. She does not see evil in God, nor does she see him doing evil. Julian is most certainly not denying the reality of sin, for it was sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross. But because God is intrinsically good, he does not will evil. He wills only the good and he wills it perfectly. His sovereignty over history, therefore, with all of its violence, horrors, privations, and tragedies, is complete; and because it is complete, we may confidently and calmly trust in the divine providence.

For I saw truly that God doth alle thing, be it never so litile. And I saw truly that nothing is done by happe ne by aventure, but alle by the foreseing wisdom of God. If it be hap or aventure in the sight of man, our blindhede and our unforsight is the cause. For tho thinges that be in the foreseing wisdom of God bene from without beginning, which rightfully and worshipfully and continually he ledeth to the best ende as it cometh aboute, falling to us sodeynly, ourself unweting. And thus, by our blindhede and our unforsighte, we say these thinges be by happes and aventure. Thus I understonde in this shewing of love, for wel I wot in the sight of our Lord God is no happe ne aventure. Wherfore me behoved nedes to grant that alle things that is done is welle done, for our lord God doth all. For in this time the working of creatures was not shewde, but of our lord God in the creature. For he is in the mid point of all thinges, and all he doth, and I was seker that he doth no sinne. And here I saw sothly that sinne is no dede, for in alle this, sinne was not shewde. (LT 11)

For I saw truly that God does everything, however small it may be, and that nothing is done by chance, but all by God’s prescient wisdom. If it seem chance in man’s sight, our blindness and lack of prescience is the reason. For those things which are in God’s prescient wisdom before time, which duly and to his glory he always guides to the best conclusion, as things come about, come suddenly upon us when we are ignorant; and so through our blindness and our lack of prescience we say that these things are by chance. So I understood in this revelation of love, for I know well that in our Lord’s sight there is no chance; and therefore I was compelled to admit that everything which is done is well done, for our Lord does everything. For at this time the work of creatures was not revealed, but the work of our Lord God in creatures; for he is at the centre of everything, and he does everything. And I was certain that he does no sin; and here I was certain that sin is no deed, for in all this sin was not shown to me. (Showings)

Julian advances a very strong construal of divine agency and providence (“God doth alle thing”), yet all the while denying the implication of divine responsibility for sin. How is that possible?

One way to address this apparent conundrum is to ask, “Could God have created a world inhabited by rational creatures who, without exception, freely choose obedience and love?” Of course not, we answer. By popular definition a free being must be always capable of disobeying the sovereign rule of its Creator. To be free is to be free from divine determi­nation. As Alvin Plantinga writes: “Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely.” Given the dark history of our own world, we reasonably deem the actualization of a universe of sinless beings as statistically improbable, if not impossible. This impossibility is advanced to explain wickedness and sin (commonly called the free will defense), as well as to justify eternal damnation. The sovereignty of God ends where human freedom begins. This most certainly is not what Julian believed.

In the thirteenth showing we learn that Julian had long wrestled with the question, why sin?

And after this, oure lorde brought to my minde the longing that I had to him before. And I saw that nothing letted me but sinne. And so I behelde generally in us alle, and me thought: “If sinne had not be, we shulde alle have be clene and like to oure lorde as he made us.” And thus in my foly before this time, often I wondred why, by the grete foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sinne was not letted. For then thought me that alle shulde have be wele. (LT 27)

And after this our Lord brought to my mind the longing that I had for him before, and I saw that nothing hindered me but sin, and I saw that this is true of us all in general, and it seemed to me that if there had been no sin, we should all have been pure and as like our Lord as he created us. And so in my folly before this time I often wondered why, through the great prescient wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented. For then it seemed to me that all would have been well.

In the next article we will explore Julian’s reflections on the mystery of evil, but here I simply note that Julian does not answer her question “why sin?” by invoking some form of the free-will defense. She apparently finds it plausible that God might have created free human beings who not only did not sin but could not sin. In fact, all medieval Christians believed that such a world already exists—it’s called heaven. Once admitted to the beatific vision, sin becomes impossible in the perfection of human freedom. If this were not so, both God and humanity would be trapped in a vicious cycle of fall and redemption.

While Julian does not analyze the mystery of divine agency and human freedom, she appears to presuppose, suggests Denys Turner, a position similar to that of St Thomas Aquinas. According to Thomas, the divine providence comprehends all activities and events. Turner summarizes:

God’s sovereign providence maintains its sway over everything, but it does so thereby achieving the perfection of each creature according to what it is created to be, according, that is, to its own nature. … And so God has created a world in which not only does each thing achieve its own good—as it were, for itself—for with some things their good consists in their sharing in the divine governance itself. Thus, Thomas says, “God governs the world in such a way as to establish certain causes the governance of other things,” so that the immediacy of the divine providence does not exclude God’s bringing about this created effect by means of that created cause. In fact, it is perfectly obvious to Thomas that if the whole universe of natural causes is caused by God immediately, it is nonetheless a system caused by God to operate by means of its own natural laws, being, as it were, a democracy of natural causation. Of course everything whatever is immediately dependent on God’s causality for its existence, for everything is created ex nihilo, and nothing that now exists could do so otherwise than by virtue of God’s creative act. Indeed, for Thomas, for a creature to exist at all is for it to be “created out of nothing.” But what there is in the world—that, for example, there are giraffes—God brings about through the natural processes of evolution over billions of years of, as most today would agree, random mutations thrown up by the interaction of multiple chains of causality. That there are giraffes, therefore, is the result of the world’s natural processes effecting what those natural processes were created to effect. In that sense, then, God can bring one thing about by means of another thing that God has brought about, and so indirectly, the immediate dependence of each and every thing upon God’s creating causality notwith­standing. For God is the total cause of all causalities, and so of evolution’s having randomly given risen to giraffes because that is just what God brought about those evolutionary processes, among other things, to do. (Julian of Norwich, Theologian, pp. 55-56; needless to say, Aquinas was unacquainted with modern theories of evolution)

Long time readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy will immediately recognize Thomas’s analysis of divine and creaturely causality as one of double agency: God implements his sovereign will for the cosmos in, through, and by the causal relations between creatures. The divine providence is immediate (at every moment every entity is created and sustained in being from out of nothing) yet also mediated (the cue ball hits the eight-ball and knocks it into the corner pocket). Personal causality, however, must be exempted from the dynamics of secondary causality. If my typing of this article is caused by something external to myself, whether by the firing of neurons in my brain or by the operation of the moon on the tides, then it is not the product of my freedom:

God brings about the history of salvation by means of the free acts of human beings. But by contrast with God’s having brought about my existence indirectly by means of my parents—granted the whole causality of which process is dependent upon God’s creating it ex nihilo—nothing at all mediates God’s relationship to those free acts: God creates ex nihilo each and every free act, with nothing in between. If one wants to speak of freedom needing “space” to be freedom, as the free-will defenders do, then it is right to conceive of that space as being unoccupied by natural created causes. Even God cannot cause a free act of mine by means of any created cause other than my own choices. But this is no restriction on the divine power, for God’s power is not restricted by the impossibility of creating what it is a contradiction to describe. Contradictions describe nothing. So they describe nothing God cannot do. But just for the reason that no created cause can mediate between God and my freedom, it is entirely wrong to conceive of that freedom as a space unoccupied by the divine causality. On the contrary, rather than excluding God’s causality from our free actions, we have to say that our free acts are where God’s causality is most evident, most immediate—most, we might in fact say, revealingly divine. For it is within our freedom that the divine causality, as creating all things “out of nothing,” is wholly undisguised by the mediation of any natural, secondary cause. If anything, then, my freedom reveals God more in the way that miracles do than as the natural world does, for the whole effect that is a free action directly reveals God precisely insofar as it is free. God’s causality lies within my freedom, sustaining it, not outside it, not canceling it. It is within my freedom, therefore, that God is, as Augustine says, “interior intimo meo,” “more within me than I am.” (pp. 56-57)

It may initially appear that Thomas has presented us with an antinomy or paradox—but only apparently so. We would have an antinomy if we were to say that God causes our free actions through the interactions with other entities and forces. Thomas insists that God creates our free actions immediately, from out of nothing: “My free actions,” Turner explains, “cannot be caused by anything other than God and myself: otherwise than as effected by my agency, a free act can only be created, out of nothing. God’s causing my free actions ex nihilo is therefore precisely what makes them free” (p. 58). Hence we are not confronted with a contradiction or paradox, as long as we do not think of God as a being alongside beings, thereby reducing divine causality to one cause among many.

And so Mother Julian confidently states, “For there is no doer but he” (LT 11). And this is no doubt true, from God’s transcendent point of view. But from our finite point of view, there are no doers but us. God concludes his third showing with the following encouraging words:

“See, I am God. See, I am in all thing. See, I do all thing. See, I never lefte my handes of my workes, ne never shale without ende. See, I lede all thing to the end that I ordaine it to, from without beginning, by the same might, wisdom, and love that I made it with. How shoulde any thing be amisse.” (LT 11) 

(Go to “The Nought of Sin”)

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13 Responses to God is the Doer: Providence and Human Freedom in Julian of Norwich

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    A few questions:

    Not knowing the larger context of her writings, what seems to be her motivation in wading into this contentious and difficult subject? Is it driven from the personal/devotional aspect?

    Can you detect sources which may have influenced her thinking on this subject?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The question of Julian’s sources is real interesting, because she does not quote anybody. Scholars wonder where she received her theological training, but clearly she is theologically educated. She seems to be thinking from an Augustinian-Thomistic framework (not surprisingly) but profoundly informed by the revelation of the absolute Love of God. This sets up a tension at a couple of points with the teaching of Holy Church, which she humbly affirms.


  2. Chris Kappes says:

    Dear Al,
    Thanks for your invite to comment. Perusing the texts, I did see some affinity with Late Byzantine theoreticians (Markos Eugenikos) who took a Maximimian (the Confessor) stance, where God predetermines (as Mr. Positive) only positive and excellent items that he will make, but that he does not positively choose negations with respect to virtue and “the death of the sinner.” In this sense, God does everything (not-unlike Thomistic physical promotion). However, he simply takes human nature “a” and gives it positively graces from Time (T) 1 to T, 1000. However, at 1001 one needs the grace at death but it wasn’t in the cards…not by negation, simply by positively awarding 1-1000. However, the inexorable and positive law of salvation is “all people must be in grace at their time 1001 to be saved.” So, indirectly, nature “a” has been lost.

    Secondly, however, I don’t know of any theory to satisfy God’s (Christian) necessity to know the future, while strenuously upholding the datum of free-choice…meaning at T1 I can self-move either to a or “-a” synchronously. However, for your universal salvation (apokatastasis) purposes, the Thomistic notion of the will as an elicited response to apparent goods makes it much harder to punish due to demerits. If I see the yummier apple, being hungry, then the yummier elicits my response. Until the idea “nihil movetur ab alio movetur” or “whatever gets moves, such movement is done by some other cause” is denied by Maximian and Franciscan approach where the will is “self-mover”. However, universal salvation looks pretty bleak when you get what you deserve. Of course, dogmatically one can appeal to “physical promotion” or state that theologically God somehow even moves the Maximus-Scotus will, but nobody can come up with the stereo instructions and graph on how that make sense. Of course, with the Thomist model, it has a better pretense at causality (though I still think it falls lamentably short), but in the process we sacrifice our irrefrabale experience of feeling free and self-moving (as when “I” just decide to bend my finger due to some point that “I” want to make about my self-moving freedom).

    my 2 cents

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Thank you Chris.

      I struggle to find Aquinas’ view coherent. I don’t know how to distinguish between claims that are simply nonsensical (like those involving ‘square circles’) and those that appear to be incoherent but which are not because of transcendence (like ‘God eternally and providentially willing my freely choosing to sin while not willing that I sin’). As far as my optics command, that doesn’t look different than a square circle. Maybe it’s just my vision, but I sense in Maximus, as you describe him, somewhat better sense is made of things.

      I say somewhat, because you note the impossibility of finding “any theory to satisfy God’s…necessity to know the future, while strenuously upholding the datum of free-choice.” What would you think of taking Bulgakov’s path? (https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/bulgakov-open-orthodox-father/)


  3. Thomas says:

    A tangential note on Aquinas’ view of double agency (since I know nothing about Julian of Norwich except from this series). St. Thomas himself manifestly did not believe that in causing human actions God determines their outcome. If I choose tea over coffee, on St. Thomas’ view, God causes me to do so without precluding me from having chosen coffee instead. It’s only necessary that I chose tea upon my act choosing it, which could have been otherwise.

    There’s a whole line of thought stemming, as far as I can tell, from Herbert McCabe, that tries to interpret St. Thomas as regarding the question whether God, in determining the human will, violates human freedom as a sort of category mistake. God is “too close” to the human will to violate it. However, St. Thomas clearly did not think the problem a pseudo-problem. When he considers objections to the possibility of human freedom given divine causality, he never uses the “too close” defence. He always appeals to a real contingency left intact despite God’s causality. He clearly regarded God’s causal presence in the human will as one that did not bind the will to this or that alternative choice.

    “Wherefore it [i.e, divine providence] moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently. Since, therefore, the will is an active principle, not determined to one thing, but having an indifferent relation to many things, God so moves it, that He does not determine it of necessity to one thing, but its movement remains contingent and not necessary, except those things to which it is moved naturally.” ST II-1 art. 4, resp.

    If Julian of Norwich has a sort of perspectival view of human freedom–that we appear to be free from our limited point of view, but in fact our choices are determined by God–I would be very sympathetic with a critique along Thomist lines against that position and in defence of genuine human freedom.


    • Chris Kappes says:

      I think the problem, as always, is so many people who know exactly what Thomas meant are not impressed with what anybody else cautiously suggests about Thomas, despite the mountainous Dominican commentaries on the Sentences and their variegated treatments on the will, current battling Thomistic literature, and never-ending intra-Thomistic fights. Still, each absolutely certain Thomist shares in my limited experience but one conclusion…everybody else doesn’t know Thomas, as well as the one who has the monopoly (allegedly) on Thomas knows him.


      • Thomas says:

        I would locate the problem in a different place: anxiety about the presence of differing opinions that prevents rational consideration.

        Certainly there are obscure issues in St. Thomas. This is not one of them (though some of the related questions relating to e.g., actual grace are). There are obscure issues in philosophy, theology, and history. Yet there are well-grounded judgments and ill-formed judgments, and in certain cases the difference between the two is manifest. There are different opinions not only in Thomist interpretation, but also councils of the church, meta-mathematics, and metaphysics.

        Misology is misology, wherever it happens to make its appearance. For some reason misology seems to have a better reputation in certain theological circles.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thomas, you make it sound as if Herbert McCabe’s reading of Aquinas (and I suppose we need to lump Brian Davies and Denys Turner with him, given that both are clearly indebted to McCabe) is idiosyncratic. I find that suggestion at the very least debatable. I’m not sure where we should place McCabe in the continuum of interpretations of Aquinas, but the fact remains that a strong predestinarian reading of Aquinas has existed within Thomistic circles for centuries. Recent analytic readings of Aquinas (e.g., Eleonore Stump) have presented him as a libertarian, but FWIW (which ain’t much) I personally tend to agree with Brian Shanley that he cannot be so easily pigeon-holed: https://goo.gl/I5puCs.

      May I ask which scholars you have found persuasive in your reading of Aquinas.


      • Thomas says:

        Lonergan’s “Grace and Freedom” would be my recommendation for a detailed historical treatment on the subject, although it is a slog. I remember thinking Shanley’s treatment was pretty good, but it’s been a while since I read him, and I think I was reading one of his books instead of the article you linked to.

        The best thing to do on the specific issue of providence and contingency, though, is to read Aquinas’ treatment of the questions in the Summa Theologiae, De Potentia, and the De Malo. St. Thomas is quite clear (as I quoted above) that, in his view, God’s causing human choices does not necessitate the choosing of a rather than b.

        The matter of how he can reach that conclusion cogently is significantly more complex (e.g., does it conflict with his doctrine of actual grace?), and rests on his notion of instrumental causality, the division of the types and order of causality, and the particular structure of the human will. But that he believed human choices not to be necessitated by God is something he asserts emphatically, explicitly, and repeatedly.

        To put it in a nutshell: “We should not say that God left human beings in the hands of their own deliberation without acting upon their will. Rather, he did so because he gave human beings’ will mastery over their acts, so that they would not be bound to one or the other contradictory alternative.” De Potentia III, 7.


  4. Chris Kappes says:

    hmmm…I tend to take appeals “meta-” thingies (purely ad hominem) as a sign that the diagnosis is correct.


    • Thomas says:


      How is using the example of disagreements in, say, meta-mathematics to show that disagreement on a point does not negate there being a fact of the matter ad hominem? And what is it that distinguishes your position above from the sort of misology presented in the Phaedo?


  5. C W Kappes says:

    I dutifully take the role of the Omega that I should have respectfully awarded the Alpha from the beginning. My sincere apologies and prayers this evening.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robertson Gramling says:

    Anybody here read Blondel? I’ve only come across him tangentially, but he seems like someone who would be fascinating (and profound) to read on matters of human agency and the will.

    Liked by 1 person

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