by Matthew C. Briel, Ph.D.
A couple of weeks ago I had a late night discussion with two senior colleagues who asked me about my work on Gennadios Scholarios (1400-1472) and his reconciliation of the Thomistic and Palamite accounts of God and the concommitent ideas of providence. I argued that, basically, Scholarios’ and Thomas’ accounts of providence come down to primary and secondary causality. If God is being itself, or, in Dionysius’ language, the cause of being itself, then God is involved in every action, for every action involves being. And yet, God wants creatures to be true causes. In this account, unlike some medieval Muslim and later Christian accounts of causality, the natural world is respected by God and creaturely causes are true secondary or instrumental causes.
Thomas’ idea of secondary causality is based on his concept of the analogy of being, which itself depends on divine simplicity and the complexity of all creatures, in which their essence is not their existence. A problem arises, however, when a Palamite such as Scholarios wants to make use of Thomas’ analogy of being, for the Palamite distinction between the divine essence and energies cannot be understood simply as a notional distinction, and this would seem to present a different notion of the divinity than that presupposed by the analogy of being. Scholarios overcomes this impasse by suggesting that the distinction be understood as one that is notional but with a foundation in reality. Consider, for instance, the distinction between the intellect and the will in the soul. The two, intellect and will, seem to be different in the same way that two faces of the same mountain differ, yet are still the same mountain. The two thinglets (realitates) exist in one thing (res).
Scholarios’ modified Palamism allowed him to maintain the Thomistic analogy of being that undergirds his notion of providence. When this framework is applied to the question of providence over human affairs, it is possible, in a way, to preserve the antinomies of divine providence in a strong sense and human freedom. God really is the cause of all things, but he does not cause human actions stemming from the will in a way that forces human actions, even if he causes them in a necessary way. And so all things are predetermined to such an extent that Scholarios, following Aquinas, can say that it is appropriate, in a way, to call God’s providence fate, although the term, according to both theologians, is misleading because it implies that God forces human beings to actions when, in fact, we are free creatures.
Scholarios briefly addresses the question of the role of prayer in his fifth tract on providence in volume one of his complete works (1928). This tract has not been translated into any language and has been overlooked by scholars and therefore the broader. My brief analysis furthers the work in my forthcoming book from UND Press, A Greek Thomist, in which I track the development of Scholarios’s theology of providence from his earliest writings through his first tract on providence.
Grounded in the analogy of being, Scholarios’ account is similar to Aquinas’ in Summa contra Gentiles 3.95. Let me now walk through Scholarios’ treatise on prayer, highlighting the most salient points.
In his first paragraph Scholarios clarifies that although some think that the fulfillment of prayers (and he has in mind here probably healings of the all-too-common Byzantine illnesses) are random on God’s part, in fact not all prayer is equal, for the prayers of the unjust are not heard by God, and he explained in earlier tracts that this is because the unjust (or the unprepared to participate in grace) do not cooperate with God’s providence.
Next, in paragraph 2, Scholarios repeats the metaphysical presupposition for his understanding of providence, namely, that beings other than God do not have their being from themselves, for only one being is self-generating. All creatures have their being from God.
And foreknowing is to arrange [things] for the good end that is proper to foreseeing and thus to be foreknown is to be arranged towards the good. And if it is not the case beings come into being and exist in vain [randomly], then each being must be arranged towards its proper end, and consequently towards the last end that is common to all, which is the most common and final end [namely, God]. But we do not need to examine the final end here except to say that it is necessary that all beings be arranged towards their proper good, and as such an end it is the source of their coming to be and their existence, but it did not come about from them, nor are they driven by themselves towards their proper end, but rather they are arranged by the God who created them.
All things, then, are directed towards God (paragraph 3). Indeed, “divine foreknowledge embraces all the works of God” (paragraph 4). God foreknows even sins and the actions of sinners, but does not will them. Divine providence, in the sense of both God’s foreknowledge and his loving kindness, is especially shown towards the just, and less so to the unjust:
Only those who have been formed by faith and manner of life receive the benefit of providence properly so called, for to them who use the body as an instrument and tool is there an important concern for eternal life and use the present life like a passage. For God foreknows them according to their own proper inclinations, collaborating in everything with them towards the end, co-preparing them without overlooking their lives and, furthermore, God considers their proper end which they seek. (paragraph 5)
Human beings determine their lives, and if they determine their lives in a good way, God acts in their life. God, foreknowing human action and the good collaboration that a human being will do (for God exists outside of time and so when he acts he is predetermining all actions of collaboration) is involved in every good action. And here Scholarios uses the language of logoi in the mind of the one who is both creator and foreknower:
For clearly the pre-establishment of all the creatures that do not yet exist are eternally present as eternal logoi in the intellect of the one who is both the creator and the foreknower. (paragraph 5)
Scholarios continues in paragraph 6:
And so it is clear how the divine predetermination is a part of divine foreknowledge, for it runs through all human beings but distinguishes them according to the order and worthiness of each of them, and predetermination concerns only those who are predetermined for eternal life, which is the goal of this life here below, and they are determined by their own zeal and divine assistance, and just as providence concerning human beings is a part of the providence concerning all beings, and just as they are some part of the totality of beings, all of which are known (for the logos of [God’s] own foreknowledge concerning them [human beings] eminently comprehends the foreknowledge that concerns the other creatures), and in the same way providence concerning those who are predetermined for eternal life is a part of the providence concerning all human beings, but it [providence regarding human beings] is not a lesser and circumscribed part of that [providence more generally] because it is the skopos and end of the entire foreknowledge of God for all of the other beings came into being and exist for the sake of human beings, and human beings exist for the sake of being predetermined and saved. But those creatures that lack a will by the divine skopos render service unto human beings since they are set apart by nature for such a service, while human beings are honored on account of free will, which is the greatest of the gifts [given] to them. While the great refusal is a withdrawal from God, which is their proper end according to both nature and grace, nevertheless few are the predetermined and saved in juxtaposition with those who are rejected, except that it is greater simply and conquers in terms of the complete number.
In paragraph 7 Scholarios states that God organizes our life here below to bring us to our goal, which is heaven. Our prayer to God to grant us his aid is a kind of collaboration in his accomplishing our salvation and since God always knows what he does (and he exists outside of time), our prayers and their fulfillment are predetermined from our perspective, but from the divine perspective simply are determined, and not forced.
In paragraph 8 Scholarios concludes that real prayer is for the kingdom both in the next world and in this world. Real prayer is doxology, not prayer for freedom from temptation, for temptations serve a purpose in that they strengthen us and prepare us for salvation.
After this brief summary, it seems appropriate to circle back to that late night discussion from two weeks ago. It seems that Scholarios’ account of prayer and divine providence evades my friend Paul’s critique. But is it an honest evasion? Ultimately, for Scholarios, prayer does not change God’s providence but rather is a way to participate in that providence, the goal of which is our salvation. Both Thomas and Scholarios argue, basically, the prayer does not move the immutable God. However, as with all secondary causes, human prayer is a participation in being, and real prayer, directed towards our end, is a participation in God’s guidance of our lives and the world. In the case of grace and divine providence, human beings can refuse to participate in this grace, and we can fall into non-being and away from our goal, union with God in heaven. In the end, God fulfills the desires of a rational creature only to the extent that they are good. Perhaps, ultimately, this is an evasion of Paul’s question. But then, Scholarios’ answer is a theological answer rather than a strictly philosophical one. Scholarios must maintain the seeming contradiction of human freedom and divine omnipotence and omniscience. In Scholarios’ account the two dimensions of providence and prayer, namely, the human and the divine, may be seen as two different perspectives on the same reality of the human participation in divine grace, which is, of course, theosis for Scholarios.
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Matthew C. Briel is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University in 2016 where he benefited from his time with the Orthodox Christian Studies Center. He specializes in Byzantine theology, especially in its relationship to Roman Catholic theology, and has a book on Gennadios Scholarios, A Greek Thomist, forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press.