Editors note: This is an original work submitted early in my days here at the Seminary, for one of my favorite courses, Creation and Divine Providence as taught by Dr. Michael Hoonhout, Ph.D. (Theology), also a favorite. The course was completed by me in the Summer of 2007. I hope you find it interesting in its original, un-edited form, including "MLA style" footnotes which refer to (Author, page #). The bibliography or "works cited" follows the text. Enjoy!
The fresco of the "Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power", a masterpiece of Pietro da Cortona, filling the large ceiling of the grand salon of the Palazzo Barberini, now Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
Perhaps my favorite illustration of divine providence is a story that was related to me by Brother Owen Sadlier, OSF, and dealing with the super-seed of the Douglas-fir trees that grow in the dense forests of Western Oregon. Douglas-firs grow to upwards of 300 feet high, their super-seeds are contained in a “pine” cone that is about a foot long. What is interesting about the Douglas-fir is what needs to take place in order for the seeds to germinate.
Their super-seed casing is a non-porous shell. Once the pine cone is shed the seed’s casing is exposed to the elements, but cannot germinate. For the seed inside to germinate the casing must be heated to about 1500 degrees. At that temperature the casing splits, and is now insulated by the charcoal that is a by product of the forest fire which is necessary to get the super-seed to 1500 degrees. The forest fire in this dense, frontier forest in the depths of the Oregon wilderness is most probably caused by a bolt of lightning. An atheist would ascribe this chain of events as random. Clearly to me, this is divine providence, in that an unintelligent thing (the fir seed) is moved by the intelligent process of the Creator.
Divine providence is a subject matter that is inherently difficult to embrace and fully comprehend for most people. In any legitimate treatment of the subject matter, one must embrace several factors that are in themselves complex and perhaps untouchable within the human consciousness. Aside from the notional difficulty of the creature (in this case human beings), in order to approach the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient Creator (the unapproachable one), one must in a way transcend human shortcomings in intellect and go beyond the simple acceptance and submission to blind faith to pursue a deeper understanding and study of the Creator’s purpose in creation.
Using Theodoret and Hart’s texts as well as Dei Filius and the article by Charles M. Wood, I will survey the topic of divine providence in light of its Patristic meaning (Theodoret) and in light of a modern natural tragedy (Hart). I will also address Wood’s interpretation in light of our Catholic dogmatic faith (Dei Filius). What follows is my present understanding of divine providence through my own limited theological perspective and the insights I have gained through the lectures and reading in this course.
My understanding of divine providence is thus: the Creator has set in motion all created things with a purpose that only He can fully know and which we can only attempt to understand firmly. Though understanding less than the fullness of divine providence, we rejoice in the grace of knowledge. We sense this grace by witnessing His actions in our lives, the very place that God exists for us. We do this by our participation in the Sacraments, our study of sacred texts and tradition, and our deference to the Magisterium. We begin with the patristic treatment of Theodoret of Cyrus, the 5th century Antiochene theologian.
“For Theodoret…providence is the divine action ad extra which sustains everything in existence. The divine government of the world is the execution of the eternal divine world-plan in time” (Th 5). Theodoret is fond of the Greek word Pronoia, which means fore-knowledge. The Divine Creator has complete fore-knowledge of His creation, of the universe and its creatures, throughout eternity.
Theodoret’s treatment, in the first half of this work, deals with the inner and outer universe- the inner being the mechanisms in the human body that sustain life and the outer being the earth, sun, stars and the universe. He shows that creation is ruled by order, not randomness or chaos, and this is meaningful. The God of Creation is providing for our every need, as in the lilies of the field (Mt 6:28) or the birds in the air (Mt 6:26). By recognizing this we can also see the orderliness of God as a message of comfort. Theodoret offers the scriptures as the primary authority of revelation on divine providence. He also focuses on nature and the thesis that God who created the world is naturally taking care of it. He uses his discourses on nature to show how creation is so harmonious that it is a great symphony, one with a master conductor, who is God, the Creator. When we as creatures, realize this, we see our creation, our life, as a gift. Because the world is so contingent, the earth must remain in perfect obedience to the laws of nature so as to sustain seasonal life among seven continents in every clime and place (and their adaptive features). Contingencies such as the finite exactness of Earth’s orbit to sustain life on a perfectly balanced planet (by rotation, orbits, ect.) cannot be happenstance.
Theodoret also provides perspective on class structure. At that time in history in Antioch, there was a great disparity between classes of the wealthy and the poor who were generally slaves. Theodoret explains that free will still prevailed, even among those who were slaves, in that they could still offer perfect praise to God (Th 88). This is a lesson for us all, in that regardless of our station in life, we can experience the grace of God’s unending love for all of His creatures, and return it freely, in full obedience to His will for us.
Perhaps it is the rich man so challenged by a life of simplicity who cannot enter the kingdom, while it is easier for the poor and simple in spirit (Mt 5:3). Theodoret says man’s false perceptions only confuse him in his yearning to understand what (perhaps) is not comprehensible (Th 135). This seems to be telling of our current age, as men seem to be consumed by material things: individual wealth, property and stature. Western society has become largely nihilistic.
Moving from the ancient but contemporarily relevant treatment of Theodoret, we tackle the question of Theodicy that is so prevalent in modern-day society, after a natural disaster such as the Tsunami of 2004, or an unnatural one such as 9-11-01. For this we turn to the Hart text.
In general, David Hart responds to theodicy with incredulity. For
theodicy assumes that God is an active participant in creation which would destroy the concept of free will. Certain proponents of theodicy would try to explain the death of hundreds of thousands in the Tsunami, as God’s wrath upon a sinful world. Instead for Hart, God is characterized by “Divine Apathea”, meaning that He cares but is unchained to creation, instead allowing it to seek its natural telos. God is unmoved but caring.
Hart’s view also opposes Deism, which suggests that God is not active in Creation, except to provide a moral code in which we can discern right and wrong, which is how we are ultimately judged (Wikipedia). Here again we turn to Divine Apathea. Specifically, God acts in creation but He allows us complete freedom to act either in union with His will or against it; the complete and utter freedom of human will. Our salvation is dependent on how we specifically act. Just how well we understand divine will, and how we allow it to guide our fallen selves, will lead us to the right actions.
The important difference between a god of Deism who is “unchained” to the world and the Christian God who is a loving and caring Father, Abba, is that our God is all merciful in complete communion with the human condition through the Son. He wants only that we seek redemption in union with Him in His heavenly kingdom. Perhaps it is the grace that exists for us to realize all the little lessons along the way that direct us home to Him.
Sometimes the wisdom of mankind serves as the vehicle of God’s grace. For instance, if the Tsunami originated in the Pacific Rim, instead of the Indian Rim, there would possibly have been much less death. The reason for this is that there are early warning systems dotted throughout the undersea fault lines in the Pacific due to a communal cooperation between countries such as the United States, Japan and others in Southeast Asia. These exist despite the fact that in some cases (Malaysia and Indonesia) we are not necessarily politically or culturally aligned. In fact radical Islamic fundamentalism looms large in some areas of these countries governments.
Perhaps people’s responsibility to the world community extends beyond their own national borders due to the age of technology and the far reaching information age; we are all really close global neighbors as technology has allowed us real-time access to the world’s news. Because of this far reaching neighborhood, it is not enough to be the “good Samaritan” (Lk 10:33) on your street or local byway. The free people of a country with the means of the United States, for example, must also be good global neighbors and take a leadership position in helping less privileged third world countries. We do this, specifically in this case, by initiatives to fund deep ocean tsunami reporting systems.
This solidifies a point in which the Gospels project, “you know neither the hour nor the day” (Rv 3:3), which reminds us to be in right relationship with God beyond the life of the here and now. Our Creator promises us, through the Son, everlasting life with Him in His heavenly kingdom. It is a fact that we don’t know, individually or collectively, when we will meet the maker. Thus, it is preeminently important that we are ready every minute of every hour of every day. We should not wait to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (cf. Lk 17:21).
Hart also points out that these natural tragedies serve a bigger purpose. It is the tectonic shifts in the earth’s platelets that ensure the land will remain risen above the sea (Hart 51-52). It is a natural phenomenon that perhaps allows God’s creatures to have a home, otherwise the natural erosion of the land by the wind and rain would eventually break down the land completely. Hart does a sufficient job of explaining divine providence in light of popular misconceptions fueled by theodicy and deism. Charles Wood’s treatment, however is not without flaws.
It seems in Mr. Wood’s article, “The Question of the Doctrine of Providence”, that divine providence is a moving target subject to the accepted norms for “Christian Doctrine” at a specific point in history. This seems ultimately flawed because it is placing a limiting feature on the omnipotent God, that He could be fully understood by His creatures, and left for us humans to interpret in a way that we see fit. This is opposed to our tradition of divine revelation, whereas in the Dogmatic Decree of the Catholic Faith of Vatican I, we accept that, “Supernatural revelation, according to the universal belief of the Church, as declared by the sacred Synod of Trent, is contained in the written books and unwritten traditions which have come down to us, having been received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself; or having been received by the Apostles from Christ himself” (DF 241).
In Part III of the article we can see this as he tries to explain away foundational truths. He opens this section of the article by stating, Here is the question of the doctrine of providence…How are we to understand theologically what goes on in the Christian doctrine of providence. We can only do so by setting out principles that are in accord in light of the Christian witness (Wood 221). This is imminently limiting to our interpretation of faith and not actual revelation. My retort would be, providence (and perhaps doctrine) cannot be questioned, but only assimilated and understood through revelation and prayerful discernment helped by some of the giants of Catholic tradition such as Sts. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, among others.
As Catholics, we submit to the doctrine that salvation occurs by grace alone as promulgated by the Council of Trent. Inherent to this theology is that, as receivers of salvation by grace alone, we cannot proclaim it boldly, as most Lutherans do, as something having already been achieved by faith (and so predestined). In Theodoret’s Discourse 9, he says, “You however, beside nature, have the law to teach you, and the prophets who treat of religious matters, and the company of apostles teaching you about the present and foretelling what is to come. Recognize, then, the benefit of salvation which is conferred on you from every side” (133).
Once you accept that salvation occurs by faith alone, it follows that you should not be limited by doctrine, or what we would call dogmatic truth because you are not bound by the sacred doctrinal truth of our tradition. Thus, you may question divine providence and put it into some kind of context which then limits it. This fails to surrender completely to God, the creator, who can only be limited by Himself, not His creatures, and thus fails miserably to explain the nature of divine providence.
In conclusion, divine providence is God’s ability as Creator to see His creation to its natural end. We, as His creatures, have been given domain over the Earth. As we are living creatures, albeit fallen ones, we are perpetually graced with God’s perfect love that teaches us the way home to Him. His only desire is for his beloved children to be reunited with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven, so as to be in full communion with all the angels and saints for all eternity.
Hart, David Bentley. The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005
Theodoret of Cyrus. Theodoret of Cyrus on Divine Providence. Thomas Halton, trans. (Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 49). New York: Newman Press, 1988.
Vatican I. Dei Filius (1870). Cf. chapter 1.
Wood, Charles M. “The Question of the Doctrine of Providence.” Theology Today 49 (1992): 209-224