Omni-instrumentality 3: Providence

This is the third of four posts on omni-instrumentality, a Thomistic model for divine providence. So far we’ve discussed cooperation (here), the distinction between nature and artifice, the analogy of cooperation, and our proposal that divine concurrence is God’s essential cooperation with nature (here). Although concurrence is the central component to our view on providence, it is not the whole picture. So, in this post we will discuss some of the other components the view, using what we have said so far as a basis. As before, it is highly recommended that you read the previous posts before continuing here.

Inherent and privative limitations

We’ve seen that God’s essential cooperation with nature is a consequence of our absolute dependence upon him as the Creator. We’ve also seen that as divine instruments we act by virtue of God applying us as instruments to our ends. All of this might suggest that we can make no original contribution of our own in our cooperation with him, but in fact we do. In our first post we delineated four ways something can impose upon another when cooperating with it, and you’ll recall that two of these were active (elevation and violence) while the other two were passive (facilitation and limitation). What we’ve said up until now should make it clear that we cannot actively impose upon God’s acting through us, since all our being originates from him; but there is still room for us to passively impose upon it, since this occurs merely through our reception of his causal influence rather than by our adding something to it.

Of the two passive impositions, the more interesting one when it comes to the topic of divine providence is limitation, wherein we hinder God’s causal influence. This hinderance is not a result of us overpowering God in any way (which would be an active imposition), but is the result of our own limitedness. Now, we can distinguish between two kinds of limitation. There are what we can call “inherent” limitations, which instruments impose simply in virtue of having the capacities that they do. For instance, humans are physical creatures, and therefore our scope of influence is limited to where we are at any given moment and the speed at which we can travel: if I’m sitting at home then I can’t influence things at work, and nor can I get to work in the next two minutes. In divine concurrence, then, God’s influence will always be limited to what I am able to achieve through my nature. This also applies to essential cooperation with artifice: an abacus can only calculate with numbers up to a certain point, governed by the number of beads it has; and when Alice moves the stone with the prodder she must work within the constraints of its strength, lest it buckle and break under the pressure of her influence.

In addition to inherent limitations there are what we can call “privative” limitations, which instruments impose by failing to fulfill their ends. In the case of the abacus, if it has lost some beads then it will not be able to calculate to the full extent of its design. In the case of the prodder, if Alice intends to use it to push a stone that is too heavy, and it breaks under her influence, then it has failed to fulfill the end Alice had given it. Of course, for this to happen Alice would need to be ignorant or indignant of the inherent limitations of the underlying stick, but the prodder exists and has its ends because of Alice’s intentions, and to this extent fails to live up to these ends.

Divine concurrence is similar to both of these cases, and God’s design and intention result in our nature and its fulfillment. While we may conceptually distinguish between God giving something a nature and disposing it to its fulfillment, in reality these are the same act.1 Intuitively, this amounts to the fact that when we intend to do something we also intend to do it well. So, when God concurs with an animal, this single act both establishes the animal’s natural life and disposes it to the fulfillment of this nature, which fulfillment is called “health” or “flourishing”. The animal will have inherent limitations based on its nature (a horse will be four-legged, and bird will be able to fly), and when the animal acts contrary to its health, by damaging itself, say, or by not eating properly, then it fails to fulfill its nature, which is a privative limitation.

The remaining notions we will discuss in this post all have something to do with how God incorporates our limitations into his direction of history.

Evil as privative limitation

Privative limitation helps us to explain why divine concurrence does not make God the source of evil. Avoiding this untoward conclusion is perhaps the most compelling reason for restricting God’s influence on our actions, and thereby rejecting the second corollary we mentioned in the previous post. The reasoning goes roughly as follows: if God’s influence on a human’s action were not direct, complete, and total, then we could say that any evil arose when that human added to God’s contribution in order to make the action occur. But while this move may be tempting, it is in fact unnecessary.

The better way to proceed is to build upon the distinction between agent and instrument, and recognize that God’s influence as agent is limited by the human instrument through which he acts. What’s more, this limitation comes in both inherent and privative versions. To see the significance of this, recall that some of our natural powers are volitional powers, whereby we pursue the good. In creating and concurring with our nature, then, God disposes us to the fulfillment of these powers, namely the conscious pursuit of what is truly good. We fall short of this only to the extent that we privatively limit his influence, and to the extent that we fall short of what is truly good, we and our actions are evil. God ordering us toward the good can be likened to Alice disposing the prodder to move the stone, and our limitation of this can be likened to the stick buckling under the pressure. But there is an important difference: the privative limitation of the prodder is the result of an inherent limitation of the underlying stick, but there is no pre-existent underlying thing in God’s concurrence with us. So, our privative limitations cannot be reduced to inherent limitations of something at a lower level.

Now, we must underscore that this privative limitation of God’s influence is not something we add to God’s contribution, but has to do with how we passively receive his influence as he works through us. We are also not saying that God makes us will an end and leaves us to choose the means, for this is just to repeat in different words the mistake we’re trying to avoid. We are saying that both willing and choosing arise from the essential cooperation between God and us, and that the goodness in each originates with God while the evil in each results from our privative limitation. In other words, both we and God cause the action but God doesn’t cause the evil of the action and we don’t originate the good of the action.

In this we see the superiority of our proposal over the alternative. If we restrict the scope of God’s influence (as the alternative does) we may avoid making him the source of evil, but we also avoid making him the source of all goodness. After all, if we need to add to God’s contribution in order for our action to occur, then this addition that can bring evil could also bring good. By contrast, on our proposal God is the sole source of goodness, which we do not add to, but which we can limit in our reception and propagation. We are responsible for the things we do, including the good and evil in them, but God is the source of the good and we are uniquely responsible for the evil.

Divine permission of evil

Once we recognize the possibilities of our original contribution and of privative limitation, we are led to various distinctions within God’s intentions. In particular, there are multiple senses in which he wills something, and an objective difference between what he wills and what he permits.

God’s will extends to what he causes, but this occurs in different ways. When essentially cooperating with a creature, his own contribution reflects his will more directly than the final product, since the latter is mediated through a creature whereas the former is not. Accordingly, while both his own contribution and the final product express his will in the particular action, the former does so more truly than the latter. Furthermore, since the nature of the creature is caused by God, its inherent limitations will also to some extent be part of his will.

Now, since the final product is also impacted by the privative limitations of the creature, what shall we say of the connection between God and these limitations? Like any artist he is cognizant of the limitations of his instruments, and so they must factor into his intentions somehow. But since they arise solely from the creature, and since it is privative of what he most truly wills, it cannot be a product of his will in the same way as the other components we’ve just mentioned. We are led to introduce a new category, namely what God permits. The objective difference between what God wills and what he permits, therefore, lies in whether something arises from God’s actions or not, with volition being further divided by how directly it does so. God most truly wills for goodness to be expressed, permits the evil of his creatures, and incorporates both into the plan he wills for all of history.

Premotion

So far we’ve been focusing on privative limitations, but inherent limitations play an important role in divine providence and are connected to another important notion, namely “premotion”. This term that comes up occasionally in discussions of divine providence, perhaps most often in connection to the Bañezian notion of physical premotion. We will discuss this in the next post, but here we will focus on the form of premotion that applies to our proposal.

The most apt name for this premotion is Aristotelian premotion, but we could also call it accidental premotion. In his Physics, Aristotle notes that every change (or motion) presupposes an earlier change (or motion). For instance, a fire may be able to heat a pan, but it only does so when these two are moved into the appropriate positions relative to one another. Similarly, an agent may make a choice, but this only happens when they find themselves in the appropriate circumstance, impressed by various reasons for choosing among the different options. This earlier change is what we call a premotion.

Some reflection makes it clear that the need for such a premotion is a result of our limitations, both privative as well as inherent. A flame is limited in space and time, and so needs to be brought near something in order to start heating it. And human cognition requires that we be appropriately situated, both in terms of our senses and in terms of our intellects if we are to deliberate and choose. Thus, the need for such premotion does not arise merely from our failures, but also simply from us having the natures that we do.2

God’s direction of history, then, requires that he take into account the limitations of his creatures if he is to avoid doing violence to their nature and freedom. He needs to ensure that the relevant premotion has occurred for a creature to be in the circumstance to act, and once there that the creature’s inherent and privative limitations do not preclude the action he has planned. When the circumstantial, inherent, and privative limitations have been taken into account, then God can concur with the creature through the exercise of its natural powers in accordance with his plan. As we saw last time, this concurrence does not constrain the powers of the creature, but rather constitutes them. And since God concurs with all of creation, he is uniquely capable orchestrating all of history in accordance with his plan.

Grace and special concurrence

Up until now, the kind of divine concurrence that we’ve been discussing is what can be called God’s general concurrence, owing to the fact that it applies to all existing things, in accordance with their natures. There is another kind of concurrence, however, called God’s special concurrence, which applies only when God specially wills to act in this or that creature. Much can be said about special concurrence, but we include a few brief notes simply as a way of recognizing that though general concurrence is the foundation for divine providence, it is not the only component of it.

Now, since general concurrence is God’s essential cooperation with nature, it follows that special concurrence must involve either coordinate or accidental cooperation with nature.3 Since general concurrence is needed for a creature to do anything, special concurrence will be in addition to this rather than instead of it.

Accidental cooperation with nature occurs when God supernaturally enables a creature to act, as when he gave Samson the superhuman strength that he used to kill himself along with the lords of the Philistines by pulling down the supporting pillars of the building they were in (Judges 16:23–31).

Coordinate cooperation with nature occurs when God actively imposes upon a creature’s actions, moving them to act in a particular way that may not otherwise be open to them given their limitations. Eleonore Stump discusses two interesting cases of coordinate cooperation in this sense.4 What makes them interesting is that despite this kind of cooperation involving God acting on a human’s will, neither case amounts to violence against their will.

In the first, imagine Alice is a recovering alcoholic. In this case she still has the dependence upon alcohol and therefore also the first-order desire to drink it. But because she is trying to recover she also has a second-order desire to be free of this dependence, which is to say she desires to no longer desire alcohol in such a dependent way. She is thus divided against herself, and will be so as long as she is on the road to recovery. Now, let’s say that Alice prays to God one day, and asks him to help her fight the temptation to drink alcohol. If God obliges, then he overpower her first-order desire to drink alcohol, thereby supporting her second-order desire for recovery. In this case, though he frustrates her (first-order) will he nevertheless upholds her freedom.

In the second, we are to consider the process of someone coming to faith in God. Traditional Christian doctrine holds that this transition occurs by a supernatural act from God, but that failure to make this transition occurs by obstinance of the unbeliever. In proposing a model to reconcile the tension between these two claims, Stump provides another example of God’s coordinate cooperation with the human will. As background, she notes that the will can be in one of three dispositions: assent, where the will is attracted to something; dissent, where the will is repulsed from something; and quiescence, where the will is in some sense “off”, neither assenting nor dissenting. Given this tripartite division, she continues as follows:

…suppose the following theology story to be the case. (1) God is constantly offering grace to every human being in such a way that if a person doesn’t refuse that grace, she receives it and it produces in her the will of faith. (2) Normal adult human beings in a post-Fall condition who are not converted or in the process of being converted refuse grace continually, even if they are not aware of doing so. (3) Ceasing to refuse grace is accompanied by an understanding that grace will follow and that grace would not follow if the refusal of grace were continued. (4) It is solely up to a human person whether or not she refuses grace. A person who ceases to refuse grace in these circumstances is thus in some respects analogous to a person suffering an allergic reaction who actively refuses an injection of an antidote to the allergen, perhaps out of a hysterical fear of needles. Such a person might not be able to bring himself to will that the doctor give him the injection. If the doctor were asking him whether he would accept the injection, he might not be able to bring himself to say “yes,” for example. But he might nonetheless be able to stop actively refusing the injection, knowing that if he ceases to refuse it, the doctor will press it on him. In this case, whether or not he receives the injection is in his control, even if it is also true that he cannot bring himself to answer “yes” to the doctor’s request to give him the injection.

Now, on this story, the means by which the person is brought to faith is by God working in them to produce the “will of faith”. This occurs by a coordinate cooperation with God and the human, where the human will is supernaturally moved by God from a state of quiescence to a state of assenting. But, because of the setup of the situation — and particularly point (3) — this supernatural movement does not do violence to the will of the person.

Stump uses the word “grace” in the above quote, which in our present context refers to a supernatural gift from God.5 It is used primarily in regard to the process whereby someone comes to faith, but can be used for any supernatural gift from God. Now, anything that comes from his general concurrence with us would be a natural gift, since this concurrence is what constitutes our natures. Thus, grace, in this sense, is any gift from God that is given through his special concurrence with us, whether it be through accidental or coordinate cooperation.

Conclusion

While divine concurrence is the linchpin of our proposal for divine providence, it is not the whole story. In this post we have fleshed out that story, by exploring how God concurs with creatures that are limited in all sorts of ways. We have also seen that to some extent God can work beyond these limitations by means of special concurrence, although doing so without frustrating our natures brings its own set of constraints. While much more would need to be said about grace to get a complete picture of divine providence, what we have so far should be sufficient for what lies ahead, namely comparing our proposal to other views commonly held today.


  1. In the case of living things we’ve seen before that every activity is disposed toward an end, and the activities of life in living things are in particular ordered inward so as to make them self-perfective. Human life is just a special case of this, which we’ve also discussed before. More generally, the real identity of a thing’s nature and its disposition toward an end is discussed by Aristotle in book two of his Physics, and we’ve discussed it briefly in section 2.2 here. It can also be seen as a consequence of what a form is, namely the determination of something to one of a variety of alternatives, which in the case of substantial forms will be the natural ends of that thing.↩︎
  2. Lonergan argues that this sort of premotion is the properly-Thomistic form, and furthermore that for Aquinas divine application is an intended premotion.↩︎
  3. I suppose we could also consider God’s cooperation with artifice, but what is unique about God is his ability to cooperate with nature, so we restrict ourselves to this for our discussion here.↩︎
  4. These can be found, respectively, in her papers Hardening of the Heart, and Frankfurt’s Concept of Free Will and Augustine on Free Will. The latter paper actually contains both examples of the kinds we mention here, but the former paper also includes a discussion where God’s aid is in helping someone remain in their sin.↩︎
  5. I have discussed in a previous post what I think grace primarily means in Pauline theology. I have no problem with it having a different, and more technical, meaning in systematic and philosophical theology, so long as we endeavor not to confuse these two with one another.↩︎

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