Help support New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
(Latin, Providentia; Greek, pronoia).
Providence in general, or foresight, is a function of the virtue of prudence, and may be defined as the practical reason, adapting means to an end. As applied to God, Providence is God Himself considered in that act by which in His wisdom He so orders all events within the universe that the end for which it was created may be realized. That end is that all creatures should manifest the glory of God, and in particular that man should glorify Him, recognizing in nature the work of His hand, serving Him in obedience and love, and thereby attaining to the full development of his nature and to eternal happiness in God. The universe is a system of real beings created by God and directed by Him to this supreme end, the concurrence of God being necessary for all natural operations, whether of things animate or inanimate, and still more so for operations of the supernatural order. God preserves the universe in being; He acts in and with every creature in each and all its activities. In spite of sin, which is due to the wilful perversion of human liberty, acting with the concurrence, but contrary to the purpose and intention of God and in spite of evil which is the consequence of sin, He directs all, even evil and sin itself, to the final end for which the universe was created. All these operations on God's part, with the exception of creation, are attributed in Catholic theology to Divine Providence.
For all religions, whether Christian or pagan, belief in Providence, understood in the wider sense of a superhuman being who governs the universe and directs the course of human affairs with definite purpose and beneficent design, has always been a very real and practical belief. Prayer, divination, blessing and curse, oracle and sacred rite, all testify to a belief in some over-ruling power, divine or quasi-divine in character; and such phenomena are found in every race and tribe, however uncivilized or degraded. We find it, for instance, not only amongst the savages of today, but also among the early Greeks, who, though they do not appear to have clearly distinguished between Providence and Fate, and though their gods were little more than glorified human beings, subject to human frailty and marred by human passion, they none the less watched over the home and the family, took sides in human warfare, and were the protectors and avengers of mankind. The intimate connection of the gods with human affairs was even more marked in the religion of the early Romans, who had a special god to look after each detail of their daily life, their labours in the field, and the business of the state. The ancient religions of the East present the same characteristics. Auramazda, the supreme god of the Persians during the period of the great kings, is the ruler of the world, the maker of kings and nations, who punishes the wicked and hearkens to the prayers of the good (see cuneiform inscriptions translated by Casartelli in the "Hist. of Relig.", II, 13 sq.). A similar notion prevailed in Egypt. All things are in God's gift. He loves the obedient and humbles the proud, rewards the good and smites the wicked (Renouf 100 sq.). Osiris, the king of the gods, judges the world according to his will, and to all nations, past, present, and future, gives his commands (op. cit., 218 sq.). Amon Ra-is, the lord of the thrones of the earth, the end of all existence, the support of all things, just of heart when one cries to him, deliverer of the poor and oppressed (op. cit., 225 sq.). Assyrian and Babylonian records are no less clear. Marduk, the lord of the universe, shows mercy to all, implants fear in their hearts, and controls their lives; while Shamash directs the law of nature, and is the supreme god of heaven and earth (Jastrow, 296, 300, 301). The books of the Avesta, though they depict a dualistic system, represent the good god, Mazdah Ahura, with his court, as helping those who worship him against the principle of evil (Hist. of Relig., II, 14). In the dualism of the Gnostic theories, on the other hand, the world is shut off from the supreme god, Bythos, who has nothing directly to do with human affairs before or after the incarnation. This idea of a remote and transcendent deity was probably derived from Greek philosophy. Socrates certainly admitted Providence, and believed in inspiration and divination; but for Aristotle the doctrine of Providence was mere opinion. It is true that the world was for him the instrument and expression of the Divine thought, but God Himself lived a life wholly apart. The Epicureans explicitly denied Providence, on the ground that if God cares for men He can be neither happy nor good. Everything is due, they said, to chance or free will. On both these points they were opposed by the Stoics, who insisted that God must love men, otherwise the very notion of God would be destroyed (Plutarch, "De comm. notit.", 32; "De stoic. rep.", 38). They also attempted to prove the action or existence of Providence from the adaptation of means to ends in nature, in which evil is merely an accident, a detail, or a punishment. On the other hand, the notions of God, nature, force, and fate were not clearly distinguished by the Stoics, who regarded them as practically the same thing. While even Cicero, who works out the argument from adaptation at considerable length in his "De natura deorum", ends unsatisfactorily with the statement, "Magna Dii curant, parva negligunt", as his ultimate solution of the problem of evil (n. 51-66).
Though the term Providence is applied to God only three times in Scripture (Ecclesiastes 5:5; Wisdom 14:3; Judith 9:5), and once to Wisdom (Wisdom 6:17), the general doctrine of Providence is consistently taught throughout both the Old and New Testaments. God not only implants in the nature of things the potentiality of future development (Genesis 1:7, 12, 22, 28; 8:17; 9:1, 7; 12:2; 15:5), but in this development, as in all the operations of nature, He co-operates; so that in Scriptural language what nature does, God is said to do (Genesis 2:5, cf. 9; 7:4, cf. 10; 7:19-22, cf. 23; 8:1-2, cf. 5 sq.). Seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, the clouds and the rain, the fruits of the earth, life itself alike are His gift (Genesis 2:7; 8:2; Psalm 146:8, 9; 28; 103; 148; Job 38:37; Joel 2:21 sq.; Sirach 11:14). So too with man. Man tills the ground (Genesis 3:17 sq.; 4:12; 9:20), but human labours without Divine assistance are of no avail (Psalm 126:1; 59:13; Proverbs 21:31). Even for an act of sin, Divine concurrence is necessary. Hence in Scripture the expressions "God hardened Pharao's heart" (Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8), "Pharao's heart was hardened" (Exodus 7:13; 8:19, 32; 9:7, 35), "Pharao hardened his heart" (viii, 15) and "Pharao did not set his heart to do it" (vii, 23), or "hearkened not" (vii, 4; viii, 19), or "increased his sin" (ix, 34), are practically synonymous. God is the sole ruler of the world (Job 34:13). His will governs all things (Psalm 148:8; Job 9:7; Isaiah 40:22-6; 44:24-8; Sirach 16:18-27; Esther 13:9). He loves all men (Wisdom 11:25, 27), desires the salvation of all (Isaiah 45:22; Wisdom 12:16), and His providence extends to all nations (Deuteronomy 2:19; Wisdom 6:8; Isaiah 66:18). He desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should repent (Ezekiel 18:20-32; 33:11; Wisdom 11:24); for He is above all things a merciful God and a God of much compassion (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:10; Psalm 32:5; 102:8-17; 144:9; Sirach 2:23). Yet He is a just God, as well as a Saviour (Isaiah 45:21). Hence both good and evil proceed from Him (Lamentations 3:38; Amos 3:6; Isaiah 45:7; Ecclesiastes 7; 15; Sirach 11:14), good as a bounteous gift freely bestowed (Psalm 144:16; Ecclesiastes 5:18; 1 Chronicles 29:12-4), evil as the consequence of sin (Lamentations 3:39; Joel 2:20; Amos 3:10, 11; Isaiah 5:4, 5). For God rewards men according to their works (Lamentations 3:64; Job 34:10-7; Psalm 17:27; Sirach 16:12, 13; 11:28; 1 Samuel 26:23), their thoughts, and their devices (Jeremiah 17:10; 32:19; Psalm 7:10). From His anger there is no escape (Job 9:13; Psalm 32:16, 17; Wisdom 16:13-8); and none can prevail against Him (Sirach 18:1; Wisdom 11:22-3; Proverbs 21:30; Psalm 2:1-4; 32:10; Judith 16:16, 17). If the wicked are spared for a time (Jeremiah 12:1; Job 21:7-15; Psalm 72:12-3; Ecclesiastes 8:12), they will ultimately receive their deserts if they do not repent (Jeremiah 12:13-7; Job 21:17, 18; 27:13-23); while the good, though they may suffer for a time, are comforted by God (Psalm 90:15; Isaiah 51:12), who will build them up, and will not cease to do them good (Jeremiah 31:28 sq.; 32:41). For in spite of the wicked, God's counsels are never changed or thwarted (Isaiah 14:24-7; 43:13; 46:10; Psalm 32:11; 148:6). Evil He converts into good (Genesis 1:20; cf. Psalm 90:10); and suffering He uses as an instrument whereby to train men up as a father traineth up his children (Deuteronomy 8:1-6; Psalm 65:10-2; Wisdom 12:1, 2); so that in very truth the world fighteth for the just (Wisdom 16:17).
The teaching of the Old Testament on Providence is assumed by Our Lord, who draws therefrom practical lessons both in regard to confidence in God (Matthew 6:25-33; 7:7-11; 10:28-31; Mark 11:22-4; Luke 11:9-13; John 16:26, 27) and in regard to the forgiveness of our enemies (Matthew 5:39-45; Luke 6:27-38); while in St. Paul it becomes the basis of a definite and systematic theology. To the Athenians in the Areopagus Paul declares:
The Testimony of the Fathers is, it need hardly be said, perfectly unanimous from the very outset. Even those Fathers and they are not many who do not treat expressly of the subject use the doctrine of Providence as the basis of their teaching, both dogmatic and practical (e.g. Clement, "I Epis. ad Cor.", xix sq., xxvii, xxviii in "P.G.", I, 247-54, 267-70). God governs the whole universe [Aristides, "Apol.", I, xv in "Texts and Studies" (1891), 35, 50; "Anon. epis. ad Diog.", vii in "P.G.", II, 1175 sq.; Origen, Against Celsus IV.75; St. Cyprian "Lib de idol. van.", viii, ix in "P.L.", IV, 596-7; St. John Chrysostom, "Ad eos qui scandalizati sunt", V in "P.G.", LII, 487; St. Augustine, "De gen. ad lit.", V, xxi, n. 42 in "P.L.", XXXIV, 335-8; St. Gregory the Great, "Lib. moral.", XXXII, n. 7 in "P.L.", LXXVI, 637 sq.; XVI, xii in "P.L.", lxxv, 1126]. It extends to every individual, adapting itself to the needs of each (St. John Chrysostom, "Hom. xxviii in Matt.", n. 3 in "P.G.", LVII, 354), and embraces even what we think is due to our own initiative (Hom. xxi, n. 3 in "P.G.", 298). All things are created and governed with a view to man, to the development of his life and his intelligence, and to the satisfaction of his needs (Aristides, "Apol.", i, v, vi, xv, xvi; Origen, Against Celsus IV.74 and IV.78; Lactantius, "De ira Dei", xiii, xv in "P.L.", VII, 115 sq.; St. John Chrysostom, "Hom. xiii in Matt.", n. 5 in "P.G.", LVII, 216, 217; "Ad eos qui scand.", vii, viii in "P.G.", LII, 491-8; "Ad Stagir.", I, iv in "P.G.", XLVII, 432-4; St. Augustine, "De div. quæst.", xxx, xxxi in "P.L.", XL, 19, 20). The chief proof of this doctrine is derived from the adaptation of means to an end, which, since it takes place in the universe comprising a vast multitude of relatively independent individuals differing in nature, function, and end, implies the continuous control and unifying governance of a single supreme Being (Minucius Felix, "Octavius", xvii in Halm, "Corp. Scrip. Eccl. Lat.", II, 21, 22; Tertullian, "Adv. Marcion.", II, iii, iv in "P.L.", II, 313-5; Origen, Against Celsus IV.74 sq.; Lactantius, "De ira Dei", x-xv in "P.L.", VII, 100 sq.; St. John Chrysostom, "Hom. ad Pop. Ant.", ix, 3, 4 in "P.G.", XLIX, 106-9; "Ad eos. qui seand.", v, vii, viii in "P.G.", LII, 488-98; "In Ps.", v, n. 9 in "P.G.", LV, 54-6; "Ad Demetrium", ii, 5 in "P.G.", XLVII, 418, 419; "Ad Stagir.", passim in "P.G.", XLVII, 423 sq.; St. Augustine, "De gen. ad lit.", V, xx-xxiii in "P.L.", XXXIV, 335 sq.; "In Ps.", cxlviii, n. 9-15 in "P.L.", XXXVII, 1942-7; Theodoret, "De prov. orat.", i-v in "P.G.", LXXXIII, 555 sq.; St. John Damascene, "De fid. orth.", i, 3 in "P.G.", XCIV, 795 sq.). Again, from the fact that God has created the universe, it shows that He must also govern it; for just as the contrivances of man demand attention and guidance, so God, as a good workman, must care for His work (St. Ambrose, "De Offic. minist.", XIII in "P.L.", XVI, 41; St. Augustine, "In Ps.", cxlv, n. 12, 13 in "P.L.", XXXVII, 1892-3; Theodoret, "Deprov. orat.", i, ii in "P.G.", LXXXIII, 564, 581-4; Salvianus, "De gub. Dei", I, viii-xii in "P.L.", LIII, 40 sq.; St. Gregory the Great, "Lib. moral.", xxiv, n. 46 in "P.L.", LXXVI, 314). In addition to this, Tertullian ("De testim. animæ" in "P.L.", I, 681 sq.) and St. Cyprian (loc. cit.) appeal to the testimony of the human soul as expressed in sayings common to all mankind (cf. Salvianus, loc. cit.); while Lactantius ("De ira Dei", viii, xii, xvi in "P.L.", VII, 97, 114, 115, 126) uses a distinctly pragmatic argument based on the utter ruin that would result to society, were the Providence of God generally denied.
The question of Providence in the Fathers is almost invariably connected with the problem of evil. How can evil and suffering be compatible with the beneficent providence of an all-powerful God? And why especially should the just be allowed to suffer while the wicked are apparently prosperous and happy? Patristic solutions to these problems may be summed up under the following heads:
From the creeds we learn that God the Father is the omnipotent creator of heaven and earth; that God the Son descended from heaven, became man, suffered and died for our salvation, and is to be the judge of the living and the dead; that the Holy Ghost inspired the Prophets and the Apostles, and dwells in the saints all of which implies Providence, natural and supernatural. The Profession of Faith prescribed for the Waldenses in 1208 declares God to be the governor and disposer of all things corporeal and spiritual (Denzinger, 10th ed., 1908, n. 421). The council of Trent (Sess. VI, can. vi, A.D. 816) defines that evil is in the power of man, and that evil deeds are not to be attributed to God in the same sense as good deeds, but permissive only, so that the vocation of Paul is God's work in a much truer sense than the treachery of Judas. The Council of the Vatican sums up past doctrine in the statement that God in His Providence protects and governs all things (Sess. III, c. I, d. 1784).
The basis of all further philosophical speculations among Scholastics in regard to the precise nature of Providence, its relation to other Divine attributes, and of creation, was laid by Boethius in the "De consol. phil." (IV, vi sq. in "P.L.", LXIII, 813 sq.). Providence is the Divine Intelligence itself as it exists in the supreme principle of all things and disposes all things; or, again, it is the evolution of things temporal as conceived and brought to unity in the Divine Intelligence, which, as St. Thomas says (Summa I, G. xxii, a. 1), is the cause of all things. Providence, therefore, pertains primarily to the Intelligence of God, though it implies also will (I, Q. xxii, a. 1, ad 3 urn), and hence is defined by St. John Damascene as "the will of God by which all things are ruled according to right reason" ("De fid. orth.", i, 3 in "P.G.", XCIV, 963, 964). The term "Providence", however, must not be taken too literally. It is not merely sight, or fore-sight. It involves more than mere vision or knowledge, for it implies the active disposition and arrangement of things with a view to a definite end; but it does not involve succession. God beholds all things together in one comprehensive act (I, Q. xxii, a. 3, ad 3 um), and by the same act produces, conserves, and concurs in all things (I, Q. civ a. 1, ad 4 urn). Providence as expressed in the created order of things is by Boethius called Fate (loc. cit.); but St. Thomas naturally objects to the use of this term (I, Q. cxvi, a. 1). Strictly only those things which are ordained by God to the production of certain determinate effects are subject to necessity or Fate (I, Q. xxii, a. 4; Q. cii, a. 3; Q. cxvi, a. 1, 2, 4). This excludes chance, which is a relative term and implies merely that some things happen irrespective of, or even contrary to, the natural purpose and tendency of some particular agent, natural or free (I, Q. xxii, a. 2; Q. cvi, a. 7; Q. cxvi, a. 1); not that things happen irrespective of the supreme and universal cause of all things. But it does not exclude free will. Some causes are not determined ad unum, but are free to choose between the effects which they are capable of producing (I, Q. xxii, a. 2 ad 4 um; cf. Boethius, op. cit., V, ii, in "P.L.", LXIII, 835). Thus things happen contingently as well as of necessity (I, Q. xxii, a. 4), for God has given to different things different ways of acting, and His concurrence is given accordingly (I, Q. xxii, a. 4). Yet all things, whether due to necessary causes or to the free choice of man, are foreseen by God and preordained in accordance with His all-embracing purpose. Hence Providence is at once universal, immediate, efficacious, and without violence: universal, because all things are subject to it (I, Q. xxii, a. 2; ciii, a. 5); immediate, in that though God acts through secondary causes, yet all alike postulate Divine concurrence and receive their powers of operation from Him (I, Q. xxii, a. 3; Q. ciii, a. 6); efficacious, in that all things minister to God's final purpose, a purpose which cannot be frustrated (Contra Gent., III, xciv); without violence (suavis), because it violates no natural law, but rather effects its purpose through these laws (I, Q. ciii, a. 8).
The functions of Providence are threefold. As physical, it conserves what is and concurs with what acts or becomes; as moral, it bestows upon man the natural law, a conscience, sanctions physical, moral, and social answers human prayers, and in general governs both the nation and the individual. That God should answer prayer must not be understood as a violation of the order of natural Providence, but rather as the carrying of Providence into effect, "because this very arrangement that such a concession be made to such a petitioner, falls under the order of Divine Providence. Therefore to say that we should not pray to gain anything of God, because the order of His Providence is unchangeable, is like saying that we should not walk to get to a place, or eat to support life" (Contra Gent., III, xcv). The Providence whereby we are enabled to overcome sin and to merit eternal life supernatural Providence pertains to another order, and for a discussion of it the reader is referred to GRACE; PREDESTINATION.
St. Thomas' treatment of the problem of evil in relation to Providence is based upon the consideration of the universe as a whole. God wills that His nature should be manifested in the highest possible way, and hence has created things like to Himself not only in that they are good in se, but also in that they are the cause of good in others (I, Q. ciii, a. 4, 6). In other words He has created a universe, not a number of isolated beings. Whence it follows, according to St. Thomas, that natural operations tend to what is better for the whole, but not necessarily what is better for each part except in relation to the whole (I, Q. xxii, a. 2, ad 2 um; Q. lviii, a. 2, ad 3 um; Contra Gent., III, xciv). Sin and suffering are evils because they are contrary to the good of the individual and to God's original purpose in regard to the individual, but they are not contrary to the good of the universe, and this good will ultimately be realized by the omnipotent Providence of God.
CAIRD, The Evolution of Theology in Greek Philosophers (Glasgow, 1904); CASARTELLI, Leaves from My Eastern Garden; CICERO, De natura deorum; FOX, Religion and Morality (New York, 1899); JASTROW, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (Boston, 1898); Hist. of Religions (London, 1910); LOUIS, Doctrines Religieuses des Philosophes Grecs (Paris, 1909); ed. MULLER, Sacred Books of the East, IV, XXIII, XXXI, The Zend-Avesta, tr. DARMESTETER AND MILLS (London, 1880-7); MURRAY, Hellenistic Philosophy in Hibbert Journal (Oct., 1910); PIAT, Socrate (Paris, 1909); PLUTARCH, De communibus notitiis; IDEM, De stoicorum repugnantiis; LE PAGE RENOUF, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, as illustrated by the Religions of Ancient Egypt (London, 1880); SAYCE, The Religion of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia (Edinburgh, 1902); TOLMAN, Ancient Persian Lexicon and Texts (New York, 1908); ZELLER, Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics (London, 1880).
BUTLER, Analogy of Religion, ed. GLADSTONE (Oxford, 1896); BRUCE, The Moral Order of the World (London, 1899); IDEM, The Providential Orders of the World (London, 1897); LACORDAIRE, De l'Economie de la Réparation in uvres, IV (Paris. 1857); MACCOSH, The Method of Divine Government (Edinburgh, 1850); VACANT, Dict. Apol. de la Foi Cath. (Paris and Lyons, 1889), s.v.
APA citation. (1911). Divine Providence. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12510a.htm
MLA citation. "Divine Providence." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12510a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.