The Activity of God—Jonathan Dolhenty


(Note: The following is a presentation of the classical Thomistic doctrine of philosophical theology for those who are unacquainted with it. Knowledge of the classical doctrine itself is valuable for any student of philosophy. This branch of philosophy is called Natural Theology or Theodicy and discovers the First Efficient Cause and the Last Final Cause of all things. This study is a purely philosophical one, and draws no arguments from revelation (although it makes reference to Christian revelation at certain points); it is a truly metaphysical study, for it is a reasoned treatise on nonmaterial real Being, from a traditional Christian perspective. Some of this treatise is highly technical and an acquaintance with Classical Thomistic ontology is highly recommended before approaching this subject.)


THE PHILOSOPHY OF GOD
A brief introduction to theodicy

Adapted from various sources and edited
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.


Part 3: The Activity of God


A. Operations of God

By an operation we mean an activity performed; we mean the product of a power for acting or doing. Now, infinite power is an attribute of God. But, as we have learned, this attribute is not something that God has; it is something that God is. God is Infinite Power. In creatures, an operation is the product of a power which is not the active or operating creature itself, but something distinct from the creature which the creature possesses. A creature cannot act or operate immediately; it must act or operate through the medium or by the means of a power to act; it operates mediately. But with God this not so. Hence, when we speak of the operations of God, or of the divine operations, we speak of God Himself exercising Godhead.

An operation is either immanent or transient.

  • An immanent or “indwelling” operation stays in its main effect within the being which operates; we call this being the agent, from the Latin agens “the actor, the doer, the performer, the accomplisher.”
  • A transient operation (from the Latin transiens “going across”) goes across, so to speak, from the agent and finds its main effect in something outside the agent.

The operation or activity of growing is an immanent operation in a child. The tearing of a garment by growing is a transient activity or operation of the growing child. The operation of thinking is immanent; the operation of bat against ball is transient.

Now, since God is the author of all positive being or perfection, there is nothing outside God for Him to work upon except such things as His power has placed there, and which His power keeps in existence. And so there is no positive being, no actual creature, which is utterly independent of God, and which exists as a wholly alien thing for Him to exercise transient operations or activities upon. Besides, a transient activity always involves (in creatures, where transient activity in its perfection is possible, and where alone it is possible) a kind of “kickback,” an effect on the agent itself. If the bat hits the ball, the bat itself receives an impact; the bat itself is affected. But this connatural property of transient activity or operation is not found in God’s operations. And thus we perceive that the phrase transient operation or transient activity is not strictly and literally predicable of any of God’s operations. But we use such language as we possess; it is imperfect language, but it is the best we have. And so we call by the name of transient divine activity the operations of God which affect creatures.

The immanent operations of God are those that are “indwelling” in God, and indeed are identified with the every essence of God in His Undivided Infinite Self-Subsistent Being.

B. Immanent Divine Operations

The immanent operations of God are the operations of God as Intellect and of God as Will.

1. God as Intellect

God as Intellect is God the Omniscient, God the All-knowing. Since God is infinite, there is no limitation to God’s knowledge; it exhausts the knowability of everything. It is truly comprehensive knowledge which takes in not only what things are or have been or will be or can be, but all that, under other and non-existing circumstances, they could be.

God’s knowledge is knowledge of all things in all their actual and possible relations. This must be so, as reason sees, otherwise God’s knowledge would be limited; and God (who is His knowledge) is infinite. God’s knowledge is not the product of learning. It is not conserved in memory or anticipated in expectation. For God has no past and no future; He knows all knowables (in all actual and possible relations) now, in an eternal now; for God’s knowledge is His eternal Self. God’s knowledge does not operate to the prejudice of his free creatures, such as man. For God’s knowledge regarded as the operation of knowing, is immanent. It is the will of God that provides and governs and gives free creatures every possible help to their happiness.

God’s knowledge (which is God as Intellect) embraces all things perfectly. God knows Himself, which is only saying that He is Himself. God knows all creatures in Himself. We human beings learn, we come to know; we apprehend what things are in themselves after the things are there. But God knows all knowables eternally. In our language, God knows things perfectly before they are there. If He did not know them, they could not be planned and created and put there. Their very possibility rests upon God’s knowledge. Thus God knows all things in Himself, not in themselves, as we know things. We know things by taking in their mental image or species, as it is called.

But God Himself is the adequate species of all existible creatures. No image or species is impressed on God, or expressed in God, for such impression and expression is necessarily limited, and God’s knowledge is His Infinite Essence and unlimited. But we say, technically (if inaccurately), that in God are the “archetypes,” — that is, the first molds, the primal designs, — of all things knowable and creatable. Sometimes we call these “archetypal ideas” or “archetypal images” or “archetypal species.” The primary object of God’s knowledge is Himself; the secondary object of God’s knowledge is all knowable creatures, and these He knows eternally in Himself.

Philosophers (and theologians) make a distinction (not real, but logical with a basis in reality) in the knowledge of God, and speak of God’s Simple Understanding and God’s Vision. By the Knowledge of Simple Understanding, God knows all thing possible. By the Knowledge of Vision, God has present knowledge of all things actual, whether, in our view, these are past, present, or to come. Some learned men make a further distinction and say that there is a type of knowledge which lies midway between these two types; they call it Scientia Media or Middle Knowledge, and they assign to this type of divine knowledge the things, not merely and sheerly possible, and not truly actual, but such things as a creature would certainly do if certain circumstances and conditions were verified, but which are not, in fact, going to be verified.

Thus God knows perfectly what I would do if I went out into the street tomorrow and found a thousand-dollar bill. But, as a fact, I am not going to find any such bill. What I would do is not sheerly possible, but something that would be actual if conditions were met (and they are not going to be met); nor is it truly actual but only what would be actual in the unrealized circumstances. Such a thing is knowable, and God knows it. But in the human scheme of distinguishing God’s knowledge into a sort of set of two compartments (Simple Understanding or Simple Intelligence and Vision) such a thing does not seem to fit; we make a third compartment called Scientia Media for this thing to fit into.

Now, these things that are not going to happen, but would certainly happen, if conditions (which are not going to be realized) were in fact realized, are called futuribilia. So we may sum up this matter and say that philosophers and theologians distinguish in God:

  • Knowledge of Simple Understanding or Knowledge of Simple Intelligence, by which God knows all things possible;
  • Knowledge of Vision, by which God knows all things actual; and
  • Some philosophers add what others call unnecessary, the third distinction called Scientia Media or Middle Knowledge, by which God knows futuribilia.

2. God as Will

God as Will is God the Almighty; it is God as Infinite Love. For love is the proper act of will. God loves Himself infinitely, which is only saying that God is Himself. We must not impose upon God our creatural thoughts or expressions, and think of self-love in God as we think of it in creatures. For will is a thing which a free creature has, not what he is. Besides, “self-love” in a creature is really not love of self; it is “selfishness” and does harm to the creature afflicted by it; true love of self would not do harm but good to the self. So we must be on our guard, lest mistaken human expressions should make us attribute something unworthy to God.

In God love of Self is the highest perfection; it is Infinite Godhead. And God loves all creatures, for they are the product of His will, that is, of His Almighty Love. The primary object of God’s will is Himself; the secondary object of God’s will is creatures. Creatures are the object of God’s will or love in proportion to their actuality or perfection or being. Hence, men, among the most perfect of creatures, are peculiarly the object of God’s will or love.

Philosophers and theologians distinguish in God an antecedent and a consequent will. God’s will is called antecedent when it wills simply; it is called consequent when it wills in view of special conditions and circumstances, especially those that come from the freewill of a creature. Thus, from the orthodox Christian perspective, antecedently God wills all men to be saved. But men are free, and can abuse their freedom, and so can be lost. Consequently upon their choice, God wills their punishment if they choose to be lost. This is not a philosophical finding, but one whose source is Christian revelation.

God wills or loves all things. But evil is not a thing. Thing or being means actuality, and actuality means perfection. Evil is the absence of perfection. Thus God does not will evil.

From the Christian perspective, physical evils — like hunger, sickness, hardships, a bad climate, etc. — may be really good inasmuch as they help a man to virtue, such as patience, penance, hope of eternal life, striving towards heaven. Inasmuch as these are good, God is said to will physical evils accidentally and not per se or in themselves. Thus a loving father whose son has been extravagant may profitably allow the young man to suffer inconvenience and threat of arrest, or even arrest itself, as a lesson that will be of inestimable profit to him in time to come. The father does not will the suffering of the son in itself or per se; he wills it accidentally or per accidens inasmuch as it comes along with the good he wishes his son to take from a tight situation.

Or, to use another analogy, a man who must undergo a painful, dangerous, and expensive operation if he is to recover health, wills the pain, the danger, the expense — all types of deprivation, absence, evil — accidentally and not in themselves; for he wills his recovery of health, and these things “go along.” Se we say, God does not will physical evils per se, but only per accidens inasmuch as they are the means to good for His children. But God does not will moral evil or sin either per se or per accidens, for sin is a contradiction of God and God does not will — that is, God is not — a contradiction in Himself. Sin is man’s own doing; it is an abuse of freewill; and, like all evils, moral evil or sin is not a thing, but the absence of a thing; it is the absence — that is, the failure — of agreement between man’s conduct and the rule of what it ought to be. Sin is a failure to measure up. It is a defection from the true moral rule, which is God as Infinite Understanding and Will.

c. Transient Divine Operations

As we have warned the reader above, there are no literal or strictly-so-called transient operations of God. But we call transient the divine operations which reach out, so to speak, to God’s creatures.

1. The first of these operations is creation.

There is, as we have seen, no ultimate explanation of the world of creatures except an absolute beginning, an emerging out of nothing under the power and activity of the First Cause. Creation is therefore a fact. And, as we have also seen, only truly infinite power (which is God) can account for such an emergence. For creation is the producing of a thing in its entirety out of nothing. Creation is an operation so proper to Infinite Power that a creature cannot serve even as an instrumental cause. For an instrumental cause is a cause employed upon something which is there to work upon; and in the case of creating there is nothing to work upon.

2. The second of the divine transient operations is conservation or preservation of creatures.

Not only does a creature fail to explain its coming into existence, it fails to account for its continuing in existence. Contingent things (and all creatures are contingent) depend utterly upon causes to produce them and to maintain them. Hence, in last analysis, the creating power (without which the world is wholly impossible) must be extended to be also the preserving or conserving power.

Now, preserving a thing may be direct or indirect. A man who catches a delicate base as it is about to fall, directly preserves it. If he then locks it up in a case where nothing can come near to break it, he indirectly preserves it, and he may go off about his business and forget the vase entirely; still he is indirectly preserving it by the fact that through his activity it is now locked up and safe.

Now, God must preserve creatures directly. For creatures are wholly contingent, and unable to preserve themselves for an instant unless they are actually and actively held out of nothingness. They cannot be locked in a forgotten case, for God would also actively hold the case in existence. Thus conservation is a divine activity that is continuous. It is called “a continuous creation,” and the phrase is justified. For the same divine power that is required to bring creatures to existence is required to keep them in existence.

If God were to refuse conservation, this would be annihilation of creatures. Strictly speaking, God could annihilate; but when we consider that God is not only creating and conserving Power, but is also Infinite Wisdom, Infinite Mercy, and Infinite Goodness, we say that He cannot annihilate, for this would conflict with His perfections. The technical way of putting all this is: God, by His absolute power, can annihilate; by His ordinated power (that is, power as seen in line with the other divine perfections) He cannot annihilate.

3. The third of the divine transient operations is concurrence by which God supports creatures in their activity.

By conservation God supports creatures in being; by concurrence He supports creatures in doing. When it is read in Scripture that man “cannot so much as say the Lord Jesus but by the Holy Ghost” we find the fact of necessary divine concurrence neatly expressed; man (or any creature) can do nothing except by the concurrence of God.

But what about sinning? Remember that the actual physical activity that may be connected with a sin (such as the bodily exertions of the murderer) are in themselves good; a murderer might use the same muscles, the same movements, in saving a life that uses in destroying a life. The bodily actions of the sinner are in themselves good. It is their direction and their result as determined by free will that is bad. It is the free will that fails to bring them into line with God and so make them morally, as well as physically, good.

But what of the free will action itself? This is sinful inasmuch as it fails, is defective, is an absence of agreement with the moral law. For, as we have seen elsewhere, evil, whether physical or morel, is not a thing but the absence of a thing. A thing, a positive being, as such, is good. So God does not concur with sinful activity as sinful, for this phase of the activity, being negative and defective, is not positive being or activity.

But God does necessarily concur with physical activity, even in a sinner, and He permits the abuse and defection whereby the sinner fails to make his act a good act. God is in no sense the author of sin; man is responsible for sin by defection, by failure, by absence of the work and effort needed to bring his activity into line with moral goodness. Sin requires, in itself, no effecting cause, but a defecting cause; not a cause that produces being, but a cause that fails to produce being as it should. Hence, God, the sole Primary Effecting Cause of all being and all real activity, is not cause of sin; this, as we say, is a defecting cause; it is the failing will of man.

We distinguish types of divine concurrence:

  • Mediate concurrence is that by which God supports in creatures their power to act.
  • Physical concurrence is that by which God supports the actual exercise of such power.
  • Moral concurrence is that by which God draws or invites free creatures to good action.
  • Previous concurrence is the divine support or influence on the agent before the operation and in view of it.
  • Simultaneous concurrence is the divine support in the doing or operating of the creature at the actual instant that such operating takes place.
  • Efficacious concurrence is that which infallibly takes effect.
  • Indifferent concurrence has its effect dependently upon the cooperation of the creatural cause (or secondary cause).
  • General or Indeterminate concurrence is not directed to a definite effect.
  • Special or Determinate concurrence is directed to one determinate effect.
  • Intrinsic concurrence is intertwined in the very essence of the operation of the creatural cause.
  • Extrinsic concurrence is, so to speak, an outer influence.

Now, how does God concur with man’s free acts? Some say that God’s concurrence with man’s free acts is immediate, moral, indifferent, simultaneous, and extrinsic. (Such is the theory of Molina, famous Jesuit theologian and philosopher of the 16th century.) Others maintain that God’s concurrence with man’s free acts is physical, previous, immediate, special, intrinsic, and also simultaneous. (Such is the theory of “Physical Pre-motion.”)

We cannot pause here upon a point of controversy. Suffice it to say that, whichever theory best expresses the fact of God’s concurrence with man’s free will, God so concurs with the human free will as, on the one hand, to retain in Himself the creating power necessary for the first origin of all activity, and, on the other hand, to keep man’s deliberate activity truly free. There is mystery here, of course; but the facts remain: God alone is necessary and primary Cause; man is actually free in all his deliberate moral conduct.

4. The fourth of the divine transient operations is the governing of the world.

God is Infinite Wisdom. He has made the world, therefore, for a most wise purpose. Hence He has a most wise plan for the working of the world to its end. This plan of God we call divine Providence. The working out of the plan is divine Government. Providence and Government extend to everything and every activity in the world, not only in a general way, but in every particular and detail.

God supports and moves all creatures according to their nature (that is, their working essence which He has made), and where man’s free nature brings in, by its failure, the evil of sin, even here God’s Providence and Government so shape things, by eternal plan, as to bring good out of evil, as, for example, the great good (the sanctity) of the martyrs is drawn out of the crime of those who put them to death.

Mystery is here too, but reason sees that Providence and Government must be factual, and experience of honest minds testifies to the actual working out of Providence in the Government of creatures. In many matters we are in the dark about just how such and such a thing fits in with God’s Providence and Government; we are like the puzzled child undergoing a painful operation at the hands of his surgeon-father; the child cannot see how his own father can hurt him so. Yet the hurt means life to the child.

Reason and experience, as well as faith, testify that indeed God “moves in mysterious ways.”


The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted both of Dr. Dolhenty’s projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of his work.