God’s Providence, Governance, and the Stewardship of Creation

We now begin our study of God’s providence, which will occupy our attention for the remaining two posts of this series. In this post, we discuss ScG, III.64–113 as follows:

  1. an overview of ScG, III.64–77;
  2. some details from the above chapters;
  3. an overview of ScG, III.78–97;
  4. look at some aspects of the governance of creation through secondary causes;
  5. briefly thought on the “reason of divine providence” in ScG, III.97;
  6. a note about miracles;
  7. some notes on human stewardship of creation.

13.1. The Providence of God

Below is how the discussion of providence in ScG, Book III, might be outlined:

13.2. Exploring God’s Providence

We will investigate: (1) that God governs things in His providence, (2) the characteristics of God’s providence on the part of God and (3) on the part of the things under providence.

(1) God’s providence

Some of Aquinas’s arguments that God has providence are more “a priori” in the sense that they rely upon previous arguments: God is the end of all things and directs them intellectually. However, there are several arguments worth looking at that are more “a posteriori”, as it were:

For instance, this one is very cognate to the famous Fifth Way:

It was proved that natural bodies are moved and work towards an end, although they have no knowledge of an end, from the fact that always or nearly always that which is best happens to them: nor would they be made otherwise if they were made by art. Now it is impossible that things without knowledge of an end should act for an end, and attain to that end in an orderly manner, unless they be moved to that end by one who has knowledge of the end (as the arrow is directed to the mark by the archer). Therefore, the whole operation of nature must be directed by some knowledge. This must be traced back to God mediately or immediately, because every subordinate art and knowledge must take its principles from a higher one, as may be seen in speculative and practical sciences. Therefore, God governs the world by his providence.

ScG, III.64

The very next argument proceeds from the unity of the universe:

Things distinct in nature do not converge into one order unless they be brought together by one ordainer. Now the universe is composed of things distinct from one another and of contrary natures, and yet they all converge into one order: some things acting on others, some helping or directing others. Therefore, there must be one ordainer and governor of the universe.


The next argument looks somewhat similar to contemporary “fine-tuning” arguments:

Natural necessity cannot be alleged as the reason for the various phenomena to be observed in the movements of the heavenly bodies, since the movements of some are more numerous than, and wholly different from, the movements of others. Therefore, the ordering of their movements must come from some providence: consequently, so must the ordering of all those movements and operations here below, that are controlled by the former movements.


Indeed, the overarching principle is that the universe is ordered back to God as the ultimate good. This care for creation reveals the intelligent love of providence: “That which God cares for most in created things is the order of the universe. Therefore, he governs it.” The idea of “the order of the universe” must be carefully understood in terms of:

  • the good of order
  • common goods
  • and the goods of created persons.

In a way, these various aspects are found later in the teatment

(2) Characteristics of God’s providence

God’s providence conserves all things in being. That is, there is no “existential inertia” among creatures (III.65). We should note the “warning” at the end of this chapter:

Hereby is refuted the statement of certain authorities quoted in the law of the Moors, who, in order to be able to maintain that the world needs to be preserved by God, held that all forms are accidents, and that no accident lasts for two instants, so that things would always be in the process of formation: as though a thing did not need an active cause except while being made. Therefore, some of them are stated to have maintained that the indivisible bodies of which, they say, all substances are composed, and which alone have any permanency (according to them), would be able for a time to remain in existence if God were to withdraw his government from things. Some of these say indeed that things would not cease to exist unless God caused in them the accident of ceasing-to-be. All of which is plainly absurd.

This position will become important when occasionalism is considered in ScG, III.69.

Just as God preserves all things in being, no creature can give being apart from God (III.66).

The order of effects is according to the order of causes. Now the first of all effects is being, for all others are determinations of being. Therefore, being is the proper effect of the first agent, and all other agents produce it by the power of the first agent. And secondary agents (which, as it were, particularize and determine the action of the first agent) produce the other perfections as their proper effects, which are particular kinds of being.

As discussed in Book II, to create is proper to God alone; other creatures secondarily share in “sub-creation” by causing being in various limited ways.

It follows from this that God’s conservation sustains the operations of all things (III.67). Again, there are various “a priori” arguments; for “all power of any agent whatsoever is from God, as from the first principle of all perfection. Therefore, since all operation is consequent to some power, it follows that God is the cause of every operation.”

Since God conserves all things in being, and nothing gives being or operates apart from this, it follows that God is everywhere by His power (III.68). 

(3) Creatures under God’s providence

Having established items about God’s providence in general, we turn to characteristics about the things under providence.

ScG, III.69 is an extensive consideration of and argument against occasionalism, the thesis “that no creature has an active part in the production of natural effects: thus fire would not heat, but God would cause heat at the presence of fire.” Aquinas marches through (a) various varieties of occasionalism, then (b) various absurdities that results from this view, and (c) answers the various opposing views presented in (a).

The following is the third in a series of arguments about the perfection of the universe:

To take order away from creatures is to deny them the best thing they have, because each one is good in itself, while altogether they are very good on account of the order of the universe: for the whole is always better than the parts, and is their end. Now if we subtract action from things, the order among things is withdrawn, because things differing in nature are not bound together in the unity of order, except through the fact that some are active and some passive. Therefore, it is unreasonable to say that things have not their proper actions.

We might also note the brief reply to the first occasionalist argument, thinking that forms cannot arise from matter because forms themselves, as such, do not contain matter. Thus, forms must be imposed from without:

For, since a thing is made that it may be, just as a form is called a being not as though itself had being, but because by it the composite is, so neither is the form made, properly speaking, but it begins to be through the composite being brought from potency to the act which is the form.

Now, while creatures are truly causes, it is still the case that God operates in the operation of every creature (III.70). This is not a competitive act or redundant (the first two objections). Rather, natural powers themselves are sustained as such by God, and God’s superfluity of goodness and abundance gets around concerns about the principle of parsimony. A causal totality results:

It is also clear that the same effect is ascribed to a natural cause and to God not as though part were effected by God and part by the natural agent; but the whole effect proceeds from each, yet in different ways, just as the whole of the one same effect is ascribed to the instrument, and again the whole is ascribed to the principal agent.

In the chapters that remain (up to III.77), Aquinas considers what is not excluded by providence:

  • Evil
  • Contingency
  • Free choice
  • Chance and luck
  • God’s providence over singulars and immediately

14.3. The Governance of Creation

We have previously established (see III.77) that God’s providence is executed by means of secondary causes. We now look more closely at this schema of universe-governance, and find that Aquinas focuses especially on the role of intellectual agency. We consider (1) the intellectual nature and hierarchy of rule in the universe, (2) the mode in which human agents are governed and are not governed as to their free choices.

(1) The Governance of Things is By Intellect

To what is this conclusion opposed? Are things governed by irrational nature alone? By chance? By some sort of violent clash of contrary forces? Recall the early chapters from Book II. While St. Thomas had eliminated various options as the first or ultimate cause of the distinction of things. For this, see Week 4, ScG, II.39–45. These options were: matter, chance, secondary agents, good and evil, some agents subordinated to others and introducing new forms, or some idea of merit or demerit. However, this was about first or ultimate causality. What prevents these things from having various roles in the governance of things? After all, Aquinas has already argued (see ScG, III.77) that governance can include secondary, non-ultimate causes.

Aquinas answers such concerns by placing priority upon intelligence. In III.78, Aquinas argues that intellect is naturally apt to rule because it knows order; created intellects can know, in varying degrees, the plan of creation and are thus more apt to share in governance than non-intelligent creatures. For instance: 

In all ordered powers, the one which has the better knowledge about the plan to be followed is directive of another. Thus in the arts we may observe that the art which is concerned with the end (from which is taken the entire scheme of the work to be produced) directs and governs the art that is immediately productive of that work. For instance, the art of sailing governs the art of shipbuilding, and the art which gives the form governs the art which prepares the material (whereas the instruments, through having no knowledge of the scheme, are governed only). Since, then, intellectual creatures alone are able to know the scheme of the ordering of creatures, it belongs to them to rule and govern all other creatures.

ScG, III.78, fifth argument

Just as intellectual creatures share more in governance than non-intellectual creatures, so also do the higher intellectual creatures have a greater share than lower intellects:

The more universal powers move the particular powers, as already stated. And the higher intellectual natures have more universal forms, as we have proved. Therefore, they rule the lower intellectual natures.

Besides. The intellective faculty that is nearer to the principle is always found to be the ruler of the intellectual faculty that is more distant from the principle: this is evident both in speculative and in practical science. For the speculative science that receives its principles of demonstration from another is said to be subalternate to it, and the practical science that is nearer to the end, which is the principle in practical matters, is the master science in comparison with the more distant. Since, then, some intellectual substances are nearer to the first principle (namely, God), as we have shown, they will be the rulers of the others.

ScG, III.79, first and second arguments

We should think carefully about these analogies to the interrelationships of human arts and sciences. Aquinas is clearly arguing from what is better known to us, but how far will these analogies carry us?

In III.80, St. Thomas then discusses the angelic hierarchies. These divisions are derived from a general notion of providence:

Now in every disposition of providence, the order of effects is derived from the form of agents, since the effect must proceed from its cause in some kind of likeness. Now it is for the sake of an end that the cause communicates the likeness of its form to the effect. Hence the first principle in the dispositions of providence is the end; the second is the form of the agent; the third is the appointment of the order of effects. Consequently, in the order of the intellect the highest degree is the consideration of the idea of order in the end; the second degree is the same consideration in the form; while the third is the knowledge of the disposition of order in itself and not in a higher principle. Therefore, the art which considers the end governs the art which considers the form, as the art of sailing governs the art of shipbuilding. And the art which considers the form governs the art which considers only the order of movements which prepare the way for the form, as the art of shipbuilding governs the handiwork of the builders.

ScG, III.80, fifth argument

Again, we find the analogy to human arts and sciences.

ChoirsDescription; Roles
Highest 3 (Closest to God)Seraphim“The first and highest perceive the ordered scheme of providence in the last end itself which is the divine goodness, some of them, however, clearer than others; and these are called ‘seraphim.’”
Cherubim“The second place belongs to those who acquire perfect knowledge of the scheme of providence in the divine form. These are called ‘cherubim,’ which signifies fullness of knowledge.”
Thrones“The third grade is of those who contemplate the disposition of divine judgements in itself. They are called ‘thrones,’ because the throne is significative of judicial power.”
Middle 3 (Mediators)Dominations“Among these intellectual substances there must also be some kind of order, since the universal disposition of providence is divided first among many executors. This belongs to the order of ‘dominations,’ because to command what others execute belongs to one having dominion.”
Virtues“[The universal disposition of providence] is distributed by the operator and executor in reference to many effects. … Hence it is evident that the principle of universal operation belongs to this order. Thus it also seems the movement of the heavenly bodies belongs to this order, from which particular effects ensue in nature as from universal causes.
Powers“The universal order of providence, once established in its effects, is guarded from confusion by curbing the things which might disturb that order. This belongs to the order of ‘powers.’”
Lower 3 (Over Humans)Principalities“For in human affairs there is a common good, namely, the good of the city or of the nation, and this apparently belongs to the order of ‘principalities.’ Hence Dionysius says … that the name of principality indicates leadership in a sacred order.
Archangels“There is also a human good not common to many, but belonging to an individual by himself, yet useful not to one only, but to many: for instance, those things which all and each one must believe and observe, such as the articles of faith, the divine worship, and the like. This belongs to the ‘archangels’ of whom Gregory says that they announce the greater things: thus we call Gabriel an archangel because he announced the Incarnation of the Word to the Virgin, which is an article of faith for all.”
Angels“There is also a human good that belongs to each one singly. This pertains to the order of ‘angels’ of whom Gregory says that they announce minor matters. Hence they are called ‘guardian angels’ according to the PsalmHe will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways (Ps 91[90]:11)”

How does this apply to human beings?

St. Thomas turns to argue in III.81 that human dominion is over lower things in creation (we discuss this more in III.112). However, among men, as within each man, there is a microcosm of the overall order of the cosmos. Aquinas here, again, espouses the intellectual theory of rule. Other forms of rule are, simply speaking, ontologically tyrannic rule. (See “Quia vero … etc.”)

Lastly, even the physical causality of the higher bodies, the heavenly spheres, participate in the governance of things. In III.82, see in particular the sixth argument (“Amplius. Primum in quolibet …”) which notes the priority of local motion to all other kinds of motion. In our own contemporary cosmology this is still true: the local motion of matter through space and time is required for all other chemical alterations or nuclear combinations.

St. Thomas concludes with a helpful summary (III.83).

(2) The Human Person in God’s Providential Care

In ScG,III.84–85, Aquinas severely limits the causality of the heavenly bodies over the human intellect and (thereby) over human freedom. What is a central middle term in such argumentation? What is the benefit to understanding providence and governance when we make such arguments? One might also think of Pascal:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.

Pascal, Pensées, n. 347.

St. Thomas is ever so concerned with the causal reach of the heavens that he devotes III.86 to showing that the causality of the heavenly spheres (today, read: fundamental laws of physics) do not eliminate contingency from things. We should carefully discuss this chapter, especially beginning with the objection here: “Aliquis autem forte …”. This Avicennian-Aristotelian cosmological problem needs to be addressed to show that there is the metaphysical space for human freedom in the cosmos. See in particular the various quotations at the end of III.86.

This consideration is completed in III.87–88, which definitively eliminates the influences of higher agency over human will, even the angels. This is important for us later: this is how the history of the universe is written.

If the universe does not govern the human will, what does? God alone.

  • III.89: God causes not only the power of will in us, but the acts of that power, because as Aristotle argues in the Eudemian Ethics, the human will cannot be its own self-determining cause to act.
  • III.90: God’s providence therefore directs human acts, but does not predetermine them in the sense of eliminating their freedom. If human acts were somehow outside the order of providence, then those physical things with which they interact and things connected to them would have to escape providence also—how much would that include?
  • III.91: Human history is therefore written, as to our free choices, only by God; our intellectual formation, however, can also be aided by angelic and physical causes; while physical causes influence our lives only at a bodily level.

14.4 The Reason of Providence

ScG, III.97 has an extensive consideration of the reason of God’s providence. Ferrariensis summarizes:

From the end is derived the ratio of the diversity of forms; from the diversity of forms the ratio of the order of things is taken, that is, the diversity of degrees in the natures of things; from the diversity of forms follows the differences of activities and ends and the diverse relation of matter to things; from this diversity of material relationship follows the diversity of agents and patients; from the diversity of forms and matters and agents and patients follow the diversity of properties and accidents.

I have written about this argument here.

14.6. A Note about Miracles

Why does St. Thomas consider the miraculous? Because it shows God’s non-arbitrary and, indeed, sapiential freedom with respect to the drama of history and salvation history:

Miracles thus intensify our sense of wonder, awe, and reverence, which Thomas previously identified as the theological goal of the study of creatures. From the perspective of Thomas’s theocentric metaphysics, a natural form is “nothing other than the divine likeness participated in things” (III, 97). In relation to the first agent, nature is a contingent instrument: “All creatures are compared to God as products of art to an artist. . . . Whence the whole of nature is like an artifact of divine art. It is not contrary to the essence of an art product for the artist to work on it even after it has been given its first form.” (III, 100) God’s providence encompasses both the natural and the supernatural. The contingency of the natural order, in its original foundation and in its openness to the intervention of its maker, indicates that creation is fundamentally a narrative. The possibility of supernatural intervention in the natural order, coupled with the openness of finite intellectual creatures to the infinite, sets the stage for the drama of redemption. The natural and supernatural communication of God with creatures constitutes two moments in divine pedagogy, corresponding to the two-fold mode of truth. The second mode is not simply placed on top of the first; instead, it makes its appearance felt through concrete and wondrous events within the natural whole of creation. The story of creation is open to unexpected shifts in plot and to dramatic alteration.

Hibbs, Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas, 121.

On the small fish that stops ships (see ScG, III.102): see the “remora” in Pliny’s Natural History, Book XXXII, ch. 1 at this link. Medieval bestiaries were full of such “wonders”.

14.7. Human Stewardship of Creation—A “Green Thomism”?

As Christopher Thompson notes, Christians have been accused of a lack of concern for the environment, that there are “Christian roots of our ecological distress” and “that Christianity is replete with notions of unfettered ‘dominion’ over the earth.” (Christopher Thompson, “Perennial Wisdom: Notes Toward a Green Thomism,” Nova et Vetera 10, no. 1 (2012): 67–80, at 68.) Others note that the view “can be found popularly in some Christian circles, where it is thought that there is no need to avoid extinction on the grounds that we are meant for heaven and nonrational species do not exist there.” (George, cited below, at 121n37) Between these excessively domineering and spiritualistic interpretations lies the accusation that Catholics and Thomists are behind the times when it comes to thinking systematically about our role as stewards in the cosmos. While we will not discuss specific policies or moral principles related to integral human ecology and stewardship, we will turn to some thinkers addressing the subject along Thomistic lines.

(1) Considerations from Marie George

In her extensive paper, George draws substantively from portions of ScG Books II–III regarding the order of creation, its perfect, God’s providential care over it, and our participation in that governance. She suggest three general reasons for why human beings are responsible for caring for their environments:

From what we have seen above, it follows from Thomistic principles that our responsibility to care for species and ecosystems is threefold: first, insofar as they are essential to the perfection of the universe which in turn gives glory to God; second, insofar as they are means to our appreciating the wisdom and goodness of our creator; third, insofar as the sustenance and material well-being of the human family depends upon them.

Marie I. George, “Aquinas on the Goodness of Creatures and Man’s Place in the Universe: A Basis for the General Precepts of Environmental Ethics,” The Thomist 76, no. 1 (2012): 73–123, at 107.

She also spends a good deal of time addressing the objections that, according to St. Thomas, non-human animals, plants, and the natural environment are merely means or have instrumental value:

Aquinas is not saying here that nonrational creatures are only loved per accidens, as means. He is contrasting creatures that are in some sense loved for themselves and also as a means with creatures that are only loved for themselves and not as a means. It is only the latter sort of creature that is said to be cared for for its own sake (propter se procurari). There are three possible situations: one can love something solely as a means (e.g., an 8-track tape), or solely for its own sake (e.g., a human being), or both for its own sake and as a means (e.g., health). Again, Aquinas’s words in the Summa contra Gentiles (I, c. 91) indicate that he places nonrational creatures in the third category.

Ibid., 85.

Lastly, for our purposes, she notes two important facets of Aquinas’s thinking that vary with our own. The first is that he rates our ability to fully understand the complexities of nature much lower than we do now. Of course, one might read Wendell Berry for an eloquent insistence upon the limits of our knowledge when it comes to the environment, ecology, and conservationism: Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition.

George writes: 

Human intelligence suffices for making prudent moral decisions and for mastering to some extent certain arts that minister to nature, for example, farming and medicine; however, our mastery over nature does not go beyond our own practical concerns. Moreover, Aquinas acknowledges that our limited ability to govern nature is due not simply to a lack of understanding, but also to a lack of power: for example, we lack the power to move stars, a power which the angels have. It never crossed his mind that we could eradicate a species or that we could disrupt the harmony of nature to any significant extent either by eliminating species or by disrupting the inanimate natural environment upon which they depend. Aquinas did not foresee any potential conflict between our use of lower things and the ability of these things to contribute to the order of the whole universe.

Ibid., 100–101.

This provides the second point also: that our environments are subject to much greater flux and fragility in view of advanced human technological power, which thus affects our ethical thinking. To develop this line of thinking, we turn to Timothy Kearns.

(2) Considerations from Timothy Kearns

This argument is briefly presented in a conference paper: “Humankind as Natural Steward.”This is the brief version of his argument:

[Living things need suitable environments and other living things in order to flourish. This applies just as much to humankind as to any other living thing. In order to flourish, it is clear that we need suitable environments from which we can draw resources (everything from air and water to fuels and building materials). It is also clear that we need living things from which we can draw other kinds of resources (most clearly, energy from food). Thus, the pursuit of human flourishing includes the maintenance of suitable and stable environments. Similarly, the pursuit of human flourishing, in so far as we depend on other living things, includes the pursuit of the flourishing of those living things that are relevant to our own flourishing (everything from the plants and animals we eat to the bees that pollinate our fields to the phytoplankton that produce most of the world’s oxygen). Because ecosystems and environments are subject to change, it is necessary that both species’ biodiversity and the biogeochemical cycles of our planet (like the water cycle, the rock cycle, etc.) on which all ecosystems depend be maintained and developed in ways that can support such change. This shows that human conservation science and practice are not limited to preserving temperate climates and the plants and animals we mainly eat. Human conservation must extend to living things and their environments in a fairly general way, the limits of which are not currently clear (though I will outline a few later). Therefore, with respect to other living things and environments, humankind has the role of natural conservator, a role constituted simply by what human flourishing is. We are, then, stewards of the world, as Aquinas and the medievals thought.

Timothy Kearns, “Humankind as Natural Steward: A Thomistic Account Drawn from the Conservation Sciences,” in Matthew Minerd, ed., Facts Are Stubborn Things: Thomistic Perspectives in the Philosophies of Nature and Science (Washington, DC: American Maritain Association, 2020), 143–157, at 144–45.

Kearns addresses points raised by George, namely, that “Ecosystems, living things, and abiotic environments are all subject to change.” (Ibid., 150) This informs our stewardship, for “by means of the conservation sciences, human beings seek to preserve and help to flourish living things in a general way and to maintain and develop suitable environments for life.” (Ibid.) Human beings are not simply speaking natural stewards (perhaps we share this in common with other living things in analogous ways—as Aquinas argues, angels share in this in various ways), and there is more to human flourishing than ecological concerns (an important extreme to avoid).

Kearns also notes that Aquinas is not a Bacon or a Descartes:

It should also be noted that Aquinas does not think humankind can or should exploit the natural world in a way that degrades it. Dominium, in not Aquinas’s Latin, does not mean domination. Aquinas says that humankind rules over natural things because it has the power of using them for its own ends, but he explicitly says that humankind does not have power over the natures of natural things, which power belongs only to God. And more generally, the kinds of claims that one finds in Renaissance and early modern thinkers about the need for human domination over the natural world are not compatible with the general medieval outlook that Aquinas more or less shared with his contemporaries.

Ibid., 155.

Again, like Marie George’s concerns noted earlier, Kearns faults an excessive spiritualism:

My experience suggests that many Christians believe their lives have meaning only because of Christ. I think this is mistaken. Of course, as Catholics we know that Christ is the center of history and of being. But imagine someone who has not heard the gospel for any of the many reasons common in our time, or imagine someone who (though sympathetic to Christianity) has never come to believe it. My suggestion is that such persons, although lacking divine faith, might yet have a kind of trust in the natural world, that such a person need not lose trust in nature and in what we humans naturally are.

Ibid., 157.

(3) Towards a “Green Thomism”?

In light of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ as a response to certain understandings given to environmental extremism, lack the wisdom of Christian tradition, it is helpful to continue efforts such as the above to develop what the popes have called, in various was, “integral ecology” which includes the human being as a part of the cosmos: “What is needed is an understanding of the human person as an intellectual creature precisely as situation within a natural order of intelligible substances, a multi-textured complex of teleologically ordered wholes, whose existence is ordered toward God as first and final cause.” (Thompson, “Notes Towards a Green Thomism,” 74.)

The “cosmos” is bigger than the environment, and—as Josef Pieper notes—animals can only have an environment. Only intellectual creatures realize the full meaning and beauty of what it means to live in a cosmos. At the same time, our life in the cosmos as spiritual is not an “alienating dualism” that pits us against nature. (See ibid., 77, and my discussion of such a dualism.)

One thought on “God’s Providence, Governance, and the Stewardship of Creation

"Sed contra" or "Distinguo" or "Amplius" below ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s