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Simon Maria Kopf, Reframing Providence, 2023

Book Reviews

Simon Maria Kopf, Reframing Providence. New Perspectives from Aquinas on the Divine Action Debate, Oxford University 2023, 305 Pages, (Hardback GBP 83,00) 

Simon Maria Kopf is Associate Professor of Fundamental Theology at ITI Catholic University and Visiting Research Fellow at King`s College London. He holds degrees in Theology, Philosophy and Science and Religion and worked in Templeton Projects on New Perspectives on Providence. 

With this book (winner of the Circolo San Tommaso D’Aquino 11th Veritas et Amor Contest and as an earlier version accepted as a DPhil thesis at the University of Oxford) Kopf provides his readers with new perspectives from Aquinas on the Divine Action Debate. 

The doctrine of providence reflects how God guides his creation and has been widely conceived in action terms in recent theological scholarship. Divine action is then modelled on human action. A telling example is the so-called divine action debate, which is largely based on two principles: “(i) divine providence is best conceptualised in terms of divine action; and (ii) divine action is best modelled on human action…” (p. 1). 

The main challenge for this action-based approach is, that the world seems to lack space for anything but natural causation. “By examining this debate, and especially the Divine Action Project (1988-2003), which led to the 'sci-entific turn' of the debate, this study argues that theo-physical incompatibil-ism, as a corollary of this 'framing' of providence, can be identified as the main reason for the current deadlock in divine action theories - namely, the assumption that just as human (libertarian) free action presupposes causal indeterminism, so, too, does divine action in the world presuppose causal indeterminism” (back cover). 

For Kopf part of the problem is, that the exposition of divine providence in terms of divine action has recently gained relatively little attention. He argues instead, that revisiting this central theological assumption about the nature of divine providence, helps bringing a radically new perspective into the de-bate. “Instead of recalibrating the much-discussed non-interventionist objec-tive divine action (NIODA) approaches, which falls short due to its compet-itive conceptualisation of divine and natural causation, Simon Maria Kopf advocates a 'reframing' of providence in terms of the virtue of prudence. To this end, this book examines the 'prudential-ordinative' theory of Thomas Aquinas and contrasts it with the prevalent 'actionistic', or action-based, model of providence” (back cover).

The book consists of three parts: 

Part I provides the necessary background in dealing with the divine action debate and how the understanding of providence is locked up in competition with natural causation. 

When we look at the historical development of how providence is understood philosophically and theologically, the first question asked is does God really act in the world. In a second historical phase there is a push-back, as theolo-gians from Bultmann to Kaufmann argue that God acting in the world was an outdated belief not compatible with modern science. Even when this phase is overcome by a scientific pushback on nature as a causally determined sys-tem, some theologians nevertheless rather uncritically stick to the premise that causally determined systems preclude special divine action. On the other hand, natural contingency is often seen as limiting divine providence and cannot be taken as a proof for it without any further considerations. 

Part II presents a suggested alternative. It argues, that, what Kopf introduces as “prudential-ordinative model of providence of Aquinas… if combined with his doctrine of divine transcendence, makes it possible to view crea-turely causation, including contingent causation, as an executor of provi-dence” (p. 11). The innovation lies in the claim that contingency neither con-stitutes a limit nor a locus of providence.

In his interpretation of Aquinas, Kopf suggests the virtue of prudence and human providence as an alternative analogy. He shows that Aquinas ap-proaches God’s providence from a dual perspective, i.e. providence as the eternal reason for God’s ordering of all creatures to their end and perfection (teleology) from government as its temporal execution. Divine government – apart from miracles – takes place through secondary causes as a form of “caused causation”. This allows for a distinction to be established between primary and secondary causation. The relation of providence to contingency is modified by expounding the doctrine of divine transcendence. “God the primary cause constitutes secondary causes both foundationally, by giving creatures powers and conserving them in being, and dynamically, by apply-ing to act and instrumentally using these creaturely powers. Without God’s constant causal activity in every operation of each secondary cause, there would be no natural causation at all” (pp. 231f). Secondary causation is gen-uine creaturely causation. But God also directs creaturely powers teleologi-cally. And the proposed teleological approach shifts the challenge from causal determinism to indeterminism. Divine transcendence then is the key to the compatibility of divine and natural causation. God’s eternal knowledge imposes a conditional but not an absolute necessity on creatures. The efficacy of his will constitutes contingency as a causal mode of secondary causes without taking away the accidental from the created world. And therefore, natural contingency neither limits nor provides a necessary locus for provi-dence but should rather be viewed as an effect of divine providence and a causal mode of its execution. 

In addition, immanent natural teleology is defended by exploring the theory of natural appetency, suggesting that in nature as well as in human beings there is this “implanted appetite” and desire to follow God’s will. 

From my point of view, it would be worthwhile to have another study con-centrating on the outcomes of this theory on human ethics and morality in further detail. This is not the case Kopf’s study because of space limits and a concentration on the dialogue between science and theology. 

Part III exemplarily argues “that an immanent but transcendent causal in-volvement of God in biological evolution is theologically preferable to an external divine pushing and pulling of the underlying natural processes” (p. 11). Kopf sets out to show the explanatory power of the proposed alternative view by contrasting it with NIODA theory and its limitations. The topic of directionality of biological evolution serves as an example. The starting point for a controversy about this topic is a scientific dispute between Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris over what would happen if one were to rerun the tape of life. Upon closer inspection, it shows a rather secularized notion of providence: “On this account, if it turns out that an end-directedness of speciation is not at ease with the current view of evolutionary biology, then the only route open will accordingly seem to be an appeal to evolution-ary convergence” (p. 279). And convergence is a sign for indeterministic structures rather than for determinism. NIODA suggests as a remedy to insert divine action into the indeterminacies of nature in the sense of God directing genetic mutations. Contrary to this, Aquinas’ doctrine of divine transcend-ence helps to explicate the compatibility between divine providence and nat-ural contingency as genuine reality of creaturely causation. “God can guide, in a holistic rather than non-interventionist manner, even contingent pro-cesses to and beyond their appointed ends… His providence rules over nec-essary and contingent processes” (p. 280). 

The standard divine action model, exemplified by a quantum-based theory of theistic evolution is criticised since implying externally imposed teleology and being insufficient as a reply to the objection from contingency. “It also shows that the advocated alternative proposal implies immanent teleology, and how a transcendent account of God’s activity allows the integration of contingency into the doctrine of providence in a non-competitive manner” (p. 11). 

To sum it up: this by Kopf is worthwhile reading, especially when dealing with the question of evolution on one hand and God’s providence on the other in the dialogue between science and theology (religion).

Moreover, I would hope, that its findings would be further developed in terms of ethics and anthropology (question of free will and of natural appetency for example), the relation between history and history of salvation, as well as with questions of theodicy. Furthermore, it would be extremely interesting to discuss whether what Kopf suggests as a new, i.e. reframed model of explain-ing providence, corresponds with newer Christological models, such as rep-resentational Christology for example. 



Sybille C. Fritsch-Oppermann

Technische Universität Clausthal 


Reprinted from Reviews in Science, Religion and Theology, 2(2) June 2023, pp. 46-49