OK, the following is adapted from an early draft of an essay that I have been writing over the last few days. It is far from perfect, but it is an attempt to articulate some convictions that I have had on the subject of providence for some time, but which I have yet to see expressed to my satisfaction elsewhere. Any thoughts, comments, or constructive criticisms that any of you have would be greatly appreciated.
On the surface of things, the question of the manner in which the doctrine of providence might be ‘used’ may appear to be a strange one. Indeed, it could be argued that, of all doctrines, the doctrine of providence is the one that most encourages passivity and fatalism. In response to such charges, I will attempt to provide an account of the doctrine of providence that is both biblical and practical.
The goal of this post will be that of articulating a redemptive historical account of the doctrine of providence. By situating the doctrine in the context of broader biblical themes, I will endeavour to move beyond a merely formal account of providence towards an account in which the covenantal, personal and relational content of providence is presented with a greater degree of clarity. In the process, I will try to demonstrate the way in which such an account relieves certain of the difficulties that often attend doctrines of providence, most particularly in the areas of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom and the problems of sin and evil. Once I have presented this doctrine of providence I will conclude with more direct thoughts on how such a doctrine can be applied in a contemporary context.
A Redemptive Historical Doctrine of Providence
Perhaps one of the most surprising teachings within the biblical text is that which proclaims Christ to be the one by whose word the creation is brought into being, sustained and governed. The scandal of such a teaching is only fully recognized as we begin to see that the biblical texts that speak of this never lose sight of the humanity of Christ. It is the eschatological Man who stands at the helm of the cosmos. The implications of this truth for our doctrine of providence are not always appreciated. Re-evaluating providence in the light of Christ can grant us some startling new perspectives on the doctrine.
Historically, presentations of the doctrine of providence have tended to present the relationship between history and providence in a way that treats providence as if it were more or less constant and unchanging in its operations. Despite saying much that is of value, such treatments of providence seem to present the doctrine in far more formal a manner than the biblical text seems to be inviting us to. By the relationship that the Scripture draws between Christ and providence we are invited to conceive of providence as something that is not merely operational in guiding history from behind the scenes, but as the rule of God that develops as part of the action onstage. Providence does not merely act on and within history: providence itself has a history. The drama of history is not merely one sustained, governed and guided by providence, but is one that concerns the manner in which God’s rule over His creation changes over history’s course.
The relationship between Christ and providence also brings the issue of particularity to the surface. Divine presence and providence are most naturally conceived in primarily generic terms—God is primarily present and active in His creation in general and only secondarily in a particular way in one place or another. The particularity of Christ challenges us to invert this relationship, giving conceptual priority to the particular presence and action of God, out of which we come to understand His more general presence. Our understanding of God’s preservation and rule of His creation must begin with God’s proper presence in Christ and special presence in the Church.
Christ also gives a personal face to providence. Whilst the operations of providence are frequently hidden from our sight, the providential God is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ the telos of providence—the gathering together of all things in Him—is also an open secret. Once this has been appreciated, the inscrutability of providence need not be regarded as a threat.
The humanity of the face of providence is especially significant and it is the implications of this dimension of a Christological doctrine of providence that we will now turn to explore. Christ, by whose word the creation is sustained and governed, is neither the Logos asarkos nor just a generic human being. He is the eschatological Man—the Last Adam. He is the one in whom human nature is perfected and glorified.
Colin Gunton helpfully observes that the creation is best thought of as a ‘project’ directed towards an eschatological end. Providence is that which enables the creation to achieve the ends for which it was created. The original creation was good, but imperfect. It was the imperfection of the creation that made the Fall of Adam a possibility. In Christ, the human story that went wrong in Adam is recapitulated and reordered towards its proper end, the eschatological telos of the human story being realized in Him.
The History of Providence
The fact that Christ exercises providence as the Last Adam suggests that the exercising of providence was an integral element of the eschatological goal for which man was first created. The creation account of Genesis 1-2 supports this claim; God created mankind to be His vicegerents over creation and granted them dominion over the rest of the animate world. By creating mankind as the imago dei God set humanity apart as having a ‘peculiar responsibility for bearing divine presence and carrying out the divine will.’ God’s intention was for His rule over creation to be worked out through humanity.
Taking this as our starting point, we can read the biblical narrative as the account of God’s maturation of humanity and of His bringing humanity into ever-greater measures of rule. God trains humanity to share in His rule over creation. As man grows in wisdom, understanding and virtue, God grants him a greater realm of government.
The biblical narrative begins with a naked Adam being placed in the Garden of Eden in order to dress and keep it. Man is not yet active within the land of Eden, let alone the wider world. In Genesis 2:10-14 we are told of the riches of the land and of the wider world, with which Adam would presumably progressively glorify the garden. The creation was originally placed under the rule of angels. Mankind itself was under the tutelage and government of the angels, until the time would come when they would inherit the rule of the creation. Through the training of the angels, man would be prepared for the future expansion of his rule.
In the light of this, we could interpret the role of the serpent in Genesis 3 as that of being mankind’s tutor. The serpent is wise and is to instruct humanity, until mankind is mature enough to enter into a greater degree of rule. The prohibition on the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was temporary. The Fall was a premature grasping for rule that man was yet unprepared for. The claim that the prohibition on the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was temporary and probationary is amply supported by the rest of the biblical text, where the knowledge of good and evil is presented as something that is possessed by the wise ruler and is associated with kingship and rule (cf. 2 Samuel 14:17; 1 Kings 3:7-9; Hebrews 5:14). The knowledge of good and evil is the ability to rule and pass wise judgments within the wider world, beyond the ‘kindergarten’ of Eden.
Over the course of redemptive history we see a progressive growth of man’s authority and rule over the creation. The growth of man’s rule can be seen in such things as the garments that he is permitted to wear, in the progressive expansion of areas of holiness, in the things that he is permitted to eat and in the increasing glory of his environment. As men mature under the old covenant they become increasingly like their angelic tutors. Priests guard the Holy Place just like angels; kings wisely govern the land like angels (cf. 2 Samuel 14:17, 20; 19:27); prophets participate in the divine council along with the angels, making judgments concerning kingdoms in the wider world, participating in the exercise of God’s rule to the ends of the earth (cf. Jeremiah 1:10).
By the end of the biblical narrative we see the fullness of the Image of God realized in the Totus Christus. As this fullness is realized we see the creation flooded with the presence of God and all things placed under Christ’s feet. The world to come is subjected to humanity in Christ, rather than to the angels (Hebrews 2:5ff.). The saints will participate in the judgment and authority of Christ as His body (1 Corinthians 6:3). The rule of Christ is comprehensive and supreme and is the full realization of the telos for which humanity was created.
A Synergistic Doctrine of Providence
Such a narration of the history of providence can ease some of the difficulties that arise in the area of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. The history of providence that I have narrated above is one in which the human will is progressively matured and gradually brought into the full realization of its freedom. On this account one could argue that the full flowering of the human will’s freedom is nothing less than providence’s greatest goal.
What is the will and what does it mean for it to be free? Maximus the Confessor’s thought on the subject of the human will developed in the context of the Monothelite controversy. In common with Augustine, Maximus ‘opposed a model of free will as a reserve of autonomy cut off from God and the world in favour of an understanding in which it is ‘always already’ related to both.’
For Maximus human beings are characterized by self-determination, the ‘unhindered willing of a rational soul towards whatever it wishes.’ God created mankind with a natural will. This natural will is a function of man’s nature and is ordered towards God and the good. It is irreducible to instinct, as it is also related to man’s rationality. Man’s will is irresistibly moved towards real and apparent goods.
This natural will is hypostatically expressed in a particular mode of operation, seen in the way that we live out our nature as particular persons. Maximus terms this the ‘gnomic will’. The relationship between the natural and gnomic will is akin to the relationship between ‘the power of sight and the mode of perception’. The gnomic will is characteristic of the exercise of the human will within the limitations of time and is characterized by deliberation, uncertainty, misapprehension of the good and, following the Fall, a set inclination towards evil. This is the case because as limited creatures we fail fully to apprehend the telos of our natures. It is also the case since the Fall makes our natures opaque to us.
For Maximus, the freedom of the will consists ‘in the turning of a rational being towards the natural objects of its desire.’ Far from being constitutive of the freedom of human freedom, deliberation is a result of the will’s weakness—its sinfulness and imperfection (to return to Irenaean categories). The state of being caught between decisions is a sign of the will’s inability to truly apprehend the good and is a sapping of the will’s strength.
Much of the difficulty that we experience in relating the freedom of the will to divine sovereignty arises from the redefinition of the will that has occurred in the modern era. Popular modern definitions of the will tend to locate freedom in the arbitrary exercise of control over our nature, rather than in the liberation and realization of our natures. The location of the freedom of the will in the freedom of choice is an error arising from the failure to appreciate that such choice is generally an imperfection.
The true significance of dythelitism is that is allows for the full ‘deification’ of the human will. Maximus’ formulation allows for the co-existence of a divine and human will in Christ, apart from opposition or coercion. Once the possibility of such a relationship is appreciated the tension between the divine and the human will in general is considerably relaxed, for the realization of the full freedom of the human will is quite compatible with the freedom of the divine will.
This claim is further supported by the fact that freedom is something bestowed upon us by the ‘other’, who enables a movement beyond the self. The person who is freed from all relationships is profoundly unfree; it is only through relationships that we are able to arrive at a clear apprehension and the possibility of a realization of the good. Freedom is not innate. We may be suited for freedom, but no man is free until he is brought to participate in a freedom of relationship. A feral child may run ‘free’, but he does not know the true freedom that comes as one learns to walk upright and speak and relate to other people. The truly free person is the person who is brought into the freedom of relationship. Such freedom is shared, but it is not symmetrically shared by the different parties within the relationship. We participate in the freedom that flows from others. God opens possibilities for us that would never have apart from Him. Our freedom is always God’s freedom, which we share in. People like to think that freedom is the absence of rules and autonomy, but true freedom is always gained by the internalization of law in relationship. The freedom of the gifted pianist on his instrument is not an innate freedom; rather, it is a freedom learned through engagement, relationship and subjection of the will to outside constraints.
René Girard observes that mimetic desire is intrinsically good, claiming that
If our desires were not mimetic, they would be forever fixed on predetermined objects; they would be a particular form of instinct. Human beings could no more change their desire than cows their appetite for grass. Without mimetic desire there would be neither freedom nor humanity. Mimetic desire is intrinsically good.
Far from being the threat to freedom that many regard them to be, structured relationships and imitation of others are the foundation of true freedom.
‘Choice’ should be distinguished from voluntarily adopting one course of action when we could have adopted others. The latter is constitutive of true freedom; the former is not. The fluent expressiveness of the improvising musician, who does not have to hesitate to decide which note should come next is an example of genuine freedom. It is to such freedom that God is leading us. The musician has such a clear apprehension of what constitutes good improvisation that his improvisation is not so much a ‘choice’ between alternatives as a natural (but not necessary) expression, apart from the need for choice. Whilst he could certainly have done things differently and achieved results that were no less perfect, the way that he has followed was not followed as the result of a choice between alternatives, but as a matter of genuinely free expression. Choice is only necessary when we lack a clear apprehension of the good.
Human freedom is not necessarily tied to the struggle against sin. Presentations of freedom that focus on the choice between good and evil lead us to wonder whether freedom fades away in the absence of sin. By treating the freedom of the will in the context of Christ’s Gethsemane prayer, Maximus provides us with a way to move beyond this impasse. McFarland writes:
The process whereby grace is victorious in this life involves real fear and real pain—but without sin. In this way the movement of grace in and by which a person becomes most himself has genuine drama, but at its heart is not the problem of sin and the question of whether to follow God’s will (in which grace and the will are conceived as operating over against each other), but of how to follow it (in which God transforms a generic humanity into a particular human destiny). Such reading of the agony of the garden checks concerns about grace undermining the freedom of the will by providing a narrative in which human life, freed from sin and moved by grace, retains all the ingredients of a true adventure.
Such synergism is akin to a dance in which the Holy Spirit as the leading partner leads us towards the realization of the fullness of our particular personhood as a creative realization of the telos of our human nature. This leading of the Holy Spirit is God’s vocation. Both the Holy Spirit and the human will are active, but they are not competing.
Further, Hanby argues, “Since creation is an act of utter gratuity which does not merely impose a hylomorphic form on a passive ‘substrate’ by immanent force, but brings being out of nothing, this ‘causal’ activity is manifest in the creature as effect, precisely in the creature’s own actuality and activity. Consequently, a strict dichotomy of action and passion—the precondition for the Pelagian opposition to Augustinian grace—will simply have no place here.”
We can think of this in Thomistic terms: For anything to be, it must be in act, actualized; when God created the world, He didn’t move unactualized matter to actualization, but brought things into actualization from nothing. Thus, the effect of God’s creative act is the act, the in-act-ness, of the creature.
Relating all of this to our discussion of providence, we can see that God progressively matures the human will in order that it might arrive at a deeper apprehension of the good. As the will gains deeper discernment of the good, man will be brought into ever deeper participation in God’s poetic activity in creation, through the inspiration of the Spirit. In Christ we see the human will perfected in synergy with the divine will. In Christ we see the human will fully involved in God’s providential rule over His creation. This is the foundation for a synergistic doctrine of providence, in which man is created in order that he might become God’s co-worker (2 Corinthians 5:21—6:1).
Divine Freedom and Providence
Most of the questions that attend the doctrine of providence have to do with the character of divine freedom, the supposed threat that it poses to human freedom and the relation that it bears to the presence of sin and evil in the world. Some of our previous considerations regarding the freedom of the will are helpful here.
The recognition that true freedom dispenses with the need for choice illuminates certain of the problematic areas of divine freedom immensely. The world that God creates and the terrestrial drama that He sustains are neither necessary nor an arbitrary choice between possible worlds. Rather they are a fitting display of His glory. God’s creation of the world is an expression of His artistic freedom and no place is given for us to wonder whether He could have made it better.
Problems arise when we think of creation and providence as operating according to a choice between possible options, whether conceived of as arbitrary or necessary (the claim that we live in the ‘best’ of all ‘possible worlds’). The notion of a decree predetermining all of history’s contingencies seems to be related to such a conception of the divine freedom. In reality, God’s creation and providence involves no choice between possible worlds or courses of action. Consequently, it would be far more helpful to dispense with the idea of a divine decree underlying all of the events of history and simply see all as an expression of God’s poetic freedom.
This is the appropriate answer to the question of why some of God’s creatures will end up in hell or to questions about the existence of evil. This wasn’t merely an arbitrary choice between possible worlds on God’s part. Nor, however, was it that God thought that this was the best way to go about things (sending humans to hell allows God to demonstrate His justice, etc., etc.). God simply did things this way as an act of creative freedom and as a fitting and beautiful expression of His glory.
The notion of a prior decree seems to undermine creaturely freedom and threatens to reduce all to an emanation of the divine will. Berkouwer claims:
The word “decree” causes this misunderstanding whenever it is interpreted out of its context in Scripture. It is then interpreted as a decree which was pronounced in our absence, in which we were not really involved, and which, therefore, does not come forth out of divine love for us. Bavinck has protested against this interpretation according to which the counsel of God “is as a design which lies ready and waits only to be executed,” He denies that God’s counsel can be described as “an act of God in the past,” and he calls that counsel “an eternal act of God, finished from eternity and continuing from eternity, apart from and beyond time.”
When we dispense with the idea of a comprehensive prior decree, pre-scripting all of the drama of history, the way is open for us to understand God’s poetic work in creation as something that we genuinely cooperate with and to regard the future as genuinely open from our perspective within history. However, this need not entail a reduction of creaturely freedom into pure autonomy, for we only move as God moves us by grace.
God’s determination of the course of history does not demand a choice preceding His action. His determination of the course is found in the action itself. However, God’s action in determining the course of history is, as observed in the Leithart quote above, manifested in and through the action of the creature. The two operate together: God’s determination of the exact shape of the future is achieved through the determination of our wills and does not exist temporally prior to the action of our wills. History is not merely a print-out of something that has been exhaustively determined by a prior eternal decree, where everything has its set place. Rather history is a dance, created and sustained by the God who acts from eternity. Within this dance we are genuine participants, willingly moving as we are moved by the Holy Spirit.
How might such an approach shed light on the problem of evil? If we reject the idea of a prior divine choice in our absence concerning our actions, we are able to do far greater justice to the presence and operation of wills other than God’s in the world. Man does not sin because God has chosen that he should sin. Once we appreciate the account of free will as outlined above we should be able to recognize that this does not mean that God is absolutely unwilling that man should sin or that He merely grants it a bare permission. However, our understanding of freedom can free us from the idea that sin is a necessary presence in the world, either according to prior divine decree or as a result of divine impotence. God permits sin through His divine poetic expression, a poetry in which His infinite freedom grants the finite freedom of His creatures to play a part (although I do not believe that our finite freedom is purely autonomous, it is distinct from the will of God Himself), even when those creatures prove to be rebellious. To probe any deeper than this is unhelpful.
There is no warrant to regard sin as part of God’s ‘purpose’. To regard sin in such a manner is to grant sin a necessity that it does not necessarily possess. In a freely created work of art, all elements should belong together, but one cannot say that there is only one way of going about things. I believe that there is good reason to regard the presence of evil in the world as ‘accidental’. Its presence is to be attributed to God’s artistic freedom and not to a ‘purpose’ or determination that a world with sin would be better than a world without it.
The Use of the Doctrine of Providence
Having presented a brief sketch of some of the aspects of a redemptive historical and synergistic doctrine of providence, I will now move to a discussion of the manner in which such a doctrine can shape our action.
Once we refocus our doctrine of providence upon God’s proper presence in Christ and special presence in the Church nature/grace and creation/redemption tensions can be considerably relaxed. Refocusing the doctrine in this way also allows us to move beyond reflection on the bare fact of providence, to a clearer reflection on the shape and character of divine providence. If divine providence is most clearly revealed in Christ and His body then many common notions of divine sovereignty are challenged.
The sovereignty of Christ is a cruciform sovereignty, a sovereignty exercised by means of the cross. It is by the cross that evil is defeated and the creation is reordered to its telos. God’s providence and sovereignty are realized through weakness and humility. Such truths should disabuse us of the many sub-Christian notions of sovereignty and rule that we possess and should work out in our relationships with others.
By God’s grace in Christ and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we have been given to share in His providential rule of His creation. We are called to bring the creation under the rule of Christ. This task will be performed as we act as the cruciform community. As we live out of the death of Christ we will be raised up and will share in His authority.
We are empowered for the task of exercising providence by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. The Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, constituting us as His body. The one Gift of the Holy Spirit is re-presented to the body by the various gifts of its members. Each member of the Church has a unique vocation and role to play in exercising the rule of Christ. These vocations are profoundly personalizing. God graces us to become ever more individual in our Spirit-led service of the community. As we mature in our vocations we become increasingly active as co-workers of God.
I do not believe that we should be reluctant to observe an analogy between the anthropomorphic descriptions of God’s activity within the world in the OT (God’s hands, God’s eyes, etc.) and the role that we are called to play as the ‘body’ of Christ (thanks to Dennis for this observation). We can serve as the ‘eyes’ of God that see the distressed; ours are the ‘hands’ of God that welcome the outcast.
Providence, far from encouraging fatalism, can be interpreted as a gracious invitation to participate in God’s action. We can participate in God’s providential activity with confidence, as we are assured that God’s activity will ultimately prove to be successful. Despite all of the resistance that we face in the present, our efforts will never be finally frustrated. Our labour in the Lord is never in vain. The fact that God sets us apart as His chosen instruments is a fact that can be of incredible comfort when we face opposition. God could achieve His purposes without us, but He generally achieves them by means of us. It is both a profound challenge and a powerful reassurance to know that God might have brought us to our present situation ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:13-14).
The beauty of God’s providence is that, although He has no need for our help, He graciously makes us participants in His sovereign rule. This should lead to a response of profound gratitude on our part and should deeply humble us. Such a posture before God will enrich our worship. Furthermore, a recognition of the numerous ways in which God preserves and upholds our lives by His gracious providence should case us to respond in thanksgiving and lead us to filial fear.
The more that we become God’s co-workers, the more aware we will be of our dependence upon Him and will realize that we are completely out of our depth without Him. Synergistic providence ought to lead to our growth in faith and dependence.
Providence and Evil
As we grasp the relationship between God’s will and evil as outlined above we will be saved from either regarding evil as beyond God’s control or as God’s positive choice and purpose. Evil will always be frustrated in its attempt to realize its final ends as the operations of evil are always limited by the fact that they exist within the drama that is sustained and directed by God.
On the other hand, once we have dispensed with the idea of a prior choice of a world with sin in it and see the presence of sin merely as a result of a particular expression of the divine poetry, the otherness of sinful wills from the will of God is more clearly maintained. This helps us to resist the tendency manifested in certain circles to attribute everything that occurs to the choice of God and makes it easier for us to regard sin and evil as enemies. [‘Natural’ evils might well be harder to account for than sin. It seems to me that the Scripture suggests that certain natural disasters can be attributed to demonic activity.]
When all is regarded as a product of the divine choice, there is a tendency to become inactive and see the appropriate response to God as merely being one of passive acceptance and submission. The form of providence explored above challenges us to tackle evil and sin proactively, wrestling with God in prayer and engaging in activity in the creation. It is God’s purpose that the victory over evil in the creation will be one in which redeemed humanity in Christ truly participates (Romans 8:17ff.).
Prayer is perhaps the most significant area in which we can apply our doctrine of providence. The reality of divine providence assures us of God’s omnipotent power and of His will to ensure that creation achieves the ends for which it was created. The doctrine of providence also teaches us that God wishes us to participate in His providential governance of the creation. Prayer is one of the chief means by which we can do this.
Prayer must have Christological foundations: we have access to God in Christ, and as our hearts are conformed to His. In Christ we are permitted to participate in God’s council. We are privy to God’s purposes and we are permitted to share in the shaping of God’s activity in the creation. As our wills are matured in union with Christ and we grow in discernment, through prayer we can enter into real dialogue with God and be part of the process of God’s creative shaping of the future. It is prayer in particular that opens up the future to us.
In this post I have sought to explore the doctrine of providence, demonstrating the manner in which it can be used within the Church today. I have endeavoured to reveal the practical value of providence and to prove that, far from the impractical and fatalistic doctrine that many present it to be, providence is in fact the doctrine that most impels us to action.