A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese
THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD
"Providence" is one of the words not specifically used of God in our English Bibles, but which expresses an idea which is everywhere assumed in Scripture.1 Providence has reference to that care, and preservation, and government which God exercises over all things that He has created, so that they will accomplish the purposes for which they were created. The Old Testament tells us that God "rested" (Genesis 2:3) when He finished the work of creation, but it was not a rest of inactivity, for Jesus said, "My Father is working still, and I am working" (John 5:17). Scripture also affirms that Deity "upholds all things by the word of His power" (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17).
As indicated in Romans 1, man originally started out monotheistic in his beliefs. Only where there is monotheism can there be any idea of God's providence. A multitude of gods would be at cross-purposes with each other, and this would rule out any consistent care (conservation), or preservation, or government in our world. But One God could very well be expected to exercise such general supervision of His creation as the Bible everywhere presents God as doing. Various expressions in both Old and New Testaments assume and assert God's involvement in His creation.
I. PROVIDENCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Genesis 2:7ff presents God as preparing a garden, putting man in it, and giving instructions to the man what is expected of him. Job 33:4 reads "the Spirit of God made me; the Spirit of the Almighty gave me life."2 Whether Elihu is thinking of God's part in the actual conception of Elihu, or simply that the Spirit had a part in the continuation of the race since Adam, it rather strongly presupposes something like "providence." Isaiah 34:16 tells us that prophecy will be matched by fulfillment: "the Spirit of the Lord will perform this."3 This too requires a "government" over creation exercised by God. Isaiah 63:14 tells us that the cattle coming down out of the hills into the valleys are guided by the Spirit of God. When considered in its context (i.e., 63:11ff), this is an illustration of God's providential care for Israel. Psalm 104 shows that God works in nature for the benefit of all His creatures. After God created the sun, moon, and stars (Genesis 1:14ff), we are told in Jeremiah 31:35 and 33:20 that God continues to cause these to shine. Numerous passages could be pointed out wherein is (1) declared God's preserving power; (2) asserted God's control of the regular operations of nature; (3) declared God's sovereignty over birth, life, disease, death, afflictions, and prosperity; (4) affirmed that such things as accidents and chance are not overruled;4 (5) taught that God uses harmful or poisonous creatures for purposes of His government; (6) affirmed that retributions come from God to wicked men; (7) deliverance is ascribed to God; (8) declared His supreme authority over men; and (9) affirmed His dominion over national prosperity and adversity.5
Lobstein has this summary paragraph about providence in the Old Testament:
Atmospheric phenomena are regarded as due to the immediate activity of God (Job 36:27-28, 37:2-6,10-13, 38:25ff; Psalm 29:3ff), all this ultimately being for the benefit of man. He draws man from the womb and guards him throughout the life to which He Himself appoints the limit (Psalm 22:10ff; Job 14:5). The divine protection rests especially upon His chosen people Israel (Psalm 105; Hosea 11:1ff), keeping them from peril and nourishing them (Exodus 13‑16; Numbers 11; Psalm 91; 105-107). While in punishment He hardens the heart and sends evil thoughts (Exodus 7:3; 2 Samuel 24:1), He can render evil intents futile and turn them to good (Genesis 50:20; Psalm 2); and fertility and drought are instruments of blessing and of punishment in His hand (Deuteronomy 28:12‑23).6
All through the Old Testament, even though God is pictured as exercising a care and government over His creation, man's power of choice and voluntary action are also presupposed. Appeals are made for obedience, and warnings are given that disobedience will be punished.
II. PROVIDENCE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus strikes the keynote of God's providence. He speaks of "the heavenly Father" who feeds the birds and who clothes the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:26-30). Earlier in that same Sermon, as Jesus was teaching the Model Prayer, one phrase is of vital importance to our subject. When Jesus taught them to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," it is clearly implied that much will go on, on earth, that is not in harmony with the Father's will. We therefore do not expect "providence" to mean that all that happens on earth is predestined by God to happen, or that creation is like an unthinking robot that simply does what it is programmed to do. On another occasion (Matthew 10:29-31), He affirmed that the Father is aware of every sparrow that falls and the number of hairs on a man's head. Jesus' high priestly prayer (John 17) is addressed to a Father who is requested to care for the bodies and souls of all His children. Not only prayer itself, but answered prayer, requires that God have providential control over His creation.
In Romans 9-11, Paul will give us a glimpse of his philosophy of history. To Paul, history is an arena where God is playing out His purposes with men and nations, bringing them all to the goal He had in mind when He created. 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 add some thoughts to this, showing how all was subjected to vanity because of Adam's sin, and how all will be restored to its pristine condition at the second advent of Jesus. This all requires a personal involvement by the Creator in His creation. The teaching in 1 Peter 1 and Hebrews 12 on suffering as chastisement and discipline from the Father is another concept that requires a providential control over our world. The succession of covenants that Galatians 3 and Hebrews 8‑10 speak about, and the restraint (forbearance) that God exercises according to 2 Peter 3, also require that there be such a thing as the providence of God.
Just as the Old Testament asserted both the providence of God and the fact of human freedom, so does the New. Notice the passages in Acts where both God's foreordination and human freedom are plainly stated. "There were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose had predestined to occur" (Acts 4:27,28). And Peter says in another place that Jesus "was delivered up according to the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God," yet he accuses the people of guilt in their actions when he says, "you by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay" (Acts 2:23, ASV).
Having shown how both Testaments assume and assert the providence of God, it will be helpful to emphasize some details, and to answer some standard objections.
III. GENERAL AND SPECIAL PROVIDENCE
In many studies of providence, one finds a distinction between "general providence" (what God does for all men generally) and "special providence" (what God does specially for the believers). It will be helpful to note each of these briefly.
- General Providence
Matthew 5:45 tells us that He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
Deuteronomy 32:8 and Acts 17:26 tell us that God determines when nations rise and fall, and how far their boundaries will spread. After its beginning with one (Adam), He had a hand in the spread of the human race from the Mesopotamian valley all over the world. "He has made of one every nation that dwells on the face of the world." Daniel 2:21 informs us God changes times and seasons, and that He removes kings and puts kings into office.
Such are examples of the kinds of involvement God has in His world as He cares for it, preserves it, and governs it. They are "general" things He does for all men alike, whether they are saint or sinner.
- Special Providence
Matthew 6:33 tells us God provides food, shelter, and clothing to those who put the kingdom of God first. That's something done specially for the believer.
Romans 8:28 tells us God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him, and who are called according to His purpose. That's special providence.
Answered prayer is an example of God's special providence. Matthew 7:7-11; James 1:5, 5:16; and 1 Peter 3:12,13 all assume that the One to whom prayer is addressed will do something in His world in answer to the prayer. Unless one believes in "providence," he has no reason to pray! Jesus taught us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11). That implies providence. When believers make their plans for the future with the prayer "If the Lord wills" on their lips (James 4:13-15; Jeremiah 10:23), it means that the believer recognizes that future hours and days on earth are clearly dependent on God's will and activity in the world.
God gives believers help right at the moment they are tempted so they can withstand the temptation. 1 Corinthians 10:12-13 tell us that He knows how much each Christian is able to bear (and that varies with the individual), and will not permit the devil to tempt beyond each Christian's capacity to resist. And not only that, right when the temptation comes, God also plants a thought in the believer's mind about how to escape the temptation. That's an active participation on behalf of the believer that would not be available if there were no providence.
It is the teaching of the New Testament that God's providence means that God is near the believer, over him, and about him constantly. As Peter worded it in the letter he wrote to believers, promising them special providence, "It matters to Him about you!" (1 Peter 5:7). What an empty promise unless indeed there is such a thing as God's special providence.
Importantly, we must resist thinking about general and special providence independently of Jesus. Just as God the Father and the Holy Spirit have been shown to have something to do with the care, preservation, and government of creation, so does the exalted Jesus. When He is called "Lord," nothing less is implied than that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the Father on the throne of the universe, actively controlling what is happening. In fact, the two verses from Hebrews and Colossians referred to in the first paragraph of this Special Study specifically refer to Jesus as the one who "upholds all things."
IV. PROBLEMS AND OBJECTIONS
Through the centuries, certain standard objections have been raised by skeptics who question the fact of providence. Often these objections resulted from the fact that the current definition and explanation of providence reflected a contemporary (and sometimes even temporal) doctrinal or philosophical emphasis. It is not surprising that men's views of providence were colored by pressing interests of the moment, for the same thing is true of other theological beliefs and statements.7 However, there are some objections that seem to intrude themselves whatever the age or the peculiar interest of the age.
(1) The problem of evil in the world is one of these difficult objections to answer. If God is really in control, why are there natural calamities that claim hundreds and thousands of lives? Why is there pain and suffering? Why do the wicked seem to prosper more than the righteous? Does it not seem one of these is true: either that God is not all powerful (if He were, He would stop the evil), or He does not love (and the Bible affirms that He does love), or else the doctrine of providence is not in harmony with the observed facts?
Through the centuries, men have struggled to reconcile their understanding of God's involvement in and government over creation with the presence of evil. "Occasionalism"8 and "concurrence"9 were two such attempts, both of which proved to be inadequate.
Of the numerous passages in the Bible where the inspired writers provide God's answer to this seeming contradiction, perhaps James 1 is the most helpful. First, read James 1 and observe where God's providence is assumed: God will give wisdom in answer to prayer; God can use trials to perfect and complete the believer; good and perfect gifts come from the Father; etc. Next, read the same chapter, noting what it says about "evil." The readers have been "dispersed" (verse 1). Was it by persecution, similar to Acts 8:1-4? This dispersion resulted in "various trials" that the Christians would need "wisdom" to know how to handle. Was it a similar dispersion that led to some who used to be rich now being poor (James 1:10), their property having been confiscated; and the "poor" now being in even more humble circumstances (verse 9)? In all of this there would be a temptation to quit the faith (verse 12). Yet in spite of all the trials, in spite of all the evil, God still loved those hurting people. He was not the cause of the evil. The devil was! The devil is the one who placed the temptations before the Christians as he "carried them away" and stirred up their "desires" (verse 14). After being tempted, it was men (not God!) who nursed the idea and let it grow to action. God had a purpose in permitting the evil. James' readers were a "first-fruits." There were going to be other Christians in the future who would be helped to see their way through trials by the triumphant way the readers of this letter handled the evil that came into their lives. And at the close of a life of overcoming, God would be there to bestow the "crown of life" on the ones who have been tested and approved (verse 12).
A third reading of James 1 will add several additional truths. God did not keep the trials10 from happening, but He implies that He is perfectly willing and ready to help the believer through the trials. The universe that God created is a moral universe, and this implies that there must be temptations and trials that will give men an opportunity to exercise their freedom. Even though God is practicing a general supervision over His creation,11 the devil is given permission to do his work.12 Observe, too, (James 1:2) that men “encounter” (NASB) or "fall into" (ASV) these various trials – they are not forced or coerced into them because God inexorably wills each particular trial. Instead, God's grace has gone to work to counteract what the devil was permitted to do. James reminds his readers how God, "in the exercise of His will ... brought [them] forth13 by the word of truth," so that they could together blunt and eventually overcome the evil and its effects in the lives of men.
Romans 8 will give more help with the problem of evil in the world, but enough has already been learned from James to see that the presence of evil is not a sufficient problem to lead us to question or deny the truth of the doctrine of God's care, preservation, and government of His creation.
(2) A second problem faced by one who would understand God's providence is the matter of the difference between providence and miracle.14 Isn't everything God does a miracle? What need is there to speak about providence? C.S. Lewis has defined miracle this way: "The divine art of miracle is not the art of suspending the pattern to which events conform, but of feeding new events into that pattern."15 The difference between providence and miracle is this – providence is God's everyday care and preservation and government of His creation, whereas "miracle" is something that does not happen every day. Both speak of God's activity in His world, but "miracle" is something new being fed into the pattern. In the Bible, miracle didn't happen every day. In fact, after creation, there are only four or so brief periods of time when miracles were concentrated – at the Flood, at the Exodus, during the life-and-death struggle with Baalism during Elijah and Elisha's time, and at the fullness of time when Jesus became incarnate and Christianity was introduced and credentialed.16 The Bible suggests that we live in an open universe, rather than a closed one. God has stepped in before, and He can do it again. But in the meantime, as we await the second advent, God continues to move all of creation toward the goal through the exercise of His providence.
(3) A third matter that for some creates a difficulty for the idea of God's providential control is the vastness and complexity of the universe. Man lives on a little planet that rotates around one of the lesser stars in a cluster of stars located near the edge of a rotating galaxy approximately 150,000 light years across and 25,000 to 40,000 light years thick in its central area. This galaxy is but one of countless nebulae extending in all directions from us on an average of 2,000,000 light years apart, and receding from each other at incredible speeds which increase with distance.17 In addition, the second law of thermodynamics seems to indicate that our universe is slowly running out of energy and will end in total disorganization of energy at some future date. How is all of this to be harmonized with the idea of providence? Simply this: if man's idea of God's omnipotence is so limited that He could not handle an immense universe, then "your God is too small!" The Bible specifically tells us that the creation was subjected to "futility" when Adam sinned (Romans 8:20); so, within God's general supervision, indeed it could very well be running down, and except for His personal intervention at the second advent, it very well could end in total disorganization.
(4) A fourth factor that has caused a change in how the providence of God is presented is the shift from an emphasis on God's transcendence to an emphasis on God's immanence. "Transcendence" does not have a precise significance either in philosophy or theology, but as the term is used here, it signifies that God is a being who stands above or beyond or against all finite beings. He transcends the creation in the sense that His being is not identical with or His power not exhausted by the realm of finite being. This concept of God's transcendence is implied when God is characterized as being "holy." On the other hand, "immanence" suggests God dwells within the creation (including man),18 and His sustaining and preserving creation is generally limited to His energizing the wills and souls of believers. Those theologies that emphasize God's transcendence also talk of His providence, while those who emphasize His immanence tend to downplay His providence, or ignore the idea all together. Neo-orthodoxy returned to a transcendent God after religious liberalism had opted for immanence. Neo-liberalism also tends to speak for immanence rather than transcendence. All of these theologies were (and are) struggling to be relevant, to have a bearing on and to answer the contemporary critical issues and problems.
Radical theology ... seeks to grapple with root issues in times of crises. The crisis it addresses has several facets, at once cultural, ethical, ecclesiastical, political, historical, and religious. The root problem is that modern man lives in an environment where many human beings experience a profound sense of the absence of God. Where religion flourishes it seems to have little cultural relevance. The historians have declared this the "Post-Christian Era." There is a cultural sense of the loss of transcendence. Modern men and women feel trapped within the closed walls of "this-sidedness." There seems to be no access to the eternal or the transcendent. Nature has been demythologized. History has been de-supernaturalized; ethics have been de-absolutized.
The church faces a serious crisis of relevance. If, for example, we discover that the traditional categories of Christian religion are no longer credible, what is left for the church to do? If the Incarnation is a myth and the crucifixion of Christ merely a Roman tragedy, what do we do with billions of dollars of church property, thousands of professionally trained clergy, and millions of church members? Do we quietly close the doors of the churches, give pink slips to the clergy, turn over our assets to the United Fund, and apologize to our members, saying, "Sorry, we were wrong. There is no God and the biblical Jesus is a myth"?19
This was the problem faced by 19th century liberal theology, and, in the 20th century, by the Death of God Theology, the Theology of Hope, and Liberation Theology in the third world. Instead of God's being over all, in control, and through regenerated people bringing changes for the better into society, it almost seems as though man by himself must bring these changes; and (in 20th century liberal theology's opinion) unless modern man is actively involved in such social programs, his theology (may we say, his Christianity) is not relevant.20
To this commentator, it seems that what is sorely needed is a return to doctrinal affirmations that are shaped by Scriptural statements, rather than trusting dogmas that have been shaped by the exigencies of the moment. Only in this way will we have access to the truth of God that will stand for the ages. Then, when redeemed men begin to live out that truth in their lives, their religion will be eternally relevant, and the providence of the Holy God will be experienced and appreciated.
The idea that God exercises a care, preservation, and government over the things He created, so that they will accomplish the purposes for which they were created, is eminently Scriptural. This doctrine does not require that everything that happens in the world, including evil, is somehow to be attributed to God's active involvement in His world as He exercises His providence. This doctrine is opposed to pantheism, which confuses God with the world; to deism, which separates God apart from the world; to fatalism, which has an impersonal God over the world; and to naturalism, which excludes God from the world.
Buswell, James O., "Providence" in The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, edited by Merrill C. Tenney. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963. p.692,693.
Davison, W.T., "Providence" in Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919. Vol.1, p.415‑420.
Henry, Carl F.H., "God Who Stays: Divine Providence," in God, Revelation, and Authority (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), Vol.6, p.455‑484. A supplementary note, "Auschwitz As a Suspension of Providence," follows on p.485‑491.
He laments the decline in men's awareness of the doctrine of providence. Shows how one's views of God's personal involvement in His creation affects the disciplines of history, economics (e.g., Marxism vs. capitalism – where neither system works well when men forget God's rule), sociology (e.g., behavior is predictable by computerizing present‑day attitudes – a danger when God's influence and control are disregarded), education, and science (e.g., genetic engineering). Henry shows that the "New Age" world view – i.e., that all is God – is untenable with the Biblical view that God's creation and God's providence are separate acts. He shows how a loss of belief in God's providence among Jewish people has been accelerated by the holocaust; but not much less devastating among Gentiles has been their seeming inability to harmonize the problem of evil with the idea of providence. Unless God's providential government of His creation is recognized, then there can be no such thing as temporal (and perhaps even eternal) punishment for sin. Even one's viewpoint about the value and efficacy of prayer depends on the providence of God. (Unless there is a God who providentially rules His creation, and is moving it toward a goal, all prayer does is change one's own attitudes; it could do nothing to change things.) While many beneficent consequences of God's providence are forfeited by unbelievers, Romans 8 shows God's providence is a real blessing, at least for the redeemed. Calls for a recovery of the Biblical emphasis on Divine Providence. Thought‑provoking and timely reading.
Lobstein, P., "Providence" in The New Schaff‑Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1957. Vol.9, p.306‑311.
Platt, S.H., "Providence" in Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, edited by John McClintock and James Strong. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968‑70. Vol.8, p.707‑711.