What is Divine Providence?

The divine providence is the eternal work of God on the created universe. It started after God completed the creation of the Universe. It is a complicated doctrine, yet comforting. The triune God is the agent of providence. Providence is from the Latin word provideo.[1]

The Westminster Confession stated:

“God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”[2]

Preservation, Concurrence, and Government

Providence consists of the following three perspectives: preservation, concurrence, and government.[3] Preservation refers to God’s work to maintain the existence of the created universe.

Concurrence is His work that the created things operate under His sovereignty. While God is the primary cause of all things, the things operate according to an order conferred by God, giving the significance of secondary causes. All things operate according to His will. By “all things,” it includes all places (Ps. 135:6), over all good and bad things (Lam. 3:37-38), all time (Isa. 46:9-10), all free human decisions of all men (Prov. 21:1-2, Gen. 50:20), the rise and fall of rulers (Isa. 40:23-24), and the operations of demons (Job 1).[4]

Government refers to His ultimate sovereignty that all things operate to achieve the goal intended by God. Upon creation, as a king over the whole created universe, God governs it. Everything in the universe is according to His will, for the praise of His own glory, as stated in the Epistles to the Ephesians:

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” (Eph. 1:11-12)

These three perspectives are not segregated; they are integrally connected.[5]

Providence and Theodicy

Providence is often discussed with theodicy because of the prevalence of evil and suffering in the world. However, God used the sinful to achieve His purpose. (Gen. 50:20) God is also the radiator of the common grace, “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45) These sufferings are the consequences of the Fall, leading to the curse of the whole Universe. (Gen. 3) God is not the author of sins, which actually come from Satan and human fleshly desire. God simply wills them, (Job 1-2) but He hates sins. (Ps. 101:5) When Job hopelessly asked God about all the sufferings on himself, God did not answer him but simply asked: where were you when I created heaven and earth? (Job 38:1-40:2) However, Christians know God is the Governor of the Universe, and are guaranteed consolations in sufferings. Christians find the comfort because they know God loves them, and Apostle Paul wrote:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Rom. 8:35) And “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:37-39)

The doctrine of providence answers the questions with complicated situations and emotions, but it brings comfort to the elect.

Human Responsibility

The doctrine of divine providence does not even try to deny human responsibility, but says even human free decisions are within the sovereignty of God. In fact, Scripture repeatedly stresses that men are responsible for their sins, remarks, and deeds. For sins, Moses wrote, “the LORD will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.” (Deut. 28:20) For good deeds in Christ, Apostle Paul wrote, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13-14) People usually compartmentalize God’s will and human free decision, but they are actually perspectives of the same thing. J. I. Packer and Ting Lee described God’s will and human free decision figuratively as wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics.[6] Laws of nature, such as the law of gravity, are also within divine providence. Supernatural things are also within divine providence, but God does not need to change the laws of nature to make it happen.

Oppositions From Within: Occasionalism and Open Theism

There are a lot of oppositions against the doctrine of providence from within and outside the Christian churches. Many Reformed theologians such as Jonathan Edwards subscribed to occasionalism, which argues the created beings cannot be the efficient causes of events, but God is the only cause. However, this denial of secondary causes mean that creaturely causes are illusions, meaning virtually no laws and order that human can understand.

On the other hand, open theism, instead of proclaiming God’s sovereignty on all human free decisions, teaches that while God can influence human beings, men can make decisions on their own. The problem is that this view limits God’s sovereignty by denying His governance of our free will. The problem of evil and suffering, caused by human decision according to this view, is not comforting because we can no longer trust God that he will bring evils back to good.

Oppositions Outside: Pantheism and Deism

Outside the Christian churches, there are pantheism and deism. Pantheism asserts all nature actings are God’s acting, equating all secondary causes as the primary cause. All things happen in a mechanical way, leaving no room for miracles, free human decisions, prayers, sins etc. When talking about evil, it resorts to the pagan fate.[7]

Deism asserts that upon creation, God does not intervene any activities in the created universe. This denies the whole doctrine of providence, and the world operates on its own without God. Things happens according to the natural law. Proponents of deism resorts to pagan fate also when discussing about the problem of evil.[8]

Contemporary Slogans Alternative to Providence

Some contemporaries believe in the slogan: “We try our best. God do the rest.” This slogan needlessly divide God’s will and human responsibility. It denies God’s sovereignty, and takes away hope. Some say, “God blesses those who prepare.” This statement closely resembles open theism, and overemphasizes human responsibility. There is a Chinese proverb: “Try our best, but relies on fate.” This proverb is closer to the doctrine of providence. It approves both primary and secondary causes, but is silent about God’s sovereignty. It rightly encourages people to rely on God, but it removes the hope that God brings about good in whatever happened. It is also a taste of pagan fate.

[1] R. C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: an Introduction to Systematic Theology (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014), 78.

[2] “Of Providence”, In Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. V.I, accessed May 23, 2016, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 605.

[4] Scott Swain, “Lecture IV.2. The Works of God: the Doctrine of Providence,” unpublished class notes for ST 515 (Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington DC, Spring Semester, 2016), 1-2.

[5] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 605.

[6] Ting W. Lee, The Renewing of Your Mind in a Postmodern World (E. Brunswick, NJ: Christian Renewal Ministries, 2006), 39; J. I. Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1961), 19.

[7] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 559.

[8] Ibid., 603.

  • Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2003. [Amazon]
  • Ho, Kwan-yuet. “Providence.” In reformator: living perspectivally. WordPress. 2016. [WordPress]
  • Lee, Ting W. The Renewing of Your Mind in a Postmodern World. E. Brunswick, NJ: Christian Renewal Ministries. 2006. [CRMNJ]
  • Packer, J. I. Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 1961. [Amazon]
  • Sproul, R. C. Everyone’s a Theologian: an Introduction to Systematic Theology. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust. 2014. [Ligonier]
  • Swain, Scott. “Lecture IV.2. The Works of God: the Doctrine of Providence.” Unpublished class notes for ST 515. Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington DC. Spring Semester, 2016.
  • Westminster Confession of Faith. [Link]
  • My answer to a Zhihu question. [Zhihu] (Zhihu is a Chinese counterpart of Quora)

One comment

Leave a Reply

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s