A History of Providence. Part One

A striking feature of current syntheses of Christian theism with evolutionary theory is an abandonment of the historic Christian doctrine of providence. It often seems as though we have a quasi-deist, hands-off God, who simply “lets things happen” without in any sense directing the outcome. The motivation behind this weak account of providence is, perhaps, a desire to “absolve” God from aspects of the evolutionary process and its products that many modern minds find problematic – e.g. animal suffering over geological time, species extinction, dysteleology (poor design).

The present short series will survey the historic Christian doctrine of providence. It will do so in the belief that evolutionary theory does not require the abandonment of this doctrine. On the contrary, a robust doctrine of providence enables us to accept an evolutionary account of life’s diversity, without finding it a threat to a traditional Christian worldview. Rather than enthroning a divinely undirected autonomy of creation’s internal processes, evolution can be seen as the way a providential God has chosen to shape His creation purposefully toward eternally intended outcomes.

In this first instalment, let us consider what the Bible itself says about God’s providential government of the universe. (All quotations are from the New King James Version.)

We find general statements about God’s government in various texts: “Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and You are exalted as head over all. Both riches and honour come from You, and You reign over all. In Your hand is power and might; in Your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all” (1 Chronicles 29:11-12). “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). “Being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).

In the Bible, this would be called the kingship or lordship of God. Divine kingship is depicted as extending to all the affairs of creation. For example, God is king of the elements: “Whatever the LORD pleases He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deep places. He causes the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain; He brings the wind out of His treasuries” (Psalm 135:6-7). Those with a cosmological bent will be happy to see the stars included: “He made the Pleiades and Orion; He turns the shadow of death into morning and makes the day dark as night; He calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the face of the earth; the LORD is His name” (Amos 5:8).

The animal world is of course of special interest in an evolutionary context. Is God king here? “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God… These all wait for You, that You may give them their food in due season. What You give them they gather in; You open Your hand, they are filled with good. You hide Your face, they are troubled; You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:21, 27-30).

So yes, God rules in the life, death, and sustenance of animalkind. Note that He feeds the lions: God has no squeamishness about predatory carnivores. He, not the devil, feeds them, just as He, not the devil, created them. (Psalm 104 is a creation psalm, celebrating God’s creative wisdom and power.)

What about the human world? Is God king over the nations? “O LORD God of our fathers, are You not God in heaven, and do You not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations, and in Your hand is there not power and might, so that no one is able to withstand You?” (2 Chronicles 20:6). “For exaltation comes neither from the east Nor from the west nor from the south. But God is the Judge: He puts down one, and exalts another” (Psalm 75:6-7). “He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings” (Daniel 2:21).

God’s providential kingship over the nations was what gave security to the hearts of godly Israelites in the centuries before the coming of the Messiah; it has, traditionally, given the same security to Christians ever since. Amid the turmoil of the nations, our God is working His purpose out.

Does the Bible extend God’s kingship to the level of the individual? Certainly life and death are in His hand. “Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; nor is there any who can deliver from My hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39). “The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up” (1 Samuel 2:6). “The God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways” (Daniel 5:23). In Psalm 139, the psalmist thinks that the number of his days has been preordained by God: “Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them” (Psalm 139:16).

Nor does the Bible limit God’s lordship to the ultimate issues of life and death. It portrays providence as permeating down into the details of our lives. “A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). “A man’s steps are of the LORD; how then can a man understand his own way?” (Proverbs 20:24). “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (i.e., as the context shows, God directs a person’s steps – Jeremiah 10:23).

It is at this point that providence intersects questions of theodicy: the problem of relating suffering and evil to a good God. Can God really be king where we see things that look ill-planned or ill-formed? Even here the Bible does not flinch. “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). The very defects of human physiology are under divine control. God has His own reasons for dumbness, deafness, blindness. Biblically, at least, these are no argument against providence.

Disasters that affect human life are also placed firmly within God’s kingship, according to scripture. “There is none besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the LORD, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:6-7). “Who is he who speaks and it comes to pass, when the Lord has not commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed?” (Lamentations 3:37-38). “If there is calamity in a city, will not the LORD have done it?” (Amos 3:6).

The most I think we can say against this presentation of God’s providence is that we do not like it. We can hardly dispute that the Bible presents it. And it opens up obvious vistas for geological time. If disasters in the human world are under God’s government, why should disasters in the pre-human world be exempted? A biblical doctrine of providence will encompass the mass extinctions of the Permian and the Cretaceous, as well as human calamities.

But let me close with some caveats. I am not here trying to show how God’s providential government coheres with the responsible free-agency of humans and angels. Nor am I seeking to show here how God can be just or loving in the exercise of His providence as biblically conceived. These issues belong to a different series. All I am doing here is endeavouring to bring out the sharp outlines of how the Bible portrays God’s active kingship over His creation. As St John of Damascus summarizes: “Providence is the will of God by which He brings all existing things to their proper destination” (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2:29). Whatever genuine or apparent problems for theodicy this depiction may generate, the depiction is indeed to be found in the Bible, not in the fevered imaginations of insensitive theologians.

If we accept this, the whole evolutionary process is removed from the realm of metaphysical randomness, and relocated within the realm of purposeful divine direction. The emergence (for example) of anatomically modern humanity was, therefore, not the unplanned result of some genetic roulette, but integral to the Creator’s intentionality for His creation.

In future instalments, we will look at some particular theologians in church history, and how they construed providence.

James Penman

About James Penman

James is from an Anglican background; more broadly, he considers himself part of the Reformed tradition. He has a special interest in the history of ideas, including the interactions between faith and science. Augustine, Calvin, and B.B.Warfield figure among his spiritual and intellectual heroes.
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19 Responses to A History of Providence. Part One

  1. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Penman

    (I hope you don’t mind me calling you that, its the name Im used to), I like this post very much. I would say that the issue of purposeful divine direction in evolution is probably the most important issue facing evangelical Christians. Like many of us here, I am not at all comfortable with the notion of front loading. What I find exciting is that we are finding more and more data from biology that could indicate how and when such divine direction might have occurred.

    I do have one question. Do you see the flood story as a prototypical account of a natural disaster that could have had major consequences for the evolution of life? In other words, Does God intervene quite specifically to affect all living creatures, with natural disasters, the flood being a prime example? I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

    • James says:

      Hi, Sy. I used to post on BioLogos as James R, before I was banned. I often agreed with your comments there. Glad to see you here.

      I agree with you about “purposeful divine direction” of evolution, but I don’t see how “front loading” excludes the idea of purposeful divine direction. It simply puts all the direction at the beginning of the process, rather than spreading it out along the way.

      In contrast, the form of theistic evolution advocated by BioLogos (and by most American TEs, especially the biologists) is not a form of “front loaded” evolution — where initial conditions determine the outcomes; it is a form of “radically contingent” evolution, driven by neo-Darwinian “randomness.” (BioLogos has published easily a dozen columns celebrating the creative powers of randomness.) In radically contingent models of evolution, the course of evolution can be diverted by the slightest little thing, and therefore any “front-loading” by God at the beginning would be quickly undermined by subsequent mutational events.

      If I could put this in terms of names, an extreme “front-loaded” position would be that of Michael Denton, whereas an extreme version of “contingent evolution” (where initial conditions can do nothing to establish any outcome) would be Stephen Jay Gould. Most American TEs’ conception of evolution is much closer to Gould’s than to Denton’s.

      Denton’s view of evolution puts God completely in charge of the outcomes; God is a great computer programmer, as it were, who designs a universe that is guaranteed to yield a certain output. But many of the American TEs don’t like the idea of a guaranteed output theologically. They want God not to be a “tyrant” who “coerces” nature, but a liberal who lets nature “do its own thing” in its “creative freedom” and “self-expression.” (They have even tried to justify this view by saying that they hold to a “Wesleyan” rather than a “Calvinist” theology — which is ludicrous, since Wesley’s doctrine of creation is the same as Calvin’s, but never mind that.)

      Now I’m not saying that you should agree with Denton or with front-loading. I’m merely saying that front-loading, whatever its problems, seems closer to a Biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty than a view which has God standing around waiting to see whether or not random mutations and natural selection will produce anything interesting.

      Denton’s God could meaningfully say: “Let us make man …” Ken Miller’s God could only say: “Let’s roll the mutational dice and see if we can get man to emerge out of one of these brutes; otherwise I’ll have to settle for conferring my image on a hyper-intelligent bear or octopus.”

      Sure, a front-loaded theology of creation could easily degenerate into Deism. But the BioLogos theology of creation easily degnerates into Open Theism, which is even less Biblical — regarding God’s sovereign will, anyway — than Deism.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Hi James
        It seems to me that the God of providence is almost bound to use elements of both front-loading and real-time involvement (to avoid the concept of intervention, which suggests God isn’t involved anyway moment by moment just keeping things in existence and keeping natural laws consistent).

        We already have good evidence for fine tuning (which Denton brings together well – he’s hardly controversial in that sense). But the very nature of modern science has ditched the determinism that made proper Deism possible. Even extreme fine tuning can’t, in principle, move everything towards God’s desired goals.

        If God is not determining outcomes “in real time” then his plans would have to be purely statistical – hence, I suppose, Russell’s term “statistical Deism”, which as you say suits much TE well.

        Which I suppose prepares the ground for what Penman will say about how the doctrine of providence, necessarily, developed so broad a compass.

        • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

          James

          Thanks for the clarification on front loading. I see what you mean, and I think I was not using the term correctly. I think the Biologos emphasis on chance is an interesting thing, and my first post there was also about the potential for chance as being a tool for God to use in continuing creation. But, I also think that there is less chance involved in evolution than most biologists believe. As you can see my own ideas on this are evolving, and I appreciate all the education I can get on the subject.

          As for Gould (who I am very familiar with) he was indeed an extremist when it came to chance, and the whole issue of rewinding the tape. On the other hand, he was quite opposed to the ultra adaptationist paradigm of Dawkins et al, and I think if he had lived, would have done much to counter the extreme neoDarwinist position.

          • James says:

            Hi, Sy.

            The term “front-loading” comes from blogosphere discussions of evolution, not from the scientific literature, so it’s not surprising that it is ill-defined and used by different people in different ways. It is understandable that you and I might mean different things by the term without realizing it.

            “Mike Gene,” who used to post on BioLogos, claims that he coined the term “front-loading.” The problem is that his term does not well describe what he meant. He seems to have meant that God set up evolution at the beginning with a kind of “nudge” to evolve in certain ways. But he doesn’t mean that the path of evolution was predetermined by the initial laws of nature and/or the contents of the initial genomes. I.e., he doesn’t mean that man was “front-loaded” or, as it were, implicit in the original genome, just waiting to manifest himself as evolution unfolded.

            Denton, on the other hand, does see evolution as heavily deterministic, with man or something very like man in the cards from the very beginning, because of the way the laws of physics and chemistry and biology are set up.

            I use “front-loading” to mean something like what Denton means (though I don’t think that Denton himself employs that term); however, I would distinguished between “extreme front-loading” — Denton’s position in Nature’s Destiny (man is latent, so to speak, in the Big Bang) — and “moderate front-loading” (man is latent in the first living cells, but not in the Big Bang).

            I have not yet read the British TE Conway Morris, but I understand that his current position is somewhere in between standard neo-Darwinism, with its emphasis on contingency, and a front-loaded position, in which evolution is bound to take certain routes.

            In any case, I agree with you that there is less chance in evolution than most biologists believe. For that reason, I think it is a bad thing that BioLogos (and so many other American TEs) have tried to build up a Christian apologetic for evolution based on the creative powers of randomness; if it turns out that randomness is much less important in evolution than biologists have thought, such a Christian apologetic will become outdated and embarrassing.

            • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

              James
              The flip side of that trope of chance’s creative power is its implied independence from God – that God uses it as we might use a coin toss for a soccer game.

              But all that exists is either created by God, or has its origin within him – and so nothing is beyond his providence.

              A close parallel is mathematics, which seems platonic and immaterial, and so has been seen as fundamental. But does that make God subject to it? No, it makes it a characteristic of God.

              The difference is that, supposing a mathematician in glory comes up with one of those remarkable mathematical patterns that delight them so, and tells God about it, God is not going to say, “Wow, I never noticed that!” but “Now you know me a little better.”

              And so with chance. If he created it, he is its Lord. If it arises from him, he knows himself fully. And there is no third possibility.

              Coming to specifics: is the God who created quantum events not also the Lord of quantum events, by definition, not clever deduction? If not, there is a second god to which the Lord is subject – that of chance. A pretty basic blasphemy in Christian terms.

  2. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Jon

    I cant speak for other TEs or the (current) Biologos crew, but I always thought of chance as something God specifically built into the structure of reality to allow Him total freedom to operate in any way He saw fit. His laws need not be broken or bent in order for miracles to occur, because in a non deterministic universe, miracles are not impossible, only very very unlikely. So I saw chance as God’s tool, and why electrons are not little tiny pebbles but clouds of probability described as a wave function.

    However, I now think that while this might still be true, it is also possible that there exist many alternative ways that God intervenes in evolution and all of life, that do not depend on chance at all. More about that coming soon.

    • GD GD says:

      Sy,

      A simple point needs to be made, which if misunderstood may lead to mistakes. Electrons are as real and distinct as you may think of a pebble; they are not clouds of probability smeared over space. What QM shows is that when we perform calculations, the results are a number of energy levels (molecular or atomic orbitals) that electrons may occupy, and the probability that we may find an electron in each of these energy levels (or orbitals) is given by these computations.

      Chance (as we discuss the term) does not come into this – it is the uncertainty principle and many other mathematical aspects that come into play.

      • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

        GD

        Not being a physicist I might have this wrong, but it was my understanding that particles, like electrons, behave in the double slit experiment by producing interference patterns that would be expected from waves. A single particle interferes with itself, which is where QM comes in. The wave function doesn’t collapse unless the particle path is observed. Please correct what part is this I got wrong.

        • GD GD says:

          Sy,

          You do not have it ‘wrong’, and in fact you are correct in saying electrons behave as waves. Indeed, as a chemist, I have had to accept that electrons, (and the resulting bonds) can be discussed in a number of ways (as particles, and as waves). My physicist friend(s) take pleasure in discussing these matters – my point has been to show that a ‘smearing or clouds’ is not the way to discuss electrons that are present in atomic, or in molecular orbitals. The electron is treated as a ‘particle’ when considering spin, and charge (and the resulting force between positive and negative charges). So focusing on the electron as treated using QM, we are given, as I mentioned, energy levels as atomic or molecular orbitals, and the numbers from computations are probabilities of finding (an or the) electron(s) (we can discuss spin contamination from low level QM to illustrate this point) in any and each of these orbitals.

          If we were to continue these discussions, we would also use terms such as bond orders (which may not be whole numbers), and this can easily confuse people. But this is the wonderful QM world. The classical view of single, double and triple bonds is slowly disappearing – and let us not get into partial charges in results from QM calculations on molecules!!

          I did not intend to go into so much detail, but perhaps you may find it interesting.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Sy

      I can’t disagree with that, if we divide all events into those conforming to laws, those happening by chance, those occurring by rational beings’ choice and those miraculously produced. In that scheme, “chance” is indistinguishable, in form, from miracle – except perhaps in the latter’s extremely low probabilities. Thus it would always be possible to argue that the Red Sea happened to be struck by a wind at the right moment.

      Of course, “Chance” covers a multitude of sins. Colloquially, most instances are the intersection of lawlike events: the world and a small asteroid move in independent orbits, until (predictably in theory) the latter trashes the former. Some are chaotic – as would be the asteroid if we add a few other large garvitational bodies to the mix. A few appear (at least) truly indeterminate, such as quantum events in the classical view.

      But the doctrine of providence cuts through those distinctions – God’s control extends to them all, just as it does to the laws. That the universe allows contingency is certainly a significant feature for God’s freedom, as well as ours. I did a piece a few months ago looking at how so many features of our world seem to be on the edge of chaos: predictable enough for order, but chaotic enough for change to occur.

      But the difference from some of the TEs’ thinking is that they seem to see contingency not as a means for God’s reign in his world, but as a means of freeing it from him.

  3. GD GD says:

    An interesting article by Ernan McMullin, “DARWIN AND THE OTHER CHRISTIAN TRADITION” in Zygon, vol. 46, no. 2 (June 2011), discusses the writings of major theologians of the early Christian church (Augustine, Basil, John
    Chrysostom, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa) on Gen 1 and 2. It adds weight to the argument that conflicts between faith and science/philosophy are a recent event. I also find the treatment of Theodicy within a Darwinian context by Christopher Southgate, in “RE-READING GENESIS, JOHN, AND JOB: A CHRISTIAN
    RESPONSE TO DARWINISM”, in the same volume worth reading, as he considers a number of treatments of Theodicy, including the views of Barth (which are imo about the only modern treatment of the subject worth reading).

    It seems that major theologians do not have a problem with the established view of God’s Lordship over His creation. I can only wonder why current thinkers are out of step – this seems more so when they consider suffering of animals, and the endless debate about the spirit of man (image of God) and Darwinism.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      GD

      I think that much modern theology has almost become a single-issue affair, that issue being suffering. There are historical reasons for that, but it’s not reflected in the balance of Scripture, for sure. That’s too big to deal with here, but where it’s spilled into the whole theology of creation, and the non-rational creation especially, it seems to have been pretty uncritically in the same bed as Creationism: “We all agree that the world is full of dreadful, agonising, meaningless suffering, and if deep time is true it’s been that way for billions of years…”

      But that’s a questionable assessment on many levels, not least its far from rigorous assessment of animal suffering. A good (and very long) pair of new articles by V J Torley on Uncommon Descent on this here and here.

      • GD GD says:

        Jon,

        Thanks for the links, which are informative – I am going through some other articles dealing with experiences, perception, consciousness and so on, to get a feel for the range of opinions ‘out there’. I am forming the view that a great deal of time, effort, and belief, has been invested by various people to promote the view that ‘we are all animals, and mind/consciousness is a matter of degrees, from animals to humans’. Some authors discuss things as ‘before Darwin’ and ‘after Darwin’, giving the appearance that all things may be understood within Darwin’s outlook (this covers scientists, sociologists and theologians, so my remarks are not aimed at anyone or any group).

        However, others express a great deal of scepticism regarding Darwinism, and I think this brings a healthy perspective. A commentator recently remarked in that Darwin is now so prevalent in people’s thinking that many people use this as intellectual wallpaper – they cannot begin a discussion without first referencing their remarks to Darwin.

        Not the attitude of a healthy inquiring intellect.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          “Darwin” as the label for that whole process is probably a little misleading – his theory was, I think, just the peg on which a wider process of human self-aggrandisement, paradoxically often linked to the debasement of what is now called human exceptionalism (essentially “divine image”).

          But Darwin has become its “Christ-myth”, perhaps, just as Galileo is it’s “Moses myth” and Prometheus its Adam… though that may be a little too programatic!

  4. James Penman James Penman says:

    Sorry for silence, I’ve been out of internet contact for several days.

    On Sy’s question about the flood – I think (for a start) that it was a real but local event, as indeed Old Earth Creationists have long argued. I don’t know how it happened. It might have been a “miracle” in the sense of God acting above & beyond the course of nature by a more direct application of divine energy. Or it could have been a “natural” event, such that its significance lay in its timing.

    But in any case, as I tried to indicate in the original post, I think God is in control of all events, even though we may have to be agnostic about the mode of that control. Therefore, as an ecological disaster, we could take the flood as a biblical instance (THE biblical instance) of God’s providential mastery of all ecological disasters. What the flood would show, in that case, is that these disasters are not aimless or devoid of divine purpose. They serve God’s overarching will for the historical unfolding of His creation, whether pre-human or human.

    And one last comment – I don’t really look like a stone effigy of John Calvin. I just happen to like that effigy & decided to use it here as my “avatar”.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Penman

      It would be good to do some work on the Flood here, at some later time, less in the sense of trying to fit it into the scientific scheme of things, but what tends to get lost sometimes: it’s meaning for mankind (and for the non-human creation too).

      Meanwhile, I for one am looking forward to the next episode of this!

    • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

      “Therefore, as an ecological disaster, we could take the flood as a biblical instance (THE biblical instance) of God’s providential mastery of all ecological disasters. What the flood would show, in that case, is that these disasters are not aimless or devoid of divine purpose. They serve God’s overarching will for the historical unfolding of His creation, whether pre-human or human”.

      Penman, that is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you. I think (as Jon suggests) it very likely that we will revisit this idea in time to come.

  5. James Penman James Penman says:

    A few thoughts on “chance”….

    The term is hard to pin down, as people use it. It could mean several different things. What I would take it to mean is that some events happen in such a way that they are unpredictable to the human mind. These events weren’t planned by us, or by any human agent, and when the event happens, it happens unforeseen (by us) and will “take us by surprise” (if the event is significant enough).

    But I’d see all this as applying on the human, created level. I don’t think it applies at the divine, uncreated level. Nothing happens that is unpredictable to God, or unforeseen by Him. We know that in our salvation, God foresees and foreknows who will believe and be saved (Romans 8:29ff, Ephesians 1:4-5, etc). So pitching it at its lowest, God must at the very least be “in control” of events, in the sense that He foresees how events are going to develop, and chooses not to prevent that development. In that sense, nothing can happen apart from, or outside of, God’s will for His creation. (I’d put it more strongly, but I’m stating it at its weakest here.)

    This would mean that divine intentionality permeates all events. If nothing can happen without God’s permission, and He could prevent anything from happening by His omnipotence, then whatever happens is, in the sense just described, what God intended to happen. If we apply this to the history of life, it follows (for example) that God intended anatomically modern humanity to develop and emerge. We shouldn’t conceive Him as a passive onlooker, or as being in any sense surprised by what evolves. To conceive God thus would, I think, strip Him of any effective foreknowledge or omnipotence.

    As I said, this is putting it at its weakest. If you “upgrade” it to take in God’s positive planning and purposing, this would even more strongly take away the space for what we might call objective, metaphysical chance on the level of God’s relation to creation. But “chance” would still remain, of course, within the created sphere, in terms of the unpredictability of events, their being unplanned by human agents, and their capacity to surprise us.

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