A History of Providence – Part 1A

These next two posts are a reply to the claim that the extent to which God is involved providentially in the world has always been a matter of uncertainty within Christianity, and that we can’t decide from the faith whether, for example, God actively governs which species arise by evolution or largely leaves it to nature. This is not uncommonly expressed in terms of an age-old “freedom v determinism” debate in theology.

Several years ago now a conversation with erstwile fellow Humpist James Penman (the pseudonym of a professional church historian) led us to conclude that the common doctrine that the natural creation is fallen together with mankind is of recent origin. This ultimately led to my e-book God’s Good Earth, and our research can be found in Section 2 (Chapters 5 & 6) of that.

Now I want to suggest that the supposed longstanding “debate over providence” is also of recent origin – in fact, far more recent than even the “fallen creation” teaching.

In fact, back in 2013 Penman wrote a two part History of providence for us. Part 1 covered the strong doctrine of providence found in Scripture. Part 2  looked at the writing of John Chrysostom as an example of of a non-Augustinian, Eastern view of providence that is, nevertheless, just as strong and universal.

Paul Lobstein, writing in the Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge a century or so ago, confirms Penman’s view of the Bible (so I won’t duplicate the case here) and of the Patristic era. I intend here to add a little detail to the latter, bridging the gap between the New Testament and Chrysostom in the fourth century, before going on in the next post (Part 3) to examine when the question first came into question, many centuries later.

Before leaving Lobstein’s article, I must add that he discusses Josephus’s treatment of the Jewish sects of his time, within the New Testament period, which for his Gentile audience he dressed up as Greek philosophical schools. Like me, Lobstein concludes that the Sadducees had a very weak doctrine of providence, the Essenes a “divine fatalism” view, and the Pharisees – of whom, of course, Paul was one – a view in which God governed all things, whilst allowing for the genuine freedom of human will. This of course is the view Penman presents as that taught by the Bible.

It is also, apparently, close to what was taught by the Ante-Nicene Fathers, who relied on the biblical picture, though expressing it often in terms of the Gentile philosophy with which they were familiar. Justin Martyr (mid-second century) writes of encountering Trypho the Jew. Their shared view that providence applies on both large and small scales triggers their dialogue repecting their differences:

But the most have not taken thought of this, whether there be one or more gods, and whether they have a regard for each one of us or not, as if this knowledge contributed nothing to our happiness; nay, they moreover attempt to persuade us that God takes care of the universe with its genera and species, but not of me and you, and each individually, since otherwise we would surely not need to pray to Him night and day.

Irenaeus, a few decades later, wrote in Against Heresies:

God does, however, exercise a providence over all things, and therefore He also gives counsel; and when giving counsel, He is present with those who attend to moral discipline… And, for this reason certain of the Gentiles, who were less addicted to [sensual] allurements and voluptuousness, and were not led away to such a degree of superstition with regard to idols, being moved, though but slightly, by His providence, were nevertheless convinced that they should call the Maker of this universe the Father, who exercises a providence over all things, and arranges the affairs of our world.

Lactantius wrote perhaps a century after that, and discusses the question of how providence governs even evil deeds (I must remind you that there was really no concept of “natural evil” at this time):

But some one says: Why, then, does the true God permit these things to be done? Why does He not rather remove or destroy the wicked? Why, in truth, did He from the beginning give power to the demon, so that there should be one who might corrupt and destroy all things? I will briefly say why He willed that this should be so. I ask whether virtue is a good or an evil. It cannot be denied that it is a good. If virtue is a good, vice, on the contrary, is an evil. If vice is an evil on this account, because it opposes virtue, and virtue is on this account a good, because it overthrows vice, it follows that virtue cannot exist without vice; and if you take away vice, the merits of virtue will be taken away. For there can be no victory without an enemy. Thus it comes to pass, that good cannot exist without an evil.

Lactantius cites, with approval, the early Stoic philosopher Chrysippus:

Chrysippus, a man of active mind, saw this when discussing the subject of providence, and charges those with folly who think that good is caused by God, but say that evil is not thus caused. … You see, therefore, that which I have often said, that good and evil are so connected with one another, that the one cannot exist without the other. Therefore God acted with the greatest foresight in placing the subject-matter of virtue in evils which He made for this purpose, that He might establish for us a contest, in which He would crown the victorious with the reward of immortality.

The significance goes beyond this point, in that Chrysippus held a very strong doctrine of divine providence (albeit from a pantheistic base), which included not only providence over evil, but its compatibility with genuine free choice. Indeed, his idea that “fate” does not deny freedom, but encompasses it (for it encompasses the freedom of the will) anticipates the arguments used by the Reformers two millennia later to demonstrate that predestination and human decision are not in conflict.

Such positions are typical of the Fathers. There is no debate over the universality of providence, except in debate with with pagans, although its implications for such things as the problem of evil are explored in new ways. I will leave Lobstein to summarise at length the period, and the work of Augustine, which brings us up to the time of John Chrysostom covered in Penman’s article.

Early patristic literature shows the influence of Greek philosophic thought, since its interest in the doctrine of providence is mainly cosmological. According to Clement, denial of providence is not merely denial of Christian doctrine, but of the very existence of God, and merits punishment rather than refutation. Both Clement, Origen, and the later Greek Fathers sought, moreover, to solve the problem of theodicy, stressing human freedom and responsibility, and at the same time exempting God from all blame for the existence of evil by declaring that evil is not positive, but is mere negation.

The interest of the Greek Fathers in the theory of providence was, however, by no means exclusively theoretical; they used it as a distinct motive for a living trust in God amid all the sufferings and calamities of earthly life. Western teachers likewise represented belief in providence as a part of natural theology. Augustine especially took an epoch-making position toward the entire problem, rejecting the concepts of both chance and fate, and holding that divine providence operates in all things, no matter how minute or obscure. His theodicy shows a combination of Christian and Neoplatonic concepts, evil being merely the negation or absence of good, and the imperfect and incomplete serving to exalt the perfection of the whole. Evil may, however, also be either a punishment of the wicked, or a means of testing, strengthening, and perfecting the good. God permits the existence of evil only that he may turn it into good, so that all exercise of human freedom subserves the plan of providence, nor can the wicked in any way thwart the divine will. All these concepts are elaborated in the De civitate Dei into a masterpiece of Christian philosophy of history; and a similar point of view is represented in the De gubernatione Dei of Salvianus [fifth century], in which the history of the world is interpreted as the divine judgment of the earth.

Notice in all this that the matters considered worthy of discussion are the tricky problems like free-will and evil. The cosmological application of providence – that God is the wise governor of all that occurs within the natural world – is too obvious to dispute, for even many of the the pagans concede it.

We will have to go much further forward in time to find any important movement within the Christian orbit that suggests otherwise.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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