A History of Providence – Part 3

In the last post I sketched in a few gaps in James Penman’s account of the doctrine of providence in the biblical and Patristic periods. In the past I’ve done some work on the mediaeval view, in the shape of Thomas Aquinas, and in perhaps drawn some more surprising conclusions from the writings of Jacobus Arminius (given the not infrequent assertion that universal providence is incompatible with libertarian freedom of the Arminian type).

John Wesley too, for all his Arminianism, holds the classic view of providence:

The doctrine of divine providence has been received by wise men in all ages. It was believed by many of the eminent Heathens, not only philosophers, but orators and poets. Innumerable are the testimonies concerning it which are scattered up and down in their writings; agreeable to that well-knowing saying in Cicero, Deorum moderamine cuncta geri: “That all things, all events in this world, are under the management of God.” (Sermon 67)

He follows on to describe the universality of God’s knowledge of every entity and event, seeing that he sustains all of them in being moment by moment. But beyond that:

He is infinite in wisdom as well as in power: And all his wisdom is continually employed in managing all the affairs of his creation for the good of all his creatures. For his wisdom and goodness go hand in hand: They are inseparably united, and continually act in concert with Almighty power, for the real good of all his creatures. His power being equal to his wisdom and goodness, continually co-operates with them. And to him all things are possible: He doeth whatsoever pleaseth him, in heaven and earth, and in the sea, and all deep places: And we cannot doubt of his exerting all his power, as in sustaining, so in governing, all that he has made.

But today I want to look at the process by which the “rot” set in, drawing on a useful historical survey from 1964 by Hugh Dermot McDonald (a philosopher and theological historian at London University). He describes and condemns what will appear very familiar to those following the origins question:

In some quarters the doctrine of providence has been so evacuated of all significant meaning as to make it palatable to the modern mind. Nature and man are given credit for what the Christian confessions and theologies of an earlier day brought directly under the immediate action of God. The concept of secondary causes and the autonomy of man are invoked so as to remove God actively from the scene. In this way God is given singularly little to do and the idea of providence becomes nothing more than a vague and general concern of God for His world. But a God who does nothing, or only a very little, is most certainly not the God of the Christian Gospel: indeed He is not even a pale facsimile thereof…

We do not say ‘Providence’ by saying ‘Fate’ in unctuous tones. For the Christian, providence ‘is only another name for the fact that God looks at me, and who never ceases to look at me, at the same time with His glance embraces the whole, and unites His will for me with His will for the world’.

Bearing in mind the continued prevalence of such a low view of providence amongst educated academics even half a century on, it should not surprise us that its roots are firmly in the Enlightenment:

Calvin’s doctrine was based squarely upon God’s special revelation; it was, that is to say, essentially Biblical. But in the following period Protestantism cut loose from its Reformed origins and took its cue from the Enlightenment’s confidence in human ability. As a consequence Natural Theology took a prior place and the idea of providence became based on cosmological observation and argument. This pre-Darwinian adaptive view of providence, reaching its climax in Paley’s watch illustration, was virtually deistic. God worked by a sort of remote control only ‘interfering’ now and again in the distant past by what were called ‘miracles’ to prove His presence.

Though I don’t think that’s entirely fair to Paley, I think the conclusion is sound: providence became a conclusion from the order and cohesion of the world, and Deism, from Leibniz on, saw that as best exemplified by natural law: divine “interference” was best dispensed with, and would at most have the character of rare “miracles”… if one did not imbibe David Hume, of course, for whom miracles too were simply impossible.

Those “interfering miracles” are what is widely assumed to be the fault of Intelligent Design – who knows, there may even be a few IDists who believe in it, as there are certainly some Creationists with a basically Enlightenment approach to providence. But that is not the end of the story, for Darwinism disrupted that deistic view:

This adaptive view received its blow from the biological theory of Darwin who assured his generation that there was no need to appeal to a God outside the natural order to explain the origin and presence of existing organisms.

Darwin initiated the nineteenth century craze for evolution. And it was in this context that the providence doctrine was reinterpreted. A new twist was given to the teleological argument: if the universe was not constructed according to a divine purpose in the beginning, was it not clearly moving towards a certain goal? God was thus identified with the vital force in history, and providence was interpreted as the moving process of evolution and the kingdom of God was read in terms of social progress. This post-Darwinian progressive view of providence was essentially optimistic; confidence in unhindered progress was unbounded.

Whereas the pre-Darwin adaptive view was based ultimately upon the idea of God’s omnipotence, the post-Darwinian progressive view was wedded to an exclusive emphasis upon the love of God. God was humanized to fit the picture. He was presented as a Deity incapable of wrath (à la Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Herrmann). Thus developed what has been called the notion of ‘genial providence’. But in the end the concept ‘of a genial Providence is only a transfigured remnant of the doctrine of universal Providence’.

Now that kind of “evolutionary optimism” certainly underpinned Spencer, and Social Darwinism, and early liberal theology, and Tielhard de Chardin. It may seem less familiar now amongst TEs, except in a rather attenuated form that God is pleased to see evolution moving things along by “co-creation”, and that somehow it will achieve God’s purposes on its own. For example, we see this in the view that God did not specifically “intend” the evolution of man, but was delighted when an intelligent species happened, and promptly endowed it with his image.

The fact that evolution-as-progress is no longer at the centre of the modern view of providence is explained by the next historical stage:

All this buoyancy was soon to be blighted. It held as long as the progress of social evolution pointed towards the goal of an inevitable utopia. It was as the moral dykes of history burst from the tragedy of two world wars that it appeared that both God and man were drowning.

The notion of unhindered progress and the hoped for ultimate of the universal brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God was thus brought to collapse. The ‘intemperate optimism’ as John Baillie designates it, of that earlier period with its ‘Utopian illusions about the promise of the future’ is ‘now taking its revenge upon us’… Above all, man must rid himself of the ‘beautiful illusion’, since assured by Freud, that there is no God, Creator of the world, a kind Providence, a moral order, and a life hereafter. In this way the sobering reality of providence has been banished from modern life.

This alienated existentialist position is, of course, the secular one. But:

The interesting question which arises at this point concerns the way providence doctrine has been accounted for by contemporary theological thought against this background.

McDonald presents three options, but that which concerns me here is his first, since it so closely matches what we see so often in the Evolutionary Creation arena. He calls it (confirming my instincts!) The Deistic-Arminian Formula. I think I can do no better than quote him at length – and ask you to notice how his insights have proved prophetic of current Evangelicalism (notably Open Theism), and especially in relation to science (in much Evolutionary Creation):

There are those who have advocated what may be precisely termed a deistic-Arminian apologetic, so as to relieve the tension which the acceptance of God’s all-inclusive causality creates in the modern mind. The purpose here is to allow a certain amount of loose play within world events and human life. Those who take this line consider themselves to be doing justice to the present feeling for science on the one hand, and the present awareness of moral failure on the other.

The scientific climate of today has focused for everyman the concept of natural events. It is characteristic of our thinking to give to these natural events the credit for catastrophic happenings in the world order. The success of the empirical sciences has been such that the impression has become general that the universe is to be conceived as a great interlocking system of cause effect relationships. It is enough to find for any natural event its preceding cause. There is no other reason outside this to account for it. Thus, what was once referred to ‘God’ is, for the modern, referred to ‘Nature’. And within nature the complete explanation must be sought. Material upheavals in the natural order, which were in other days brought believingly under the ‘will of God’, are now traced to a convergence of causes within the system of things.

With this understanding of the situation some contemporary writers on the position of God in relation to natural events have come to terms. They are happy to leave particular events to the action of natural causes. Yet God, they urge, must be regarded as having responsibility for the general order of affairs. This exposition of the providence concept is advocated to exempt God from direct responsibility for what has been usually called ‘natural evils’, such as, for example, the earthquake in Skopje and the dam burst in Vaiont. Ultimately, however, it is a lame and listless presentation of the idea of the divine overruling. God is too remote to be real. It is a deistic view which may suit the scientific mind but which fails altogether to meet the deeper need of the religious spirit. It is as well to remember, as Kant observes, that ‘The Deist believes in God, the Theist in the living God’. To be the living, God must surely be active; and to be so in relation with His creation. It must consequently be stressed that ‘Nature does not stand between us and God like a “foreign body” ’.

Some philosophers of religion have sought to meet the situation by making God, if not quite as remote, yet even more helpless. E. S. Brightman, for example, impressed by ‘the purposeless, the dysteleological, in short, surd evil’ of the cosmic process, falls back upon the Platonic notion of a Divine Being not to be held responsible for such ‘waste and futility’. Like Plato, Brightman conceives of God as the author of the good only and declares that the hypothesis which these facts force on us is that of a finite God.

It is futile to try to minimize the reality of those happenings in the natural order, of which Brightman is so sensitive. They are there, grim and terrible, and they cannot be eliminated from the scene by the astutest reasoning. On the other hand, the hypothesis of a finite God does not meet faith’s demand: there would be here no certainty and no confidence for the believing man. The Biblical writers were fully aware of the presence of evil in the world, yet they confidently affirmed that the heart will know full satisfaction only when it trusts in a God who has a sovereign right to do things which appear to be contrary to human well-being. ‘No age,’ says Martin Heidegger in a section of his book, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, ‘has known so much and so many things about man… And no age has known less than ours what man is’. It is certainly true that the anthropological issue has for some time been a major one in much recent discussion. Freudianism, Existentialism and Humanitarianism, among a number of other causes, have served to bring man into the centre of the picture. Philosophy, sociology and psychology generally have each in its own way been preoccupied with human nature.

Yet while man remains as much as ever homo absconditus, the common emphasis seems to be that he is to be understood as a free being. The ‘freedom of man’ has in fact become a sort of catch-phrase. Unique stress has been placed upon the notion of man as an ‘autonomous’, and ‘creative being’. He is consequently such a creature as can ‘make himself’, ‘discover himself’, gain ‘authentic being’ and the like. He is his own cause, reason and source of action.

Perhaps we can see how putting these ideas together, and stirring well, leads towards the “free-process” theology which is as much in denial of a truly theistic providence as can be imagined.

I find McDermott’s analysis persuasive. In the context of the history of the doctrine of providence, it shows how, far from being a problem the Church has always grappled with, the issue is one of the twentieth century’s disillusion (through two World Wars) with a nineteenth century metaphysical interpretation of Darwinism elicited by an eighteenth century philosophy of rationalist Deism. That in turn never refuted the classic doctrine of providence, but merely denied it by their man-made conception of God.

You will note that none of those three stages have their roots either in biblical revelation or scientific discoveries, but in the philosophies of men. And pretty recent, ever-changing, philosophies at that.

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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