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.