Modes of divine action – special providence

Special providence is a huge subject, both because there is a lot one could say about it, and because according to Scripture it pervades the operation of everything in the cosmos.

You’ll remember that in the introduction to this section on divine action I described special providence in terms of what nature is capable of doing by its own created powers, but which it would be more or less unlikely to do under the particular circumstances in view. For example, sudden cessation of rain is not uncommon, but for it to happen in response to prayer is providential.

Note how the traditional theological usage of “general providence” and “special providence” unifies all that goes on in nature, whether regular and lawlike or contingent, under “divine action.” It refuses to divide the world, as the modern semi-deistic worldview does, into “stuff that happens naturally” and “stuff that God interferes with miraculously.” That is significant, as we’ll see, because special providence is not to be seen as “unusual interference” but as the way God routinely governs his own world through the care of contingency, just as he governs it through the faithfulness of regularity.

I’ve dealt with the basic Scriptural view of God and nature before, at most length in the first chapter of my forthcoming book, which since (Praise God!) it is likely to be published in the next few months, I’ll ask you to await with patience. But basically, the picture given in, for example, the covenant blessings and curses of Israel is of nature as an instrument that God uses to govern his creation, at the same time as being something he cares for in its own right.

Special providence, then, represents nothing less than the immanence of God himself in the created order. Indeed, when understood in occasionalist terms – a viable option – it can come close to panentheism, an accusation leveled at the great Presbyterian pastor and philosopher Jonathan Edwards, who however steered carefully around such heterodoxy. Nevertheless, despite some strengths in occasionalism, the majority of theologians down history have preferred the concept known as divine concurrence, and that’s what I will be thinking around in my handling of providence. It’s actually a deeply Trinitarian idea.

The New Testament reveals the Eternal Son to be (and to have been implicitly stated in the OT to be) the expression of the mind and will of the Father:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:15-17).

Likwise Hebrews 1 says of the Son:

And he is the radiance of [God’s] glory and the exact representation of his nature, and sustains all things by the word of his power.

By the way, note the “language” metaphor once more in use there. The active agent of the Son is always the Holy Spirit, “for the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.” And so when Paul, quoting a Greek poet, tells the Athenians that “in [God] we live and move and have our being”, he is talking about the will of the Father, expressed through the care and faithfulness of the Son, by the work of the Spirit, at the level of our very creation.

Only we must beware of underestimating terms like “holding all things together”, “sustaining” and “having our being” in the way so many under the influence of naturalism do nowadays, as if God were only the passive source of energy that maintains an autonomous nature in bare existence. “Being” in classical thought is far richer than mere”existence”: what Christ, though the Spirit, sustains is our being as individual people (including me as writing a blog), as individual squirrels or seqouias, as weather systems, or as molecules engaged in chemical interactions.

God’s aim in all this is very basic – to help the world and all its individual entities achieve their best good, which is also the good that God intends for his creation as a whole. One can see concurrence, therefore, as a very close analogue of grace, by which the Father caringly governs his creation through the Spirit of his Son, confirming whatever powers he has given its individual components, and remedying the weakness of those powers should they tend towards anything other than his best purposes for them.

We can see, then, how foolish are criticisms about God’s “interfering” with laws he himself made because he made them inadequate (so Leibniz against Newton). Rather he is employing both regular lawlike operations (which are probably more helpfully viewed as “dispositions” or “powers” than as “laws” in this context) and contingent concurrent actions in a synergistic way for the good government both of creatures and the whole “project” of creation.

If you want analogies for that, consider how we perform any finely controlled physical action: as the fine flexors of our fingers manipulate a pen, brush or violin strings, the opposing fine extensors provide a counter-force to enable precise control. Meanwhile, the larger muscle-groups of our limbs and trunk provide a stable platform, or gross movements, for our delicate work (those muscles in turn acting in tension, but not “against” each other).

Likewise, you may recall from recent science how the way that the will operates at the neurological level appears to involve holding contrary intentions in balance, the final decision being one to prevent the undesired action. Free-will is largely free-won’t.

And so we can apply that to a traditional account of concurrence, which is that God’s “sustaining of being” involves his necessary co-operation, or concurrence, with whatever natural powers bring about. Without that co-operation, the event will not happen. Or more subtly, if God witholds full concurrence, the event will only happen partially. In other words, concurrence as divine control is primarily a preventive action on his part. But as we have seen, such a dynamic relationship between powers is capable of producing very subtle yet far-reaching effects – and all by using and modulating the powers of nature itself, rather than opposing them.

A clear example from Scripture is from that great creation hymn, Ps 104:

When you hide your face,
[all creatures] are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.

Now, are we to suppose that animals have all been baptized in the Holy Spirit? Or that life is not natural at all, but a divine vital force? Hardly! No, here, I think, is a concurrentist account, in which the continuance of life, whatever life turns out to be by its created nature, nevertheless depends for all its effects on the work of the immanent Spirit of God, in the final event. Perhaps this can be applied to the example of Eutychus, the youth who fell from a window, in my previous post: in the numerous conflicting physiological events that would decide if Eutychus lived or died – and most commonly the latter – the Spirit was at work inhibiting the processes leading to death, and maintaining his life.

Let’s use another Scriptural example to examine concurrence. Proverbs 16:33 says:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.

We know that, scientifically, the cast of the lot ought to be determined by the deterministic physical forces involved: the uncertainty of the outcome arises only from our ignorance of those forces, such as the velocity and direction in which the die is cast. God of course is not ignorant of these things, and has only to limit his concurrence in certain of the caster’s actions, but not in others, to ensure that “every decision” is his.

If instead of “muscular actions” we apply such concurrence to whatever lawlike chemical changes occur in living things, then God has a powerful tool for controlling the direction of evolution… although note that evolution will only be able to do what its natural powers enable it to do. The “arrival of the fittest,” like the raising of the dead, might conceivably lie beyond the power of concurrence – in which case, we might need to consider the third category of divine action, that is, creation.

One interesting feature in the structure of creation that may be relevant to this is the surprising number of processes – including those God might most wish to govern – that are systems out of equilibrium, on the edge of chaos. Small changes to these can have large effects on the world. Examples include the dynamics of the solar system, “that give it the curious character of being only marginally chaotic or marginally stable on time spans comparable with its current age”, plate tectonics, weather systems and, of course, living organisms. These peculiar circumstances enable creatures like us to influence the world despite the fixity of its laws, but also make divine concurrence capable of making differences that are far from marginal.

At this point we might cautiously speculate on the most difficult case: how concurrence might be involved in human free-will without negating our creational liberty and accountability. Anything we can say on this will be even easier to apply to the decisions of lower animals, rendering them far more than Descartes’s automata, yet capable of being guided by God in the way Scripture describes. A little introspection – and even more the study of neurophysiology – shows that human decision is not a simple thing, but highly complex.

A child molester is planning to abduct a child, perhaps. But at the same time, maybe, he is struggling against what he knows is both wrong and liable to get him imprisoned. All kinds of pros and cons wrestle in his mind – and most days, even his secret and intrinsically evil obsession is outweighed by the negative considerations. One day he reaches a strong determination to act, sees an opportune victim, begins stalking… and suddenly hears a police siren. Fear replaces desire, and he abandons his plan for now.

Given divine concurrence in human mental processes, as in all others, what a large number of “decision nodes” are available to God to protect the children of the world, without destroying the moral liberty of the evil individual. He can act not only within the mind of the would-be perpetrator, but (in my scenario) by inhibiting the police-officer’s half-formed decision not to bother using his siren, or by influencing the child’s actions, or in a myriad of other ways.

The question of why God would not always prevent evil acts is an old and ultimately unproductive one, and not what I am discussing here. Suffice it to say that theologians have always argued that God’s sustaining of the sinner does not make him the author of sin. The point is that concurrence can allow the free acts of men – even evil acts – to coincide with the greater, good, purposes of God. And hence the apostle in Acts 4 is able to say that the evil conspiracy of Herod, Pilate, Gentiles and Jews – consisting of free and sinful acts – nevertheless did “whatever your hand and your purpose predestined to occur.”

After examples like that, the divine governance of the natural world appears unproblematic – if only we concede a God great enough and interested enough to be present throughout his creation at all scales, and not somehow only concerned in Grand Schemes. The Deists conceded only general providence: many nowadays hanker for that because Special Providence seems to complicate matters, but they concede occasional divine guidance – I suppose one would have to term it a “Not Too Special Providence.”

I can predict that someone reading this will trot out the old cliché about universal providence constituting “micromanagement,” as if it were God’s insecurity about the reliability of nature that dictates how the Eternal Son manages the cosmos. As we have seen, though, that has no logical force whatsoever. If we claim God’s regular management (general providence or “laws of nature”) to extend even to the smallest quark – and is there anybody who says that God considers any part of his universe to be exempt from the laws? – then we have no grounds to say that his contingent care in special providence is any less inclusive. As Aquinas said of tiny particulars, or “singulars”:

Nor, in fact, can it be said that God does not wish to govern them, since His will is universally concerned with every good thing, and the good of things that are governed lies chiefly in the order of governance. Therefore, it cannot be said that God takes no care of these singulars.

The emotional appeal of the “micromanager” jibe is a comparison with the insecure boss who interferes with everything his staff do. But as we have seen, God is already “necessary” to sustain the being of all things – there are no fully independent staff in his universe, for all live and move and have their being in him. As Aquinas also disdainfully reminds us, against just such an accusation that only incompetent people micromanage:

Now, deficiencies of this kind are far removed from God, because he knows all singular things, and he does not make an effort to understand, or require any time for it; since, by understanding himself he knows all other things, as we showed above. Therefore, he plans even the order for all singular things. So, his providence applies to all singulars immediately.

Special providence, then, is far wider than the discussions of early modern scientists, thinking about national judgements, considered, though it is no wider than their scholastic predecessors saw as rationally and biblically, necessary. But I hope I’ve also been able to show that it is necessary christologically too, for in Christ we have a Creator intimately concerned with all that was made by, through and for him, with all that will be renewed and rendered eternal in the new creation he inaugurated by his own suffering and death.

In the end, providence is about the love of Christ for his creation.

Avatar photo

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.
This entry was posted in Creation, Philosophy, Science, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Modes of divine action – special providence

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    You may have answered this in a previous discussion on ‘free will’ (so please humour me!), but in the context of your ‘given’, divine concurrence in human mental processes, do you think that God can act in any way he pleases in our decision making?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Peter – I felt I had to include the will in a theology of nature to make the rest seem easy, but it is of course an entire can of worms in its own right. That’s why I limited my speculation to what Scripture affirms as factual, ie that the conspiracy against Christ was what God had predestined.

      When I’ve stumbled through the issue before, it’s at least been with connected arguments rather than a brief comment, so please search on “free-will” and see what comes up.

      But (a) God can do all kinds of things he doesn’t because he can/will only do what is righteous and loving.
      (b) To have a will at all is to be responsible for it, ie for it not to be forced externally.
      (c) Nevertheless God somehow enables his will to prevail through such free acts of will, without violating them (ie the conspirators against Christ are still morally accountable, so weren’t “forced” by God’s foreordination). One way this could happen is through concurrence, as in the OP.
      (d) Saving grace, in Protestant thought, is about God’s working in us to will what sin would otherwise prevent us from choosing. This is handled by Luther, etc, by the concept that the unredeemed will itself is itself in bondage: and to free a prisoner is not to coerce him out of jail (or, in another metaphor, to resurrect a corpse does not violate its right to be dead!).

  2. Peter Hickman says:

    Thanks for that, Jon.
    I did have some grounds for asking the question as you will see.

    In the recent past I have been studying, you could say stumbling through, the fate of the ‘unsaved’ and the meaning and purpose of ‘hell’. This has led me to consider alternatives to the Augustinian doctrine of salvation which involves ‘eternal’ (? ‘age-long’) conscious torment of the unsaved, a doctrine which I was brought up on and reluctantly accepted.
    The alternatives are annihilationism and universalism.

    As you will be aware, Christian universalists believe that God’s love is such that he does not ‘give up’ on anyone and eventually causes all men to be reconciled to himself.
    The universalist takes comfort from the belief (which you espouse) that God’s will ultimately prevails, and also that he is not willing that anyone should perish.
    As to the means by which he might achieve this, well, that was the point of my original question (can God act in any way he pleases in our decision making?).
    As you say, Luther, and Calvin, believed in ‘irresistible saving grace’, so that the unwilling become willing. So whether God is universalist or Augustinian (!) he succeeds in achieving what he purposes – the salvation of whomsoever he chooses to save.
    The questions I now wrestle with are these: If God is able act justly and lovingly within the thought processes of all men in such a way as to draw them irresistibly to himself, why would he not do so? Would he be Love if he did not? And is physical death the ‘final curtain’, or simply the end of one of many ages?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Good things to be studying. And I’m not sure we’re given the answers, except in the character of God. I’m not a universalist, but would be very happy to wake up in glory and find that God is – on the basis that I know he is just, loving and will do what is right.

      To me that answers any questions I might have here (which are somewhat along the same lines as how he could save someone like me – he says he will, and that’s enough!). Coming from a non Christian family, and having children and grandchildren who don’t know the Lord, that matters to me: God knows how to be God, and if salvation is not universal, it will become clear why in the end.

      Meanwhile, there’s a job of witnessing to do!

Leave a Reply