Understanding the Doctrine of Providence

Though God reigns and his purposes are sure, the apparent randomness of nature (discussed in the previous chapter) also characterizes history. We must avoid the twin dangers of hypersupernatural fatalism and antisupernatural materialism.

Direct/Indirect Cause: The Doctrine of Concursus
Concursus, or “concurrence,” in theology refers to the simultaneity of divine and human agency in actions or events. A biblical view of concursus requires more than God’s general oversight of history. Scripture testifies both to his predestination of all that comes to pass (primary or direct causation) and to the reality and responsibility of the decisions and actions of humans (secondary or indirect causation). In permitting evil, God not only lets it happen; he determines how far it will go and how he will work it out for good. Yet God’s work in hardening hearts is not the same as in softening them: God gives the redeemed a new heart, while he gives the wicked over to their own desires. God is neither the author of evil, nor a mere spectator of it. Fatalism and materialism share a common assumption of univocity between God’s willing and acting and human willing and acting; either our activity must give way to God’s or vice versa. But God’s activity and our activity do not need to get out of each others’ way; God causes all history to serve his sovereign purposes without canceling the ordinary liberty, contingency, and reality of creaturely causation.

The Revealed/Hidden Distinction
Scripture distinguishes between matters hidden from us and those revealed to us (Deut. 29:29). God’s hidden will is distinguished from his revealed will. We must not attempt to figure out God’s secret providence; we must attend to the means he has provided for our salvation (Word and sacrament) and to earthly welfare (family, friendships, vocation, and so on). Though God has not promised to reveal to us everything we might want to know about his will for our lives and about our trials, we should trust his promises as sufficient for faith and life in Christ. After all, the time and place where evil seemed most triumphant was the cross, where it was forever defeated.

Common Grace/Special Grace|
Providence belongs to God’s common rather than special (or saving) grace, although the former ultimately serves the latter (e.g., Eph. 1:10; 3:9–12). Common grace is responsible for God’s kindness and benefits to all people indiscriminately.

  • It restrains personal and corporate human sin.
  • It restrains God’s wrath and delays his judgment.
  • It bestows goodness and kindness upon unbelievers.

To affirm God’s common grace is to recognize the God-given truth, goodness, and beauty in the world, not simply its sinfulness and corruption. When we disparage these, we are holding the providential work of the Holy Spirit in contempt.

Unlike ordinary providence, miracles are God’s extraordinary suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes. The difference does not concern whether God is involved in every aspect of our lives, but how. The question is not whether causes are exclusively natural or supernatural, but whether God’s involvement in every moment is providential or miraculous.


Cultural Challenges to the Doctrine of Providence

Some notion of divine providence is one of the most universally attested religious assumptions throughout history, yet it is one of the most contested in the modern world, for two main reasons:

  • It is difficult to acknowledge gifts, much less a transcendent Giver, in a world of supposed givens; contemporary technologically advanced cultures are often far removed from the actual, personal sources behind the goods and services we enjoy.
  • A secularized, romantic notion of providence was employed to give divine sanction to imperialist cultures, nations, and ideologies, with devastating consequences; the terrors of the twentieth century disillusioned many regarding a “benevolent Providence” undergirding unending historical progress.

Christians must realize that, while God’s saving will in Christ has been clearly revealed in the gospel, the precise activity of God’s providential governance remains largely hidden (even from believers).

How did the Puritans Understand Angels?

How did Richard Goodbeer distinguish between the Puritan religious ideal and popular magical beliefs of the time?
Richard Goodbeer made a distinction between supplicative verses manipulative spirituality. The magical worldview was “fundamentally manipulative” he said, as men and women used rituals to control spiritual powers. The Puritans worldview by contrast was fundamentally supplicative, as people submitted themselves and their desires to the sovereign Lord through faith and prayer. On the popular level however these distinct approaches tended to blend together. The more God and Jesus Christ were emphasized the more the world of spirits diminished.

How Samuel Willard describes how angels reflect God, like God and how did he describe angles as falling short of God?
First, Willard explains how like God angels are Spirits an invisible substance. Second, since angels are Spirits they cannot be felt. Third, Spirits are the most agile, active, or nimble beings among creatures. Angels are God’s swift messengers to do his will. They travel faster than lightning. They are never tired. They are like the wind. Fourth, Spirits are the strongest among created beings. They excel in strength and are called powers. One angel can fight off an army of men. Consider what angels did at the empty tomb (Matt. 28:2-7). Fifth, Spirits are the most incorruptible of created beings. This refers to their power, not their purity. Lesser creatures cannot harm angels of annihilate them. Sixth, Spirits are rational substances, endowed with the noblest faculties of understanding and will. Angels fall short of God in a number of ways Willard says. One, Spirits are creatures, but God is not. He is and was and is to be.Two, God is a pure act, but angels have potentiality to be, or not to be, and so to change. Third, Angels are limited by their own essence to one place at a time. Fourth, Angels are under the dominion of their Creator. Five, as Spirits, the essence and acts of angels are different. They do not share in God’s simplicity whereby we can say that God loves and is love.

According to the Puritans what is the office and present work of angles?
William Ames said the work of angles is to celebrate the glory of God and execute His commandments, especially for the heirs of eternal life. Angles also according to Manton also delight in the gospel (1 Peter 1:12). Manton stated, “As we behold the sun that shineth to us from their part of the world, so do the angels behold the sun of righteousness from our part of the world, even Jesus Christ the Lord, in all the acts of meditation with wonder and reverence. The Puritans believed the angles were greatly involved in God’s providence throughout the world. James Ussher wrote that angles have general duties “in respect of all creatures”, namely that they are the instruments and ministers of God for the administration and government of the whole world.

Describe the Puritan understanding on the history of Angles?
The Puritan view on the history of angels begins with God’s eternal decree for them. It continues with their creation, the fall of some angles and the continued righteousness of others, and role of angels in redemptive history. Concluding with the angles role at the end of the age. First in the Westminster Larger Catechism on God’s eternal decree concerning angels’ states, God by an eternal and immutable decree, out of His mere love, for the praise of His glorious grace, hath elected some angels to glory and passed over and foreordained the rest to dishonor and wrath, thus angels and man have a parallel in election and reprobation. Two, God created angels (Col. 1:16). Three, God established some elect angels in righteousness. Four, God employed angels as servants of the present providence. Lastly, God brings the consummation of history through angels. Angels are prominent figures in the eschatology of the Larger Catechism, which says Christ will come to judge the world “with all his holy angels” (Matt. 25:31).

Describe some of the varying views among the Puritans regarding our communion with angels?
Puritans like Henry Ainsworth wrote on this topic the following “These heavenly spirits have communion, not only with God, in whose presence they stand, but also with us, the children of God, through faith, by which we are come unto the great assembly of the many thousands of them (Heb.12:22). Ainsworth also reflected the caution of other Puritans in writing “God hath in ages past, before the incarnation of Christ, more frequently employed them outwardly in revealing his will unto men, then in these last days he doth, since he hath opened unto us the whole mystery of His counsel by His Son (Heb. 1). Ambrose, on the other hand ascribed nearly everything in God’s providence in the world to the work of angels, even in the provision of our daily bread.

Relation to the Living God & the Fact of Sin

Unfortunately, as Gresham J. Machen observed;

modern liberalism in the Church, whatever  judgment  may be passed upon it , is at any rate is no longer a matter merely of theological seminaries or universities. On the contrary, its attack upon the fundamentals of the Christian faith is being carried on vigorously by Sunday School “lesson helps,” by the pulpit and by the religious press.”[1]

In other words, the fight for the truth is no longer confined to the Seminaries alone; although, it must be noted that the Seminary remains a vital organ for contending for the faith since one of the objectives of establishing a seminary is to train people for the ministry and the service of the Church. The implication of this is that no one can take a neutral stance. All Christians are expected to identify with what they truly believe. A major issue in the doctrinal debate which was strongly contested by Machen  is the term often used by Liberal theologians that “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.” Machen was of the view that making such assertions cheaply without considering the fact that it has to be understood that Christianity was based on an historical evidence witnessed, recorded and expected to be lived out. Apostle John wrote,

That which was from the beginning which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness and shew unto you that eternal life which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;). That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you that ye also may have fellowship us : and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his son Jesus Christ. 1John. 1:1-3.

In the light of this revelation, we have to agree with Machen that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded on a message.

In as much as this discourse is not an exposition of the Bible we cannot do without making reference to the book out which the doctrinal controversial issues find its foundation. A systematic approach to the Bible clearly shows that the theme of the Bible is redemption. God’s redemptive purpose is clearly revealed from Genesis to Revelation. Therefore if the doctrinal issues being contended for were placed before the mirror of the word of God, all the controversies would have been laid to rest. Machen expounded further that modern liberalism, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian message. This is in relation to the living God, and the fact of sin.

[1] Gresham J.Machen Christianity and Liberalism, (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishin Company,1923),17.