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.
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).