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ABSTRACT OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY.

CHAPTER XXI.

PROVIDENCE.

INTIMATELY associated with the doctrine of Creation is that of Providence, which is, however, a distinct method of Divine activity. By acts of Creation, God brings into existence the things which he makes, and confers upon them their respective natures, qualities, properties, modes of existence, and laws of being, thought and action. By acts of Providence, he simply preserves these creations, or permits or causes decay or change in them, to such an extent, and within such limits as he has purposed; and, at the same time, in fulfillment of like purpose, he directs, controls and guides them in accordance with the natures he has given them, and the laws he has imposed upon them.

 

Providence is also closely allied to Predestination or Purpose; but the distinction between these two is also equally clear. The Purpose of God in his predetermined plan as to what shall be done in his creation by himself or by others. It fixes the events which shall happen, and the methods and agency by which they will take place. But Providence is the actual doing, or permitting the things purposed, and securing their ends thus designed. The purpose also is formed in eternity; the providential acts are performed in time.

 

But, despite these very obvious distinctions, Providence has been confounded both with the Purpose and Creation; some holding that there is no other Providence except what is involved in Purpose; and others going to the other extreme, and maintaining that Providence is after all only a continual creation, and that there is no other connection between antecedent and consequent events than exists in the Divine efficiency giving every moment renewed existence by acts of direct creative power. Each of these views is opposed to reason and Scripture, which teach that there is a divine efficiency operating in this world differing in many respects essentially from that exercised in creation. This efficiency is displayed both in the preservation and government of the universe, and of the things which are contained within it.

 

I. PROVIDENTIAL EFFICIENCY NOW OPERATING

1. In presenting the proof that providential efficiency is now operating in the world, it is natural that attention should be called to the almost universal belief in the providential action and care of God. This is based upon the same feeling of self-dependence in man to which reference has been made in the proofs of the existence of God. It is the witness to us which God gives, not only that he exists, but that he supports and sustains us in every moment of being.

2. A second proof may be drawn from the world about us. Every argument it has afforded for the being of a God becomes equally conclusive of his providential care. The argument from causation, in tracing back all causes to some being who has the cause of his existence in himself, forces us to find in the present efficiency of such a being, the final ground for all things that now occur. That from design leads us constantly to trace the purpose God has had in view in each event of life, and thus proclaims the presence and efficiency of him who is seen to be working out, even now, the purpose he has eternally formed. Moreover, the evidence that the world now affords that it is not self-existent and independent, proves the presence and efficient energy of one upon whom it depends for the properties, qualities and life of its varied forms, and for their continued existence.

3. The fact, which we have learned, of a creation out of nothing, shows that the whole universe exists only through the will and power of God. Since it could only thus come into being, so it could only remain in being. Any contrary doctrine could only be held by those who deny a creation out of nothing. The history of philosophical opinions shows that this is true. The doctrine of Providence has only been denied by those who have believed in the eternity of matter. It is possible to conceive, in the absence of other proofs to the contrary, that, as man constructed machines, and leave them to work through the laws of nature, so, if nature were self-existent and eternal, and if it possessed of itself all its attributes and qualities, the mere fact that God has given it form would not necessitate his continued presence; he would be acting then, as man does, in subordination to, and in the use of the properties and qualities of matter. But, God may use these things in matter, he does not use them in personal subordination to their properties and qualities; but as himself the sovereign lord. He has given these qualities. He could take them away. He could counteract them. He can destroy them. They exist only because he wills and causes. But such "will" and "causes" is only his providential operation by which he preserves them, and uses them, as their Lord, for his own purpose. His is the exercise of present divine efficiency in them and through them.

4. The nature of God himself also furnishes indubitable testimony to his providential operations. These arise in opposite directions; from the limitations of his nature on the one hand, and its infinity on the other. As heretofore seen, there are some things which God cannot do. He cannot do impossibilities. He cannot confer his own incommunicable attributes upon another. This limitation arises from the fact that he is God, and beside him there can be none else. It is this limitation which makes it possible to create a world which shall be self-existent and independent, and which, as being such, will not need his efficient action for its support and care. To do so would be to confer on it his own nature.

On the other hand, the illimitable nature of God's attributes makes it impossible that he should not be efficiently present always with his creation. His omnipresence does not simply make him capable of being everywhere. He cannot be absent from his creation. He cannot withdraw himself even if he will. His knowledge of all events within his creation is also necessity of his being. He cannot be ignorant of them if he would. The fact that he does not know of the existence of anything is of itself not only a proof that it does not exist, but that it cannot exist. Because of his goodness also he must wish the happiness of his creatures, and must make provision for that happiness. This arises not from any obligation to them, but from another necessity of his nature. He must be benevolently good. He must beneficently bestow wherever there are objects for such bestowal. the omnipresence, infinite knowledge and goodness of the Almighty God, therefore, render necessary his providential care over his creation. There can be but one thing that can hinder this benevolent care, and that is sin, which, by demanding the punitive exercise of God's justice, may change into punishment and misery that which otherwise would be happiness and joy. But this, so far from destroying providence, only introduces God as providentially acting in the form of government also, instead of preservation alone. He does not withdraw himself because of this sin. He is still present with the sinner. He continues to know his ways. He exercises providential care, and even sends blessings still upon him. He modifies his action only to correspond with the modified relation sin has introduced. Therefore, as the ruler and governor of the universe, he inflicts the punishment which sin has made necessary. Sin alone has brought into existence this restraining and punishing rule and government. But for it all would be merged into that fatherly care which seeks only to bless, and protect, and guide. The fact that there would be rewards does not prove any other kind of government; for the rewards of God are, after all, but gracious gifts, utterly undeserved, in no respect due except as sovereign bounties, and given under no obligation than arises from his own truth which binds him to his purposes and leads him to fulfill his promises.

5. The Scriptures abound in testimony to God's providential efficiency in the world. It is given in every imaginable form. General statements are made, as in Nehemiah 9:6, where the Lord is said to have made the heavens and their hosts, and the earth and seas and all that is therein, and to preserve them. Specific rule is declared over all the phenomena of nature, such as over clouds, wind rain, hail, snow, ice, cold, frost, thunder, lightning, storm, earthquakes, and all other natural events; many of which, formerly deemed accidental, are now seen to be governed by inexorable laws of God. The beasts of the field, and the birds of the air are said top be carefully watched over by him. It is even he that clothes the flowers with their beauty by encircling them with his own shining garment of light. But men are his special care. he provides the food of their bodies, and in a peculiar way watches and rules over their souls and lives. This he does with respect to the wicked as well as the hood. His care extends to individuals, to families, to nations, and throughout the world. It appears not in great events only, but in those exceeding small, even to the numbering of the hairs of each one's head. So minute is the supervision asserted, that some have even thought that the language of Scripture partakes of hyperbole. But the investigations of the microscope have shown that even to the insects the most minute and invisible to the human eye has God given most beauteous forms and perfect outward coverings. His creative care has therefore descended to the things most minute. Thus has the way been opened to the belief that the Scriptures even cannot tell us how minute is the providential care which God is now exercising over his whole creation.

 

II. PROVIDENCE IS NOT CONTINUOUS CREATION.

The evidences of continuous divine action within the world have been so manifest that they may have been led to the opposite extreme of deeming them actually renewed at every moment.

So far as the intention has been to magnify the extent and individual number of the providential acts of God, there is no especial harm in thus loosely talking of them as continuous creations. It might be well said that the power necessary to continue all things in existence is as great as that which would bring them each moment out of nothingness into existent life; and that the particularity with which each of these innumerable existences is looked after and cared for is as minute as if each were at the moment endowed with existence, nature, qualities and powers. So long as we look at the mere glory to God's creative energy and power, there appears no other objection to the term continuous creation than its loose inaccuracy. But, viewed in other aspects, this doctrine is seen to be not only inaccurate and false, but extremely dangerous.

1. It takes away all the relation of cause and effect. No cause and its effects can have any relation to each other if both be separate creations of God. The former is not productive of the latter, nor the latter the result of the former. The one is not a cause, nor the other an effect. But if this be true, what confidence can we have in any of the phenomena of nature? I determine to accomplish some end. I put forth the energy I perceive necessary. The end is attained. I believe it to be due to my action and purpose. But, according to this theory, the result is an act of God which occurs at the moment. It is not my action. It is not the result of my effort or power, but it is only something which God creates and which seems to have a connection with my purpose and effort, but has not. All reality is thus taken from life. If I find that I am mistaken here, I can have neither belief not confidence in anything. If there be no real cause here, then my mind deceives me when it urges me to seek a cause for all things, and not to rest, as to the universe, except in the belief of an uncaused First Cause. The tendency of such a theory is, therefore, to actual atheism. It seems to begin with a most credulous confidence in the Almighty, only to end in absolute disbelief of everything.

2. It leads to the acceptance of essential pantheism, if it does not drive to actual atheism. Every efficiency here is God himself acting. It is he that everywhere is alone the actor. The phenomena which accompany his actions are only phantoms, not realities. The acorn is not the fruit of the tree. It is his direct production. It is a new creation of his hands. When it is planted, it is neither the acorn, nor the soil, nor the seasons, nor the air, nor anything else which causes a tree to come forth and grow. It is God, who at each moment makes a new creation different from what has preceded, though apparently its successor. God thus becomes the animating soul of the universe, and acts in it as the souls of men do in their bodies.

3. It absolutely takes away all responsibility for sinful acts, and all virtue in those that are holy. These are no longer the acts of the individual. He is deceived when he thinks that he wills them or does them. There are no actions but those of god. Besides, there is no one to be responsible. If the creation is a new one at each moment, the creature who did the act is gone. There is no one to be punished. The curious phenomenon of multiplied contradictions is therefore presented here. There is no action of a man, for it is God that has acted. There is no man that has acted, because the one before us is another creation; and while we have been speaking, he too has disappeared, and another has taken his place. The deed has no character in its relation to man; for the man has not done it. God alone is responsible for it; for it is his act alone, into which has flowed neither the will, nor the power, nor the purpose, nor the activity of man, but only those of God.

4. It takes away all the evidences of outward creation, and introduces pure idealism. We believe in an outward creation because of the effects which, through the sense, it produces upon our minds. But, if everything is a direct creation, these impressions on our minds are themselves direct creations made by God, and not by the outward world. They give no evidence, therefore, of the existence of anything except of God and of the individual who is conscious of receiving them. If they come from God alone, there is no necessity for something outwardly corresponding to them. God and each individual, therefore, may be all that exists. Certainly they are all of the existence of which any one can have any knowledge.

 

III. THE METHOD OF GOD'S PROVIDENCE.

It is impossible for us to comprehend, much less to explain, the manner of God's providential action. We know no more of this than the manner in which he created. Ignorance of the method of either action is, however, no reason for believing that it does not exist. We, who cannot tell how our own spirits act upon and through our own bodies, may well accept the fact of the action of the universal Spirit, as everywhere operating, though much of the mysterious and incomprehensible is therein involved. A few statements may however be made, upon this subject, of facts which may be known.

1. That this action is universal. It is not limited to certain kinds of creation, but extends to all.

2. That it is not the same on each but accords with the nature of which is governed. The action upon the material universe is more purely mechanical, and governed by the operation of physical law. So far as life of any kind, whether vegetable, animal, or spiritual, is connected with. or composed of matter, these mechanical laws must also be actively enforced. But we know not how far even vegetable life is inseparable from mere mechanical law. Certainly not entirely so, since it is also dependent in some degrees upon the action of voluntary force and labor in man, who is an instrument under God of such life. In animal life we have the phenomena of instinct, as well as of self-acting and voluntary powers. The providence of God must here differ from its relation to mere material substances which are inert, and without senses, or volitions. But we can form no idea of the nature of the specific action thus rendered necessary. In man the providential action of God is further complicated by the extent of his reasoning powers, by the freedom of his will, by his self-control over his affections, by his original capacity to do right or wrong, and especially by his fallen condition. The most difficult problems as to God's providence naturally arise here. That we cannot solve them does not disprove providence. That the action of providence is in accord with the nature of man, and is consonant with the holiness, justice, and goodness of God, we feel assured. It is well for us to rest in such assurances in matters which we cannot penetrate. It is wise always to recognize that God acts according to his nature, in acting upon all things according to theirs. His own character, therefore, must characterize his actions, which must consequently be holy, just, wise, and good.

3. God's action must, therefore, accord with the free agency of man. Free agency belongs to the nature of an intelligent moral creature. He must have freedom of choice, or he would not be responsible for his action. The very essence of responsibility consists in the power of contrary action, had one so pleased. God's providential action cannot, therefore, be such as to destroy man's freedom of will, or the power of this contrary choice.

But this does not forbid the use of inducements to any specific action, nor the placing of man in circumstances which would influence, or control his acts. Were these influences compulsory, so as to force to action against his will, the freedom of man would be destroyed, and with it responsibility. But, wherever they are only persuasive, so as to lead him to delight in, or to choose a specific course of action, through his own good pleasure, liberty is preserved, and man is accountable for his choice. The providential influences of God are of this nature only. Experience so teaches, and the Scriptures so declare. Man is conscious, at every moment, that his act was the outcome of his own good pleasure. We could have no stronger proof that God has providentially acted in accordance only with our nature, except the word of God himself. This testimony is added, when he not only ascribes our sinful acts to our own will, but declares that he holds man responsible, and will punish him for them.

4. God may, however, originate action in man, by producing some such change as is the result of the exercise of direct power. The man may be conscious of this fact, and may feel assured that this change is not due to himself. In other ways, also, God may directly introduce controlling influences which forcibly originate new purposes in man, and so direct his will, that it finds that which is pleasing to itself far different from the past. But this action of God is of the nature of creative acts, and not of providential. The Scripture so speaks of them, and it may be doubted whether they belong to the realm of providence. Thus the words "creation," and "creature," are constantly applied to those who are vitally connected with Christ, because of the new heart which God has given, and of their renewal in the image of God.

But whether these acts are to be regarded as creative only, or as providential also, it is evident that in them the restrictions, arising from his nature, as to creative acts, appear. The compulsion is towards holiness, not towards sin. The new heart is one fitted for God's service, and it loves him, and desires to obey his statutes. He could not change a heart of holiness to one of sin, without its own voluntary action, any more than he could create a sinful being. He cannot directly tempt to sin, any more than he could make a man with original sin. His own righteous and holy nature is the guaranty of this, and forbids that he should act otherwise.

5. We are thus led to perceive what is the method of God's providential action as to the sins of men, and what are his relations to them.

One question as to his connection with sin no man can answer, namely, why he has allowed its existence at all. We can have no doubt that he could have prevented it. He can do anything not contrary to his own nature; and in that nature can be found no necessity for its existence. We can, however, see many ends which he has had in view in allowing it in his universe. But with all this, with our present knowledge of his will, we are compelled to confess that we cannot tell why he saw that it was better to admit than to exclude it.

On the other hand, however, no reason can be justly given why he should not have done so when he so purposed. There is nothing in its existence which makes him its author or shows any unholy action on his part in its introduction. Nor is there any evidence of any lack of power to prevent its origination, nor of any want of benevolent love to his creatures in permitting it.

Of the origin of sin in the universe our information is very meagre. We have already seen this as to the fall of angels. That of man, to be hereafter considered, gives us little information beyond as few facts. But, even in these brief statements, we are taught explicitly that sin is not due to any creative act of God, but that it came into existence entirely under his providential government. The dealings of God with it, at present under that providence, show the truth of the above statements. The Scriptures and our own experience are the sources of our information. From these we learn:

(1.) That sin exists only in accordance with the purpose of God. Had he not seen fit, it could never have appeared in the universe. Its presence proceeds from no necessity of his nature, nor from any antagonistic power which he could not resist.

(2.) It cannot occur at any time nor in any form without his permission. While he does not actively originate it, he holds such absolute control over it that no single event in connection with it can take place without his permission.

(3.) It cannot attain any end, however naturally operative towards it, which he has not designed shall be attained.

(4.) It cannot go any further than the limits he has assigned.

(5.) Through it he works out his own righteous purpose, and not the sinful designs of those who are committing the sin which he thus overrules.

(6.) In any one act the ends of himself and the sinner may greatly differ.

(7.) Likewise the same act may be sinful in the sinner, and not sinful in God. This is due to the difference of relations borne to persons and things by God and man. God has supreme control over life and property. Man has not. God may take away life or property by the hand of the assassin or the thief. He only does what it is his right to do. But it is sin in the man through whom he acts, because he has not the right to either of these things.

(8.) The sinful actions of men may be sinful, either from the motives which prompt them, the ends in view, or the means by which they are accomplished. God may concur in such acts, from motives, with ends, and in the use of means which are altogether most holy.

(9.) The concurrence of God with the sinner is limited to the support of the natural faculties, in which support there is neither sin nor innocence; sin consisting not in their use, but in the intention with which they are used, and the object sought by that use.

(10.) The concurrence of God according to the regularity of general laws seems eminently desirable. If, whenever man acted virtuously, his powers of action were sustained, but not so when acting otherwise, there would be really no free agency in man, for he would not have the power of contrary choice and action. On the other hand; there would no longer be such regular action of the universe as seems necessary for the happiness and comfort of mankind. The action of nature would every day be suspended in thousands of instances, and confusion would exist.

 

IV. DISTINCTION IN PROVIDENCE.

There have been several distinctions made as to the providence of God.

1. The most common is that of General, or Universal Providence, and Special, Singular or Particular Providence. By general providence is meant the general care which God takes of the universe and all it contains, in preserving and upholding it under the general administration of the laws he has given it. By special providence is meant the minute care by which some events are supposed to take place immediately under his supervision or by his direct providential action.

It is unquestionably true that the acts of extend to minute objects and specially marked events. But this is no reason for making this distinction which would seem to imply an indifferent, careless providence about all things else. The truth is that providence is of such a nature as to reach every natural event by the operation of general laws. It is a marked proof of the wisdom of God that he can so direct all the affairs of the universe as, without need of special action, to accomplish all the events he chooses. All providence, therefore, is general, because operated through general laws. It is also special, because every individual event comes to pass under God's own inspection, and through his own will and work.

"A general and special providence," says Dr. A. A. Hodge, "cannot be two different modes of divine operation. The same providential administration is necessarily at the same time general and special, for the same reason, because it reaches without exception equally to every event and creature in the world. A general providence is special because it secures general results by the control of every event, great and small, leading to that result. A special providence is general because it specially controls all individual beings and actions in the universe. All events are so related together as a concatenated system of causes, and effects, and conditions, that a general providence that is not at the same time special is as inconceivable as a whole which has no parts, or as a chain which has no links. " [Outlines of Theology, p.266.]

2. A second distinction is into ordinary and extraordinary providence. By the ordinary are meant those acts which, according to general law, commonly occur in every-day life, and which are supposed to display no extraordinary action or purpose. By the extraordinary are meant any acts, such as miracles or prophecies, which are not naturally to be expected, and are due to extraordinary divine intervention.

3. Another distinction is into mediate and immediate. This is similar to the last, except that this looks at providence from the agency of the divine act, whether done directly and without means, or mediately by means. The other views these acts according to their frequency and the impression thus produced by evident divine interposition.

4. A fourth distinction is into physical or real, and spiritual or moral. The former regards providence as exercised about natural objects or things, the latter about persons, especially in their moral and spiritual relations.

 

V. THE UNEQUAL DISTRIBUTION OF GOOD AND EVIL.

The most serious objection to the doctrine of divine providence is deduced from the unequal distribution of good and evil in the world. Blessings are not apparently bestowed proportionately upon the good and afflictions upon the wicked. It has been claimed that this is an evidence that God does not watch over and govern the world. Dr. J. Pye Smith ably answers this objection. {See his First Lines, pp. 162-164.} The following is an abstract of his argument:

1. "A man who would reason fairly cannot but, on the very threshold of this argument, attend to the sinful condition of the whole human race. The sin of man,"

(1.) "Merits the experience of penal evils, in all their variety."

(2.) "This sin is the cause and occasion, sometimes directly, at other times more indirectly and remotely, of human sufferings."

2. "Upon the broad scale of observation and history many examples of retribution are to be observed."

3. "this distribution of good and evil is by no means so unequal as appears to superficial observation."

4. "Even good men are the chief occasions of their own sufferings."

5. "Their sufferings are made in the highest degree beneficial to them, as means of religious improvements. " (Heb. 12:4-11.)

6. "The piety, virtue and good moral conduct of upright persons procure to them, in the ordinary course of affairs, a considerable measure of esteem, regard, kindness and service from their fellow-men; and consequently a much higher degree of personal and social enjoyment than they would have if they were not religious characters."

7. "The objects which men commonly regard as good in themselves and for their own sakes are in reality not so. They are good only as they are used; only when they are made the means of moral improvements."

8. "We are very far from being competent judges of the state of the heart, and the degree of real holiness possessed by the subjective individuals: but we know enough to by assured that the reality in these important matters is far from being in accordance with the obvious and superficial appearance. It cannot be doubted that in many instance men acquire credit with the public for great religious excellence which is by no means justly imputed, as to either the degree or sincerity of it; and that deep and humble piety exists in some instances where extraordinary and unfavorable circumstances surround its possessors as with a dark cloud."

9. "The afflictions of real Christians are instruments of the greatest internal blessings. They are also means of benefit to others by their exhibition of the most edifying examples, and by the weight which instruction and admonition thus receive."

10. "But we cannot judge of this question with any approach to completeness without bringing into the account the future state. The present state is but the imperfect and preparatory condition of our existence, the period during which all must be done that is to fit us for eternity. All temporal things are as nothing compared with this great issue of all our labours and trails."

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