Re: Providence

Garry DeWeese (
Wed, 08 Apr 1998 08:38:21 -0600

At 08:58 AM 4/8/1998 -0400, George Murphy wrote:

>Allow me to jump in here with a modern Lutheran comment-
> It seems to me that both modern science and basic theological
>insights (i.e., christological & trinitarian) demand an important
>revision of the _ordering_ of doctrines of creation & providence.
>Traditionally one was supposed to start with creation as origination, &
>then see providence primarily as divine sustenance of what God had
>created in the beginning.
> But both Luther's & the Heidelberg Catechisms, in explaining the
>First Article, actually emphasize providence. We begin with belief that
>God is active in our lives today & then extrapolate that belief to God's
>origination of all things - just as science begins by studying our
>space-time neighborhood & then tries to extrapolate what it learns to a
>scientific cosmology. Thus I would suggest that in a sense providence
>be given precedence over origination.

One reason why the doctrine of providence was separated from the doctrine
of creation in Reformed contexts (thus perhaps inadvertently reversing the
natural order in which we come to recognize them) was to avoid any hint of
_creatio continua_, which is suggested by some medieval theologians, and
notoriously finds a central place in the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

> & within the doctrine of providence, we need to move away from
>the idea that what God _primarily_ does is to maintain static structures
>of the world - because the structures of the world _aren't_ static.
>Within the classic division of providence into
>sustenance/cooperation/governance, cooperation - God's activity with &
>through the dynamic natural processes of the world, should be given
>precedence over sustenance. Not that God doesn't sustain creatures, but
>that they are sustained precisely by God's cooperation with the
>processes which (in physical terms) make them what they are.
> Shalom,
> George

The Reformed tradition (represented by Bavinck, Kuyper, Hodge, Berkouwer),
as well as Barth, do not see sustenance and governance as two distinct acts
of providence, but rather as two sides of the same coin. Sustenance is
always teleological, but the emphasis is on the continuation of the
creature. Governance more explicitly accents the purposes God achieves in
and through his creatures.

Concurrence or cooperation, although viewed with suspicion by Kuyper and
Berkouwer, is generally developed to explain how God can be the primary
cause of everything and still accord some kind of reality to secondary
causes. Bavinck claims that concurrence distinguishes Christianity from
pantheism, in which secondary causes are identified with God, and deism, in
which secondary causes are separated from God as prinary cause. Berkouwer
says that "the term concurrence has to do with the relation between Divine
and human activity," and so, at least in Reformed theology, is not
primarily related to what George calls "static structures."

Surely Howard Van Till is right in stating his belief that "each generation
of Christians must work with diligence to rearticulate the historic
Christian faith in its own historical/cultural context and in its own
conceptual vocabulary." In connection with the doctrine of providence I
think it is crucial that theologians and scientists and philosophers work
together to develop an understanding of God's actions in the world that
avoid the Scylla of panentheism and the Charybdis of Deism and at the same
time account for such features of modern science as indeterministic laws.

My own observation here is that the common evangelical pre-theological view
tends towards panentheism, while the view of some scientists who are
Christians tends towards deism. (Although Howard has been read this way,
he denies that his views are deistic; others, especially some Roman
Catholic scientists/theologians, certainly seem to verge on deism, with
God's direct action confined to the creation of the initial constituents of
the universe, together with their properties and capacities, along with the
initial conditions and the laws.) Bob Dehaan rightly identifies providence
as the doctrine which can guide us through these waters.

Garry DeWeese