The Comforting Doctrine of Providence
Here is part of an account of an incident involving General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s chaplain, the Confederate officer, Dr. Robert Lewis Dabney:
Dr Dabney rode with General Jackson into the very thickest of the fight, on many a hard fought field. The men used to say of their soldier-preacher, “He does not mind it any more than we do.” The gallant Major Nelson frequently met Dr. Dabney and discussed with him his doctrine of “Special Providence,” and when on one occasion he heard him directing his men who were under heavy fire to shield themselves as far as possible behind trees and a convenient stone wall he rode up to him and with a graceful military salute said, “Major Dabney, every shot and shell and minnie strikes just where the Lord permits. And you must excuse me, sir, for expressing my surprise that you are directing your men to shelter behind trees and a stone wall and to put such things between themselves and Special Providence.” But Dr. Dabney promptly replied: “Why Major, you do not understand the doctrine of ‘Special Providence.’” I believe it and teach it with all of my heart but I look upon the trees and that stone wall as a very “special Providence” for the men at this time and I am simply acting on the doctrine when I direct them to avail themselves of these “Special providences.” Major Nelson was convinced and accepted the doctrine of “Special Providence” as Dr. Dabney expounded it.
This account reveals two things about the doctrine of “Special Providence.” First, how common a view it was at that time (although not necessarily in such an Augustinian form) and second, how misunderstood it was then, as now, as being a Christianised version of Stoic fate. Major Nelson was under the misapprehension that the doctrine would lead to idle thinking and idle action (both, interestingly, denied by the Stoics) and it took Dr. Dabney’s answer to show him that the reverse was true—it energized believers!
I want to show that it is a no-risk view of providence which alone retains the integrity of the Christian faith in terms of its internal coherence and the comprehensive respecting of the biblical data regarding God’s sovereignty. Here are just a few sample texts which affirm God’s absolute rule, which is accounted for by a no-risk view of providence: the entire universe (Ps 103:19; Rom 8:28; Eph 1:11), all of nature (Ps 135:6–7; Matt 5:45; 6:25–30), angels and even Satan (Ps 103:20–21; Job 1:12), all of the nations (Ps 47:7–9; Dan 2:20–21; 4:34–35), every human person and his/her choices (Exod 3:21; 12:26–36; 1 Sam 2:6–8; Ezra 7:27; Gal 1:15–16), every animal and its choices (Ps 104:21–30; 1 Kgs 17:4–6), all events that appear to be “accidental” (Prov 16:33; John 1:7; Luke 12:6), and all the sinful acts of man and Satan (Gen 45:5; 50:20; 2 Sam 24:1; 1 Chr 21:1).
What Is Providence and Why Is It Important?
Both the definition and the pastoral entailments of the classic doctrine of providence are set out in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):
Question: What do you understand by the providence of God?
Answer: The almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, and rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty and everything else come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
Question: What advantage comes from acknowledging God’s creation and providence?
Answer: We learn that we are to be patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and trust our gracious God and Father for the future, assured that no creature can separate us from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand, that without his will they cannot move.
How Might Non-Risk Providence Be Construed?
For the no-risk conception of providence as classically understood, the belief is that God, who is infinite, outside space and time and so not subject to the limitations we experience, is also personally and intimately involved in space and time with the creatures he has made. He sovereignly rules over all while being God-in-relationship. We see this truth being expressed, for example, in Prov 16:4: “The Lord [Yahweh] works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster.” This means that the affairs and plans of men are known to him and will be used by him to serve his sovereign purpose. The classic story which illustrates this of course is that of Joseph encapsulated in his statement to his brothers who had sold him into slavery: “You intended to harm me, But God intended it for good” (Gn. 50:20 cg Romans 8:28). Thus, his plans are never ultimately stymied by our cleverness and cunning; even wicked people come under his sovereign sway.
Fundamental to the no-risk view is that God’s governance of the universe is a purposive “means-end” governance. This is “positive government” not a mere “responding” to events, but a superintending of all events to achieve the purposes divinely intended. The ends are brought about by the particular means ordained by God.
God’s meticulous personal superintending also covers what we might call “chance”: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov 16: 33). Chance is not an alternative to God—rather, what we call chance comes under God’s care and design just as much as all the other things which we can predict more accurately like the rising and setting of the sun. He is Lord of all.
Furthermore, the risk-free view of providence implies that there are no unforeseen “by-products” of God’s plans. In the case of human beings, unforeseen and undesired side effects (what some might call “collateral damage”) are inevitable simply because we are locked into space and time and so not able to foresee all the consequences of our actions, although some may be anticipated. However, such limitations do not apply to God.
The ultimate value of the risk-free view of providence, apart from it being the most coherent and comprehensive account of the Scriptural revelation, is that it is pastorally beneficial. For John Calvin, “Certainty about God’s providence puts joyous trust toward God in our hearts.” Similarly, the pastorally reassuring implications of the classic doctrine of providence have been well stated by Dr. D. Broughton Knox:
The doctrine of God’s absolute and complete providence and control over every event is a ground for banishing fear from the hearts of the people of God…The creative power of God which brought all things into being is the guarantee that he is able to sustain us in every detail of life…The infinite power and infinite mind of God, to which the marvels of creation bear witness, mean that he is able to give full attention, care and protection to every person in the world with the same intensity of concern that he would give if he were related to a single individual only. The infinity of God is not overwhelmed by numbers, nor stupefied by detail. God is able to comprehend, and provide for at the same time, the needs of the whole creation. Our heavenly Father gives each of us his undivided attention and his full friendship as though we were his only friend.
Whatever Albert Einstein meant when he said “God does not play dice with the universe,” the believer can assert with even greater conviction (and gratitude) that his heavenly Father does not play dice with his people.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the Credo Magazine blog and is used with permission.