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Day Two - Providence

Posted on by Jeremy Daggett

Should we even try to defend God? In one sense, no, because we can’t; we’re too limited. But as people of faith we are called to think deeply about God and speak into situations of evil and suffering. And so we try to understand.

Providence is a lens through which we think about how God is at work in the world. Instead of thinking of providence as God “providing,” it's more helpful to think in terms of the Italian cognate “prevedere” or Spanish “proveer.” Literally, God sees before. So we’re not thinking about God providing a ram for the sacrifice (Genesis 22) but, more generally, how God interacts with the world as one who sees ahead.

One way to look at what you might believe about providence is to think about prayer. If you pray, what do you pray for, and why? Do you pray for a miraculous healing or for God to work through the development of modern medicine? This might say something about your own theology of providence.

Theology of Providence

There are three traditional modes for God’s work in the world:

  • God sustains the world. God is always active in giving it being. Without God’s work to sustain the world, the world would collapse into nothingness.
  • God concurs, in that God is a co-Actor alongside actions in the world.
  • God governs toward an ultimate end. God has a goal or purpose to which God is moving the world.

Of these categories, the second is the most controversial. How is God acting alongside our actions? Is God forcing us to do things or do humans have free will? Is God a co-Actor even in bad things that happen? When you get into the specifics of how God is involved in the world—and how that relates to evil—you start moving toward issues of theodicy.

I’ll use a sports metaphor to explain some of the contemporary positions on divine providence. It’s too simplistic, but it gives the basic idea of the levels of God’s involvement in the world, from a God who is uninvolved altogether to a God who (pre)determines everything.

For deism, God is a spectator sitting up in the owner's box watching us play. In process theology, God is an encouraging coach who loves the game but stays on the sidelines; God isn’t able to enter the game. Open theism also believes God is a coach on the sidelines, but God sometimes enters the game as an emergency substitute.

Classic Arminianism affirms that God is always on the field, active in every play, and directing the game toward a perfect end, but without determining every action. The Reformed (Calvinist) God is the owner who dictates how each play will unfold, what the score will be, and who will score; the players play but their role is secondary because the owner has determined everything.

Which One?

So, which one is it? Good question. Like I said, there are, in 2013, good people who affirm each of these views. Without discussing every possible angle (which would, in fact, be impossible to do), I’ll go into a little more detail with two of the options. Ultimately, what we believe about how God is at work in the world will have a huge impact on our faith narrative, the story of God that we see ourselves in. Remember, we’re trying to work toward a story that might give us hope or meaning in the face of despair.

Looking at it from the standpoint of evil in the world, Open theism is one of the most attractive views. God is off the hook for evil in the world because God doesn’t have a hand in it. God created the world as part of a divine project where God gave humans free will with the hope that humans would freely love God. God’s knows everything about the past and present but does not know the future, because God can’t know the future actions of free beings. Most of evil happens as a result of humans misusing their free will. When evil happens it’s not God’s will, but God couldn’t do anything about it because God has chosen not to intervene directly. But God has been the “emergency substitute” on occasion, so the question remains “Why did God not intervene in this case?”

The Arminian position also affirms human free will. God knows the past, present, and future because God is God. Somehow God is able to let us have free will and know what we’ll do in the future. When something evil happens, there may be some significance to it that we aren’t aware of. Evil isn’t God’s will, but God is somehow able to work alongside it toward that ultimate purpose. This is where faith comes in. Bad stuff happens. There’s a hiddenness to God that makes it impossible for us to say that there is no significance in any given event. And so, with the lament psalms, we ask “why” and “how long?”

Diving In

From here we dive into the story of God. Many people won’t be ready to make that move, perhaps out of anger toward God or toward seeming meaninglessness. What helps me make the move is that God invites me to ask hard questions, to lament, to be angry. God isn’t scared of our questions—God expects them.

Sources:

Obviously I'm relying on John Mark Hicks for this entire series (since I'm documenting his class), but in particular I wanted to acknowledge his helpful sports metaphor for providence. If you want more substance for all of the contemporary options, professor Hicks has written about it here.

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