Previous article in this series: December 15, 2017, p. 130.
With chapter 6 of the Second Helvetic Confession, Heinrich Bullinger directs our attention to the providence of God. Along with the other Reformers, Bullinger subscribes to a robust doctrine of divine providence. God’s providence includes all things; no one and nothing is outside of the scope of God’s providence. Everything that takes place in time and in history is directed by the providence of God.
Interestingly enough, Bullinger treats the truth of providence before the truth of creation and the fall of man into sin. That is not the usual order. The usual order among the Reformed is: creation, providence, and the Fall of man. That is the order found in the Belgic Confession of Faith and in the Westminster Confession of Faith. On the surface, that would appear to be the more reasonable order. Providence is treated after creation because providence presupposes a creation that is preserved and governed. And providence is treated before the Fall to demonstrate the Reformed conviction that the Fall into sin took place according to the appointment of God. The Fall did not take God by surprise, but was under God’s providential rule.
The explanation for the treatment of providence before both creation and the Fall is that Bullinger’s emphasis in chapter 6 is on the decree of providence, not so much on the work of providence. Since the decree of providence is an eternal decree, it makes sense to consider it before God’s great work in time of creation and before the fall of man into sin, which also takes place in time. That the decree of providence is on the foreground is evident from the title of the first paragraph: “All Things Are Governed by the Providence of God.” The emphasis in the chapter is on providence as “government.” But “government” presupposes the will and counsel of God, which stands behind that government. To govern is to control, to direct, and to determine. But God controls, directs, and determines all things according to His eternal counsel. The decree of providence, therefore, is the basis for God’s actual work of providence. And that decree takes place in eternity, before and altogether apart from any of God’s work in time.
All things are governed by the providence of God
We believe that all things in heaven and on earth, and all creatures, are preserved and governed by the providence of this wise, eternal and almighty God. For David testifies and says, “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like unto the Lord our God, who dwelleth on high, who humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth!” (). Again: “O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me…and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether” ( ). Paul also testifies and declares: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” ( ), and “of him, and through him, and to him, are all things” ( ). Therefore Augustine most truly and according to Scripture declared in his book De Agone Christi, cap. 8, “The Lord said, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will’” ( ). By speaking thus, he wanted to show that what men regard as of least value is governed by God’s omnipotence. For he who is the truth says that the birds of the air are fed by him and the lilies of the field are clothed by him; he also says that the hairs of our head are numbered ( ff.). (SHC, 6.1)
Bullinger does not identify the literal meaning of “providence” or evaluate the usefulness of the word to describe the biblical doctrine of the providence of God. He simply accepts the use of the word and proceeds to describe what we ought to understand by the providence of God.
Strictly speaking, the word “providence” is not a biblical word. The word does not occur in Scripture to describe divine providence. It only occurs once in the Bible, in Acts 24:2, where the orator Tertullus flatters the Roman governor Felix by saying that “very worthy deeds are done unto this nation,” that is, the Jews, “by thy providence.” He does not refer to God’s providence, but to the “providence” of Felix.
Besides the fact that it is not a biblical word, the word “providence” is really inadequate to describe what the Reformed faith confesses concerning the providence of God. As with so many theological terms, the word “providence” is derived from the Latin. It is made up of two Latin words: the preposition pro, which means “before,” and the verb video, which means “to see.” The word means literally “to see before.” That is certainly not an adequate description of the providence of God. God’s providence is not simply that He sees beforehand what is going to happen and then reacts to what is about to happen. That leaves altogether out of view the decree of God that has determined all things. God sees beforehand everything that takes place because He has determined all things.
Although Bullinger does not begin chapter 6 with a definition of God’s providence, we can define providence in a way that is in keeping with all that he teaches about providence in the chapter. On that basis, we can say that providence is the almighty and everywhere present power of God whereby He upholds and governs all things.1 Although the word “providence” does not occur in Scripture, a very closely related word does occur. That word is the word “provide.” God’s providence is His provision for all the creatures that He has made. The assumed answer to God’s question of Job in, “Who provideth for the raven his food?” is, of course, God. In Psalm 65:9 the psalmist praises God in these words: “Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it: thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water: thou preparest them corn, when thou hast so provided it.”
The elements of providence
Significantly, in his exposition of the teaching of providence, Bullinger appeals to the virtues of God. That, in fact, is where he begins. Before he identifies the elements of providence, he identifies the God of providence. Who and what God is impacts our understanding of what God does—His works, and particularly the work of providence. Providence is “the providence of [the] wise, eternal, and omnipotent God.”
Providence is the outworking of the all-wise, the perfectly wise God. As the wise God, He makes no mistakes in His work of providence. The God of providence is also the eternal God. He is above time and infinitely exalted over time. All that takes place in time, therefore, is subject unto Him. And the God of providence is the omnipotent God. He is almighty or sovereign. That implies that nothing and no one is outside His control, but, on the contrary, everything and everyone is subject to Him. Providence gives testimony to the “wise, eternal, and omnipotent God.”
The first paragraph of this sixth chapter identifies the two main aspects of God’s providence: preservation and government. God provides for all that He has made. The creation did not only in the beginning receive its existence from God. But thereafter, moment by moment, He upholds and preserves the creation and every individual creature within the creation: “We believe that all things in heaven and on earth, and all creatures, are preserved…by the providence of this wise, eternal and almighty God.”
But besides sustaining all His creatures—providence as preservation—God also governs all things that He has created. That takes the doctrine of providence a step further. God upholds all things, but He upholds them in such a way that they serve His purpose. Of the two elements of God’s providence, this aspect is on the foreground in this sixth chapter of the SHC. This is the element of providence that is mentioned in the title of the chapter: “All Things Are Governed by the Providence of God.” In the body of the chapter, God’s government is included with preservation as the two elements included in God’s providence. And then once more, towards the end of the paragraph, Bullinger speaks yet again of God “governing all things by His omnipotence.” Clearly, this is the outstanding element of providence. For it is especially in this element of providence that God displays that He is the “wise, eternal, and almighty God.”
In His providence, the whole creation and every creature in the creation accomplish God’s sovereign will. Two things are involved in this aspect of God’s providence. First, God’s eternal decree, which is His predetermined will according to which He controls all things, is involved. And, secondly, providence involves God’s everywhere present power—His everywhere present power. Providence is God’s active power within the creation, according to which He actually causes everything that happens to serve the purpose that He has ordained. God has a “plan” and every event in history, no matter how monumental or inconsequential in our estimation, is included in this plan. All creatures, no matter how great or small, good or evil, angelic or demonic, the God-fearing and the God-denying, confessors of Christ and those who blaspheme His holy name, accomplish the purpose of God according to providence.
In the end, that purpose of God is His own glory. That is the great purpose that God’s providence has in view. All His upholding and governing of the creation has in view His own glory by all that He has made. But in the goodness of God, to His own glory He has joined the salvation of His church. The salvation of the church is not a distinct purpose of God in providence. It is one and the same purpose as God’s own glory. For God is glorified in and by His church. His great glory is accomplished perfectly and ultimately in the salvation and glorification of His beloved church. This is exactly what God’s providence ensures.
The scope of God’s providence
Admittedly, Bullinger does not specifically address in this sixth chapter of the SHC the issue of the scope of God’s providence, that is, what is included in God’s providence. Nevertheless, he does make plain that nothing is outside of God’s providence and that all things are included in and subservient to God’s providence. He does that in especially two ways.
First of all, he teaches the all-comprehensive nature of God’s providence when, along with Augustine, he cites Jesus’ word in Matthew 10. Bullinger appeals appropriately to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10 regarding God’s care of sparrows and of flowers. Jesus’ argument here—a solid, logical argument—is an argument from the least to the greatest. If God has a care for the least of His creatures, sparrows and flowers, does He not have a care for all His creatures? Clearly, He does. If these most insignificant of His creatures are comprehended in the providence of God, then all things are included in God’s providence.
In the second place, Bullinger teaches the all-comprehensive scope of God’s providence when he teaches clearly that God’s rational, moral creatures are included in His providence. Without specifically calling attention to this fact, the Scripture passages to which he appeals support this truth. According to, God beholds all who are in heaven and on the earth. That clearly includes the angels, who inhabit heaven, and men who are on the earth. He quotes , in the first verse of which the psalmist exclaims, “O Lord thou hast searched me, and known me.” And in verse 4 of the same psalm he confesses, “For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.” And in , the apostle teaches that “in him [that is, in God] we live, and move, and have our being.” In God “we,” that is, “we rational, moral creatures,” have our existence.
God’s providence includes His rational, moral creatures. That means not only human beings, but also angels and demons. Without violating the nature with which God has made His rational, moral creatures, without making them automatons, without making them stocks and blocks, in a way that is incomprehensible to us, God’s providence governs also all rational, moral creatures. Everything, absolutely everything is included in the providence of God. All things are subject to the government of God in providence.
This is the comfort of the truth of providence. “We believe that all things in heaven and on earth, and all creatures, are preserved and governed by the providence of this wise, eternal and almighty God.” And, therefore, we rest assured that nothing can be against us, but that all things must be for us.
1 This is basically the definition of providence that is given in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 27.