God’s Providence as Preservation
The providence of God is rather commonly distinguished as consisting in preservation, cooperation, and government. As we have already remarked, the whole stress of our Confession is on the element of government. This latter element we shall discuss in due course; and, in connection therewith we shall also treat the element of so-called cooperation. But though our Confession makes little reference to the element of preservation, it is nevertheless necessary to develop the idea of it because the latter element is basic to that of God’s government. Without divine preservation there could be no divine government in any real sense of the word. If the existence of the creature were altogether apart from God, the movement and development of the creature and of all creatures together would be outside the control and direction of God. Hence, the preserving power of God’s providence, and that too, in a very real sense of the word, is presupposed by our Confession. It is implied in the statement that “God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them . . .” And, of course, this element of preservation is mentioned in the article on creation: “That he doth also still uphold . . . them by his eternal providence, and infinite power.”
We stated above that the truth of divine preservation is basic to the truth of divine government. This is so obvious that one would almost call it a truism. Nevertheless, it is important that we understand this relationship. Just as the movement and development of the creature, as well as the inter-action of all creatures mutually, are inseparable from the very existence and mode of existence of the creature, so God’s government of the creature is inseparable from the truth that God upholds the very being of the creature from moment to moment. Indeed, though one may readily distinguish, he can never separate between the elements of preservation and government. The relationship might even be stated this way: God’s government of every creature is so complete that it includes the very existence of the creature. And when the matter is thus stated, it is readily understandable that our Confession concentrates its attention on the truth of divine government.
But what, then, is implied in the element of providence that we call preservation? What is meant by preservation?
Preservation is the almighty and omnipresent power of God whereby He upholds all things so that they continue to exist.
This is a marvelous and—we may add at once—a little noticed and little thought of wonder of God. Let us try, in the light of Scripture, to understand a little of this wonder-work of God’s providence.
First of all, we must rid our minds of every mechanical and physical conception of divine preservation. God is a spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. We must have no physical and material conception of the hand of God whereby He upholds all things. We must not conceive of things as though somewhere there is a hand of God in which all existent things are deposited, as though, moreover, it were conceivable that God would drop them, and as though then, furthermore, they would continue to exist, but no more in God’s hand. If in that-sense of the word I uphold an object, that object has existence before I uphold it; and even though I should allow it to drop, that object would continue to have existence. If I uphold an object in my hand, that object does not receive its continued existence through my act of upholding it. When, therefore, we speak with Scripture of God’s act of upholding all things, this does not presuppose any existence of things apart from His upholding power, nor the possibility that the creature would continue to exist should God drop it from His hand. The Almighty thus upholds all things in heaven and on earth that, should He drop any creature, it would simply be nowhere: it could not possibly exist even for another second.
In the second place, and positively, we must certainly define God’s providence in terms of His immanence and transcendence. God is the Immanent One; and as the Immanent One, He is the Transcendent One. And the Immanent-Transcendent. God is the God of providence.
When we confess God’s transcendence, we confess that God is essentially other than the creature. He is greater than the creature. And this greatness is not a difference of degree, according to which God would after all be in the realm of the creature, even though He were at the pinnacle of all created things. But our God is infinitely greater than the creature. He is the Creator! And when the creative work is finished, then He remains the Creator in relation to all the creatures of His hand. There is an infinite chasm between the Being of God and the being of every creature. “Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee . . .” I Kings 2:37. And “the Lord of heaven and earth dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” Acts 17:24. He is infinite in His being and nature, in His virtues and attributes, He is the I Am, the self-sufficient, independent God. And He is far exalted above all that is called creature. The creature is finite, exists in time, is changeable and changing, is always dependent, has no existence in itself. Mark well, however, that the Biblical and Reformed confession of this transcendence of God is not the same as the heresy of Deism. According to the latter, God is not merely infinitely above the world. If that were the teaching of Deism, we would not have a quarrel with the Deist. Deism teaches that God, having created all things,withdraws Himself completely from the, universe and has nothing to do with it any more. All things operate from within according to increated laws and ordinances and powers. In other words, as our Confession puts it, God forsook His creation. God’s transcendence certainly implies that He is in the most absolute sense of the word qualitatively and incomparably “other” than the creature. The creaturely qualities of time and space simply cannot be applied to Him.
But Pantheism errs in another direction. Usually it is said that Pantheism teaches God’s immanence at the expense of His transcendence. But this is hardly true, and it betrays a wrong conception of God’s immanence when Pantheism is thus portrayed. As we stated in another connection, Pantheism identifies the creature with God and God with the creature. It elevates—and this is the pride of sin—the creature to the level of the Creator, and thus commits the sin of making the Creator like unto the creature. But by so doing it denies both the immanence and the transcendence of God.
God’s immanence means that He is in all things, and that too, while being and remaining the transcendent God.
One of the passages often cited in support of the truth of God’s immanence is the well-known passage ofPsalm 139: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and my right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.” vss. 7-12. Or think of Acts 17:27, 28: “That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being . . .” But very frequently, especially in the Psalms, this immanence of God is concretely presented. And while it is certainly true that the presentation of the Psalms is poetic, and while in the passages to which I refer there are many of what are called anthropomorphic expressions, nevertheless such expressions may never be explained in such a way that we deprive them of their very real meaning with respect to God and His immanence. Concerning this the Rev. H. Hoeksema writes in his “Theology” (mimeographed edition), pp. 43, 44: “To be sure, all these expressions in Scripture that ascribe to God human passions and creaturely virtues, and even members of the human body, are not intended to be understood literally; nor do they ever leave that impression. For then indeed God would be degraded to the level of the creature, and. the distinction between Him and the world would be obliterated. Rightly, the church has always considered them figures of speech, anthropomorphisms. God is a Spirit of infinite perfections. What is present in the creature is always infinitely present in Him. But they are not mere empty figures, without a basis in fact. They may not be so understood that the creature is the pattern for God or for our knowledge of Him. On the contrary, they are based on the truth that all things are made and sustained by the Word of God, so made that they are a reflection of the nature and glorious virtues of Him that called them into existence by His omnipotent will. God is immanent in the world. He is very near us. In Him we live and move and have our being. And there is affinity and similarity between Him and the whole creation.”
With this in mind we may mention a few such passages which portray this immanence of God so vividly. According to Psalm 104, God covers Himself with light as with a garment, stretches out the heavens like a curtain, lays the beams of his chambers in the waters, makes the clouds His chariot, walks upon the wings of the wind, sends the springs into the valleys, waters the hills from His chambers, causes the grass to grow, brings forth food for man and beast, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man, oil to make his face to shine, and bread that strengthens his heart. According to this same Psalm, it is God that makes darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest do creep forth, when the young lions do roar after their prey, and “seek their meat from God.” In fact, all creatures receive their meat from His hand; and when He hides His face they are troubled. When He taketh away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. According to Psalm 147, it is God who covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain, makes the grass to grow upon the mountains, gives to the beast and the young ravens their food, gives snow like wool, scatters hoarfrost like ashes, casts forth his ice like morsels, melts them by His Word, causes the wind to blow and the waters to flow. Also according to Scripture, God has a face, has eyes and eyelids, ears, nose, mouth, lips, neck, arm, right hand, fingers, a heart, bowels, a bosom, a foot. He comes down, looks down, sits and stands, works and rests. He comes and goes, He laughs, He mocks, He speaks, He sees, hears, inclines His ear, kills and makes alive. And thus Scripture passages can be multiplied which speak very vividly and concretely of God’s immanence. He is indeed not far from any one of us!
It is these truths which lie at the basis of the truth that “God upholds all things by the Word of his power.”Hebrews 1:3.