The doctrine of the providence of God is generally treated from the aspect of three elements which constitute the Lord’s providential control of all things: preservation, cooperation and government. Before we call attention to these three elements in particular, we wish to present a brief historical review of this doctrine as set forth by the late Prof. L. Berkhof in his “Reformed Dogmatics, pages 165-166:
With its doctrine of providence the Church took position against both the Epicurean notion that the world is governed by chance, and the Stoic view that it is ruled by fate. From the very start theologians took the position that God preserves and governs the world. However, they did not always have an equally absolute conception of the divine control of all things. Due to close connection between the two, the history of the doctrine of providence follows in the main that of the doctrine of predestination. The earliest Church Fathers present no definite views on the subject. In opposition to the Stoic doctrine of fate and in their desire to guard the holiness of God, they sometimes over-emphasized the free will of man, and to that extent manifested a tendency to deny the absolute providential rule of God with respect to sinful actions. There the undersigned wishes to make a remark. The late Prof. Berkhof speaks here of an over-emphasis upon the free will of man. This should have been borne in mind in 1924 when the Christian Reformed Church formulated its Three Points. In Point One they speak of a general love of God to all men, revealing itself particularly in the preaching of the gospel. This means that the gospel is an offer of grace and salvation, and such an offer must imply, of course, that the man to whom the offer is extended is able to accept that offer. And this, we understand, surely places an “over-emphasis” upon the free will of man.) Augustine led the way in the development of this doctrine (this surely must mean that he led the way in the development, not “of the doctrine of the denial of the absolute providential rule of God with respect to sinful actions, but of the Scriptural doctrine of the providence of God—H.V.) Over against the doctrines of fate and chance, he stressed the fact that all things are preserved and governed by the sovereign, wise, and beneficent will of God. He made no reservations in connection with the providence of God, but maintained the control of God over the good and the evil that is in the world alike. By defending the reality of second causes, he safeguarded the holiness of God and upheld the responsibility of man.
During the Middle Ages there was very little controversy on the subject of divine providence. Not a single council expressed itself on this doctrine. The prevailing view was that of Augustine, which subjected everything to the will of God. This does not mean, however, that there were no dissenting views. Pelagianism limited providence to the natural life, and excluded the ethical life. And Semi-Pelagians moved in the same direction, though they did not all go equally far. Some of the Scholastics considered the conservation of God as a continuation of His creative activity, while others made a real distinction between the two. Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of divine providence follows in the main that of Augustine, and holds that the will of God, as determined by His perfections, preserves and governs all things; while Duns Scotus and such Nominalists as Biel and Occam made everything dependent on the arbitrary will of God. This was a virtual introduction of the rule of chance.
The Reformers on the whole subscribed to the Augustinian doctrine of divine providence, though they differed somewhat in details. While Luther believed in general providence, he does not stress God’s preservation and government of the world in general as much as Calvin does. He considers the doctrine primarily in its soteriological bearings. Socinians and Arminians, though not both to the same degree, limited the providence of God by stressing the independent power of man to initiate action and thus to control his life. The control of the world was really taken out of the hands of God, and given into the hands of man, In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries providence was virtually ruled out by a Deism which represented God as withdrawing Himself from the world after the work of creation; and by a Pantheism which identified God and the world, obliterated the distinction between creation and providence, and denied the reality of second causes. And while Deism may now be considered as a thing of the past, its view of the control of the world is continued in the position of natural science that the world is controlled by an iron-clad system of laws. And modern liberal theology, with its pantheistic conception of the immanence of God, also tends to rule out the doctrine of divine providence.
The late Prof. L. Berkhof, in his Reformed Dogmatics, very often presents that which is contained in the Reformed Dogmatics of Dr. H. Bavinck, an acknowledged authority on the history of doctrine. Of interest, of course; is what we read in the above quotation of the teachings of Pelagius and Arminius. We will have opportunity to return TV this in due time. In the meantime, this may suffice as far as an historical review is concerned of the doctrine of the providence of God.
The doctrine of the providence of God repudiates two heresies in connection with the existence and development of all things in the midst of the world: Deism and Pantheism. To be sure, the word “providence” itself is hardly adequate to define what the Scriptures mean when they speak of the Lord’s providential rule over all things. The word itself simply means: foresight, a seeing beforehand. At best, the word “providence” could simply mean that the Lord, taking heed of the need of all His creatures, provides for them in all their needs. In former days, when it was customary to heat our homes with coal, it was foresight to purchase a winter’s supply of coal in advance. We understand, of course, that the Lord did not merely “see things beforehand,” but that He sovereignly controls and determines all things. And the doctrine of the providence of God certainly refers to His almighty and omnipresent power whereby He sustains all things and also governs them unto the realization of His eternal and sovereign purpose in connection with all things.
Deism is the conception which separates God from the world. According to Deism God’s concern with the world is not universal and constant, special and perpetual, but only of a general nature. The world is like an alarm clock; it is wound up and then proceeds to run of itself. When the Lord created the world He gave to all His creatures certain inalienable properties, placed them under invariable laws, and then left them to work out their destiny by their own inherent powers. The world really runs of itself. The Lord may retain a certain general oversight of the world, not of any specific details, but of the general laws which He has established. The world is simply a machine which God has placed in motion, but it is not a ship which is constantly controlled and directed to a certain goal or harbor. This deistic conception of the providence of God is characteristic of Pelagianism, was adopted by several Roman Catholic theologians, and is also one of the fundamental errors of Arminianism.
The heresy of Deism certainly applies to Pelagianism and Arminianism. To be sure, the Pelagian and Arminian may agree to the providence of God as far our natural life is concerned, but they are certainly deistic as far as their conception is concerned of the Lord’s rule over the spiritual conduct and activities of all His moral creatures. It is characteristic of the Pelagian and Arminian that they drive a wedge between God and the sinner, and that wedge is the will of man. The Lord, then, is dependent upon the will of the sinner. And this is also true as far as the Three Points of 1924 are concerned. These Points speak of the gospel as an offer of salvation, and that the natural man is able to please God without the regeneration of his heart. Man is in control of his own destiny. He determines whether he shall be saved or not. Actually, the Lord stands helplessly by, offering to all men His salvation, and utterly dependent upon the sinner and his will as far as the actual bestowal of that salvation is concerned. And this applies not only to the initial bestowal of faith and grace, but the sinner must continue to will that salvation of the Lord even until the end. It is the position of the Arminian that, once saved, the sinner can still be lost and perish. He must persevere until the end, and his ultimate salvation is surely dependent upon that sinner’s perseverance.
Deism is, of course, denied by Holy Writ. We will not at this time discuss the relation between God’s providence and sin. The Lord willing, we will return to that in due time. But Scripture certainly denies the conception of Deism. Many Scriptures could be quoted. But we will limit ourselves to what we read inMatthew 6:25-29: “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take you thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arranged like one of these.” This passage needs no elucidation. Besides, do not the Scriptures also teach us that not one sparrow can fall off the housetop without the will of our heavenly Father, and that all the hairs of our heads are numbered? The deistic separation between God and the world is certainly repudiated throughout Holy Writ.
The doctrine of the providence of God, however, also repudiates the error of Pantheism. Pantheism identifies God with the world. Whereas Deism separates God from the world, Pantheism identifies the Lord with His creature. It does not recognize the distinction between God and the world. It either absorbs the world in God or God in the world. God is the world. Of course, then there is neither creation nor providence. Then the Lord certainly did not create anything outside of Himself. Then there is simply no world apart from God. And the result is that there is no God, and that for the simple reason that all that is left is the world. Pantheism, that all is God or that God is the world, and, therefore, there is no God, is, of course, the end of all religion. It is also the end of all morality. If there be no God, then there is no life of prayer possible, and this for the simple reason that there is nobody to whom prayer can be made. Then there is also no morality and no sense or guilt of sin. In fact, then there is simply no sin because there is no God against whom anyone can sin. Pantheism is the end of all responsibility of man, the end of all prayer life, the end of all morality and consciousness of sin. Then man can live as he pleases, except possibly for the exception that mankind must lead respectable lives with a view to their preservation. And imagine what would become of this world if there were no God! Fact is, all men are conceived and born dead in sins and in trespasses. Then there would be nobody able to transform that hopelessly and helplessly dead sinner. Then there would be nobody able to call one sinner out of death into life, out of darkness into the light. Then sin would have an absolutely free reign. But pantheism is certainly denied by Scripture. Everywhere in Holy Writ the truth is proclaimed that the Lord is God alone, that He is infinitely exalted above the creature. We read in I Kings 8:27: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” And we are all acquainted with the word of Isaiah, in Isaiah 40:15, 17: “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. All nations before Him are as nothing; and they are counted to Him less than nothing, and vanity.”