God's faithful and effective care and guidance of everything which He has made toward the end which He has chosen.
The opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) asks: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Answer: “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ who… so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation.” This statement gets at the heart of the biblical doctrine of providence. We can distinguish this understanding of providence from several distortions which have been advanced throughout the history of the church:
fatalism: the view that all events are determined by an inviolable law of cause and effect. This was a popular doctrine among the Stoics (as in Seneca's treatise, De Providentia) who believed that all history and human life was subject to Fate.
deism: the idea that God created the world but then withdrew from its day-to-day governance, leaving it to run by itself as a machine. Deism safeguards the transcendence of God at the expense of His immanence.
pantheism: this is the opposite error of deism, for it virtually identifies God with His creation. God is a kind of World Soul or impersonal force which permeates all the universe.
dualism: the view that two opposing forces in the universe are locked in struggle with each other for its control. The ancient religions of Zoroaster and Mani posited two coeternal principles, darkness and light. A modern variant of this theory is set forth by process theology which holds that God is limited by the evolving universe, caught in a struggle with forces over against His control.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for providence (pronoia) occurs only once, and that with reference to human rather than divine foresight (Acts 24:2). The verbal form (pronoeo) meaning “to know in advance” is found twice in the New Testament and eleven times in the Greek Old Testament. Yet the theme of God's provident care for the created order is present in all levels of the bibical material. The Psalms are filled with allusions to God's direction and sustenance of the creation. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork (Psalms 19:1). God directs the seasons (Psalms 104:19); the clouds are His chariot, the winds His messenger (Psalms 104:3); He stills the storms and girds the mountain ranges (Psalms 107:29;
Psalms 65:6); everything that hath breath is exhorted to praise the Lord “for his mighty acts” (Psalms 150:2,Psalms 150:6). The so-called nature Psalms are not dedicated to the glory of nature, but to the God who created and sustains it with His fatherly care.
Providence is related to creation on the one hand and to the history of salvation on the other. Theologians speak of this second aspect as “special” providence. In
Nehemiah 9:6-38, God's general and special providence are brought together in the same passage. “Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven,… the earth, and all things that are therein,… and thou preservest them all… Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram,. . And madest known unto them thy… precepts,… by the hand of Moses… thou art a gracious and merciful God.… who keepest covenant.” After the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and during the long period of Exile, confidence in God's providence sustained the children of Israel through all of their doubts and disappointments (compare
Two classic passages in the New Testament direct Christians to focus on God's providential care as a remedy for overanxious concerns. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded His hearers not to worry about tomorrow, since the Heavenly Father cares much more for them than the birds of the air or the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:25-34). The point is not that following Christ will exempt one from trouble or pain. What it does provide is the assurance of God's presence in the midst of the stormy tempests of life. Armed with this assurance we can face whatever may come in the knowledge that God will care for us, as He does daily for the birds and flowers.
Romans 8:28 (NIV) says: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This does not mean that everything which happens to us is good, nor necessarily the result of a “snap decision” by God. It does mean that nothing can ever happen to us apart from the knowledge, presence, and love of God, and that in the most desperate of circumstances God is always at work towards the good. We are not given to understand how this is so. We are only told that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18-25).
The doctrine of providence encompasses many other themes in the Bible as well. Scripture presents God working in various ways to accomplish His purpose. Often God works through secondary causes such as natural law or special messengers, such as the angels. Sometimes God effects His will directly through miracles or other supernatural happenings. Frequently enough, as William Cowper put it, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” Because we are sure that God is for us, not against us, we can afford to live with this mystery which impugns neither God's sovereignty nor His goodness. In our own day, the doctrine of providence has been challenged by the enormity of evil in the world. Some theologians have attempted to devise a theodicy, a rational justification of God's providential rule, as a response to the problem of evil. Yet the Bible itself presents no systematic answer to this dilemma. It affirms only the reality of evil, its vicious, demonic power in the present age, and the certainty of Christ's ultimate victory over its every manifestation (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). In the meanwhile, Christians can face the future in the confidence that nothing “in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39 NRSV). See Election; God; Predestination.