A review essay of Bruce Reichenbach, Divine Providence
Too often, when a discussion of God’s providence is brought to the table, it is framed in such a way that only trained philosophers or theologians can fully understand it. Thus large, awkward words eclipse simple, useable ones, and impenetrable logical syllogisms clash like warring armies in the night. In the end no one is served because overly-wrought, abstract ideas inveigh the steady practice of commonsense reasoning. What is supposed to be a pastorally-informed doctrine, then, – the foresight by which God lovingly provides and cares for his creation – is turned into a philosophical category seemingly divorced from the daily concerns of the church.
What’s more, philosophical analysis of divine providence is often a Procrustean bed fit snuggly over a small handful of isolated verses in Scripture. Instead of being the definitive guide for understanding providence, Scripture is merely an ancillary tool used to support sexier, metaphysically muscular philosophical definitions. Philosophy is an important tool for theology and exegesis, to be sure. But it cannot be the controlling paradigm by which to think about a topic that finds its locus explicitly in the biblical narrative. For in Scripture God’s providence is manifest in the daily lives of the people of Israel or the nascent churches in Acts or Corinth. This is not the God of the philosophers, in others words. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: a personal God who is intimately invested in the lives of his people.
Therefore, Bruce Reichenbach can open his book on divine providence by stating simply: “Scripture repeatedly recounts the intentional actions of the providential God.” A philosopher of great distinction, Reichenbach seeks to have his view of divine providence be formed – and informed – by the biblical text first. Accordingly, his opening pages survey the expansive landscape of Scripture, from Abraham’s binding of Isaac (Gen. 22) to God’s new covenant “established by the death and resurrection of Jesus” (Heb. 7:22; 8:13). From his point of view, the biblical writers “see divine providence spreading a wide umbrella over both natural and human events.”
The late theologian and ecumenical statesman Thomas Oden suggested that the root meaning for the term providence is to foresee or provide. Taken from the Latin, pro-videre, which meant to see ahead or anticipate, providence is primarily about God’s ability to provide for his people as he is able to see down the road, as it were, and plan according to future events. Although not stated explicitly, Reichenbach seems to share Oden’s view as he says that, “God provides for nature and through nature for humans” (looking to Job 5:10; Isa 43:20; Matt 5:45). And again, “God provides for all nations and peoples,” bringing, “food in abundance” (Job 36:31). Furthermore, God “provides a Passover lamb as protection from the deathly plague” (Exod 12), “gushes water from the rocks where there seems to be none” (Exod 17:5-6), and “brings decisive victory on the battlefield” (Deut 7:17-24). Looking to the incorporeal elements of divine provision, Reichenbach underscores the fact that humans receive God’s “offering of redemption” (Ps 111:9), “adoption into God’s family” (Eph 1:5), “the Spirit to guide us into truth (Jn 16:13), and “the Scriptures for our teaching, training, and correction” (2 Tim 3:16). In short, God knows the full scope of our needs – physical, spiritual, corporate, and individual – and graciously provides for them out of an abundant measure of his love, wisdom, and tender, Fatherly care.
The other side of divine providence is the notion foresight. That is, God provides for humans in the present because he can anticipate, or foresee, their need before it happens. Reichenbach identifies three “dimensions” that demonstration divine providence.
First, it proclaims God’s goodness insofar as God declares what he makes to be good and through love and grace seeks the good of blessing for what he created. God in his goodness is the source of blessing or happiness. Second, providence presupposes God’s power by which God realizes his purposes by his actions in the cosmos and, more especially, in the affairs of humanity. Third, providence invokes God’s wisdom revealed in his plans and purposes, to his understanding of the present and further, by which God directs us to what is good for us.
It is this third dimension that I want to touch on briefly here, for it speaks to the core argument of Reichenbach’s book. So: What are God’s purposes? Again, going back to Scripture, Reichenbach says that, “Scripture reveals that God has purposes for the universe as a whole, for groups and nations, and for particular individuals.” As to the first of these, he points to Ephesians 1:10: God intends “to sum up all things in heaven and on earth in Christ.” As to the second and third, he directs us to God’s intentions to graft the Gentiles into Israel to create one family with Christ as the head (Rom. 11). And as to the last, individuals, God desires to conform them to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ (Rom 8:39), and to show “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us” (Eph. 2:7). Throughout Scripture, moreover, we can see God calling particular individuals to carry out his purposes not only for their own sakes, but for the nation of Israel, the church, or the world as a whole. King Cyrus, the Apostle Paul, and Abraham would fit neatly into these categories.
Reichenbach warns against turning these particular callings into a normative rule for our own lives – as many are inclined to do. These are clearly examples of God working through select individuals in order to fulfill his promises and to further his plan of cosmic redemption realized in Christ. My calling to be a pastor, or your calling to be a doctor, or teacher, or whatever, are not the same as David’s calling to be King of Israel. Concerning God’s plans for human vocation, Reichenbach says rightly, I think: “God calls us to bring him into what we do, making him an essential aspect of our being and doing, wherein we take pleasure in our doing and serve others.” He goes on to suggest that, “generally vocation is not to be understood in the sense that God wants you to do this particular task in contrast to everything else, such that engaging in any other task runs counter to God’s will for you.” Your vocation is not cemented in the mind of God, in other words. To make it such may place an enormous degree of stress on a person. After all, what if you missed your calling?The primary question is, What is the scope of God’s plans and purposes for creation? No one doubts that God has plans and purposes for us. The heart of the matters is to what degree do those plans situate the details of our daily lives? To suggest that every aspect of our existence is planed according to a pre-determined blueprint is to advance a view known as meticulous sovereignty. On this view, “believers . . . say that whatever happens to them – good, bad, or indifferent – is part of God’s plan; God has and works his purpose in each event that he realizes.” As I mentioned in my first post, the view of meticulous sovereignty is often used by pastors to comfort the bereaved or to offer solace to those experiencing difficult, seemingly insurmountable, circumstances. The intentions behind its use are understandable, and I am deeply sympathetic to them. But by the same token, there is another, very disturbing side to this view that often escapes our sight, which is:
Some events bring unrelieved pain, serious suffering, and dysfunction that seem individually unrequited. Other events introduce obstacles to our realizing our perceived vocation. On the large scale it is difficult, if not impossible, to think that Stalin’s ruthless pogroms and murders in the Katyn Forest, the deadly deportation marches of the Armenians, Hitler’s racial cleansing and hideous concentration camps, Pol Pot’s massacres of his Cambodian people, that brutal Hutu genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, and the tragic slaughters by ISIS in Syria and Iraq are part of God’s plan for the good of the people affected. Is is difficult, if not impossible, to think that the colonial, degrading plantation enslavement and mistreatment of Africans and the American willful destruction of Native American cultures, the demeaning segregation of Blacks, Indians, and Colored by white Southern Africans, the trafficking of women and children for prostitution in India, and mass murders in a Colorado theater and a Connecticut elementary school are part of God’s plan for the good of those so maltreated. And on the individual level, it is difficult to believe that contracting pancreatic or brain cancer, macular eye degeneration, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders, and so much more are part of God’s detailed plans for an individual’s good and not harm. . . In short, not only is it difficult to believe in meticulous providence in the face of this evil, it demeans the sufferers themselves to say that this seemingly gratuitous suffering is part of God’s best plan of blessing for them (Italics mine).
Surely you get the point. Better, though, is the view that God’s plans for us are often broad and generalized, while only occasionally being pointed and specifically invoked. This view takes human freedom seriously, and it furthermore maintains the character of God as one of enduring goodness and loving-kindness. For if God planned the atrocities mentioned above and countless others besides, then we have every duty to question his character as a loving God, worthy of our worship, adoration, and sole allegiance.
To close this chapter, Reichenbach gives us an image. Sovereignty, he suggests, invokes the image of a political relationship, namely, that between a governing ruler and the governed. On this score, not everything that happens aligns with the governors will, nor does he/she get to determine the outcome of everything they want. The scope of the governor’s rule is set by the freedom allowed for their people. If significant freedom is granted, then it stands to reason that the governor is limited in their range of action – assuming, of course, they continue to respect the integrity of this arrangement. Thus, “In granting significant freedom to their subjects, sovereigns make it possible for their authority and will to be freely obeyed and also freely resisted,” Reichenbach notes. Furthermore, “If sovereigns command their subjects to do some act and if the subjects are free, they can refuse – although at the same time they must bear the consequences of their refusal.”
In the Christian tradition, as we see clearly in Scripture, God is sovereign over his creation. God not only oversees it, but has purposes to bring it all to the same fruition. This is not a democracy, however. We do not elect God as our sovereign. No; in his inscrutable grace, God initiates a relationship with humans by offering and binding himself to a covenant, whereby we are his people and he is our God. By virtue of this relationship, humans have a choice in the matter. Abraham had the freedom to reject God’s call. Human freedom is not an illusory proposition labored over by philosophers. Humans are free to respond to God’s love or not. God initiates; humans respond: that is the defining characteristic of our relationship.
As Reichenbach notes, “significant sovereignty between free persons, then, is more like a dance between two partners. They need not be equal in skill or ability, power or knowledge. In our case, it is the covenant dace of life. The key to the dance is God’s desire to be in a covenant partnership with those he created.” Thus, as God moves, we move, as we move, God moves – each movement taken is in a concert of mutual love, joy, and respect – until we reach our final end, where Christ is all in all to the glory of God the Father.