What is divine providence?
The fundamental idea of providence is that God is guiding history to his appointed end. There is no debate about that. God is working on his good plan in the upholding of creation and the direction of all things toward his ultimate goal. God is active and guiding and limiting evil and his plan includes people who are acting according to their own decisions.
This is not deism where the idea of God is far away from us and doesn’t show up. It is not pantheism and not determinism: God is active and involved in this world. Within evangelicalism I find a number of people who are what we call semi-deist. They believe that God is up there, in heaven, and can do miracles and sometimes does. The idea of the crucifixion may be questionable for these people. Jesus went back to heaven and isn’t very active in this world.
They know that God can do miracles but they don’t expect miracles in their own lives. This is a form of semi-deism and I think a lot of Christians are at this place. God is sovereign and powerful, Father and Savior but not really involved in this world. This is really unfortunate because Jesus told us that he will be with us always. Without doubt, we have a relationship with a God that is present among us.
How close does God control this world? Views differ greatly within the Christian community. Let’s look at three different views: There is ‘meticulous providence’ where God is in meticulous control; nothing happens that is outside of God’s meticulous providence. So God meticulously controls all events, nothing happens except for what he has decreed. In this situation, people act according to their desires as usually but there can only be one outcome and that is what God decreed. Everything that happens is according to God’s will; nothing goes against God’s will. There is a paradox called compatibilism where God is in sovereign control of everything, this includes every detail and humans are responsible for evil. This is contradictive, because if God is in control then how can humans be responsible for evil?
Everything that happens, including all the evil in this world, is a result of God’s decree and it is the most glorifying task for God to do, including all the evil. And so God is most glorified by everything that happens in this world, as it happens. Evil is a chance for him to display his redemptive glory. We don’t know the reason for these things but we know that everything that happens has a divine purpose and plan behind it. Lots of people hold this view, even well-known teachers and preachers. So, again, everything that happens is a result of God’s working.
Another view is called active providence. This is the idea that the sovereignty of God means that he is not accountable to anybody and he does what he wants, but within the limits of his will and within the limits of restraint there is choice for people to make and people can make such choices that are against his will but not out of his control. There is a contrary choice within some limits and people can make decisions that are against his will. So God limits freedom and evil but there are things that happen that are genuinely against his will and he gets angry about it. So there are things that actually happen against God’s will but not out of control. So this is called active providence.
There is a third view called the free will providence. God has given the gift of free will and he doesn’t interfere with this free will nor does he restrain this free will. People get to make their own choices and God allows that kind of free will because he wants to have a genuine love relationship. So again, God is not accountable to anybody but he isn’t controlling everything. In fact, in this sense, he is not controlling much of anything. There is genuine libertarian free will, genuine contrary choice and God governs his will as a king covers his subjects. He protects, he influences but he doesn’t control. People have freedom to make their own decisions and God does this because he wants to honor our choice. He doesn’t force anybody to do his will except in rare occurrences. Again, there are highly respected theologians who subscribe to this view, even C.S. Lewis and Philip Yanez and many others. And when something happens, it is all to do with free will. So the paradox is how can God have free will and still know that we are going to come out okay at the end.
The question still remains: how close does God control the world? People from each of these views argue with one another with regard to which is right. We have a verse in Acts 4:27 where Peter is speaking and praying about being bold in sharing Jesus with others. Here it says that they decided what your will was before it should happen. So we see that the greatest evil in the world was decided by God beforehand. Then the crucifixion of Christ was predetermined by God and they did what God wanted them to do.
In Ephesians 1:11, "in him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of glory." Here, we see that God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. So what do we say about suffering and evil? Look at Habakkuk 1:2 where he says, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘violence’?” God responds by saying that he is raising up the Chaldeans, a ruthless people and they will come judge and destroy Jerusalem. So there is a play where God uses evil. All of these are used to support the meticulous providence of God. In Isaiah 1, God calls the people saying to them, “come, let us reason together.”
So God’s call is to repent and if you repent, you will eat from the best land but if not, you will be put to the sword. The choice is the person’s, not God’s choice. And God is responding to their choice: if they say yes, they’re okay, if they say no, they will suffer and God knows the outcome. In free will providence, people will say that it isn’t God’s choice; it is the people’s choice. For my view, I take active providence; I think there are times where God controls the smallest detail; the crucifixion being an example of this. I think there are times when God backs off and lets people make choices where all are approved actions on the part of people.
Romans 8:20 says that God causes all things to work together. This comes under the meticulous providence view. So what is the relationship between God and all things? We know that in all things God works for those who love him. So in all things, God is at work. So ‘all things’ are the context in which God works; so God doesn’t cause all things, rather in all things God works. In Romans 8:28, "we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." God is the object of love, not the subject of all things. We see that different translations actually theologically support different views which show up as an ambiguity within the original text to understanding this. For example, the ESV is more inclined toward the free will view. The NIV leans more toward the first one.