Risky Business? A Defence of the No Risk View of Providence



Here is part of an account of an incident involving General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s chaplain, the Confederate officer, Dr Robert Lewis Dabney:

Dr Dabney rode with General Jackson into the very thickest of the fight, on many a hard fought field. The men used to say of their soldier-preacher, “He does not mind it any more than we do.” The gallant Major Nelson frequently met Dr Dabney and discussed with him his doctrine of “Special Providence”, and when on one occasion he heard him directing his men who were under heavy fire to shield themselves as far as possible behind trees and a convenient stone wall he rode up to him and with a graceful military salute said, ‘”Major Dabney, every shot and shell and minnie strikes just where the Lord permits. And you must excuse me, sir, for expressing my surprise that you are directing your men to shelter behind trees and a stone wall and to put such things between themselves and Special Providence.”  But Dr Dabney promptly replied: “Why Major, you do not understand the doctrine of ‘Special Providence.’ I believe it and teach it with all of my heart but I look upon the trees and that stone wall as a very ‘special Providence’ for the men at this time’ and I simply acting on the doctrine when I direct them to avail themselves of these ‘Special providences’.” Major Nelson was convinced and accepted the doctrine of “Special Providence” as Dr Dabney expounded it.’1

This account, which may seem rather quaint today, reveals two things about the doctrine of ‘Special Providence’. First, how common a view it was at that time (although not necessarily in such an Augustian form) and second, how misunderstood it was then, as now, as being a Christianised version of Stoic fate, a kind of ‘Que sera, sera’. Major Nelson was under the misapprehension that the doctrine would lead to idle thinking and idle action (both, interestingly, denied by the Stoics2) and it took Dr Dabney’s answer to show him that the reverse was true, it energised believers.

The view still persists, however, that a ‘strong’ doctrine of providence is hardly distinguishable from fatalism. God is reduced to a cosmic puppet master3, his goodness is compromised and man’s free will effectively rendered illusory.  What is more, it is claimed, the Bible itself is not allowed to be decisive, for the Scripture speaks of God as ‘repenting’ or ‘relenting’ as a result of people praying (Exod. 32:14) which, it is argued, is incompatible with a view of providence where God decrees all things according to the ‘counsel of his will’ and ‘who knows the end from the beginning’.4  It is therefore argued that a more ‘open’ or risk view of providence is needed to preserve the Christian faith’s integrity in these matters.5

This paper proposes that it is in fact a no-risk view of providence which alone can retain the integrity of the Christian faith in terms of its internal coherence and the comprehensive respecting of the biblical data regarding God’s sovereignty. Here are just a few sample texts which affirm God’s absolute rule, and any proposed view of providence must satisfactorily account for them: the entire universe (Ps. 103:19; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11), all of nature (Ps. 135:6–7; Matt. 5:45; 6:25–30), angels and even Satan (Ps. 103:20–21; Job 1:12), all of the nations (Ps. 47:7–9; Dan. 2:20–21; 4:34–35), every human person and his/her choices (Exod. 3:21; 12:26–36; 1 Sam. 2:6–8; Ezra 7:27; Gal. 1:15–16), every animal and its choices (Ps. 104:21–30; 1 Kgs 17:4–6), all events that appear to be ‘accidental’ (Prov. 16:33; Jon. 1:7; Luke 12:6), all the sinful acts of man and Satan (Gen 45:5; 50:20; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Chr. 21:1).6  Whatever texts the ‘risk’ proponents of providence might point to as affording difficulties for the non-risk theist, they are minimal compared to a whole host of texts (and themes) which the risk view cannot deal with sufficiently.7

What is providence and why is it important?

Both the definition and the pastoral entailments of the classic doctrine of providence are set out in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

Question: What do you understand by the providence of God?

Answer: The almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, and rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty and everything else come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

Question: What advantage comes from acknowledging God’s creation and providence?

Answer: We learn that we are to be patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and trust our gracious God and Father for the future, assured that no creature can separate us from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand, that without his will they cannot move.8

David Fergusson gives four reasons for tackling the subject of Divine providence in the current context. First, it is a central article of the Christian faith, necessary for relating the doctrines of creation and redemption. Second, the problem of evil brings into question the divine ordering and an account of providence is required to provide a resource for understanding this and the manifest opposition to it. Third, the way the doctrine has been appropriated by civil religion and political rhetoric (sometimes under the guise of ‘destiny’, for example, Adolf Hitler’s appeal to Shicksal) with the need for an account which is distinctive and would alert us to possible abuses of the topic. And fourthly, it is a subject of great pastoral significance and so requires responsible theological comment.’9

Fergusson’s first point should alert us to the fact that both the shape and content of the particular doctrine one holds with regards to providence will be derived from, and reinforce other key doctrines which form the web of beliefs constituting one’s faith. That is, one’s theology (in the strictest sense of one’s view of God) and anthropology (one’s view of man) will largely be determinative as to whether one adopts a risk-free view of God’s providential activity or a risk-view. For example, if one holds to a libertarian view of human freedom defined as, ‘An agent is free with respect to a given action at a given time if at that time it is within the agent’s power to perform the action and also in the agent’s power to refrain from the action’10 then such human beings must have power to act contrary to God’s purposes and ultimately be able to thwart them. If this is a determinative principle, then for the sake of consistency and coherence this would require a God who would ‘respect’ such freedom and limit himself accordingly. This is the position of ‘Open Theism’.11 Alternatively, if one adopts a voluntarist (or Edwardsian view of human freedom, named after the 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards), where we choose according to our nature, that is, we do what we simply want to do, this would be logically compatible with an understanding of God who is absolute sovereign and wholly omniscient.

One’s view of cosmology also frames the debate to a significant extent. If one is essentially anthropocentric in outlook, viewing the universe as primarily for our wellbeing and the forum in which we exercise our libertarian free will, one will have a rather attenuated and generalised construal of providence which allows little room for ‘Special’ or ‘Meticulous’ providence as held by Dr Dabney for example. But if, with John Calvin, one views the universe as the ‘theatre of God’s glory’,12  and a God ‘by whom and for whom all things exist’ (Eph 1:11) with the church itself as central to God’s cosmic purposes (Eph 1:22-23), then a no-risk conception of providence is not only reasonable but required.

Furthermore, it would seem self-evident that the prefix- ‘omni’ when applied to God’s attributes of power and knowledge (omnipotence and omniscience) suggests maximality, extending to all situations, eventualities and possibilities. It is difficult to see what meaning such terms have within a risk-view of God’s action in the world beyond rhetorical flourish. A no-risk view, however, allows the terms to exercise their full semantic weight and range.

How might that look?

For the no-risk conception of providence as classically understood, the belief is held that the God, who is infinite, outside space and time and so not subject to the limitations we experience, is also personally and intimately involved in space and time with the creatures he has made. He sovereignly rules over all while being God-in-relationship. We see this truth being expressed, for example, in Proverbs 16:4: ‘The Lord [Yahweh] works out everything for his own ends – even the wicked for a day of disaster.’ This means that the affairs and plans of men are known to him and will be used by him to serve his sovereign purpose. Thus his plans are never ultimately stymied by our cleverness and cunning; even wicked people come under his sovereign sway. Furthermore, no matter how powerful a person may be, they do not lie outside the orbit of his eternal decrees: ‘The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases’ (Prov. 21:1). 

Fundamental to the no-risk view is that God’s governance of the universe is a purposive means-end governing. This is ‘positive government’ not a mere ‘responding’ to events, but a superintending of all events to achieve the purposes divinely intended. The ends are brought about by the particular means ordained by God.13

God’s meticulous personal superintending14 also covers what we might call ‘chance’: ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord’ (Prov. 16: 33). Sometimes ‘Chance’ (with a capital ‘C’) is put forward as an alternative causal explanation to God. But this is really a false alternative. Chance is simply a word we use to describe events – like tossing a coin or the mutation of a gene – which either have no discernible order or no discernible cause which we know. This doesn’t mean that such matters are not known to God. Furthermore, ‘Chance’ is not some metaphysical ‘Other’, a positive force which is to be pitted against God and so can be thought of as a God-substitute. To suppose such a thing would be to make a logical blunder. Chance is not an alternative to God – ‘God or Chance’, rather, what we call chance comes under God’s care and design just as much as all the other things which we can predict more accurately like the rising and setting of the sun. He is Lord of all.15

Furthermore, the risk free view of providence entails that there are no unforeseen ‘by-products’ of God’s plans. In the case of human beings such unforeseen and undesired side effects (what some might call ‘collateral damage’) are inevitable simply because we are locked into space and time and so not able to foresee all the consequences of our actions, although some may be anticipated. However, such limitations do not apply to God. Some writers, however, do think that God has such limitations such that although he may want some things to happen, his plans can somehow be thrown off track by rebellious human beings and other circumstances which lie beyond his control or knowledge with the result that he is forced to resort to alternative plans. Here a distinction is sometimes made between God’s antecedent will (what he wishes to happen before an event) and his consequent will (what he wishes to happen in response to that event). But this can hardly be applied to the Almighty Creator who is Lord of heaven and earth. As P. T. Geach rightly says, take ‘the merchantman’s captain who throws his wares overboard in a storm: antecedently he wills to bring them into port, consequently upon the storm he wills to throw them overboard. But the captain only does not will rather to allay the storm because this is not open to him; he is not one whom wind and sea obey’.16

The risk view of providence, however, involves real risk, as it adopts a view of God more akin to the merchantman’s captain mentioned by Geach, but the captain writ large. Here there is the possibility and actuality that things might not turn out in the way intended by God. This is not simply to say that moral agents act in ways which are contrary to God’s moral will (in that sense they do act in ways not intended by him), but that due to a limitation of God’s knowledge and/ or power, some of God’s specific designs and purposes are not fulfilled in his world. 

This position would appear to wreck the climax of the story of Joseph; Genesis 50:19, ‘‘Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid, I will provide for you and your children”’ and render toothless the great promise of Romans 8:28, ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ The first statement could not be asserted for it could have turned out otherwise and the second cannot be made for things might turn out otherwise.

Objections and qualifications

There are two main objections levelled at the no-risk view at this point.

The first has already been mentioned, namely, that this leaves little room for human agency. How can a single event involve both divine and human intention with the former trumping the latter? Are not humans reduced to automatons despite objections to the contrary?

At least two things can be said in response.

The no-risk theist, by adopting the compatibilist understanding of the relation between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (together with a voluntarist understanding of decision making), affirms human agency.17  The fact that no explanation can be given as to how divine agency is related to human agency in no way diminishes this claim. This is the position of Augustine in his Enchiridion as he speaks about God’s relation to evil, ‘In a strange and ineffable fashion [italics mine] even that which is done against his will is not done without his will. For it would not be done without his allowing it-and surely his permission is not unwilling but willing-nor would he who is good allow the evil to be done, unless in his omnipotence he could bring good even out of evil.18 Paul Helm’s comment is particularly apt, ‘God’s relation to the universe he has created and that he sustains and directs is a relation without parallel. It is unique, incomparable, sui generis.’19  Elsewhere Helm amplifies this point:

‘While this move is philosophically unsatisfactory, since philosophers like to have answers to their questions, it is nevertheless highly appropriate. For, after all, the divine-human relation is sui generis. What could be more extraordinary than the relation between the transcendent Creator and Lord of all and his creation, including his human creatures? If God is sui generis, then any relation between anything else and God looks likely to be sui generis as well. Surely any imaginable relation between any two or more of God's creatures is likely to be more tractable to the human intellect than that between the Creator and any intelligent creature?’20

Secondly, this does not entail that nothing can be said about this relation, albeit speculatively. Thus in the account of Joseph and his brothers cited above that in one and the same event two contradictory intentions can be involved has been explored by Austin Farrer in terms of the  paradox of ‘double agency’:

‘Everything that is done in this world by intelligent creatures is done with two meanings: the meaning of the creature acting, the meaning of the Creator in founding or supporting that action. Subjectively considered, there are two doings; physically there is but one event.’21

This does not mean that God was ‘forcing’ the brothers to behave in the way they did, which was wicked (otherwise God would be implicated in evil); they freely chose this course of action (in a voluntarist fashion), with malicious intentions. Nonetheless, through such human choices God achieved his primary and specific intention of establishing Joseph in a place of responsibility in order to bring blessing upon the wider world. In other words, the meaning and purpose of the primary agent (God) is to be found in the secondary agents’ (the brothers’) action, even though there was no guarantee that they were meaning or intending the same thing ( we find the same principle operating in Acts 2:23 as Peter addresses the crowd, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge [the action of the primary agent); and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross [the actions of secondary agents]. And so we have two actions and meanings in one event-the crucifixion).

The second main objection to the risk free conception of providence is that in some cases (e.g. Augustine and Calvin) it leans in a Stoic and determinist direction such that, ‘In practical terms, it leads to an account of providence in which too much is attributed to a positive will, at the expense of rendering God inscrutable and impersonal.’22 It is not at all clear why inscrutability should be considered a difficulty or why it should render God impersonal.  To offset any claim that such a position leads to an impersonal view of God it is important to stress with the Heidelberg catechism that God’s dealings with his creatures is ‘fatherly’. 23 

As was noted at the beginning, even if there were links between Stoicism and Calvin as Fergusson suggests, the ‘Idle argument’ (“it does not matter what we do because it is going to happen anyway”) is refuted by Calvin:

‘But with respect to future events, Solomon easily brings human deliberations into agreement with God’s providence. For just as he laughs at the dullness of those who boldly undertake something or other without the Lord, as though they were not ruled by his hand, so elsewhere he says: “man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord will direct his steps! (Prov. 16:9). This means that we are not at all hindered by God’s eternal decrees either from looking ahead for ourselves or from putting all our affairs in order, but always in submission to his will. The reason is obvious. For he who has set limits to our life has at the same time entrusted us to its care; he has provided means and helps to preserve it; he has also made us able to foresee dangers; that they may not overwhelm us unaware, he has offered precautions and remedies. Now it is very clear what our duty is; thus if the Lord has committed to us the protection of our life, our duty is to protect it; if he offers helps, to use them; if he forewarns us of dangers, not to plunge headlong; if he makes remedies available, not to neglect them.’24 [Dr Dabney evidently understood Calvin clearly at this point!]

In other words, God has ordered his world in such a way that there is a close link between means and ends, consequently we have every responsibility to act intelligently and prudently taking due cognisance of that ordering and will be held to account by our Maker as moral agents. 

Furthermore, from a practical (and one may even say, psychological), viewpoint, Calvin enjoins people to act as if the future has not been decreed by God:

‘Yet since the sluggishness of our mind lies far beneath the height of God’s providence, we must employ a distinction to lift it up. Therefore I shall put it this way: however all things may be ordained by God’s plan, according to a sure dispensation, for us they are fortuitous. Not that we think that fortune rules the world and men, tumbling all things at random up and down, for it is fitting that this folly be absent from the Christian’s breast! But since the order, reason and end, and necessity of those things happen for the most part lie hidden in God’s purpose, and are not apprehended by human opinion, those things which it is certain take place by God’s will, are in a sense fortuitous. For they bear on the face of them no other appearance, whether they are considered in their own nature or weighed according to our knowledge and judgement.’25

Here we have the issue of different epistemic standpoints. From our standpoint as participators in God’s world as cognitive agents, the future is epistemically open to us and so we are to act, operationally as if God has not decreed the future. From God’s standpoint- the one who knows the end from the beginning- the future (such temporal indexicals refer to our future) is not open.26 

David Fergusson draws attention to the Trinitarian nature of God’s relation to the world which is not only to be conceived asymmetrically but also covenantally.27  Having surveyed some of the scriptural allusions to divine foresight and provision he says that 

‘[it] is misleading to restrict the doctrine of providence to a sub division of the doctrine of creation. Its standard textbook locus has not served an account of providence well. It is a feature of all three articles and suggests the need for a differentiated account of providence. A Trinitarian account of providence might usefully assist us in this respect by presenting it in ways that are not dominated by a single model appropriated to the first person. ’28 

This is a helpful corrective. There is a unity in God’s creative-redeeming purposes which have an eschatological dimension with their fulfilment in Christ: ‘God placed all things under his ([Christ’s] feet and appointed him to be head over everything, for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything out in every way.’ (Eph 1:22-23). God’s providential work in the whole creative order is not detached from his salvific work in Christ applied by the Spirit in the church.

‘…as we have seen with respect to the Hebrew Bible, the rule of God is not confined to the Israel or the church. It extends from this central action to the entire world. In this respect the distinction between works of special and general providence may have a place. The work of salvation determines not only the community of the faithful but the whole cosmos, and this must include the natural world and our rootedness in it.’29

It is not clear what Fergusson means by ‘rule of God’ here. If it is the ‘kingdom of God’, the sphere in which there is salvation in Christ, then, yes, there will be a ‘moving outward’. If, however, it is referring to God’s general and specific rule over all things now mediated through Christ (his mediatorial reign), then it is difficult to see how such a ‘centrifugal movement’ of God is sufficient. If God is going to achieve his saving purposes in what is referred to as ‘salvation history’ (heilsgeschichte), he must also be exercising meticulous providence over all history (historie), i.e. there is a ‘centripetal movement’ of God too. To illustrate: for there to be a Pontius Pilate to try Christ, his detailed personal history has to be providentially ordered  by God together with the whole of Roman and world history of which his particular life is a part. This principle applies to us all.30

A model for helping us understand the relation between God’s providential rule of the world and his central saving work is provided by Karl Barth.31

Barth argues that God's activity in the world has a centre and circumference. The centre is the coming of God's kingdom in Jesus Christ, the circumference around this centre is God's gracious providential rule of all things. When it is asked what activity of man reflects God's activity at the centre, the answer is service. Barth takes his cue from the action of Jesus Christ as the Servant, giving himself for the sake of the world and for the Father's glory; Christians are first called to be servants. Our life of service is to be understood within the community of God's people – the church, whose life is geared to announcing God's kingdom in Christ to the world. Here we would have the centrifugal movement referred to earlier.

When asked what activity of man corresponds to God's overruling providence at the circumference, the answer is work. God in his fatherly providence sustains, directs and cares for his world. Therefore, our work is about sustaining, directing and caring for the world too.

This means that as attested to by the writers of wisdom like Ecclesiastes, much in the world can be celebrated without becoming idolatrous for it is a ruled and provided for by a gracious heavenly Father (Ecclesiastes 3:11-‘God has made everything beautiful’ cf Psalm 145: 13-16) and yet it is subject to frustration due to sin (it is ‘mist’ hebel cf Romans 8:19-25) and looks forward to a deliverance which will be in Christ. However, we are not to lose sight of the centre where what is read as significantly providential may appear to be rather weak and foolish as far as the world is concerned ( 1 Corinthians 1:23-25 cf Acts 2:23).

‘Particular events may also resonate with God’s purposes and be received gratefully in this light- brith, marriage, and sometimes death- but their reception as such must always be provisional and tentative. To the extent that they forward Christ’s purpose, they can attest God’s rule. But our vision is partial at best and our confession at this juncture remains a modest one. Even within the good creation there is also decay, disease and the shadows of life as well as cruel misfortune together with the insidious and widespread effects of sin. Christian faith requires us to think of the same world as both providentially ordered and yet also fallen. In celebrating God’s providence, the psalms live with this tension as also does Job, a book too often neglected in the church’s theological reflections.’32

Not so risky

The ultimate value of the risk free view of providence, apart from it being the most coherent and comprehensive account of the Scriptural revelation, is that it is pastorally beneficial. For John Calvin, ‘Certainty about God’s providence puts joyous trust toward God in our hearts.’33  Similarly, the pastorally reassuring implications of the classic doctrine of providence have been well stated by Dr Broughton Knox:

‘The doctrine of God’s absolute and complete providence and control over every event is a ground for banishing fear from the hearts of the people of God. Thus Jesus reminded his disciples, ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; for you are of more value than many sparrows.’ In the Old Testament the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is the comfort and strength of his people. Thus through the prophet Isaiah God says, ‘I even I, am he that comforts you. Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, and of the son of man who is made like grass; that you have forgotten Yahweh your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth.’ The creative power of God which brought all things into being is the guarantee that he is able to sustain us in every detail of life… The infinite power and infinite mind of God, to which the marvels of creation bear witness, mean that he is able to give full attention, care and protection to every person in the world with the same intensity of concern that he would give if he were related to a single individual only. The infinity of God is not overwhelmed by numbers, nor stupefied by detail. God is able to comprehend, and provide for at the same time, the needs of the whole creation. Our heavenly Father gives each of us his undivided attention and his full friendship as though we were his only friend.’34

Whatever Albert Einstein meant when he said ‘God does not play dice with the universe’, the believer can assert with even greater conviction (and gratitude) that his heavenly Father does not play dice with his people.

Melvin Tinker

Melvin Tinker

Melvin Tinker is vicar of St John Newland in Hull, England and the Lead Mentor for Union Hull. He is author of Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? (Christian Focus, 2009).
Melvin Tinker

Melvin Tinker

Melvin Tinker is vicar of St John Newland in Hull, England and the Lead Mentor for Union Hull. He is author of Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? (Christian Focus, 2009).