Results tagged “Providence” from Reformation21 Blog

Against Open Doors


Much that passes for Christian decision making in modern Evangelicalism strikes me as a mixture of lazy moral reasoning and illegitimate efforts to discern those "secret things" (Deut. 29:29) that God has never promised to reveal to us. Scripture has much to say about the way we approach important decisions in our lives. It tells us, for instance, to take our time in making decisions (Prov. 21:5), to consider all the relevant facts (Prov. 18:13), to seek wise counsel from others (Prov. 11:14), to make choices that will maximize, not undermine, our ability to love God and love others (Prov. 10:9), to aim at God's glory in all our decisions (1 Cor. 10:31), and so on. It establishes boundaries for what's acceptable with regard to certain decisions; it tells us, for example, not to be unequally yoked (1 Cor. 6:14), a moral imperative that bears upon, say, decisions we make relative to marriage. It seems to me, however, that such biblical advice about decision making is regularly trumped in modern evangelical circles by simplistic appeals to what God is "leading" one to do, perhaps with justification provided by significantly misinterpreted and misapplied biblical texts (e.g. Rom. 8:14).

Consequently, I find myself assuming a posture of wariness whenever I hear Christians speak of determining "God's will" for their lives. Scripture, in keeping with our finite human perspective, presents God's will to us as two discrete realities. It describes, firstly, what theologians refer to as God's preceptive will, which encompasses all God's moral commands to us (see e.g. 1 Thess. 4:3). It describes, secondly, what theologians refer to as God's decretive will, which encompasses everything that God has determined to do in relation to us and the world, and so comprises every created reality and event (see e.g. Eph. 1:11). God's preceptive will for us is readily available to us in Scripture. God's decretive will is fully known only to him, though he reveals certain aspects of his decretive will to us in certain times and places, in keeping with his purpose. So, for instance, Christ's return constitutes one yet to be realized aspect of God's decretive will that, by virtue of God's revelation of said future event, I can count on with absolute certainty.

When Christians speak of determining "God's will" for their lives, they rarely, so far as I can tell, mean by that efforts to determine God's preceptive will (which, quite frankly, they would do better to concern themselves with). They typically, rather, refer to efforts to determine God's decretive will, specifically as such infringes on their own personal lives. Whom should I marry? Where should I go to college? Should I take this or that job? These are the questions that typically prompt efforts to determine "God's will." But Scripture never invites us to pry into God's decretive will. In fact, it sharply discourages us from doing so (Deut. 29:29). Scripture invites us, rather, to frame our lives according to God's preceptive will, and to exercise wisdom and good decision-making principles (see above) when faced with life's multitude of choices.

I find myself similarly uncomfortable with the language of "open" and "closed doors" that regularly features in Christian talk about decisions. I realize the language itself is biblical (cf. 2 Cor. 2:12), and perhaps some Christians use it in more or less the way that Paul, for example, used it. But, in doing so, they forget that Paul, as an apostle, was the recipient of unique revelation and unique direction from God, and that, as a result, his experience will be decidedly un-analagous to our own at significant junctures in life. The example of an apostle (or other holder of some extraordinary office in Scripture) shouldn't, in my judgment, necessarily be considered normative when it comes to questions of decision making or navigating the relationship between divine sovereignty and one's choices in life. The balance of Scripture, it seems to me, doesn't encourage us in efforts to discern God's decretive will for our lives by providential events (i.e., open or closed doors). Sometimes a closed door simply needs to be pushed on harder. Sometimes an open door needs to be passed by. The wisdom and biblical principles that govern decision making should always take precedence over providential "signs" that Scripture never bids us decipher.

The posture of Paul and Silas relative to one literally (and by literally, I mean unfiguratively) "open door" might prove instructive on this point. In Acts 16, Paul got himself and Silas into hot water in the city of Philippi when he cast a demon out from a young slave-girl and so angered her owners who were profiting financially from her demon possession. Paul and Silas subsequently endured a beating at the bidding of Roman magistrates and were placed in prison. During their night in jail an earthquake occurred, and "immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened." Hit pause and put ourselves in Paul's shoes for a moment. How many of us, I wonder, would have interpreted the open prison doors as a clear sign from God that he intended us to escape an unfair imprisonment administered by the hand of suspect secular authorities? But what did Paul actually do? He remained in prison until daybreak (a fact that led to the jailer's conversion). He subjected himself to the governing authorities instituted by God in that particular city, just like he tells us to do elsewhere (Rom. 13:1-2). He applied some solid moral reasoning to his situation and determined that his proper course of action was to let justice run its course (even though "justice" in his specific situation seemed decidedly unjust).

Paul's passing over the "open door" in Philippi might serve, I think, as a lesson to us all. Rather than seeking to decipher what God would have us to do in given situations by recognizing and interpreting various "signs" (open doors and otherwise), we should seek to familiarize ourselves more fully with God's preceptive will in Scripture. There is ample guidance in Scripture for how we should live our lives. There's also, relative to some of life's most difficult decisions, ample freedom to choose various paths provided one let's his/her choice be governed by the biblical principles that should inform decision-making per se. We can exercise that freedom with joy, confident that all our decisions fit into God's decretive will.

Or, as Augustine put is so much more succinctly and eloquently sixteen centuries ago: "Love God, and do what you want."


The Underdog Must Win


David and Goliath. Field of Dreams. Star Wars. Rocky. The Sandlot. The Hunger Games. Underdog stories never get old. We can't help loving them. They also contain a distinctively American flavor, probably because this country only exists because the underdog triumphed. A few ragged colonies, against all odds, gained victory against the greatest world power of its time through an unrelenting commitment to values they would die for. Every American is brought up, from a young age, in such a way that his heart beats a little faster when he sees a scrappy underdog with a heart of gold fight back and conquer the faceless machinery of power perpetuating power.

This is in fact the story of the gospel. Jesus, God himself, came to earth in the humblest of forms to live his entire life in poverty, oppression, and institutional persecution. But hidden within Christ was the power of God almighty who, through the most dramatic turn of the tables in history, vindicated not merely Christ and his band of followers, but loosed the powers of the evil one over this entire world (I Jn 5:19).

Our current political and social climate wishes to champion the same values, but we have transposed the fight for inalienable rights of human liberty and representation to the inalienable rights of the underdog. The #Ibelieveher movement represents this impulse, (though trigger warnings flow from the same desire) which now crops up in every field and level of society. The righteous drive behind that particular hashtag battlecry is that women and their dignity, rights, and reputations have fallen prey to a system which advantages men in positions of power. This is a perfectly sound, Biblical complaint and cause. God takes his stand in judgment against those who wield their power and influence toward the end of selfish gain.

"The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: 'It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?'" God holds accountable people of power for their manipulations at others' expense, and he wants us to do the same. However, whether those who use the above hashtag intend to do so or not, the statement "I believe her" can easily trade one form of injustice for another. Taken as a bald mantra of perspective, which is increasingly how we form beliefs, we can, and perhaps should apply that slogan to account more weight to a woman's testimony than to a man's, based solely on the grounds that she is a woman and he is a man.

It doesn't stop at that, however. There remain still deeper layers to our accepted program of bias. The deeper unquestioned belief is that not only does the underdog deserve a right to be heard, but the underdog is right because he is the underdog. After all, what could you possibly know, not sharing the underdog's position, about the inequities he has suffered? Therefore, the reasoning can run forward, unless you sit in the victim's chair, you cannot feel the extent or gravity of the oppression he has suffered. Large companies, Americans, white men in suits, police, and media are, by their very nature, not to be trusted. But this "new" appreciation of power dynamics does not improve the search for justice, it merely relocates the seat of judgment away from a third party with biases (which we all should surely acknowledge), to whichever seat the victim happens to occupy. The victim is, ipso facto, the rightful judge. This is assuming of course, society grants that person's representative group "victim status", which is another discussion to itself. This approach assumes that the scales of justice can be more fairly balanced if we accommodate to the underdog and compensate in his/her direction. Such a merciful compensation may even dress in the appearance of Christian charity. In reality, we have not come any closer to true justice: the biases may shift, but do not disappear.

I hate the Patriots as much as the next person, but the underdog does not and should not always win. Job's discourse with God serves as a prime example. Job complains that "there is no arbiter between us (him and God), who might lay his hand on us both." But when God asserts his rights, power, and supremacy, and calls Job to question, Job, to his credit, realizes: "I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth." Imbalances of power are not, as a universal, wrong or evil. We must hold ourselves and our judicial evaluations to a high standard which replicates God's impartiality. But Christians should remember that Adam was the first to give unilateral preference to the rights of the underdog.

Justin Poythress (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the assistant pastor of student ministry at Christ Community Church in Carmel, Indiana.

The 2018 Year in Review


As 2018 winds to a close, we want to express our deep and sincere gratitude to the many faithful readers of Ref21. We continue our commitment to call the church to a reformation that recovers clarity and conviction about the great evangelical truths of the gospel and that encourages their proclamation in our contemporary context. To that end, here are the top ten posts from this past year:

1.Only For a Time

"One could argue by way of sanctified biblical logic that a lack of experiencing the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit is squarely in keeping with the biblical teaching about their cessation!"

2. Is the PCA Becoming More Unified?

"What a blessing it would be if our energies were no longer directed to inner-denominational conflict but together in a shared (or at least compatible) vision of Christ's reign through the gospel in our sin-scarred world."

3.Can the Welcoming Church Speak?

"Let us be a truly welcoming church, extending a warm-hearted invitation to sinners of all kinds, just as Jesus extended such a welcome to us. But then, for the love of Christ and those we welcome, let us plainly and thoughtfully speak the truth. For unless God and his truth are sovereignly welcome in our midst, our welcome to the lost will end up in vain."

4.Lloyd-Jones on Racism ad the Gospel

"D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who I have never heard anyone describe as a Marxist, gospel-compromising, SJW, preached a sermon on John 4.13-14, titled, "Spiritual Dullness and Evasive Tactics," in which he brought up the issue of racism."

5.Revoice or God's Voice?

"Revoice was overwhelmingly not God's voice found in God's Word. But we do need to know God's voice on these issues. There will be no place to hide in this sexual revolution and there are men and women being deceived into death by the LGBTQ+ agenda and message that we must reach with the Gospel."

6.Whate're My God Ordains is Right

"We are thrilled at the arrival of our baby girl yet look towards the future with trepidation knowing that during her life our daughter will be challenged with disability. We are grieving for our set of dreams and expectations for her life and it is still an active process. There is no quick fix to this emotional pain, though every word of encouragement we have received has slowly soothed the hurt."

7.Spells Like Teen Spirit

"The better part of professing Christians in America are living in the sea of a Christian pep rally. For many, "going to church" is less about worshiping the infinitely holy God who has redeemed a people for Himself by giving up His Son to the bloody death on the cross, as it is about getting a shot of motivational vitamin-B for existential significance. Rather than being called by God into His presence by the mediating work of His Son, "Here we are now; entertain us" becomes the liturgical responsive call to worship."

8.God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

"I've heard it uttered dozens of times. Friends, family members, and strangers have looked at me, a Presbyterian pastor, and said, "Well, you know what the Bible says, 'God helps those who help themselves.'" I politely smile, but inside I've just died a little."

9.Revoice and the "Idolatry" of the Nuclear Family

"There is no male-to-male or female-to-female sexuality in God's created design. Furthermore, Genesis 2 views the creation of nuclear families not as idolatry but as a vitally significant way in which man's purpose in life is fulfilled. The words, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. 1:28), described not the worship of a false god but obedient faith in the one true God. If the fulfilling of mankind's creation mandate involves idolatry, then the world created by God must inevitably be a different one from that which is described in Genesis 1 and 2."

10. Imagine There's No Hell

"If there is no hell then there is no need for the atoning sacrifice of the eternal Son of God. If there is no hell, we should draw the same conclusion that the Apostle Paul drew when he put forward the logical implications of the resurrection: "If the dead do not rise, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'" (1 Cor. 15:32)! If there is no eternal punishment, then there is no magnification of the love of God."

Reigning Omnipotent in Every Place


When--in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.15.1)--John Calvin turned his attention to the creation of mankind, he did so with a view to further elaborate his assertion that we cannot have a clear and complete knowledge God unless we have a corresponding knowledge of ourselves. Calvin did not have in view here some sort of an introspective, therapeutic journey of self-discovery. He meant knowing humanity as created and fallen. We can't properly appreciate man as created without understanding man as fallen, and we need to understand man as fallen in light of what he was when originally created.

One reason this is important is because we have a tendency to blame God for our own evil - excusing our sin with "I'm only human" or "To err is human." But this is to place our sin at God's feet. So, Calvin said: "Since, then, we see the flesh panting for every subterfuge by which it thinks that the blame for its own evils may in any way be diverted from itself to another, we must diligently oppose this evil intent. Therefore we must so deal with the calamity of mankind that we may cut off every shift, and may vindicate God's justice from every accusation" (1.15.1, Battles trans.)

Calvin (1.15.2) flatly asserted the obviousness of man as body and soul (theologians call this view of humanity "dichotomy," as opposed to "trichotomy" which holds that we are made up of "body, soul and spirit" differentiating the latter two). He then proceeded to argue for the immortality of the soul from 1. Our conscience's perception of right and wrong, dread of guilt and fear of punishment for evil. 2. The "many pre-eminent gifts of the human mind, superior to that of animals. 3. Our ability to conceive of God and the supernatural, and to discern what is right, just and honorable. 4. Our mental activity when asleep, in which we sometimes conceive of things that have never happened, or that will happen in the future. 5. Copious arguments from specific texts of Scripture.

Finally, in 1.15.3, he appealed to man's creation in the image of God as the strongest proof of the immortality of the soul. Calvin says: "although God's glory shines forth in the outer man, yet there is no doubt that the proper seat of his image is in the soul" (Battles).

Having introduced the subject of our creation in the image of God in 1.15.3, Calvin went on to argue that we learn what the image of God entails not only by studying man as originally created (Genesis 1-2), but by studying what Scripture says about the image of God as it is renewed in Christ. Calvin wrote: "a full definition of 'image'...can be nowhere better recognized than from the restoration of his corrupted nature" (1.15.4, Battles).

It should be noted that Calvin used the terms regeneration and renewal here a little more broadly than do modern Reformed systematics. The Shorter Catechism, however, perfectly mirrors Calvin's statements in 1.15.4 on the image (Q. 10. How did God create man? A. God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness and holiness, with dominion over the creatures).

Calvin proceded to hammer on Andreas Osiander (1.15.4), a Germn Lutheran theologian, who was also criticized by Calvin's Lutheran friend Philip Melanchthon. Calvin also rejected Augustine's speculation on the soul's reflection of the trinity, then takes aim at the Manichaeans (1.15.5, their idea that the soul is derived from God's substance), Servetus (his resurrection of the old Manichaean error), and "the philosophers" (1.15.6, praising only Plato) in their views on the powers and faculties of the soul. While conceding that the philosophers may indeed say some true and helpful things about the soul, the main thing that Calvin wants to assert is that "the human soul consists of two faculties, understanding and will" (1.15.7).

Institutes 1.15.8 is a "rock your world" important passage in the Institutes. In it, Calvin explained a fundamental source of confusion in the quest for "free will.""The Philosophers," says Calvin, by discussing the question of free will apart from understanding the consequences of the fall "were seeking in a ruin for a building, and in scattered fragments for a well-knit structure." Christians who follow the philosophers in failing to take into account the gravity of the fall when discussing human free choice are  "playing the fool." This section shows how crucial the doctrine of the fall is to Calvin's understanding of humanity.

Those interested in Calvin's apologetic views will be fascinated by two comments in 1.16.1 - "the minds of the impious too are compelled by merely looking upon earth and heaven to rise up to the Creator..." and "the wisdom, power, and goodness" of God revealed in creation "are self-evident, and even force themselves upon the unwilling." But the main thing Calvin wants to assert in this section is that creation and providence are inseparably connected, and that by his providence God "sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made."Consequently, there is no such thing a luck, fortune or chance (1.16.2).

Asserting again God's universal providence in 1.16.3, Calvin puts the truth to pastoral use immediately: "they may safely rest in the protection of him to whose will are subject all the harmful things which, whatever their source, we may fear; whose authority curbs Satan with all his furies and his whole equipage; and upon whose nod depends whatever opposes our welfare."

For Calvin, providence meant God governing, not merely watching, his creation (1.16.4). Calvin sought to emphasize that providence entails more than "bare foreknowledge." It involves God's will, and his acts. Nor is it merely a general control, but a specific direction. Indeed, Calvin asserted that God "directs everything by his incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to his own end."

In 1.16.5, Calvin adduced biblical evidence for God's general providence. Calvin says: "not one drop of rain falls without God's sure command." In 1.16.6, Calvin considers God's more particular governance over mankind. Again he complies biblical testimony to show that "Scripture, to express more plainly that nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination, shows that things seemingly most fortuitous are subject to him." In 1.16.7 he considers what might be called God's providence over "natural" occurrences (things that seem to be part of what is just the normal course of event - the wind blowing, women having babies, etc.) and even here Calvin says that "particular events are generally testimonies of the character of God's singular providence."

In 1.16.8, Calvin both rejected the accusation that his doctrine of providence is a Stoic doctrine of fate (determinism or fatalism), and at the same time repudiated the ideas of fortune and chance (approving Basil the Great's [AD 330-379, one of the Cappadocian fathers] strictures against and Augustine's retractions of his earlier use of this terminology).

Calvin reminded in 1.16.9 that though all things are ordained by God's plan yet the events of our lives and world often look to us as if they are random and fortuitous. As Calvin says "the order, reason, end, and necessity of those things which happen for the most part lie hidden in God's purpose." This is a hugely important pastoral point. Consequently, the believer must realize that events will happen in this life that are simultaneously seemingly senseless and fortuitous and yet also part of God's perfect plan. Thus, in our hearts, we must be fixed on the truth that nothing happens that the Lord has not decreed and foreseen.

Calvin began a sustained application of this truth in 1.17.1. He first announced four things (though he says he's going to give three!) that we need to remember when we are considering God's providence: "Three things, indeed, are to be noted. First, God's providence must be considered with regard to the future as well as the past. Secondly, it is the determinative principle of all things in such a way that sometimes it works through an intermediary, sometimes without an intermediary, sometimes contrary to every intermediary. Finally, it strives to the end that God may reveal his concern for the whole human race, but especially his vigilance in ruling the church, which he deigns to watch more closely. Now this, also, ought to be added, [fourthly!] that although either fatherly favor and beneficence or severity of judgment often shine forth in the whole course of providence, nevertheless sometimes the causes of the events are hidden." The echoes of this in the Westminster Confession, chapter 5, are not difficult to hear.

Consequently, no mature believer will weigh the matter of God's providence without assuming a posture of reverence, awe and humility (1.17.2). This is important, Calvin says, because "it happens that today so many dogs assail this doctrine with their venomous bitings, or at least with barking: for they wish nothing to be lawful for God beyond what their own reason prescribes for themselves."

*This post originally ran as a number of posts in the "Blogging the Institutes" series, published in February of 2009. You can find the original posts here

Whate're My God Ordains is Right


May 10, 2018 was the most beautiful yet painful day of our lives. Our long-awaited daughter, Dayna Euphemia, safely entered into the world and became part of our family. This is our family's story about the pain, hope, sorrow and joy that have come with the twists and turns in the adventure that is our life - an adventure we've learned can't be scripted.

Even though we had close family experience with infertility, we never thought it would be something we would personally experience when we got married in 2009. It's so natural that you fall in love, get married, establish a household and then have children. For us, this plan was falling in place perfectly until 2013. Infertility creeps up on you slowly but arrives with ferocity. The progression from wondering if it's going to take some extra time to conceive to doubting that you will ever have your own children consumes your life in the space of a year. Four and a half years, countless medical appointments, numerous procedures, thousands of dollars and one confirmed miscarriage left us feeling hopeless with the situation last summer.

We got used to pain every month - but just because it was expected didn't make it hurt any less. Infertility was a burden that was intimately woven into the fabric of our daily life. Our relationship as husband and wife grew so much deeper and stronger as a result of the pain.

Graciously, the last five years were not a negative black hole for our lives, on the contrary - when we weren't grieving we were living a great life. We have a passion for traveling and we have had the opportunity to go lots of places, including Italy, Greece, Portugal, Germany, France, Iceland, Slovenia and Croatia during our season of waiting. I'm sure many of our friends with small children looked at our social media posts with a tinge of jealousy! On many of those days life felt perfect and we felt that things would turn out alright in the end. Our desire to become parents never diminished and we knew God would fulfill that calling in His own way. As Jenn once put it, we were living in half agony and half hope.

We always seemed to have our most important conversations when we were traveling. On August 19, 2017, we had one of those conversations walking along the beach in Grado, Italy. Earlier that evening we had eaten some remarkable pizza and later than night we dodged a prodigious downpour from a thunderstorm to get back to our car. But our conversation was about neither of these things - it was an agreement that we were near the end of our journey with medical intervention for our infertility. Flying back home the following day, we could not have imagined that our prayer for a child had already been answered!

That evening was the finale to perhaps our best trip ever. During the previous week, we had road tripped through portions of Slovenia, Croatia and Italy and had a sense we were fully living life each day. In Croatia, we stayed in the gorgeous coastal town of Rovinj, where the main church was dedicated to Euphemia. Inside the church, through both our guidebook and artwork, we were drawn in by the story of Euphemia, a teenage Christian who was martyred for her faithful witness during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Her story reminded us of Stephen in Acts 7. The name Euphemia became special to us not only because of where God answered our prayers but also because it was a name to live by.

Pregnancy after infertility and miscarriage can leave you in a constant fear of what could go wrong. During the next nine months, we cautiously yet with great expectation checked off exciting milestone after milestone while all the scans showed a strong and healthy baby girl was safely developing. The pregnancy culminated in the greatest moment of our lives at 11:42 a.m. on May 10, 2018, when Dayna arrived! Her arrival wasn't without a little bit of drama when it became apparent that she had the umbilical cord doubly wrapped around her neck. It was a scary moment as she was whisked away and took longer than normal to breathe. But the medical professionals were skillful and we soon heard Dayna's little cries - the moment we had waited so long for was finally here - we were overwhelmed with joy!

After Dayna had stabilized and been given back to us, the neonatologist came in to speak with us. We expected he would simply tell us how Dayna was doing and what work had been done on her following her birth. Instead we heard phrases such as 'features of Down syndrome' and 'I'm very concerned' and that we needed to do a blood chromosome test. It was the most shocking moment of our lives. It all felt surreal, like we were watching a movie and that this wasn't actually our life.

It is impossible put into words the rollercoaster of emotions that come with shedding tears of euphoria and tears of gut-wrenching sorrow within the space of hours. During the years of infertility one of the things you dream about is that first meeting of your child; what they will look like, will they have your eyes, nose, mouth, etc - that feeling of their skin on yours for the first time. While we held Dayna's perfect form on our chest, the endorphins pumping through our body, it seemed impossible that what this man was saying could be true.

Over the past several weeks we have learned that joy and sorrow are not mutually exclusive emotions. We are thrilled at the arrival of our baby girl yet look towards the future with trepidation knowing that during her life our daughter will be challenged with disability. We are grieving for our set of dreams and expectations for her life and it is still an active process. There is no quick fix to this emotional pain, though every word of encouragement we have received has slowly soothed the hurt.

Tears have been shed so many times over the past two weeks. Tears worrying about Dayna's future. Tears in coming to grips with a different set of expectations for her life. Tears at having to schedule seemingly endless medical appointments. Even more tears when the Down syndrome diagnosis was confirmed.

But there have also been tears of joy and so many wonderful moments. Tears seeing her cousins fight over who gets to hold her, be close to her and touch her. Tears in seeing her snuggle up in a perfectly peaceful way with her parents. Tears in seeing the joy in family members' eyes when meeting her. Tears in seeing each other being able to finally live out the role of mother and father. Tears in knowing that this is the child that so many prayed for so long.

During the past week we have felt our relationship grow even closer through this experience. Meanwhile Dayna is completely unfazed by any of these developments. She is a happy, content and lovely baby girl who is already exhibiting so many strong characteristics. We are filled with love for our daughter and recognize that she is the absolutely beautiful gift from God that will bring so much richness to our lives. It is touching to see the love grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends have for her - she will have an amazing support network of family and friends. She is fortunate to live in a community where there are so many excellent resources for people with disabilities that will give her great opportunities for success and happiness in her life.

This is our family, this is our story, this is our call to live in obedience to His plan. The page has turned to a new chapter in our lives and we can't wait to see what will be written - and we certainly cannot imagine turning back.

Whate'er my God ordains is right, though now this cup in drinking
May bitter seem to my faint heart, I take it all unshrinking
My God is true, each morn anew
Sweet comfort yet shall fill my heart
And pain and sorrow shall depart - Samuel Rodigast

Jennifer Weitz blogs at Unexpected Realities. She is a member of Potomac Hills Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Leesburg, VA. 

Several days ago I was distracted from my mid-afternoon, back-porched task of grading college research papers by the presence of a pair of cardinals flitting around our yard. As I watched them doing what cardinals do, I began wondering whence precisely cardinals derived their peculiar name. My instinct was to presume they were named after those individuals in the Roman Catholic Church bearing the title "Cardinal," which individuals, when decked out in full regalia (including bright red cassock and biretta), certainly resemble at least the male gender of the bird in question. Setting research papers aside (with apologies to my students), I decided to conduct some quality (or not), computer-based research regarding the exact origin of the name "cardinal" as applied to the bird.

One early encyclopedia article consulted proved unpromising when it told me that Roman Catholic Cardinals were actually named after the bird, an unlikely claim since Cardinals existed, and were named such, in the Roman Catholic Church long before Old World inhabitants had any knowledge of cardinals, which are native to the western hemisphere. A slightly more credible article from an online wildlife journal supported my own instinctive hypothesis, informing me that New World colonists named cardinals such because the bird's plumage reminded them of those vestments sported by the highest ranking officials of the Roman Church back home.

Of course, cardinals aren't the only animals peculiar to the western hemisphere to derive their name from some rank or file of the Roman Catholic religious elite. Capuchin monkeys in South America were named after the Capuchin Order, an early sixteenth-century reforming off-shoot of the Franciscans. The markings of capuchin monkeys apparently reminded explorers of the religious habit worn by Capuchins, a habit complete with a dark pointy hood (cappuccio), which hood had itself informed the name first given to the religious order. Or so at least I've been telling church history students for several years now in a unit I teach on early modern Roman Catholicism. My recent, mid-afternoon, thoroughly non-quality research into papist branded American wildlife suggested I might need to nuance this narrative somewhat. According to an illustrated French history of mammals originally published in the early nineteenth-century, explorers in the New World named capuchin monkeys such not only or primarily because their markings resembled the religious habit of Capuchin Friars, but because they discovered in these monkeys a natural facial expression that reflected the "ignorance, laziness, and sensuality" that, at least in their judgment, characterized said Friars and members of other religious orders in the Old World. In other words, the ascription of the name "capuchin" to these monkeys was intended to insult not to honor the intended referent in the name.

This naturally left me wondering whether the application of the name "cardinal" to the bird was as innocuous a gesture as it seemed. The same online wildlife journal that supported my hypothesis about the origin of name "cardinal" as applied to the bird informed me that cardinals, when threatened by predators, raise their crests (the pointy bit on top of their heads) in the hope (presumably) of looking slightly more imposing or intimidating. One wonders if the colonists who named cardinals such didn't notice this characteristic of the bird, and find it reminiscent of the behavior of Roman Catholic Cardinals who -- at least historically -- tended to respond to threats to their wealth and power with increasingly greater shows of authority and prestige. Or maybe the name derived from observation that both cardinals and Cardinals were such easy targets, the former by virtue of their bright red color (especially against a backdrop of snow), the latter by virtue of their historically attested immorality (against the backdrop of Scripture's portrait of proper ecclesiastical authority/authorities)?

Clearly more research is needed on this front. For the sake of my students awaiting their final grades, I'll leave that research to someone else.

The presence of cardinals in my yard also reminded me of John Knox's rather intriguing account of a ship named the Cardinal and its peculiar fate in his history of the Scottish Reformation. In Knox's chronological account of events leading up to Scotland's official embrace of Protestantism, he notes that in 1548 a "ship called the Cardinal," the "fairest ship" of the entire French fleet sent to reinforce young Queen Mary's authority in her native land while she was being raised in France, inexplicably sank while anchored near Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth. Given the absence of obvious explanation (say, foul weather) for the ship's sinking, Knox rather freely claims the occurrence as an act of unmediated divine providence intended to communicate that God wished Scotland to be free of Cardinals (and by extension, every other instance of Roman Catholic authority and influence).

Knox's history is full of similarly providentialist interpretations of events. Of course, such a reading of historical events has little purchase among historians today. Knox's history frequently serves as exhibit A for modern historians wishing to detail and discredit "confessionalist" histories of days gone by. His crime, modern historians claim, was one of bringing his theological conviction regarding God's providence to bear upon his analysis of historical events, a move (obviously) informed by his adherence to a particular species of Christianity.

I'm inclined to criticize Knox's history from a slightly different vantage point. God is in fact sovereign over human history. Conviction of such must inform the task of narrating the past like every other human task that Christians find themselves involved in. I'm not sure, in other words, that historians who hold Christian convictions can properly fault Knox for letting his own theological convictions inform his account of how Reformation happened in his native country. My own concern with Knox is not that he let a doctrine of divine providence inform his historical task, but rather than let such a poor doctrine of divine providence inform his historical task. Knox's confident assertion about what God was doing and revealing when the Cardinal sank violates Scripture's own insistence that God and God alone is privy to His own intention and purpose in the vast majority of happenings in human history (Deut. 29.29). To be sure, God has revealed his express intention and purpose in certain historical events (say, the Resurrection). He has not done so in the overwhelming majority of historical events, which truth should prevent historians from claiming knowledge of God's intention and purpose in the bulk of events they seek to describe, and orient them towards those more proximate causes of historical events that properly belong to their purview - proximate causes such as, for instance, holes in the hulls of boats, whether the result of personal forces (devious Protestants) or impersonal forces (jagged rocks).

To put the matter another way, I think confessionalist/providentialist histories can be more effectively critiqued from a confessionalist/providentialist standpoint than they can from some supposed standpoint of (a)theological neutrality or indifference. But I may be forced to rethink my most basic historiographical convictions if, having observed the cardinals at play in my back yard, I find our property destroyed by floods, fire, or some other peculiar providence in the very near future.


Edwards and Interpreting Providence

Like many eighteenth-century Reformed pastors, Jonathan Edwards was confident in his ability to discern God's purposes in earthly events. For example, during a 1736 drought, he explained that God was chastising New Englanders for the "corruption in our hearts." Similarly, during a plague of crop-destroying worms in the 1740s, he suggested that the people's neglect of the poor had precipitated the infestation.

This kind of assurance about God's intentions has become passé among most conservative Christians today. But not everyone across the American religious and political spectrum has given up on such close providential readings. I was reminded of this fact recently when I became a minor player in a kerfuffle with radio host Glenn Beck over presidential politics. Beck is a Mormon, an ardent supporter of Ted Cruz, and an opponent of Donald Trump. He said recently that evangelicals who support Trump are not "listening to their God." God has made it clear, Beck says, that Cruz is the chosen man for this election. 

Asked to comment on this story by Breitbart News, I replied that "the Bible certainly offers principles on how to think about government and politics. The Bible does not, however, tell us which individual candidates to vote for...There are many reasons why devout Christians should hesitate to vote for Donald Trump, but God has not revealed Ted Cruz as the divinely anointed alternative, either." In reply, Beck said on his radio program "To you, Dr. Kidd. To you. To you God hasn't revealed Cruz as divinely anointed." But Beck believes that "Ted Cruz actually was anointed for this time."

In the midst of this brouhaha, I happened also to read Gerald McDermott's fascinating book chapter "Jonathan Edwards and the National Covenant: Was He Right?"  In that piece, McDermott examines Edwards' confident readings of worms, droughts, and other instances of how earthly events reflected God's disciplining hand. Today we associate such prophetic readings with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and now Beck, who may have a more natural openness to the idea of God's ongoing revelations because of his Mormonism. Whatever their individual merits or personal beliefs, contemporary figures like these have nothing like the theological or intellectual chops of Edwards. What has changed? Why has the interpretation of God's purposes in current events become theologically marginal, in a way that it was not in the eighteenth century? Have we lost courage in explaining God's ways to man?

Over-readings of God's providence were relatively easy targets of ridicule for the new skeptics and deists of the eighteenth century. For them, Edwards' kind of interpretation raised obvious questions with no easy answers. Does an absence of drought or worms mean that people are without sin? What did it mean when non-Christians around the world enjoyed abundant harvests, and heavily Christian regions went without? And what of Matthew 5:45's statement that God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust"? Many traditional Christians abandoned close providential readings of current events because, with all due respect to Edwards, those interpretations are easier to defend when no one is asking difficult questions about them. 

Yet Gerald McDermott suggests that we also lost good things when we gave up on providential readings of history. Christians certainly believe that God is the Lord of history, and that all things have meaning and purpose within God's economy. No ruler comes to power, and no nation falls, without God's sovereign permission. Providential interpretations of a nation's suffering and turmoil remind us that we stand under universal moral standards. No matter how powerful and wealthy, no nation (perhaps especially those with high rates of professed Christian faith) can expect to provoke God forever with no consequences.

The most appropriate occasions when we can make modest assertions about God's historical interventions are when we detect dynamics of reaping and sowing. For example, the financial meltdown of 2008 was clearly connected to irresponsible practices and products, like the infamous "credit default swaps." At a minimum, we can say that in 2008, God let our nation reap what we had sown financially. We are still trying to recover from the disaster that ensued.

Similarly, Abraham Lincoln interpreted the Civil War as God's judgment on both North and South for their sinful complicity in slavery. In his greatest speech, the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln asked that if God "gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense [slavery] came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?" Moreover, "if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'" Lincoln, who was influenced by his parents' Calvinism even though he never joined a church, used a providential reading of the Civil War to call the nation to humility, and to enjoin all Americans to accept the destruction of slavery.

In this life we see "through a glass darkly" [I Cor. 13:12], so we should always be modest about interpreting current events. We should be quick to say that "perhaps" God is showing us something in today's struggles, because we hardly have all the information that our Father does. We should be slow to say "thus saith the Lord," except about those matters explicitly revealed in Scripture. Thus, we might say in this year's election that, weighed on the balance of scriptural principles, we tend to prefer candidate A's positions over candidate B's. But declaring a candidate God's "anointed" one is presumptuous, at best. 

Again, we may not be as prepared as Edwards to explicate God's message in a drought, but we do need to remember that God remains sovereign over that drought. We may not grasp His immediate purposes, but God's judgments have not ceased. 

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of books including George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014).

Calvin apparently lived with a profound awareness of the potential for death that constantly accompanies us as human beings. In 1.17.10 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Reformer provided a rather sobering catalog of the "innumerable ... deaths that threaten" us in our day to day existence. It's intriguing, and perhaps profitable, to explore that catalog and reflect upon the ways in which our modern (sense of) vulnerability to death measures up to at least one man's (sense of) the same five hundred years ago.

"We need not," Calvin begins, "go beyond ourselves [to discern danger of death]. Since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases ... a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction and without [living] a life enveloped, as it were, with death." No doubt the bubonic plague, which by some accounts destroyed nearly half of Europe's population in the 14th century, figured among the "thousand diseases" Calvin has in mind, even if in his day the plague appeared only in regional outbreaks. Of course, vaccines and antibiotics have recently given humankind the edge over this and many other diseases, but fatal diseases (for example, various forms of cancer) persist, as most of us know only too well.

"For what else would you call it [but 'life enveloped, as it were, with death']," Calvin continues, "when [man] neither freezes nor sweats without danger?"  It's easy to forget, living in our climate controlled environments, how susceptible we actually are as human beings to cold and heat. Apparently humans must retain a body temperature between 70 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit to stay alive, and this requires avoiding any protracted exposure to external temperatures below 40 degrees or above 95, a rather alarming truth given temperatures nearly everywhere on earth that regularly transgress those boundaries. However talented we've become, at least in developed portions of the world, at shielding ourselves from fatal temperatures, we've not discovered ways of making our bodies per se less vulnerable to heat or cold. Extreme temperatures still take lives.

"Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs." Calvin perceived every mode of early modern transport to pose at least some danger of death. I suspect that we as modern folk are more vulnerable to transport-related death than our early modern counterparts. For one thing, we're much more mobile. For another, we've employed our God-given intelligence to develop modes of transport that are surely expedient but only relatively safe, especially when compared with the slow but steady art of walking to one's destination. We insist, for example, in hurtling past one another at insane speeds in small metal boxes, trusting in a pair of thin yellow lines and one another's eyesight and sanity to keep us from fatal collision. Or in launching ourselves 30,000 plus feet in the air, trusting not only in the skill of engineers and pilots (whom we've never met) but also in the ability of mechanics to slow the inevitable progress of the larger metal boxes we fly in towards mechanical failure and (mid-flight) breakdown. And so on. Travel is fatally dangerous, as -- again -- many of us know only too well.

"If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend's, harm awaits." It's intriguing that Calvin anticipates harm -- and especially death -- from a weapon in "your hand" or "a friend's" to the exclusion of other potential weapon-bearers. The danger posed by a weapon in the hand of an enemy is ostensibly so obvious it doesn't even merit mention. Calvin clearly can't be marshalled in defense of that opinion expressed by so many that more guns equals greater safety for everyone. I'm sure many modern Americans will wish to take exception -- whether on the basis of political persuasion, a particular interpretation of the second amendment, or sheer enthusiasm for weapons -- to Calvin's claim that arming one's self equals greater danger than safety, but the reality that legalized, private weapons in America (at least) are much more commonly employed in suicides and accidental deaths than self-defense lends some support to his perspective.

"All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden." I appreciate Calvin's singling out of snakes as particularly dangerous to human beings. It makes me think he might have shared something of my own admittedly neurotic fear of even the most harmless of snakes (just ask my wife). Nothing baffles me more than the choice some people make to keep snakes as pets within their homes. Surely that kind of insanity must be wholly modern in origin.

"Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you." What home owner hasn't experienced this sentiment? Perhaps our modern homes are more structurally sound than early modern buildings were. And, best case scenario, fire alarms alert us to the danger that flames pose to us in our places of residence. But even the most solid of our homes are susceptible to destruction from a number of elements and/or natural disasters. And, thus, so too are we within them.

"I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad." Actually, Calvin, you've not passed over these things. You've just mentioned them. And rightly so. Few realities pose as much danger to us in this fallen world as one another. Historical research into crime and murder in pre-modern times is a fairly recent academic phenomenon, and the initial results may surprise some. The medieval and early modern periods were apparently much more violent than our own modern age. In fact, the western world's overall homicide rate declined rather significantly in the seventeenth-century, and (thankfully) hasn't rebounded. The jury is still out on exactly why, but most scholars believe it was a product of stronger, more centralized states possessing the machinery to deal more effectively with perpetrators of violent crime. On the other hand, aggravated assault and robbery rates did climb significantly during the last several decades of the last century in America (even if the homicide rate remained more or less constant). Whatever the numbers ultimately mean, we're still rather obviously a threat to one another.

"Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?" Calvin rarely receives criticism for being too cheery. But his real point in highlighting the dangers that folk in his day (and ours) face is not to induce despair. It is, rather, to make us grateful for God's providential care that keeps us from any number of disasters, and permits those (and only those) to reach us which are ultimately for our good. Herein lays great comfort and joy. When "a godly man" comes to understand God's providence, "he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. [...] His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it."

Perhaps, then, regular and sober estimation of the dangers of death surrounding us is in order. Such should finally lead us to grateful and confident reliance upon our Father, who has, after all, wisely determined the boundaries of our existence. And God's providence in our lives, we must remember, is wholly informed by his tender love for us, love evidenced by the fact that he gave us his very Son to suffer true death, alienation from Him, in our stead, and on the basis of the same extends to us the ultimate gift of eternal safety in his own presence.

Results tagged “Providence” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 5.5

v. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends. 

When Christians think about providence, we often think first of God's generous provision for our daily needs. But there are also darker dimensions of God's work in our lives, the experiences that led the hymn writer William Cowper to write about "a frowning providence."

As we have seen, evil and sin do not fall outside the governance of God. Here the Confession makes this truth personal as it addresses the temptations we face and the sin that we see within our hearts. God does not always deliver us from temptation; nor does he sanctify us perfectly in this life. Rather, in his wise providence, he frequently exposes us to temptation and reveals in various ways the deep depravity of our hearts.

God's purposes for doing this are entirely beneficial. Sometimes temptations come as a form of fatherly correction for our former sins. Sometimes God uncovers our ungodliness so that we can see our sin and turn to him for grace. Sometimes he uses trials and temptations to teach us to rely more completely on his love and mercy. These are some of the wise, righteous, and ultimately gracious purposes that God may have in allowing us to struggle with sin.

This is one of the many places where we are reminded that the men who wrote the Westminster Confession were pastors who had a heart for the people of God. They wanted us to have the comfort of knowing that God is not against us but has good purposes for us, even when we are struggling with sin and temptation. When life does not seem to be going well for us, we should not doubt the providence of God, but wait patiently to see its good work revealed in our lives.

Chapter 5.4

iv. The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.

Here we encounter a great mystery--as great as any mystery in time or thought. We have said that nothing falls outside the providence of God, which extends to all creatures and all actions.  This is evident from the very Godness of God, as well as from many statements that Scripture makes about his sovereignty. Yet this raises a difficult and obvious question: If God governs everything that happens, does this make him the author of evil and the approver of sin?

The Confession begins its answer by asserting that sinful actions--everything from Adam's first rebellion to the "little" sins of omission and commission that I commit every day--are inside (not outside) the providence of God. Otherwise, God could not really be in control.

Nor does God simply permit these sins. On the contrary, in his wise providence he sets limits on the destructive power of sin and uses our misdeeds to accomplish his holy purposes. When considered from the perspective of eternity, what Joseph said about the ungodly actions of his older brothers may rightly be said of all human sins: "You meant evil . . . but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20).

This does not mean, however, that God is implicated in humanity's sin. God does not commit any sin; the guilt belongs only to the sinner. Here it helps to remember a distinction that was made in section two--the distinction between God as the First Cause and all the other causes that operate within his world. The will of the sinner is one of the "second causes" that accomplishes God's purposes. We cannot blame God for what we do. In choosing to sin, each of us bears moral responsibility for our own actions.

None of this completely resolves the mystery, of course.  God foreknows and foreordains everything, including evil; nevertheless, he is not the author of sin. The Westminster Confession refuses to give ground on either of these truths because both are taught in Holy Scripture. 

Chapter 5.1

i. God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. 

Having created the universe, God did not simply leave it behind or let it run down. On the contrary, he continues to care for, sustain, and superintend the things that he has made. This is the doctrine of the providence of God.

As is characteristic of Calvinism, the Westminster Confession is all-encompassing in its description of the scope of God's providence. If we ask what stands outside his sovereign oversight, the answer is nothing. God's ongoing governance of his creation includes every created thing and every action or interaction that takes place throughout the entire span of the universe.  

This maximal definition of providence immediately raises all kinds of questions. What about human freedom? Is there any meaningful place left for personal decision-making? And what about the problem of evil? If God directs and disposes everything, doesn't that make him the author of sin--everything from the Fall of Adam itself to the latest school shooting?

The Confession will get to these and other thorny questions in due course, but its starting point is a definition of providence that lets God be God. We will never resolve the mysteries that come with divine providence by admitting that some things are out of his control. 

In taking this view, the Westminster Divines were on solid ground biblically, for the Bible makes the strongest possible claims about the power of God to make everything happen according to the purposes of his eternal will. They were also on solid ground pastorally. The words they chose to describe this doctrine-- words like wisdom, goodness, and mercy--make it perfectly clear that God's providence is praiseworthy.

Dr. Philip Ryken, formerly pastor of Philadelphia's historic Tenth Presbyterian Church, is the president of Wheaton College.