Results tagged “providence” from Reformation21 Blog

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.