Divine Providence: Occupying The Mysterious Middle [Part 3]

J. Todd Billings
How can we avoid the extremes of monocausal fatalism, on the one hand, and open theism which insists that some events are "pointless" even to God, on the other? As I immersed myself in the Psalms after my cancer diagnosis, I came to see the value of the much-maligned "classical distinctions" in historic Christian theology. This realization may come as a surprise to some as  caricatures abound of classical approaches to divine providence. Sometimes these caricatures come from its contemporary opponents. They usually paint it as portraying an unfeeling Sovereign Tyrant,  thus presenting a doctrine that lacks pastoral empathy and fails to confess the dynamic, passionate God of the Bible. I deal with one aspect of this issue - related to divine impassibility - in a First Things article, and in chapter nine of Rejoicing in Lament. But in this post, I sketch the case for how classical Christian affirmations and distinctions about providence can be both profoundly pastoral and deeply biblical. 

In the ancient, medieval, and Reformation-era church, a set of affirmations and distinctions were utilized in the course of biblical exegesis to avoid  extreme positions regarding providence, while guarding the central guiding mystery of God's providential care. Positively, these statements affirmed in various ways that the Triune God not only freely created the world but that God the King continues to sustain and govern the world toward his own good ends. The Westminster Shorter Catechism distills this earlier theology well when it exposits God's works of providence as "His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures, and all their actions" (emphasis added). But how exactly can one affirm God's kingly rule--with his preserving and governing power--without falling into the fatalistic trap of monocausality, described in my last post? On the other hand, if one avoids monocausality, how can we avoid a form of deism which assumes that God takes a "hands-off" approach to the world rather than actively preserving and governing his creation?

Thus, with the affirmations that God preserves and governs his creation, we need further distinctions--not to vanquish God's mystery but to help us to confess and adore the mystery of God's work set forth in Scripture. These terms (described in the next section) were then utilized for centuries in many Protestant confessions and by theologians as well--for a range of different positions on providence (Reformed, Arminian, Roman Catholic, etc.). These distinctions do not give us a theodicy, explaining God's reason for allowing evil. And like all extrabiblical distinctions, they can be misconstrued or misused. But used wisely, they give us ways to speak about the complexity of God's kingly rule in Scripture, even though the workings of God's providence remain mysterious. God displays active love and care for the whole creation, but in our fallen world this loving action is a mystery which we can confess, rather than information that we can control.

Recovering Classical Distinctions: Biblical Paradox, contra Deism and Fatalism

The most basic category is that of concursus, which refers to "the simultaneity of divine and human agency in specific actions and events" [1]. It seeks to come to terms with the way in which one and the same action can be attributed to human beings and to the work of God in Scripture. For example, when Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery, was this a human act or a divine act? On the one hand, the act of the brothers was a free, contingent act in the biblical narrative. Yet God acts to preserve and govern creation through even that act, as Joseph testifies: "God sent me before you to preserve life" (Gen. 45:5). So, who really sent Joseph into Egypt? A doctrine of concursus is a way to say that both God and Joseph's brothers were actors in the event. God is sovereign, and human beings perform responsible, contingent acts. Divine and human agency do not compete with each other--as if God's action would undermine human agency. 

A related distinction that helps to explain the nature of divine-human concursus is the active and permissive will of God [2]. God's "permission" does not mean that God is a passive spectator but that God (mysteriously) chooses to allow sinners to do the evil that is in their hearts: "God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity" (Rom. 1:24). God permits the accuser, Satan, to bring suffering to Job, even though we still do not know God's reasons. As followers of Christ, we pray for the kingdom to come because although the Triune God is King, his kingship is not uncontested as it will be one day: "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10-11). Until the kingship of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, is uncontested, we live in a world in which all things that take place are in the governing hands of God, but not all things are "God's will" in exactly the same way: some things God works through his permission, and other things God works through his active will bringing about conformity to Christ's reign, by the Spirit's power.

Thus we trust that even though God is not the author of evil, God's governance will bring what was intended as evil to good ends, even as God did with the evil intended by Joseph's brothers; and more significantly, God brought redemption through the evil act of the soldiers' crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In contrast, as when Jesus replies to Nicodemus, God's active will is demonstrated in bringing new life that gives eyes to see, ears to hear, for "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (John 3:3). God's loving desire is for creatures to experience the freedom of life in Christ's kingdom, and the Spirit actively gives eyes and ears to sinners to make this possible. But why do not all believe the gospel when they hear it? Why does God permit ongoing rebellion? As Roman Catholic theologian Matthew Levering suggests, only God knows. Yet "the central aim of the doctrine of permission is to affirm God's love: as it befits infinite Love, God wills only good to his rational creatures" [3]. The doctrine of permission holds together  God's power with his loving beneficence, even as we are left with the same mystery that Job and the psalmists encountered. 

Caring for the Suffering in Light of a Gracious Yet Mysterious Providence

On a practical level, wisely utilizing these distinctions can help Christians who are providing care to the suffering: it gives testimony to God's promise and his providential care without falling into mechanistic views of God's providence, as with Job's "friends" who claimed to calculate what God was doing based on what happened to Job. In giving this kind of testimony to God's providence, we should not rush in and victoriously shout, "This is God's will!" in a way that suggests that this calamity was what God intended at the foundations of creation. The Triune God is King, but Christ's kingdom is not yet uncontested. On the other hand, one is not left with the impotent response of saying, "God understands your pain, but couldn't do anything about it." 

When this classical approach is inhabited in a healthy way, it gives hope, but also leaves a lot of room for mystery. In my own cancer journey, Christian friends often claimed that they could see "the reasons" why particular events had to turn out this way. I recall expressing gratitude to God for the fact that I could schedule my stem cell transplant in Grand Rapids, about thirty miles from home, rather than having to drive across the state for that multi-month affair. Although the response wasn't in so many words, some responded by basically saying: "God caused you to have cancer and be diagnosed just at this time because his plan is perfect." Whenever there were little breaks that would make my life on chemotherapy a bit more convenient, a response was, "Oh, that's part of God's perfect plan." I agree that these are occasions for which to thank God. But these responses seemed to minimize the calamity of my actual pain and the seriousness of my diagnosis--which were not lessened just because I had a shorter drive or a small break in my treatment. They seemed to assume that God's reasons for allowing suffering were transparent--against the lamenting psalmist, against the book of Job, against Paul, who repeatedly prayed for his "thorn in the flesh" to be removed, to no avail. Rightly used, classical distinctions about providence can help us faithfully confess the God of scripture who is King, and yet avoid the hurtful presumptions that we know "why" particular events have taken place.

J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. He is the author of several books, including the Christianity Today Book Award Winner Union with Christ and Calvin, Participation and the Gift. Part of this article is adapted - with generous permission from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group - from his book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015). 


[1] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), p.356.

[2] As I noted in my second post, in utilizing this distinction, I am disagreeing with John Calvin, but aligning with major Reformed confessions which give a more "catholic" account of providence than Calvin.

[3] Matthew Levering, Predestination: Biblical and Theological Paths (Oxford: Oxford University,2011), p.191.