Divine Providence

Two contrasting recent articles in The Banner touch on divine providence (“Is God Responsible?” by Daniel Boerman, August 2006, and “The Value of Life” by James Vanderlaan, September 2006). Perhaps here we can sort out some of the issues they raise.

The doctrine of providence is about God’s involvement with the world. The Heidelberg Catechism identifies it as a divine governance of the world. But what kinds of things fall within providence, and how strongly is God involved with those things?

 These two dimensions may be combined in several ways. A strong position in one dimension may be balanced by a more moderate stance in the other.

The Heidelberg considers the scope of providence to be very broad, contending that “all things” come to us from the hand of God. Vanderlaan echoes this. Particularists hold that only some things fall within providence.

Boerman seems to opt for the latter when he states that “evil must come from somewhere else.” About the depth of God’s involvement, the most radical view would be that God caused the event—God wanted it that way. Vanderlaan quotes a quadriplegic man as saying, “I am exactly the man God wanted me to be.” That’s a strong claim about God!

A less radical view of providence would hold that God simply permits events whose cause belongs to some other agent. Or God assigns to some other agents the responsibility for some aspects of the world and leaves what happens here up to them. An even weaker position simply equates providence with God merely knowing what is happening or will happen. These weaker versions ascribe less accountability to God for what actually happens in the world and reduce God’s responsibility for bad things to a “tolerable” level.

But the Heidelberg attributes at least some of the bad stuff strongly to God. It lists examples that pair good things with bad things: prosperity and poverty, health and sickness, saying that both come to us from the hand of God.

Yet the Heidelberg’s examples don’t include a single sin. Is that accidental? Maybe when its authors said “all things” they didn’t really mean all things?

Let’s add another good/bad pair to the Heidelberg’s list: a loving embrace and a brutal rape. Could these also be examples of providence? Could the rapist say, “I am exactly the man God wanted me to be”? Is that the truth about God?

In describing God’s providence over all things, G.C. Berkouwer, a well-known Reformed theologian, contends that “God works sovereignly in the guilt of man. . . . God’s inscrutable rule of the world realizes itself in His activity in and with man’s guilty acts” (The Providence of God, trans. by Lewis B. Smedes; Eerdmans, 1952). So he expressly includes our “guilty acts” under God’s providence.

However, Berkouwer also states, “The reality of God’s wrath underscores Scriptural insistence that sin may not be traced causally to God.” So the link from God to sin is not causal. (So if sins don’t come from God, where do they come from?)

Berkouwer emphasizes that “the Church has . . . always proclaimed and confessed that God is not involved in the guilt of the world, that is, that God is not the author of sin.” So even Berkouwer rejects the strongest versions of the providence relation. He does allow for God’s engaging in some “activity in and with man’s guilty acts,” but without making God accountable for them.

So what kind of divine “activity” might fill that bill? The only plausible candidates are those I mentioned earlier. The first is abstinence: God refrains from preventing evil (often called God’s “permissive will”). The second is God assigning responsibility in some areas to other agents and leaving it up to them to act (“free will”). The third candidate is that of God only knowing about the sins in the world but having no direct involvement.

These are some of the fascinating issues raised in the provocative articles by Boerman and Vanderlaan. They deserve our further reflection and discussion because they deeply affect the way we see God working in the world, in our lives, and even in our own hearts.


for discussion
  1. Discuss the difference between the view of providence that the Heidelberg Catechism offers (Vanderlaan) and the particularist view (Boerman). Are you disturbed that there are differences in opinion concerning the Reformed view of providence? Why or why not?
  2. The weaker versions of providence ascribe less responsibility to God. Has an event in your life or in the world prompted you to agree with this view? How did you come to your conclusion?
  3. How do you understand a kind of divine activity that allows God to engage with humankind’s guilty acts but not be accountable for them?
  4. What images help you to understand God’s providence?
  5. What does it mean to yield to divine providence?

About the Author

Dr. George Mavrodes is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is a member of Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church.

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