Theologians speak about God’s action in relation to the world in various ways depending on what aspect they are discussing: creation, providence, reconciliation or redemption. Some writers give the impression that these different aspects are really separate acts each with its own quality and way of acting. In my view, this separation produces many misunderstandings, such as the common idea that after God creates creatures he must change the way he relates to them. In contrast, I consider it very important to understand each of these four aspects as ways to understand the one God-creature relationship. In creation God begins, in providence God continues, in reconciliation God corrects, and in redemption God perfects creation. From beginning to end the same God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, acts toward creation in view of his eternal plan, the perfection and glorification of creation.
Given my view of the unity of God’s action in creation, you won’t be surprised to learn that I define providence as “that aspect of the God-creation relationship in which God so orders and directs every event in the history of creation that God’s eternal purpose for creation is realized perfectly” (The Faithful Creator, pp. 209-210). I see six major points in this definition that need explaining in detail.
(1) “Providence is not a totally separate series of divine acts but an aspect of the one God-creature relationship.” God is eternal, his act of creation is eternal, and his providence is eternal. But the results of that act are temporal. We live our lives in time and experience God’s one eternal act of creation and providence in time. God’s eternity encompasses time but is not limited by time.
(2) Providence is God’s own personal action, not delegated to angels or left to impersonal causes. In Christianity, all God’s actions in relation to creation are understood to be from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit. God needs no non-divine or quasi-divine mediators in order to be our creator and providential guide. God uses creatures, nature, natural law and human agents. God can work through them, and they are real causes of their effects. But God is not restricted by them in what he can do through and with them. Creatures do not stand between God and the work God accomplishes through them. If God uses a physician to heal or a teacher to inform, God is just as close and just as effective as he would be if worked without them.
(3) God “orders and directs” the history of creation, not leaving creation to chance or fate or misguided freedom. The Faithful Creator explains this point in these words:
“That God “orders and directs” the history of creation means that God brings it about that the created world is and remains the world God intended it to be and that in all worldly events, processes, and free acts God brings it about that his will is achieved… When the Bible affirms God as the creator, it does not mean that God created matter and left it to form a universe by pure chance. Nor does it mean that God created matter and the laws of physics and left them to form a universe by a combination of chance and necessity. It does not mean that God created matter, the laws of physics, and an initial order and let them explore their more constrained but still infinite possibilities by chance. No, when the Bible affirms that God is the creator of heaven and earth it means that God created the order we now experience, the ones that came before and those that will follow until God has created the definitive order in realization of God’s eternal plan. God was, is, and will be the creator of heaven and earth. Hence a robust view of divine creation and a robust view of divine providence stand or fall together.” (The Faithful Creator, pp. 217-218).
(4) Divine providence covers every event in the history of creation, great and small, good and bad, contingent and necessary. God is the creator of everything that has being to any degree. And “events” are the coming to be of new states of creation. God orders and directs—indeed God gives being and sustains—every event no matter how it comes to be. Great and small are relative terms. What seems small at one time may grow in significance with perspective, and what seems great may diminish with time. What seems good in the moment may not work to our ultimate good in the long run, and what seems bad in the moment may be the thing we need to set us on the right path to our ultimate glorification. And what seems to originate exclusively in chance or free human acts can be and will be indwelt, ordered and directed by God according to his plan. God cares about the little stuff, and no power can separate us from his loving care.
(5) God’s eternal purpose guides God’s providential work. God does not need to adjust his plan or improvise in response to unexpected events. Many contemporary writers on providence view God as living in time and responding to events as they occur without being able to anticipate fully what will happen next. I reject this idea as inconsistent with the biblical doctrine of creation and with the promises found in the biblical doctrine of providence. God truly relates to us every moment and in every situation and always responds perfectly. God relates to the temporal creation from eternity, and hence is always ready for whatever happens. For us, the future does not exist at all and God’s act of creation is still ongoing. In our prayers we are relating to the eternal God who is not determined by what we call the future. He can answer our prayers without altering his plan. He knows from eternity what we need and what we should want. Who would want God to give them a lesser good just because they used the wrong words to express their anguish? Every prayer should be accompanied by a sincere “Not my will but yours be done!” You will always receive your request, and it will always be the best answer:
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
6) God realizes his aims perfectly. God cannot fail, even in part. We cannot know the details of God’s eternal plan for creation. But how could God fail to accomplish something God intends to do? Doesn’t God know what he can and cannot do? How could God’s plan fail unless God mistakenly thought he could do something but discovered that he was unable? Take comfort. Though we fail often God will not fail:
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
Could it still be that God’s will in general–such as His will for all to be holy and follow His commandments–be thwarted by free action even though His will for this particular world that He actualizes–including all future events and final outcomes–holds true? Certainly I would not call this a “failure,” but certain failings of free creatures to follow His will certainly seem to make this world a less-than-ideal one.
Traditional theologians called this “the will of the sign.” It designates the standard by which we should live. In that sense God wills that no one ever sin, from beginning to end. But God allowed and allows people to sin for his own purpose. And that purpose will be achieved. I’m not sure we can know this much; but it is an answer to your question.
Right–my fear is that in conflating the aspects of God’s willing/creative acts, we run into the danger of eliminating a helpful distinction between His permissive and active will. But even with that distinction made, I still face the problem of wanting to say that God in some sense selects for this world via His active will, not just permissively. So I don’t completely dodge the bullet.
I wonder if Plantinga’s Redemptive Theodicy concerning the problem of evil could be of some help here. For all we know, only in a world which is suffuse with suffering and sin would the Redemptive Atonement reach its full meaning and value for us.
It’s so important that we don’t put God in a box by arbitrarily categorizing his work in our lives and aspects of his being. God’s work in us and for us is so incomprehensibly amazing, and it’s reassuring that individual humans and all of creation are held in his hands. I’m so glad he knows the end result of all of this.
I can’t wait to read The Faithful Creator!