The Darkness we call Providence

The Darkness we call Providence

by Tim Dean

Is there any point to a doctrine of providence, can it be said to be of any practical consequence for humankind? For ‘Providence’ may appear to raise many insuperable problems and offer very little light. Even if it is right to conclude that the doctrine is of no practical use, Christians have to deal with the realities and framework that providence operates in, essentially: God’s overall control of all human history and his action or inaction within it. Can the Christian have any confidence that human history has any direction, and has the future outcomes that scripture appears to promise? Does God act positively in the largest and smallest details of human affairs? As Langford rightly says, ‘The doctrine of providence, while much neglected in recent times, is crucial for theological reflection. Without it the idea of God is largely irrelevant to what is going on in the world. Moreover, the view that one holds as to the nature of providence affects the Christian approach to prayer and action.’ 1

In exploring this issue, I will be arguing that ‘providence’ – while raising philosophical questions of theology – is at heart bound up with moral ones: not least theodicy, the problem of evil.

Assumptions and definitions

So what is meant by ‘providence’? Before setting out a working definition it is crucial to lay out some underlying assumptions. Peter Vardy has set out five broad assumptions which theists share and which underpins the discussion in this article:

1] A single God exists who created the universe from nothing,

2] This God continues to be interested in his creation,

3] God is good,

4] God is omnipotent,

5] God does not wish suffering to take place. 2

The Christian tradition has held those assumptions to be true (though with some dissenters), and it is within those assumptions that a doctrine of providence is developed. So the 1647 Westminster Confession can state: ‘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 own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.’ 3

Similarly, the first Vatican Council of 1869/70 affirms ‘God protects and governs by His providence all things which he created, “teaching from end to end mightily and ordering all things sweetly” (Wisdom 8.1). For “all things are naked and open to his eyes” (Heb. 4.13), even those which by the free action of creatures is in the future.’ 4

The Christian traditions’ doctrines of providence contain assumptions about God which are derived primarily from Scripture and not primarily from philosophy. There is not just a belief in God’s sovereignty, omnipotence and governance over all his creation, but critically, an understanding of God’s goodness: that providence is beneficent. As Nigel Cameron succinctly pus it: ‘Providence is the beneficent outworking of God’s sovereignty whereby all events are directed and disposed to bring about those purposes of glory and good for which the universe was made. These events include the actions of free agents, which while remaining free, personal and responsible are also intended actions of those agents. Providence thus encompasses both natural and personal events, setting them alike within the purposes of God.’ 5 Inasmuch as ‘providence’ reaches common parlance, the claim that something is ‘providential’ is premised upon it being such a beneficent work of God. So providence refers to the goodness of God and (only) the good that He works in creation and human history.

All this begs enormous problematic questions. As Timothy Gorringe observes ‘The “problem of evil”, the problem of holding together the goodness and omnipotence of God, is better described as a problem of providence.’ 6 Theodicy is the problem of providence. For if God’s governance of his creation is total, whereby exactly what He wills does take place and cannot be thwarted, in what sense are humans ‘free’? But if humans are totally free, free in the choices they make day in day out, does not that act as a constraint on God’s will, and therefore make it highly questionable that God is able to have a pre-ordained future plan which is guaranteed to be delivered? And why should only ‘good’ actions in human history be seen as the outworking of God’s providence? Is God not bound to be equally responsible for the bad, if a doctrine of providence is to be consistent? If God isn’t responsible for the bad, then doesn’t it imply restrictions on God’s sovereignty, and the possibility that human actions can affect God’s purposes?

Paul Helm, in support of the Christian tradition on Divine providence, argues that providence is bound up in the interests of individual Christians, the interests of the whole universal Church, and the whole of creation. ‘God’s providence is equally at work in all these areas; there is no sphere in which he is less in control, or less interested in, than in some other sphere, no ‘no-go’ areas. In each of these contexts God’s providence is exercised in preserving his creatures, in sustaining them through history, and in directing them to the goals for which he has in view.’ 7 By claiming that there are no, ‘no-go’ areas for God’s providence in human history, Helm indicates that the moral heart of the problem of providence is Theodicy – the problem of evil. For all that was, is and will be evil in the world, cannot be a ‘no-go’ area for God’s providence.

Theodicy – the moral heart of the problem of Providence

Just because the past is the past – events have actually occurred and taken place within God’s scheme of things – doesn’t mean that every act that has occurred was ‘providential’ in the sense that they were ‘beneficent’. If all past acts in the universe were not outside God’s control, what do these non-beneficent events mean in relationship to God, and for an understanding of God’s goodness? Was Auschwitz in any sense providential, or in any sense beneficent? This is not an arbitrary question, for the problem of evil, from the latter half of the 20th Century, has necessarily cast the enormity of the problem of God’s goodness and providence in the light of the Holocaust. It represents for many the sharpest edge of the problem or moral evil (as distinct from ‘non-moral evil’). It needs to be dealt with in the specific character of the industrialised genocide of Jews, and also as a potent symbol for all human suffering at both the collective and individual level. So two questions stand out:

  • Given the enormity of evil in both God’s eyes and humanity’s, can events such as the Holocaust be in any sense described as ‘good’?

  • If God’s providence implies his continual activity in human history, why did God not heed human prayers to intervene to halt the horror, evidently chose not to?

The problem with trying to resolve this dilemma, is that there is a tendency to justify unacceptable evils as acts of God. With specific reference to the Nazi death camps, that danger is illustrated by two theodicies arising from the Holocaust, both cited in Dan Cohn-Sherbock’s Holocaust Theology.

Ignaz Maybaum a Reform Jew argues that the Holocaust was the result of divine providence. His mother, two sisters and other relatives were murdered in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. ‘To explain such horrors, Maybaum contends that the Jewish world has experienced three major disasters, each of which he refers to as a churban – an event of utter destructiveness.’ These are events from which a significant shift in Jewish life practice resulted. Just as a surgeon may perform radical surgery to remove human tissue to enable renewed life for the patient, so God ‘cuts out a part from the body of mankind so that a new span of life can begin in revived health’. The first churban was the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent Jewish exile. This reinforced the Jews’ holy mission by enabling ‘the Jewish community to bring knowledge of God and Torah to the pagan nations beyond Judea’s borders’. The second churban was the destruction of the Temple by Herod. Thereafter Jews moved away from sacrificial rites of worship and established the synagogue as a fundamental institution within Jewish life. ‘For the first time, mankind saw an example of a form of worship in which no blood was shed. Instead, prayer took the place of sacrifice and worship was constituted by the spoken word alone.’ 8

The Holocaust (Shoah), with the extermination of six million Jews, is Maybaum’s third churban. In it he sees the camps bringing those millions to die vicariously for all of humankind, and dying into the eternity of God. ‘In this tragedy, the servant-of-God passages in the book of Isaiah provide the framework for comprehending God’s plan for mankind. Of the martyr-servant it is written: “Behold, my servant shall succeed, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (Isa. 52.13). Those who died in the gas chambers are similarly exalted.’ In addition, Maybaum conceives of a providential role for Hitler with biblical precedent, ‘Hitler should be understood as an instrument of God’s will. In Scripture, Nebuchadnezzar is depicted as the destroyer of Jerusalem; nonetheless he is referred to as “Nebuchadnezzar, my Servant” (Jer. 27.6)’ As to benefit, Maybaum argues that the surviving two-thirds remnant of the Jewish community, ‘must eliminate indifference, pettiness and lazy thought from their lives’, and become ‘aware that justice and mercy and truth are holy attributes of God’. Jews must become nearer to God and ‘progressing towards the goal of history – towards justice, mercy and peace.’ 9

The second view is related by the Jewish scholar Richard Rubenstein from his discussion with a Christian survivor of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Heinrich Gruber (Dean of the Evangelical Church in Berlin). Gruber was incarcerated because of his opposition to Nazi anti-Semitism and his active work on behalf of Jews. ‘… the Dean affirmed that God was active in history and was responsible for the Holocaust. Quoting Psalm 42.22, “For Thy sake we are slaughtered every day”, Gruber explained that for some reason, it was part of God’s plan that the Jews died.’ Rubenstein recognised that ‘Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate actor in history – it interprets every tragedy as God’s punishment for Israel’s sinfulness.’ So in his book After Auschwitz Rubenstein asserts ‘The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept.’ 10

I do not cite Maybaum and Gruber as the sole or acceptable interpretations of events within their two traditions. Nor do I wish to cite them as straw men to be knocked down. In Jewish Holocaust theology there are a multiplicity of theodicies, and Maybaum has been subject to much critique, not least for his appearing to adopt Christian typologies. But here are but two examples where those, inextricably caught up in the experience of evil which they seek to understand, end up articulating a theodicy where God is seen to have been in control and working through that evil for a ‘greater good’. However, they both stand challenged by Rubenstein’s accusation of obscenity.

Another way of articulating Rubenstein’s ‘obscene’ challenge to providential thought in the light of the Shoah, is with Irving Greenberg’s principle. In his 1977 article Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, he tells of the practice in Auschwitz towards the very end of the war when young children were thrown alive straight into the crematoria without first being gassed. Their screams could be heard in the camp. So Greenberg expressed this principle: ‘No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.’ 11

This is not a new challenge, though it is articulated by Greenberg in the sharpest and most poignant way. Other writers such as Paul Fiddes, Paul Helm, John Hick, et al, cite Dostoyevsky’s fictional character Ivan Karamazov (in the The Brothers Karamazov). In Ivan’s anguished debate with Alyosha, about God and human suffering, he puts a question at length which is summarised by Fiddes, ‘Is the whole universe worth the tears of one tortured child?’ 12

In order to try and meet this challenge of the problem of providence, three issues need to be touched on: the ‘classic’ free will defence; the solution posed by Deism; and the nature of God’s relation to his creation.

The ‘free will’ defence

The ‘free will’ defence has a long history within the Christian theist tradition, being expressed in different ways by, for instance, Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin, etc. Simply put, the argument is that loving relationships require agents who are free to make their own moral choices. In creating humankind God desires to enter into such loving relationships with humanity. But for human beings to do so, requires them to have an ability to make genuine free moral choices which must include the ability to choose against God, and to choose to err.

The only way to prevent evil would be either for God not to have created ‘free’ human agents, or having actually done so, constrain them from committing any evil, and thereby rendering them not free at all. For human beings to love and to do good, requires God do neither.

In creating humanity with ‘free will’, God created the possibility of evil. As Fiddes has it, ‘While not directly creating evil and suffering, God puts the world into this situation. In the Hebraic-Christian tradition, God is not then absolved from the final responsibility in choosing to make a free world at all, and in taking such a severe risk.’ 13

From this it is possible to argue that in keeping faith with human free will, God chooses not to intervene to constrain people’s choices for evil. For were God to do so, He would need to be consistent and intervene for good in every human situation. If God cushioned every consequence of human actions, we would not learn the full consequences and true nature of our own evil. The difference between the Theist and the Deist, is that the former may hold the free will defence, but also argue for God’s involvement in his creation in ways which go beyond his role as the continual sustainer of creation. As Gorringe observes, ‘... believers through the ages have sought divine guidance for their own affairs. Belief in providence is belief that God is not only the lord of history but the lord of my history, that God is concerned with individuals. ... Throughout the Bible God is said to have a purpose for specific individuals which can be discerned then acted upon.’ 14

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