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Editor's Intro:

Describing President Bush's particular brand of Christianity has recently reached oenological heights: he is an evangelical, born-again Protestant Methodist revivalist, with Wesleyan undertones and increasingly Calvinist highlights. More specifically, he is noted for his "Providential" theology.

But what is Providence and where does the concept come from?


By Donald K. McKim

The Christian doctrine of Providence has been variously interpreted through the history of the church. The doctrine encompasses several deep theological questions: what is the will of God? The meaning of miracles? What are we to do about the existence of evil, or suffering? What is the role of "free will," and God's sovereignty? And how can one determine election or predestination?

The term "providence" is traced to Genesis 22:14: "So Abraham called that place 'The Lord will provide' [NSRV note: "Or will see; Heb. traditionally transliterated Jehovah Jireh]. The Vulgate rendered the Hebrew as Deus providebit. Thus the English term "providence" emerged, based on the Latin verb provideo which means "to provide for" or "to foresee." (1)

The theological doctrine of providence developed out of biblical texts that point to God's sovereign rule over all things. This perception is central in the Psalms where God sustains creation and humans within it, upholding it, and guiding history to accomplish God's will (Pss. 104; 91; 77). Jesus affirmed God's care for individuals, down to the "hairs of your head" (Mt. 10:29-31). God's plan is at work in the world (Eph. 1:9-12), to accomplish God's purposes for salvation (Rom. 8:28-39; 2 Tim. 1:9), and beyond (Ps. 22:8) to the establishment of God's eternal reign (Rev. 11:15).

God's sovereignty over all was affirmed by early Christian theologians, most often as they engaged in controversies with groups such as Gnostics, Marcionites, and Stoics. In the third century, Origen spoke of "dispensations of Divine Providence" which include all events from prior to the world's creation, to events within the world, and stretching on to what will happen "after the end" of the world.(2) The theologian Tertullian developed a distinction between what God "permits" and what God "absolutely wills."(3)

What we would call a providential view of history is seen most clearly in Augustine's, The City of God where it is God who raises up and totters human empires. Christians must trust God's emerging, sovereign plan. Aquinas too affirmed that God is the cause of all (except sin and evil), and that God works out divine pur-poses through "secondary causes," such as human wills.(4)All nature and history bows before God's plan and governance.

While Luther did not systematically develop a doctrine of Providence, he did stress God's governance of the world—through worldly and spiritual means. The Reformers, Zwingli and Calvin, developed the doctrine more fully. Calvin (1509-1564) appealed to Genesis 22 to assert that providence means not "that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events. Thus it pertains no less to his hands than to his eyes." (5) God's providence is both "general" and "special"—God's rule and control over the universe and God's "especial care over each of his works," including the direction of the lives of individuals. (Prov. 16:1, 9; Inst. 1.16.4-6).

Calvin understood his own life in this overall perspective. His followers, especially English and American Puritans, recorded in their diaries the "providences" of God they experienced daily. The preacher John Beadle published The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian (1656) and in it urged that just as tradesmen, merchants, physicians and others keep shop books, accounts, experiments etc., so persons of faith should record in their diaries many things relating to their salvation and especially all the mercies of Providence and God's answers to prayer. Beadle wrote:

Indeed what is our whole life, but a continued deliverance? We are daily delivered, either from the violence of the creature or the rage of men, or the treachery of our own hearts; either our houses are freed from firing, our goods from plundering, or our bodies from danger, or our names from reproaches, or our souls from snares." (6)

As William Haller noted, "The Puritan faith invested the individual soul, the most trivial circumstances of the most commonplace existence, with the utmost significance. Why should not a man keep a record of matters in which God took so active an in-terest as he did in the petty moods and doings of any common sinner?(7)

For Calvin and his followers, God's providence is recognized in the lives of believers as a solace and a help in all adversities (Inst. 1.17.6-8). Humans cannot appeal to God's providence to evade responsibility or escape blame for their own wickedness and evil deeds. Nor does appeal to God's providence excuse us from due prudence (Inst. 1.17.3-5). It is, however, a solace for believers and a help in all adversities (Inst. 1.17.7-8). Without certainty about Godps providence, Calvin argued, life would be unbearably fearful: "Innumerable are the evils that beset human life," wrote Calvin, "innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten us." After entering a litany of such evils and dangers, Calvin wrote: "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?" (Inst. 1.17.10).

Instead, God's providence relieves our anxiety and cares, assuring us with a "never-failing assurance...from knowing that, when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work." We can trust that God's work will be for our "welfare" (Inst.1.17.11). Thus, "ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in knowledge of it" (Inst. 1.17.11). Calvin's concerns here were to refute notions of "fate," associated with Stoicism and the view that things happen by fortune or chance (Inst. 1.16.2, 8, 9). He cited Augustine in this regard who commonly taught, said Calvin, "that if anything is left to fortune, the world is aimlessly whirled about" (Inst. 1.16.8).

The legacy of Calvin and his successors is that "the constant governance or providence of God is a hallmark of Reformed understandings of God." (8) Against this, the seventeenth-century Dutch theologian James Arminius, who was later a main influence on John Wesley and American Methodism, sought to "give more freedom to the creature" and to emphasize God's actions through creatures who cooperate with God so that God's governing of the world and history is through "secondary causes" with the effect that God effectively imposes a divine self-limitation to allow for human freedom. (9)Thus, a prime feature of the Calvinist/Arminian theological debates on God's sovereignty and human freedom is played out in the doctrine of Providence.

The influence of Calvin and the Reformed tradition in the United States has been prevalent from the start. Early Puritan settlers in New England were "Calvinist" in their theology, alert always to see ways in which God's divine providence was taking shape in the world and in their endeavors.(10) Roger Williams named the town he founded, "Providence" Rhode Island, for God's guidance and care.(11)

The theme of God's providential governing and blessings in the New World continued with writings such as Edward Johnson's, Wonder Providence of Sion's Savior (1654) which hailed the Massachusetts colony as "the wonder of the world" and by 1675, Increase Mather exclaimed "that there are no persons in all the world unto whom God speaketh by [His] Providence] as he doth to us....Mention, if you can, a People in the world so priviledged as we are!"(12)

More broadly, "the New England way" began to fuse with notions of the "the Errand into the Wilderness," "a beacon on a hill," the "Elect Nation," millennial fervor, and other factors into a view of the new America as an "exemplar for the world" and as blessed by a "favoring Providence." To carry out the divine will for the governance of the world was a mandate for the American nation. (13)

American Presidents have invoked the Providence theme in varying ways. Most significantly, the doctrine underlies Abraham Lincoln's view of the Civil War, epitomized in Lincoln's greatest speech, his Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865). Lincoln said:

The Almighty has his own purposes....If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? (14)

Lincoln's "grand indicative was that God had been present in the midst of the Civil War" and "God's providence is the prism through which he carefully refracted the meaning of the war." (15)

This leads us to more familiar territory, and commentators' notice of a "providential" view of history in the speeches of President George W. Bush. (16) In his January 29, 2003 State of the Union Address, he said:

We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers. Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity....We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone. We do not know—we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history." (17)

In his remarks to the 51st Annual Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 6, 2003, the President said, "We can also be confident in the ways of Providence, even when they are far from our understanding. Events aren't moved by blind change and chance. Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God. And that hope will never be shaken." (18)

On April 19, 2003, Easter weekend, President Bush said in his Radio Address, "America mourns those who have been called home, and we pray that their families will find God's comfort and God's grace. His purposes are not always clear to us, yet this season brings a promise: that good can come out of evil, that hope can arise from despair, and that all our grief will someday turn to joy, a joy that can never be taken away"(19)

In each of these cases, the remarks about Providence took place after a reference to freedom and America's exercise of "power" (Jan. 29); America's commitment to "defend" the ideals of freedom (Feb. 6); and Operation Iraqi Freedom "to protect our security and to free an oppressed people" (April 19). The question of the relation of President Bush's Christian faith to his political views goes beyond references to Providence. But from what is cited above, three observations emerge.

President Bush uses language that is congruent with the Reformed or Calvinist ways of expressing a governmental view of Providence in which God's plan and purposes are carried out in history and are ultimately victorious.

President Bush couples his statements on Providence with an activist agenda, especially in regard to United States efforts to spread and preserve freedom. This is, perhaps, an "Arminian" strain in which strong emphasis is put on human abilities to cooperate with God. (20)

President Bush's comments about Providence, while acknowledging the limits of human knowledge and the un-clarity of God's purposes do not wrestle with or entertain possibilities that our national purposes might not be totally congruent with God's will. This is the type of possibility all Christians must consider in their own lives in relation to perceived providence. God's providence appears through faith. Providence is a doctrine best seen in retrospect—not to "justify" our actions, but as a way of looking back and recognizing, in humility, God's ways at work in our lives. We must always be especially wary of identifying our agendas, desires, or human yearnings with "God's providence" in an automatic way. We live "by faith" and proceed "in faith." On the national scene, Lincoln recognized the tensive relationship between God's will and our own, and the need for the purification of human purposes in relation to the divine. (21)This is the amber light of caution for faith, which should always accompany our perceptions and pronouncements about God's Providence.

Donald K. McKim, Ph.D. is Reference Editor for Westminster John Knox Press in Germantown, Tennessee.

(1) See Benjamin Wirt Farley, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988) for an historical and theological study of the doctrine of Providence.

(2) See Origen, De Principiis, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:268 cited in Farley, 87.

(3) See Tertullian, On Exhortation to Chastity, ANF 4:50-51 cited in Farley, 97.

(4) Aquinas devotes five Questions to God's Providence in his Summa Theologica (Questions 23-"On Providence;" 24-"On Predestination" and Questions 103-105-"On Divine Government." Farley says that "Aquinas's doctrine represents a fresh and rigorous attempt to articulate a responsible theological understanding of God's providence. It is truly the first systematic and analytical discussion of providence worthy of the name, in spite of its scholastic form," 127.

(5) See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.16.4. Further citations are from this edition and the work cited in the text is abbreviated as Inst.

(6) Cited in William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (rpt. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), 96-97.

(7) Haller, 97.

(8) Ted A. Campbell, Christian Confessions: A Historical Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 146. Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002) calls this view "meticulous providence," 190.

(9) See Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 254 and Olson, 185.

(10) See the antecedents of the New World Puritan views in Donald K. McKim, "The Puritan View of History or Provi-dence 'Without' and 'Within,'" The Evangelical Quarterly, ed. F.F. Bruce, 52, 4 (October-December 1980): 215-237.

(11) See .

(12) See Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 51.

(13) On these themes, see the various writings of Perry Miller. Cf. Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 7 who wrote that through the nineteenth century, "This mythic theme of America as a beacon on a hill and an exemplar for the world became a constituent element in his-torical interpretations of the nation's religious life."

(14) See the splendid study by Ronald C. White Jr., Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 18.

(15) See White, 167.

(16) See "Bush Religious Rhetoric Riles Critics," The Christian Century (March 8, 2003): 10-11; Howard Fineman, "Bush and God," Newsweek (March 10, 2003): 22-30; James W. Ceaser, "Providence and the President: George W. Bush's Theory of History," The Weekly Standard (March 10, 2003): 30-33; Fred Barnes, "God and Man in the Oval Office, The Weekly Standard (March 17, 2003): 11-12; John H. Armstrong, "God, Providence and President Bush," The Weekly Messenger (March 31, 2003; April 7, 2003).




(20) In 1977, Bush married his wife Laura and joined her Methodist church. See "Bush and God," 26.

(21) Martin Marty issues a similar concern here, appealing to another quote of Lincoln. See "The Sin of Pride," News-week (March 10, 2003): 33.

Citation: Derek H. Davis, " Providence: A Genealogy," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2006]. Online:


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