Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 4. Principles involved in the Scriptural Doctrine of Providence.

A. The Providence of God over the Material Universe.

So far as concerns the relation of God to the external world, the following facts appear to be either assumed, or clearly taught in the Bible.

1. There is an external world, or material universe. What we call the world is not a phantom, a delusive show. It is not ourselves, our own varying states, however produced. But matter is a real existence. It is a substance; that which is, and continues, and has identity in all its varying states. This is of course opposed to pantheism, which makes the external world an existence form of God; to idealism; and to the dynamic theory which teaches that matter is merely force. This latter doctrine is intelligible, if by force be understood the constantly acting will of God, for that is the energy of the divine substance. But in the way in which the doctrine is commonly presented, force is taken as the ultimate fact. Matter is force, it is not a substance, but simply activity, power. But it is self-evident that nothing cannot act, or cannot produce motion, which force does. It is just as plain that there cannot be action without something acting, as that there cannot be motion without something moving, as has been so often said. Force, therefore, does not exist of itself. It of necessity implies a substance of which it is an affection, or manifestation, or property. The real existence of the external world is one of those common sense and Scriptural facts, vouched for by the very constitution of our nature, and which it is utterly useless to deny.

Matter is Active.

2. The second fact or principle recognized by Scripture, is that matter is active. It has properties or forces, which are the proximate causes of the physical changes which we constantly see and experience. This is considered by scientific men almost an axiomatic truth. “No force without matter, and no matter without force.” This is also the general conviction of men. When they take a heavy body in their hand, they attribute its weight to the nature of the body and its relation to the earth. When one substance produces the sensation of sweetness, and another the sensation of acidity, they instinctively refer the difference to the substances themselves. So of all other physical effects; they are always and everywhere referred to physical causes. Such is a law of our nature; and therefore the theory which denies that any physical causes exist, and refers all natural effects or changes to the immediate operation of the divine will, contradicts our nature, and cannot be true. Besides, as we have already seen, that theory logically leads to idealism and pantheism. It merges the universe into God.

These physical forces act of necessity, blindly, and uniformly. They are everywhere and always the same. The law of gravitation is in the remotest regions of space what it is here on our earth. It acts always, and always in the same way. The same is true of all other physical forces. Light, heat, electricity, and chemical affinities are everywhere the same in their mode of operations.

Laws of Nature.

The ambiguity of the words, law and nature, has already been remarked upon. The phrase “Laws of Nature” is, however, generally used in one or the other of two senses. It either means an observed regular sequence of events, without any reference to the cause by which that regularity of sequence is determined; or it means a uniformly acting force in nature. In this last sense we speak of the laws of gravitation, light, heat, electricity, etc. That there are such laws, or such physical forces, acting uniformly, which are not to be resolved into “uniform modes of divine operation,” is, as we have seen, an important Scriptural fact.

The chief question is, In what relation does God stand to these laws? The answer to that question, as drawn from the Bible, is, First, that He is their author. He endowed matter with these forces, and ordained that they should be uniform. Secondly, He is independent of them. He can change, annihilate, or suspend them at pleasure. He can operate with them or without them. “The Reign of Law” must not be made to extend over Him who made the laws. Thirdly, As the stability of the universe, and the welfare, and even the existence of organized creatures, depend on the uniformity of the laws of nature, God never does disregard them except for the accomplishment of some high purpose. He, in the ordinary operations of his Providence, operates with and through the laws which He has ordained. He governs the material, as well as the moral world by law.

The relation, therefore, in which God stands to the laws of nature, is, in one important aspect, analogous to that in which we ourselves stand to them. We employ them. Man can do nothing outside of himself without them; yet what marvels of ingenuity, beauty, and utility, has he not accomplished. Dr. Beale, as we have seen, illustrates God’s relation to physical forces by a reference to a chemist in his laboratory. The chemicals do not put themselves in the retorts in due proportions, and subject themselves first to one and then to another operation. As mere blind, physical forces, they can accomplish nothing; at least nothing implying purpose or design. The chemical properties of the materials employed have their functions, and the chemist has his, evidently not only different, but diverse; i.e., of a different kind. Professor Henry’s illustration was drawn from the relation of the engineer to the engine. The complicated structure of the machine, the composition and combustion of the fuel; the evaporation of the water, are all external to the engineer, and he to them. The locomotive, although instinct with power, stands perfectly still. At a touch of the engineer it starts into life, and yet with all its tremendous energy is perfectly obedient to his will.

These, and any possible illustration, are of necessity very inadequate. The powers of nature of which man avails himself, are not dependent on him, and are only to a very limited extent under his control. He is entirely external to his works. God, however, fills heaven and earth. He is immanent in the world; intimately and always present with every particle of matter. And this presence is not of being only, but also of knowledge and power. It is manifestly inconsistent with the idea of an infinite God, that any part of his works should be absent from Him, out of his view, or independent of his control. Though everywhere thus efficiently present, his efficiency does not supersede that of his creatures. It is by a natural law, or physical force, that vapour arises from the surface of the ocean, is formed into clouds, and condenses and falls in show are upon the earth, yet God so controls the operation of the laws producing these effects, that He sends rain when and where He pleases. The same is true of all the operations of nature, and of all events in the external world. They are due to the efficiency of physical forces; but those forces, which are combined, adjusted, and made to coöperate or to counteract each other, in the greatest complexity, are all under the constant guidance of God, and are made to accomplish his purpose. It is perfectly rational, therefore, in a world where blind, natural forces are the proximate cause of everything that occurs, to pray for health, for protection, for success, for fruitful seasons, and for the peace and prosperity of nations, since all these events are determined by the intelligent agency of God.

The providence of God is thus seen to be universal and extending to all his creatures and all their actions. The distinction usually and properly made between the general, special, and extraordinary providence of God, has reference to the effects produced, and not to his agency in their production; for this is the same in all cases. But if the object to be accomplished be a general one, such as the orderly motion of the heavenly bodies, or the support and regular operation of the laws of nature, then the providence of God is spoken of as general. Many men are willing to admit of this general superintendence of the world on the part of God, who deny his intervention in the production of definite effects. The Bible, however, clearly teaches, and all men instinctively believe in a special providence. That is, that God uses his control over the laws of nature, to bring about special effects. Men in sickness, in danger, or in any distress, pray to God for help. This is not irrational. It supposes God’s relation to the world to be precisely what it is declared to be in the Bible. It does not suppose that God sets aside or counteracts the laws of nature; but simply that He controls them and causes them to produce whatever effects He sees fit. The Scriptures and the history of the world, and almost every man’s experience, bear abundant evidence to such divine interpositions. We should be as helpless orphans were it not for this constant oversight and protection of our heavenly Father. Sometimes the circumstances attending these divine interventions are so unusual, and the evidences which they afford of divine control are so clear, that men cannot refuse to recognize the hand of God. There is, however, nothing extraordinary in the agency of God. It is only that we witness on these occasions more impressive manifestations of the absolute control, which He constantly exercises over the laws which He has ordained.

The Uniformity of the Laws of Nature consistent with the Doctrine of Providence.

It is obvious that the Scriptural doctrine of providence is not inconsistent with the “Reign of Law” in any proper sense of the words. The Scriptures recognize the fact that the laws of nature are immutable; that they are the ordinances of God; that they are uniform in their operation; and that they cannot be disregarded with impunity. But as man within his sphere can use these fixed laws to accomplish the most diversified purposes, so God in his unlimited sphere has them always and everywhere under his absolute control, so that, without suspending or violating them, they are ever subservient to his will. Certain philosophers do not admit this. To them the control of mind and the reign of law are incompatible; one or the other must be denied. “The fundamental character of all theological philosophy,” says Lewes, “is the conceiving of phenomena as subjected to supernatural volition, and consequently as eminently and irregularly variable. Now, these theological conceptions can only be subverted finally by means of these two general processes, whose popular success is infallible in the long run. (1.) The exact and rational prevision of phenomena, and (2.) The possibility of modifying them, so as to promote our own ends and advantages. The former immediately dispels all idea of any ‘directing volition;’ and the latter leads to the same result, under another point of view, by making us regard this power as subordinated to our own.”576576Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences, Lewes, London, 1853, pp. 102, 103. If the fact that men can use the laws of nature to their “own ends and advantages” is compatible with the uniformity of those laws, the control of God over them for the accomplishment of his purposes cannot be inconsistent with their stability as laws. God rules the creation in accordance with the laws which He himself has ordained.

God’s Providence in Relation to Vital Processes.

Life has ever been regarded as one of the most inscrutable of mysteries. However hard it may be to answer the question, What is life? or however diverse and unsatisfactory may be the answers given to that question, or the explanations proposed of its phenomena, there is little difference as to the facts of the case. (1.) It is admitted that there is a great difference between life and death — between the living and the dead. No one who has ever looked upon a dead body has failed to be impressed with the fearful change involved in passing from life to death. (2.) It is very evident that the difference does not consist in anything which can be weighed or measured, or detected by the microscope or by chemical analysis. (3.) Certain processes go on where life is present, and are never seen when it is absent. These processes are organization, growth, and reproduction. (4.) These processes imply the perception of an end; a purpose or will to secure that end; and the intelligent choice and application of means for its attainment. This is the work of mind. If blind physical force can fashion the eye or the ear, and build up the whole animal body, with all its wonderful interdependencies and relations of parts and organs, and its designed adaptations for what is external and future, then there is no evidence of mind in heaven or earth; then all the works of art and of genius with which the world is crowded, may be the productions of dead matter, or of physical forces.

But if life be mind, or, rather, if vital force be mental force, as indicated by the mode in which it acts, where does that mind reside? In the infinitesimally small germ of the plant or animal? or in something exterior to that germ? These are questions which have ever been demanding an answer, and to which different replies have been made. First, some say that nature itself is intelligent. By nature they do not mean the material world, but the vis in rebus insita. The forces which are active in the world, are conceived of as belonging to a substance or animating principle, or anima mundi. Some who believe in an extramundane personal God, believe that He has created and rendered immanent in the world this natura naturans, which they hold to be the seat of all the intelligence manifested in the works of nature. This is the only God some scientific men are willing to admit. Material nature, it is said, gives no evidence of the existence of a personal Being. We see in nature a mind, a universal mind, but still a mind which only operates and expresses itself by law. “Nature only does and only can inform us of mind in nature, the partner and correlative of organized matter.”577577See this doctrine discussed in the Bampton Lectures for 1865, by Rev. J. B. Moxley, p. 96. Baden Powell, in his “Order of Nature,” says, that the elevated views of a Deity as a personal God, and Omnipotent Creator, etc., are conceptions which “can originate only from some other source than physical philosophy.”578578Edit. London, 1859, p. 249.

Secondly, some assume that there is in the germ of every plant or animal what Agassiz calls “an immaterial principle,” to which its organizing power is to be referred. Some connect this with the Platonic doctrine of ideas, as spiritual entities, which are the life and reality of all material organisms.

Thirdly, others refer the intelligence manifested in vital processes to God; not immediately, but remotely. Men can construct machines to do intellectual work, without the machines themselves being intelligent. We have orreries, and calculating and typesetting machines, which, apparently at least, do the work of mind. If man can make a watch or locomotive engine, why may not God make watches and engines with the power of reproduction? The analogy, however, between the products of human ingenuity and living organism is imperfect. No product of human art can think or choose. A type-setting machine may be made, when the proper key is touched, to move an arm in the right direction and to the proper distance to reach the required letter; but it cannot be made of itself to select from a confused mass of type the letters one after another, and arrange them so as to form words and sentences. In other words, matter cannot be made to do the work of mind. It is admitted that everything is possible with God, but the contradictory is not an object of power. It is a contradiction that the extended should be unextended, that the irrational should be rational. It is, therefore, inconceivable that matter with its blind physical forces should perform the mental work exhibited in the processes of organization and growth.

Fourthly, the intelligence required to account for the processes of vegetable and animal life is assumed to be in the everywhere present and everywhere active mind of God himself. This does not imply that physical or second causes have no efficiency, or that those causes are merged into the efficiency of God. It simply means that God uses the chemical, electric, photic, and other forces of nature, in carrying on organization and other vital processes in the vegetable and animal worlds. In such processes there is a combination of two specifically different forces; physical and mental. The physical are in the matter used; the mental in God who uses the matter and its forces. Examples of this combination of mental and physical force are familiar. All voluntary motion, on the part of animals, all the works of men, are due to such combination. Walking, speaking, and writing, are possible only so far as mind controls our material organization. In writing, for example, the vital functions are going on in the hand, on which its mobility and susceptibility of nervous impression depend; and the numerous voluntary muscles are called into action; but the guiding power is in the mind. It is the mind that determines what letters and sentences the fingers shall form, and what ideas shall be expressed. In like manner, it is the ever-present mind of God that guides the action of physical causes in the processes of animal and vegetable life. And as it would be unreasonable to refer to the physical forces called into activity, when we speak or write, the intelligence indicated in what is uttered or written, so it is unreasonable to refer to the forces of matter the intelligence indicated in the processes of life.

It is because we cannot raise our minds to any proper apprehension of the infinity of God, that we find it so difficult to think of Him as thus everywhere present and everywhere intelligently active. This, however, ceases to be incredible, when we think of the marvellous coöperation of the mind and body which takes place in rapid talking, or, more wonderfully still, in a child before a piano, taking in at a glance the whole score, noticing the power and position of every note, striking eight keys of the instrument at the same time, and moving fifty or sixty voluntary muscles with the rapidity of lightning, and each at the right time, and with the right force. If the mere spark of intelligence in a child can do such wonders, why should it be thought incredible that the Infinite Mind should pervade and govern the universe?

In support of the view here given, that the intelligence displayed in all vital processes is the intelligence of the everywhere present and everywhere active mind of God, it may be urged, in the first place, that the principle involved in this doctrine is assumed in time simplest truths of natural religion. If God be not thus everywhere present, and everywhere active in the control of secondary causes, there is no propriety or use in prayer, and no ground of confidence in divine protection. In the second place, it seems to be the only way to account for the facts of the case. That the processes of life in vegetables and animals do manifest intelligence cannot be denied. They manifest foresight, purpose, choice, and controlling power. This intelligence cannot be referred to matter, or to physical forces. The most advanced scientific Materialism does not make mind an attribute, or function, or product of all matter, but only of the highly organized matter of the brain. But there is no brain in the vegetable or animal germ. Brain is as much a product of life (and therefore of mind) as sinew or bone.

In the third place, the authority of Scripture may be claimed in support of the doctrine in question. The Bible teaches the omnipresence of God; i.e., the omnipresence of mind. The phrase “God fills heaven and earth,” means that mind pervades heaven and earth, that there is no portion of space in which mind is not present and active. The Scriptures also teach that all things, even the most minute, as the number of the hairs of our head, the falling of a sparrow, the flight of an arrow, are all under the control of God. He also is said to cause the grass to grow, which means not only that He so orders physical causes that vegetation is the result, but also, as appears from other representations, that the organization and growth of the plant are determined by his agency. This seems to be clearly taught with regard to the bodies of men in Psalm cxxxix. 15, 16, “My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.” However doubtful may be the interpretation of the 16th verse in the original, the general meaning of the passage cannot be mistaken. It clearly teaches that the human body is fashioned in the womb by the intelligence of God, and not by undirected physical causes, acting blindly.

B. The Providence of God over Rational Creatures.

God’s providence, however, extends over the world of mind, i.e., over rational free agents, as well as over the material universe. The principles involved in the Scriptural doctrine concerning God’s providential government of rational creatures are, —

1. That mind is essentially active. It originates its own acts. This is a matter of consciousness. It is essential to liberty and responsibility. It is clearly the doctrine of the Bible which call on men to act, and regards them as the authors of their own acts. This principle, as we have seen, stands opposed, (a.) To the doctrine of a continued creation. (b.) To the doctrine which denies the efficiency of second causes and merges all power into the immediate power of God; and (c.) To the doctrine that free agents are so dependent that they cannot act unless acted upon, or move unless they are moved ab extra.

2. But although free agents have the power to act, and originate their own acts, they are not only upheld in being and efficiency by the power of God, but He controls the use which they make of their ability. (a.) He can, and often does, hinder their action. (b.) He determines their action to be in one way and not in another; so that it is rational to pray that God would incline the hearts of men to show us favour; that He would change the dispositions and purposes of wicked men; and that He would work in us to will as well as to do. No creature, therefore, is independent of God in the exercise of the powers with which He has endowed it. The hearts of men are in his hands, and He controls their action as effectually as He controls the operations of nature. But his agency in the world of spirits no more interferes with the laws of mind, than his agency in the external world interferes with the efficiency of material causes.

Distinction between the Providential Efficiency of God, and the Influences of the Holy Spirit.

3. The providential agency of God in the government of free agents is not to be confounded with the operations of his grace. These two things are constantly represented in the Bible as distinct. The one is natural, the other supernatural. In the one God acts according to uniform laws, or by his potentia ordinata, in the other, according to the good pleasure of his will, or by his potentia absoluta. The control which God exercises over the ordinary acts of men, and especially over the wicked, is analogous to that which He exercises in the guidance of material causes. whereas his agency in the operations of his grace is more analogous to his mode of action in prophecy, inspiration, and miracles. In the former, or in his providential agency over minds, nothing is effected which transcends the efficiency of second causes. In the latter the effects are such as second causes are utterly inadequate to accomplish. The most obvious points of difference between the two cases are, (1.) In the ordinary operations or acts of free agents, the ability to perform them belongs to the agent and arises out of his nature as a rational creature, and is inseparable from it; whereas the acts of faith, repentance, and other holy affections do not flow from the ability of men in the present condition of their nature, but from a new principle of life supernaturally communicated and maintained. (2.) The ordinary acts of men, and especially their wicked acts, are determined by their own natural inclinations and feelings. God does not awaken, or infuse those feelings or dispositions in order to determine sinners to act wickedly. On the other hand, all gracious or holy affections are thus infused or excited by the Spirit of God. (3.) The providential government of God over free agents is exercised as much in accordance with the laws of mind, as his providential government over the material world is in accordance with the established laws of matter. Both belong to the potentia ordinata, or ordered efficiency of God. This is not the case in the operations of his grace. Holy affections and exercises are not due to the mere moral power of the truth, or its control over our natural affections, but to the indwelling of the Spirit of God. So that it is not we that live, but Christ that liveth in us. It is indeed our life, but it is a life divine in its origin, and sustained and guided in all its exercises by a higher influence than the laws of mind, or an influence which operates merely through them, and according to their natural operations. This distinction between nature and grace, between the providential efficiency of God and the workings of his Spirit in the hearts of his people is one of the most important in all theology. It makes all the difference between Augustinianism and Pelagianism, between Rationalism and supernatural, evangelical religion.


Such are the general principles involved in this most difficult doctrine of Divine Providence. We should be equally on our guard against the extreme which merges all efficiency in God, and which, in denying all second causes, destroys human liberty and responsibility, and makes God not only the author of sin, but in reality the only Being in the universe; and the opposite extreme which banishes God from the world which He has made, and which, by denying that He governs all his creatures and all their actions, destroys the foundation of all religion, and dries up the fountains of piety. If this latter view be correct, there is no God to whom we can look for the supply of our wants, or for protection from evil; whose favour we can seek, or whose displeasure we need dread. We, and all things else, are in the hands of blindly operating causes. Between these equally fatal extremes lies the Scriptural doctrine that God governs all his creatures and all their actions. This doctrine admits the reality and efficiency of second causes, both material and mental, but denies that they are independent of the Creator and Preserver of the universe. It teaches that an infinitely wise, good, and powerful God is everywhere present, controlling all events great and small, necessary and free, in a way perfectly consistent with the nature of his creatures and with his own infinite excellence, so that everything is ordered by his will and is made to subserve his wise and benevolent designs.

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