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Someday I’m going to compile a list of “Christian words” which need a 200 year time out — mothballed until they can be brought out again, fresh and new. Words that aren’t necessarily untrue, just exhausted, exploited, stretched almost beyond repair.

And when I do, “providence” will be on the list — especially if my list is Reformed-specific.

Online dictionaries offer definitions of providence as “conceiving of God as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny” or “the protective and spiritual care provided by God or nature.” The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that “the almighty and ever present power of God, by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty — all things, in fact come to us not by chance by his fatherly hand.”

My most recent mini-tirade against providence was occasioned by the run-up to the presidential election, especially some comments here on The Twelve. Whenever there was criticism of President Trump, some people felt compelled to respond with words like, “God, who controls history, has installed President Trump, who are you to question…?” Almost certainly you encountered similar statements — suggesting that to question President Trump was to question God’s providence.

Like me, perhaps your first response was to make a quick mental list of events where you have never heard this argument used. Obama’s presidency? The Obergefell decision? Please continue your list making.

Point number one: providence is never meant to silence those who suffer or to smother criticism. Providence should never stifle efforts to change or improve a situation. Providence is never an invitation to passivity or fatalism. Your house is on fire? Do you counsel staying in the burning house in order to fully experience God’s providence?

Most of those espousing God’s providence sound a lot like Job’s “friends” — spouting platitudes and quoting scripture in an attempt to comfort and explain. Job refused to accept it.

You can’t pull people toward providence. In their own way and in their own time, some people may eventually find their way to a sort of equilibrium, their own version of some sense of providence. But if they do, it takes time, pain, prayer, and lots of processing. It can’t be rushed. It can’t be taught. It definitely can’t be foisted.

I believe it is Richard Mouw who refers to the doctrine of election as a top-shelf doctrine. It is like a rare, aged, single-malt whisky. It is kept on the top shelf of the cupboard to be sipped and savored on rare occasions. Many people don’t especially care for it, yet still manage to live full and happy lives.

Providence probably belongs up on that top shelf, too. This isn’t to suggest any sort of enlightened elitism or starchy superiority — as if only the bright and blessed ones, the discerning and mature ones will ever “get it.” Just the opposite. This simply isn’t where you begin. Telling people how exquisite it is doesn’t convince anyone. Many people won’t ever develop a taste for it, and that’s okay.

Point Number Two: Pastoral theology is real theology. We Reformed folk often insinuate that real theology is quite rigid and established, with more than a few sharp edges. In contrast, pastoral theology — theology done in real-life situations and among actual people — is necessarily rather compromised and mushy. “No reason to hurt people needlessly. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…” and all that. I’ve been guilty of thinking this way myself.

In a conversation with my theological interlocutor, aptly named Sophie, she proclaimed, “Theology has to be pastoral because when it is divorced from the pastoral, it becomes oppressive.” Answers in the abstract easily become hard and detached. It seems like this was often the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. They had the right answers but couldn’t see the real situation.

No one is saying that the measure of good theology is as simple as it always makes you feel good. We don’t have to understand or like everything, But theology has to be done in among the people, addressing real-life situations.

Point Number Three: It’s about Jesus. Jesus and the incarnation — the heart of our faith — are amazingly absent in most expressions of providence. Frankly, this is another common problem for Reformed theology. Even the beloved and beautiful Heidelberger cited earlier seems to slip into this error. And then we wonder why we Reformed are perceived as having an icy and aloof God — staying at distance, issuing dark and mysterious decrees, pulling strings and pushing levers from heaven.

Most expressions of providence unintentionally portray Jesus in the employ of God’s eternal decrees, rather than seeing Jesus as the raison d’etre of all God does. Jesus is assigned the awful task of making God’s decrees come true. It truly is the tail wagging the dog — to abruptly shift metaphors.

In Jesus Christ, we see a God who comes and knows hunger and disappointment, pain and injustice, loneliness and misunderstanding, who not only suffers with us but even on our behalf, a God who was killed — gruesomely and wrongly — yet now lives. This should be a game-changer in how we understand God’s response to or “control over” the vicissitudes of life. This is no royal sovereign, lodged safely in a box seat, capriciously giving the thumbs up or down to the rabble and ragamuffins on the bloody arena floor. Of course, that’s a cartoonish portrayal of providence. Sadly the cartoon is more common than the genuine article.

This isn’t theological esoterica. If there are practical and pastoral ways to introduce the comfort of providence to hurting people, it is by beginning with Jesus.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

12 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Amen. Well said, especially point three.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Thanks, and I especially liked point number two.

  • Tony Vis says:

    So good! Also timely, probably a “God-thing.” 😉 Personally I liked points 1, 2, and 3. Seriously. All good.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    I like Dwight L. Moody’s description of “providence/election/salvation.”
    There is one door.
    On the one side is written: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
    When we go through the door, we turn back and see what is written on the opposite side of the door: “Saved from before the foundation of the world.”

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for your interesting and honest appraisal of God’s providence. I don’t like it either, although there were times I rejoiced in it. Of course, the primary emphasis of Reformed theology over other Christian theologies is the emphasis on God’s sovereignty, whether in salvation, personal affairs, or history (whether Biblical, or church, or modern). Reformed theology puts God front and center in all of life. Add to that, God is a personal God who is personally interested and involved in every aspect of my life (not a hair…). How do I explain that so much shit happens, whether in my life, the lives of those I love, or anyone, A personal, loving God with all knowledge, power, and sovereignty doesn’t just sit back and do nothing? He’s personally involved in our lives. Or is he? Hence, enter the scene with God’s sovereignty and providence. Whether you bring Jesus into the picture or not, it doesn’t help our immediate situations of suffering and pain. The only thing God’s providence does for a person is to give a false sense of security that someone is in control, even if I’m not. Thanks, Steve, for your contribution. Maybe you are less Reformed than I had thought.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    As an eager young Baptist, finding freedom at last at Calvin College (!) in the 1970’s, lapping up the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and Calvin’s Institutes for the first time, I recall in a Reformed theology class hearing this statement: “John Calvin painted himself into a theological corner with his statements on election, and we do the same when we elevate ‘TULIP’ to scriptural status . . .” I also recall hearing providence/election and other hard concepts being compared to a chess game ( Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”, anyone?), forever ending in a stalemate draw, but with the holy invitation “let’s play one more.” I have been forever struck with those images.

  • George Vink says:

    Thanks, for a challenging read. I’ll go to my top shelf later today, take off the leather cover, and sip just a little of the stuff I’m keeping for special occasions……love the analogy!

  • Daniel Bos says:

    Last night I read another plea for pastoral theology by Jim Jossee (retired Canadian attorney), “The Church and Human Rights,” in the current issue of CHRISTIAN CENTURY, 11-9-20, p. 7.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Pastoral Theology, like Practical Theology generally, is only slowly being recognized as a robust field of study all its own, every bit as necessary and rigorous as systematic theology. I remember some years back at Calvin Seminary that we were talking about our various Departments–Biblical, Theological, and Ministry (Practical)–and one of my colleagues from the Theology Dept made a joke about meetings of the Ministry/Practical Dept as “butter sharpening butter.” He meant it semi-humorously but also semi-seriously. A full-throated defense of the need for solid Pastoral Theology is needed, and this blog helps. Thanks!

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    I sometimes wonder, when I teach Paradise Lost, if a lot of post-17th century views of God and providence can be blamed on Milton’s depiction of God in book 3. We have a cold, static, defensive God “asserting eternal providence,” foreseeing the Fall but insisting he didn’t cause it. Then sends errand-boy Jesus “down” to fix the mess on earth made by the humans. It’s rather terrible trinitarian theology, but Paradise Lost was hugely influential and compels the imagination even if you can argue with Milton’s official doctrinal positions.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    And, according to the late Professor George Harper, Milton was practically a Unitarian, like so many other Puritans, so that his God was so philosophically correct as to be absent from salvation.

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