So far throughout this series we’ve underscored this point: it’s not just the theology we profess but also the habits and practices that make certain doctrines plausible or implausible in the first place. But the doctrines obviously matter. Faithful convictions expose unfaithful ones and persuade us to re-evaluate the practical assumptions that we take for granted in our lives.
The doctrine of providence is that sort of doctrine. It has fallen on hard times, though. Its marginalization is no doubt a major contributor to our lack of appreciation for the ordinary. A casualty of the culture wars, the doctrine falls through the crack between secular naturalism and hyper-supernaturalism. Either everything is a miracle, or nothing is. The result is that everything is brought down a notch. Miracles lose their distinction as exceptional and extraordinary divine acts, while ordinary providence seems hardly capable of fending off a full-strength secularist virus. To appreciate the ordinary, we have to begin with God as the original worker. Here I try to distinguish God’s miraculous and providential ways of working while giving both their due.
Once upon a time, many average Christians expected to experience God in the ordinary and familiar routines of daily life. You couldn’t go to the market or the park without passing the church in the center of town, with the graveyard reminding you that we all are hanging by a thread, dependent in every moment on the generosity of God. In times of famine, drought, disease, or natural disaster, people worked hard, but they also prayed hard.
Today, God’s involvement in our everyday lives seems increasingly remote. We go to the superstore to buy our packaged food items. We find it easier to follow the Weather Channel than to pray during natural disasters. For relief from plagues, we wait eagerly at the altar of technology for some word of a new pharmaceutical answer. We want to believe that even these natural remedies are ultimately from God, but we often find ourselves trusting in the gifts more than in the Giver.
The options seem pretty stark. On one hand, we encounter a dogmatic naturalism that identifies ordinary with natural, the means with the ultimate cause. There is no God. The world is self-caused and self-sustaining, the result of chance plus time. On the other hand, in reaction, many Christians have adopted a hyper-supernaturalism. In its laudable eagerness to uphold God’s existence, power, and involvement in the world, this approach tends to downplay the ordinary and natural means through which God fulfills his purposes. Ironically, these opposing views end up agreeing on at least three crucial points: (1) There is only one cause; (2) If God is this cause, then his fingerprints must be obviously evident; (3) To the extent that natural explanations are appealed to, God’s involvement is negated.
None of the major branches of the Christian church or their representative theologians have agreed to any of these points. A host of examples could be cited, but I will only summarize the consensus.
First, mainstream Christianity has never held that there is only one cause—one agent (namely, God). Every now and then, a thinker has come along to suggest that everything that happens is a direct act of God, but this idea has typically been dismissed as a form of Creator-creation confusion (that is, pantheism or panentheism). The traditional view that one finds in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant teaching is that while God is the Lord of all, apart from whose eternal purpose nothing exists, he is not the immediate or proximate cause of every act. This would include sin especially. It is generally recognized that Scripture teaches both God’s all-encompassing sovereignty and human responsibility. God is not the author of evil. The fact that both of these truths are true is part of biblical revelation; how they can be true is beyond our comprehension or explanation.
Second, God uses ordinary and natural means to accomplish his purposes. Following Luther, Calvin referred to these means as “masks” God wears. We pray for our daily bread, but manna does not fall miraculously from heaven as it did for God’s people in the wilderness. God fulfills this petition through natural processes and our neighbor’s vocations. Some people plant, water, and harvest grain. Others load and transport the grain to the mill and send the processed product to shops where bakers make the bread. Still further steps are required, with other “masks” fulfilling their calling, before a sandwich appears on the table. Do we thank God for that sandwich? Of course. Did he make it? Ultimately, yes, but through many hands. Therefore, we cannot choose between supernatural and natural sources. God did it, through natural and ordinary means. Similarly, our restoration to health may be attributed both to doctors and to God, but in different ways. God is the ultimate healer, but he ordinarily heals through natural processes and remedies and skills that he has created, sustains, and gives.
Third, because God works ordinarily through so many layers of creaturely means, we cannot expect to decipher his immediate providence. To begin with, we do not know his ultimate purposes if he has not revealed them to us in his Word. We see the mask, but not the one wearing it. What we encounter ordinarily is the baker—the immediate rather than the ultimate source of our daily bread.
In our day, we are even further removed from the baker by more layers of mediation. Usually, we pick up our bread at the supermarket. Normally these days, we don’t meet the dairy farmer who harvests the milk we drink. As medical advances have exploded, we seem to have more natural diagnoses and treatments on hand before resorting to supernatural explanations and cures. At this point, we may be inclined to embrace naturalism: the view that only that which we can see and subject to measurement and prediction truly exists. Or we may react by embracing a hyper-supernaturalism that looks for God in the gaps—that is, where natural explanations are not readily evident. Yet, as apologists have discovered, this approach ends up backfiring as scientific research expands and the gaps in the natural explanations are filled in. Where is God to go?
The other response—the one that I am advocating, consisting with traditional Christianity—is that God has not gone anywhere. We must not relegate God to those occasions when he is one cause among others that we can see, measure, and test. We only have direct access to the natural means, but they are God’s ordinary way of working in the world and in our lives. Every time a cut heals naturally, God is the ultimate healer. The birth of a baby is not a miracle, but a splendid example of his providence that never fails to fill us with awe. Instead of detracting from God’s sovereignty, natural explanations—especially the more complex ones that display the obvious evidence of God’s design—should provoke wonder at God’s concern, wisdom, and loving involvement in every detail of our lives.