A History of Perspectives on Divine Providence

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After having finished Free Will: A Contemporary Introduction by Robert Kane, I quickly jumped into another called Four Views of Divine Providence. This is a book that I purchased several years ago when I started going to an Evangelical Presbyterian church because I had become internally conflicted on which view of God’s providence was likely correct. Growing up, I had not thought about it much, and probably just assumed that human beings have a free choice to accept or reject Christ’s gift of salvation; that is, humans can choose whether to believe or disbelieve the efficacy of Christ’s atonement. This fits into the larger view that while God is in control of the overall fate of the universe, He allows us many individual decisions on a day-to-day basis.

This view of God’s providence was challenged when I started going to a so-called Reformed church which holds to God’s providence as complete active control of every detail of the universe, as claimed in the Westminster Confession of Faith1. I began to realize that this issue has been debated for millennia and is not simple by any means. The book, which I have finally picked up again, allows four different views of God's providence to be defended by four different theologians, and then allows each theologian to respond to the others’ views. In this post I will introduce the topic and recount the history of this view in the Christian Church. In subsequent posts, I will summarize each view and the criticisms raised for each view. In the final post, I will discuss my updated stance on the doctrine, as well as any outstanding issues with any of the views.

The introductory chapter of the book begins with an account of how “faith in divine providence has waned considerably during the past century […in part because of…] a sharply declining belief in the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible.”2 It goes on to say that “numerous clergy and theologians […] have come to regard [the doctrine of divine providence], which teaches that God not only creates and sustains the world but also concerns himself with and intervenes in its daily affairs, as an anachronism and an embarrassment.”3 But what about those who maintain belief in the authority and inspiration of scripture? For them, discarding this doctrine is simply not an option, for the Bible “unmistakably teaches it.”4 In the Old and New Testaments, Yahweh is portrayed as the ultimate Creator who wants good for his creatures and even interacts with them verbally from time to time. He is portrayed as a God who chose a specific people to be set apart from the rest of the world as his own. Scripture reveals that God sets a standard for his people and sanctions them when they do not meet that standard. He speaks through his prophets to lead his people, and even rescues them when they are in captivity. For their benefit and His glory, He parts the Red Sea, brings down the walls of Jericho and even comes to earth incarnate to die for His own people. It would be impossible for anyone who believes the inspiration of scripture to deny God’s providence over his creation. Throughout history, the Church has taken different stances on how God’s providence works out. This history can be largely divided into six segments including the Ante-Nicean, Post-Nicean, Medieval, Early Modern, Enlightenment, and Post-Enlightenment Periods. Each marks a considerable change in the way that the church thought about God’s providence.

Ante-Nicean Period

The Ante-Nicean period can be defined as the time between the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD and the Counsel of Nicea in 325AD. During this time period, providence was usually thought of in the context of apologetic arguments against different heresies. One such heresy which characterizes the time period was Marcionism. Marcion of Sinope looked at much of the violence and bloodshed in the Old Testament and could not understand how the God of Christianity, whose image was Jesus Christ, could be the same as the Hebrew god Yahweh. Because of what He saw as a disconnect, he began to argue that they actually were two different gods; this led to a more dualistic religion. The early church fathers Tertullian and Iranaeus fought against this heresy by arguing that God’s providence included both perfect love and perfect justice. Additionally, the Problem of Evil and the Free Will Defense began to sprout up in their earliest forms in discussions of God’s providence during this period.

Post-Nicean Period

The Post-Nicean Period can be defined as the interval between the Counsel of Nicea and the death of John Damascene in 787AD. This period saw a distinction in understandings of God’s providence between the Church in the West and the East.5 First, the West began to embrace Eusebianism, the idea that Emperor Constantine of Rome was God’s divine vessel used to convert the world to Christianity. This concept quickly faded from favor when Rome was sacked in 410AD, and was aided in its fall from prominence by books written by Augustine of Hippo and another Church father, Salvian. Augustine’s writings expounded on the concepts of depravity and grace, arguing that human beings are deserving of punishment because they sin freely, but are unable to be saved apart from God’s grace. Augustine also wrote extensively against the heresy of Pelagianism6, an idea which held that human beings actually could earn their own salvation. The West was therefore heading toward the idea that God actively and unilaterally controlled all things, including individual man's salvation.  On the other hand, the Church in the East never embraced this Augustinian view of providence. They held, rather, that human beings do have a say in their salvation through freedom of choice.

Medieval Period

The Medieval Period, from the death of John Damascene to the Protestant Reformation in roughly 1517, saw stances of both moderate Augustinianism and moderate anti-Augustinianism. The Synod of Quiersy in 853 condemned Augustinian predestination, while the Synod of Valence in 855 endorsed it. However, conceptions of providence and grace which emphasized human freedom became dominant just prior to the Protestant Reformation.

Early Modern Period

The Early Modern Period, which spanned from the Protestant Reformation to the beginning of the Enlightenment in 1700AD, began a furious debate between the Thomists and the Molinists. The Thomists, followers of Thomas Aquinas, believed in premotion: the idea that God knows all things because he foreordained them in the beginning. The consequence of this view is that God has exhaustive causal control of the affairs of human beings. The Molinists, under the leadership of Luis de Molina, believed that God determines the circumstances in which people will act for His end, using His Middle Knowledge (this will be explained in detail in a later post summarizing the view of William Lane Craig). The so-called Middle Knowledge view allows for human beings to make free decisions while at the same time maintaining God’s complete sovereignty. In 1598, Clement VIII appointed the Congretio de Auxiliis (Congress on Help) in order to resolve this conflict. The commission moved to condemn Molinism several times before Clement’s successor, Paul V, disbanded the congress without a formal resolution. Among protestant Christians, the Arminians and Calvinists played out a parallel debate over God’s providence.


The Enlightenment, from about 1700 to 1800AD, was characterized by a strong drift into Deism and even Atheism. This was fueled by the Rationalists who held that God has only a loose superintendence on the world but never exerts specific control. John Wesley was one of Christianity’s most prominent defenders again this growing trend. However, even the orthodox Christians of this time period began to modify their stance on providence. Many began to see God’s relationship to the world as similar to the relationship of a machine operator and his gadget.

Post-Enlightenment Period

The Post-Enlightenment Period began in the beginning of the 19th century and continues to present. Some ongoing rationalism continued to see God as isolated from His creation. However, many Christians again began to embrace the old Reformed and Thomistic idea of promotion, and there was a revival of scholasticism by the Catholic Church led by the Dominicans and Jesuits (modern day Thomists and Molinists). But this revival did not last long, and dissolved after the Second Vatican Council, when a wave of theological liberalism entered the Church. Protestantism saw the rise of several more novel conceptions of God’s providence including the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth, and Process Theology.  The last view defended in this book, Open Theism, is related to Process Theology and will be covered in a later post.


1.  The Westminster Confession of Faith, Section 3.1 states: "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin,nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
2.  Jowers, Four Views on Divine Providence, 1
3.  Ibid.
4.  Ibid.
5.  This may have been a factor involved in the conditions that led to the Great Schism of 1054.
6.  See here for a brief description of all the early Christian heresies.
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