As Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) rightly stated, the Christian doctrine of providence is not merely a true explanation of the world, but also “a glorious confession of faith.” Because of the vital link between the doctrine of providence and the religious life of Christians, it can even be said that, without the correct understanding of divine providence, believers will have confusing responses to the reality they experience, and struggle to gain meaningful interpretations of their sufferings, trials, and even joys.
In John Piper’s recently published Providence, readers will find deep convictions about the pastoral values of the doctrine. Piper helpfully summarizes: “God has revealed his purposeful sovereignty over good and evil in order to humble human pride, intensify human worship, shatter human hopelessness, and put ballast in the battered boat of human faith, steel in the spine of human courage, gladness in the groans of affliction, and love in the heart that sees no way forward (13).” Moreover, “[God’s] providence is the purposeful sovereignty that carries those plans into action, guides all things towards God’s ultimate goal, and leads to the final consummation. … Therefore, the extent of his providence is total. Nothing is independent of it. Nothing happens but by ‘the counsel of his will’—the infinite wisdom of his plan (692–93).”
To undertake the task of dividing and explicating the theology of providence, Piper structured this work into three parts. The first part covers two chapters, and in them he lays out his approach to this particular project. In the first chapter, Piper clearly and emphatically states that his goal in the book is to treat the purposefulness of divine sovereignty, although God’s powerfulness cannot be completely detached: “The focus of this book is on God’s sovereignty considered not simply as powerful but as purposeful (p. 29).” The second part, on the other hand, is devoted to covering “the ultimate goal of providence,” where he elaborated on the ultimate purpose behind God’s creative and redemptive acts in biblical history. This part is essentially an application of Piper’s view of providence to biblical events and stories, and he meticulously concentrated on explicating the divine purpose behind, for example, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the establishment of the Davidic dynasty, and the inauguration of the new covenant in Christ. The twelve chapters in this part all deal with biblical stories and events under the theme of providence and, due to its biblical focus, this part will be particularly helpful in understanding “special providence,” or God’s special governance of His covenant people. The third part is devoted to “the nature and extent of providence” and covers thirty-one chapters, comprising the largest section in the book. This third part is perhaps the meatiest part of all as many weighty theological issues are considered, such as providence over nature, Satan, death, sin, conversion, and the final consummation of all things.
Undoubtedly, this book has great pastoral values and the warmth of Piper’s pastoral tone is sensed throughout the book. In this regard, this will be a valuable resource for pastors and teachers who want to have an accessible book on the topic of providence. Yet, notwithstanding the breath of the topics covered, and despite the lengthiness of the work, it is worth pointing out that the traditional term of concursus or concurrence does not appear once; the classic term that explained the manner of God’s providential act is not explicitly taught in Piper’s magnum opus, though other terms such as “preserving” and “governing” frequently appear. Even his citations of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Standards were merely to support his view of the purpose of divine providence, and there is no substantial treatment of the mode of providence, namely the concursus. Such omission may be intentional for understandable reasons, or perhaps it is driven by his desire to focus on the goal and object of providence as stated at the outset. But given the third part of the book, which he states was written particularly to “show from Scripture not the goal of providence but its nature and extent,” the omission of a discussion of concursus is significant (p. 207). It is important to include it in the explanation of the doctrine of providence, for the fact that the term speaks to the crucial issue of the causal order of God’s providential work—in short, the mode of God’s providential act. It is particularly important to teach the meaning and significance of concursus because it highlights the concurrent interplay between divine and creaturely actions in the execution of God’s providence. The concursity of God’s providential ordering captures the truth that divine actions are interconnected, interlocked, and interplayed with creaturely actions in the order of creaturely affairs and, as such, affirms the contingent order of creaturely phenomena that Christians witness before their eyes.
This doctrine ought to be taught and confessed especially against two erroneous worldviews. On the one hand, pantheistic and deterministic constructions of the created order still grip the imaginations of many people, and there is still a shared assumption that earthly affairs are the consequences of direct and necessary actions of God. That this earthly event happened by necessity because of that divine will does account for the involvement of the transcendent in creaturely affairs, but it does not explain how this earthly event is metaphysically (and morally) ordered to that earthly event: it ignores the contingent order that shapes the flow of creaturely life. On the other hand, the doctrine of concursus counters deistic and naturalistic frameworks as well, for the simple reason that God, in such views, is completely separated from creation in the order of motions. In this stream of thought all the creaturely causes, motions, and actualizations occur in complete independence from God and, as a result, what is supernatural becomes superfluous. Against these views, it ought to be confessed that, whether in technical terms or in ordinary language, secondary causes are always subordinated to and governed by the primary cause and yet they retain their integrity as legitimate “causes.”
In short, one weakness of Providence is the notable absence of classical concepts and terms that capture the concursity of divine providence. The result is an affirmation that God is behind all historical events and all human affairs as the Chief Governor, but not by way of explanation of how. This utterly God-oriented treatment of providence is necessary and helpful in countering an atheistic worldview, but it is insufficient as a comprehensive presentation of the doctrine of providence. Providence is not merely about God’s governance or preservation of created things, but it is also about concursus, and only when the three areas are sufficiently treated, can Christians learn about the why, the what, and the how of divine governance of creation.
Christians in every generation ought to affirm, appreciate, and assume the causal accounts that are aligned with the teachings of the Bible. The doctrine of concursus is a biblically warranted article of faith that informs Christians about the causal relations between divine actions and creaturely actions. Without confessing the concursity of divine providence, pantheistic and deistic errors cannot be fully avoided; and if they cannot be explicitly avoided, they may surreptitiously intrude into the articles of the Christian faith and blur the vital distinction between God and creation. And the pastoral values of divine providence certainly derive from this, that in all the things humans experience in this world, there are always both divine and human layers of actions, causes, and reasons.
Dr. Seung-Joo Lee (PhD, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is Academic Support Officer at Reformed Theological College, Australia, and Ministerial Intern at Knox Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia.