Skip to main content
Select Source:

Providence

PROVIDENCE

PROVIDENCE. Providence is God's fore-knowledge, beneficent care, and governance over the universe at large and human affairs in particular. Providence also refers to God himself in his providential aspects, to a person who acts as the means of Providence, and to an act (favorable or unfavorable) witnessing or manifesting God's will. Providence is the hinge that explains and gives moral value to worldly events in terms of religious doctrine. The word derives from the Latin providentia, 'foresight'.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims of early modern Europe all prayed to an omnipotent Creator God and all therefore believed in divine Providence. Within this period, however, the concept of Providence was most contested and most invoked in the Latin West. Providence had always been important in Catholic theology, but it rose to greater prominence as the writings and theology of St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) gained influence among many Catholic thinkers in the high and late Middle Ages. The Augustinian emphasis on the omnipotence of God brought with it linked beliefs that tied an emphasis on Providence to emphases on the importance of God's grace for the human soul's salvation and damnation, predestination, and God's positive responsibility for evil in the world. Augustine's influence was particularly strong among the members of the eponymous Augustinian monastic orders.

When the Augustinian monk Martin Luther (14831546) broke with Rome, he took his stand in large part on an Augustinian formulation of the sole power of God's grace to save souls. Huldrych Zwingli (14841531), John Calvin (15091564), and Théodore de Bèze (15191605) successively elaborated upon Luther's revolt by grounding salvation absolutely on the logical sequence of God's absolute sovereignty, God's continuing and providential control of the world, and God's predestining salvation and damnation of human souls. For both Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, Providence therefore assumed a far more central role in their doctrine than it had held for even the most Augustinian of medieval Catholics; for the Reformed, Providence was at the very core of their beliefs. Some of the most intense believers among the Reformed, such as the English Puritans, came to believe that they could discern the predestinate fate of their souls and achieve assurance of salvation by careful scrutiny of the signs of God's Providence in the world. For them, "experimental providentialism" was not only a matter of intellectual doctrine but was also the emotional heart of their practical divinity.

For early modern Catholics, Providence continued to be an important part of their theology. In polemics against Protestants, Catholic controversialists often invoked friendly Providence. Spanish writers referred to Providence to explain their nation's conquest of its New World empire, while Gaelic bards explained the English conquest and settlement of Ireland as God's providential punishment of the Gaels for their sins. Contemplation of the sure working out of God's Providence, manifested in works such as Thomas More's (14781535) De Tristitia Christi (1535; On the sorrow of Christ), also served to console Catholics during their misfortunes. The Augustinian note resounded among Catholics from the Reformation to the French Revolution.

Yet among Protestants, particularly among the Reformed, providentialism was far more intense, and it permeated their thought and culture. Faith in God's Providence gave the Huguenots the patience to endure massacres and political defeats during the French Wars of Religion, and the Dutch and the English saw the preservation of their political independence and religious liberty through the age of religious wars as providential dispensations to elect nations. Providentialism also united nations internally. In early seventeenth-century England, a popular culture of providentialism united the different Protestant subcultures; likewise, a century later the depiction of the Glorious Revolution (16881689) and the Protestant Succession as providential events underpinned the era's Whig political consensus. Providentialism also provided the material for much of the era's literature. Dutch travel accounts, Huguenot poetry, and English history playsexamples include Willem Ysbrantzoon Bontekoe's disaster thriller The Memorable Account of the Voyage of the Nieuw Hoorn (1646), Théodore-Agrippa d'Aubigné's epic recapitulation of the French Wars of Religion, Les Tragiques (1616), and Shakespeare's depiction of the triumph of Henry Tudor in Richard III (1594)all manifest providential content and structure.

Providentialism could also be revolutionary, despite a tendency for all churches, states, and social orders to justify their establishment by claiming providential dispensation. The Scot John Knox (15061572) justified his resistance theory partly in terms of Providence; and a century later English Puritan saints-in-arms justified their actions promoting civil war, revolution, regicide, and an English republic with reference to the doctrine of Providence. Oliver Cromwell's (15991658) career provides an excellent case study of how providentialism could inspire military and political actions. Post-Restoration Puritans, chastened by the experience of political defeat, tended to a more fatalistic interpretation of Providence as they moved to the more passive politics of dissent.

Providentialism lessened in rough proportion to the general secularization of Western thought and was progressively supplanted by theories of causation that lessened or removed God's role in worldly events. In the scientific realm, chance, probability, and mechanical laws replaced concepts of providential causation: Pierre Gassendi (15921655), Robert Boyle (16271691), and Isaac Newton (16421727) successively distanced God from the day-to-day operations of the physical universe. In the realm of historical thought, providentialism had been fading since the Renaissance, when classicizing humanists such as Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) reemphasized the pagan, profoundly unteleological concept of Fortune at the expense of Providence. The random purposelessness of history exemplified by Fortune would remain for historians after belief in the personified concept faded. Thomas More, Garcilaso de la Vega (15391616), Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (16271704), and Daniel Defoe (16601731) all upheld more providential conceptions of history, but the disjunction of Providence from history would prove to be permanent and widening. Giovanni Battista Vico (16681744) retained a providential structure in his cyclical conception of human history, but removed it from the details of the historical narrative. Among Enlightenment historians, Voltaire (16941778) thought the philosophical historian, not God, gave history its structure and its moral purpose, while Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (17271781) substituted earthly progress for divine Providence, and thus bequeathed a this-worldly sublimation of providential history to Hegel and Marx.

With regard to Providence, Orthodox Christians responded with particular intensity to the new Protestant doctrines, and Jews with particular intensity to the claims of Newtonianism. Both, however, retained conceptions of Providence largely unchanged during this period.

See also Bèze, Théodore de ; Bossuet, Jacques-Bénigne ; Boyle, Robert ; Calvin, John ; Cromwell, Oliver ; Defoe, Daniel ; Gassendi, Pierre ; Glorious Revolution (Britain) ; Knox, John ; Luther, Martin ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; More, Thomas ; Newton, Isaac ; Puritanism ; Reformation, Protestant ; Vico, Giovanni Battista ; Voltaire ; Wars of Religion, French ; Zwingli, Huldrych .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books and articles dealing with Providence in early modern Europealthough the focus is largely upon Providence in England. For theological surveys that include mention of Providence, see Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Oxford, 1988); George A. Maloney, S. J., A History of Orthodox Theology since 1453 (Belmont, Mass., 1976); and A. D. Wright, The Counter-Reformation: Catholic Europe and the Non-Christian World (New York, 1982). For more specialized books and articles on Providence, see Barbara Donagan, "Providence, Chance and Explanation: Some Paradoxical Aspects of Puritan Views of Causation," Journal of Religious History 11 (1981): 385403; M. A. Fitzsimons, "The Role of Providence in History," The Review of Politics 35, 3 (1973): 386397; Peter Lake, "Calvinism and the English Church 15701635," Past and Present 114 (1987): 3276; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971), pp. 78112; Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1999); and Blair Worden, "Providence and Politics in Cromwellian England," Past and Present 109 (1985): 5599.

David Randall

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Providence." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Providence." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/providence

"Providence." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/providence

Providence

Providence


The concept of providence expresses the idea that divine knowledge, will, and goodness are at work in the design and governance of the world. Adherents of the Abrahamic traditions, (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), characteristically affirm not only that God creates and sustains the world but also that God guides its history toward the fulfillment of divine purposes. The idea of providence, therefore, is closely related to ideas of creation, redemption, and eschatological consummation, as these topics are developed within particular religious traditions.

A distinction has often been made between general and particular (or special) providence. General providence refers to God's governance of the universe through the design of creation and the conservation, or sustenance, of all finite things. In establishing the fundamental structures of the created world, God sets the parameters of its history, building in various possibilities and ruling out others. In the modern era, this has often been interpreted in terms of God's role as the creator of the structures of natural law that the sciences seek to disclose. By establishing these causal laws and setting the conditions under which they operate, God directs the developing history of the universe. A theological interpretation of nature, quite without any commitment to the design argument in natural theology, can understand the so-called fine-tuning of the universe as an expression of God's general providence, which orders the world in such a way that life can emerge in the course of cosmic evolution.

Particular providence refers to God's actions within the world's history to advance the divine purposes in specific ways. Each of the monotheistic traditions, for example, includes some form of the story in which God calls Abraham and his descendants into a special covenant relationship that unfolds in an historical drama continuing to this day. The faithful in these traditions typically construe both their individual lives and the history of their communities to be caught up in this ongoing relationship to the providence of God, though it may be difficult to discern God's plan in the apparently chaotic course of history. On some modern interpretations, such as that given by the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834), particular providence is understood entirely as the outworking of God's general providence in specific instances. God's purposes for human history are built into the design of creation, and God does not so much act within the stream of historical events as enact history as a whole. This avoids a battery of modern objections to certain sorts of special divine actions (e.g., miraculous intervention). There are theological costs to this interpretation, however, and a number of contemporary theologians have sought ways to conceive of God acting responsively to shape the course of events without intervening in or disrupting the natural order.

Traditional theological accounts of providence agree in affirming the perfection of God's knowledge, power, and goodness in governing the world, but they differ in their accounts of what these attributes entail about God's relation to the course of events. Some doctrines of providence assert that God specifically wills and controls everything that happens; God's sovereign and unconditioned intention for the world embraces all the details of cosmic and human history. Reformation theologian John Calvin (15091564), for example, contended that God does not just foreknow but rather foreordains all things, including the destiny of the saved and the damned. This appears to constitute a universal divine determinism, and it triggers the objections, first, that it truncates or eliminates human freedom and, second, that it makes God the cause of human sin, thus compounding the problem of evil. Defenders of positions of this type have usually argued that divine governance of human action, unlike determination by finite causes within the world, does not negate human freedom. Some Thomists argue that because God acts in the utterly unique mode of creator, giving being to creatures and not merely acting as a cause of changes in already existing things, God can bring about a finite event as a contingent occurrence or as a free human choice. God wills the human agent's act, but this divine willing does not displace the human agent's freedom, rather it posits the agent and the free act in existence.

Other theologians contend that while all finite things are created and sustained by God and all events are accommodated within God's plan for creation, some events are contrary to God's purposes. On this account, God allows a limited freedom to some creatures, who may act against God's will, but whose misuse of their powers nonetheless falls within the range of possibilities provided for in God's creative purposes. There are various accounts of how this creaturely freedom to act against God's will is nonetheless embraced within God's will, so that God's good purposes remain sovereign in fixing the destiny of creation. In the sixteenth century, Luis de Molina (15351600) and his followers developed the view that God's omniscience includes knowledge of what every possible free creature would choose to do under every conceivable circumstance. On this account, God is able to take the free actions of creatures into account in the plan of creation, building in responses that assure the final achievement of the good that God intends. Even if divine omniscience does not include this peculiar type of foreknowledge, some modern thinkers have suggested that God, like a master chess player, is always in a position to incorporate the finite agent's actions into the process of realizing God's purposes. If God's providential governance of history involves this type of responsive action, however, then theologians must grapple with questions about how God's special acts engage and affect the ongoing course of events in the world.


See also Determinism; Divine Action; Omniscience; Special Divine Action; Special Providence


Bibliography

aquinas, thomas. summa theologiae (12661273), ia, qq. 2223, 103105, ed. timothy mcdermott. london: blackfriars, 1964.

augustine. the city of god against the pagans, trans. r. w. dyson. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1998.

burrell, david. freedom and creation in three traditions. south bend, ind.: university of notre dame press, 1993.

calvin, john. institutes of the christian religion (15351559), ed. john t. mcneill. louisville, ky.: westminster john knox press, 1960.

barth, karl. church dogmatics (1935), vol. 3, pt. 3: doctrine of creation, the creator, his creature, eds. g. w. bromiley and t. f. torrence. edinburgh, uk: t&t clark, 1977.

flint, thomas. divine providence: the molinist account. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1998.

schleiermacher, friedrich. the christian faith (18301831), vols. 1 and 2, trans. h. r. mackintosh. edinburgh, uk: t&t clark, 2001.

tanner, kathryn. god and creation in christian theology. london: blackwell, 1988.

thomas f. tracy

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Providence." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Providence." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/providence

"Providence." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/providence

providence

prov·i·dence / ˈprävədəns; -ˌdens/ • n. the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power: they found their trust in divine providence to be a source of comfort. ∎  (Providence) God or nature as providing such care: I live out my life as Providence decrees. ∎  timely preparation for future eventualities: it was considered a duty to encourage providence.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"providence." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"providence." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/providence-0

"providence." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/providence-0

Providence

Providence (Lat., providere, ‘to foresee’). The belief that all things are ordered and regulated by God towards his purpose. A distinction is usually made between general providence (which occurs through the laws of nature) and special providence (which is related to individuals).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Providence." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Providence." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/providence

"Providence." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/providence