Don Carson on the Providence of God

tinkerD. A. Carson, “Foreword,” in Melvin Tinker, Intended for Good: The Providence of God (Nottingham, England: IVP, 2012), 9–10:

Fewer than two hundred years ago, a student writing an advanced paper in most history departments in British or American universities might well include some reflections on what his or her historical treatment implied about divine providence. Today it is unthinkable to include such reflection. At a more mundane level, reflections on divine providence continue to surface in trivial conversations. Not long ago I was flying home after speaking at a conference somewhere, and it appeared that our plane was going be delayed by an hour or two because of bad weather, or perhaps forced to land at another airport. Suddenly the pilot announced that there was a small break in the weather, and we were heading straight in with minimal delay. The passenger in the next seat smiled and muttered, ‘Someone up there loves me: I’ll make my connecting flight.’ I confess I smiled back and asked him, ‘If you missed your flight, would that constitute evidence that he doesn’t love you?’

Three and a half centuries ago, it was not uncommon for Christians to muse on ‘the mystery of providence’. Our contemporary lack of reflection on this theme overlooks how important it is in the Bible—and we abandon it at our peril. The reason the doctrine of providence is mysterious lies in the fact that it brings together God’s utter sovereignty and his unqualified goodness. On the one hand, God truly reigns: the world never escapes from his ultimate control. Yet if that is the only thing to be said, one risks giving the impression that God stands symmetrically behind good and evil—and that would make him amoral. But the same Bible that affirms God’s sovereignty insists equally on God’s goodness: he reigns providentially.

Sometimes the biblical texts lift the veil just a little, to indicate some of the ways this is so. The Assyrians slaughter Israelites and grind them into the mud, a barbarous regional superpower intoxicated by its own military prowess—yet unknown to them, God is actually using them to bring judgment on his people, deploying the Assyrians as a man wields an axe or some other tool, and he will in turn hold the Assyrians accountable for their attitude (Isa. 10:5–19). Whether an individual Israelite escapes or is cut down in the vicious slaughter, that Israelite lives and perhaps dies under the providence of God. Wicked leaders conspire to pervert justice and execute Jesus, and clearly they are accountable for their sins, yet from another perspective they did nothing more than what God ordained should be done, for otherwise one must read the cross of Christ as little more than an accident of history (Acts 4:27–28).

So now we are holding together three strands of biblical evidence: God’s sovereignty, God’s goodness and human accountability. Each of these strands is very common in Scripture, and raises a plethora of questions about time and eternity, the nature of what philosophers call ‘secondary causality’, and, at the personal level, anguished despair when things seem so unfair (think Job and Ps. 88). The question is how these themes hold together, and how they should be applied to life and history, such that we avoid, on the one hand, a Mary Poppins view of reality, and, on the other, robotic fatalism (‘Que sera, sera!’ What will be, will be!), while maintaining resilient faith in the manifold perfections of God and an awareness of our own need of grace.

(This book was published a year ago in the UK, but IVP’s usual North American partners didn’t publish it.)


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  1. says

    Thanks for the heads–up on the book, Andy. I know it’s only a UK book for now, but I’ll put it on my study list anyway. I think as the young Calvinists of today mature, and as secular culture continues to beat upon the ramparts of the Church, there will be a need for a more robust understanding of the providence of God.

    Many thanks.

  2. Ben Fetterolf says

    So thankful for the comfort that God’s providence brings! One girl in our small group last night shared how God’s providence gives her peace and a sense of security as she goes throughout her day. Nothing happens to her that is outside of God’s providence!

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