The Providence Trap



What do Benjamin Warfield and Benny Hinn have in common? Are there perils to be avoided in regard to the doctrine of Providence of which Christians should be aware? Are there some subtleties that, if we are not careful, will betray the very Gospel we proclaim as Christians? These questions need to be faced in light of the following:

(1) Zeno of Citium (335-265 B.C.) who was the founder of Stoicism regarded pantheism as the true doctrine and regarded man's duty as to live rationally accepting nature as an orderly expression of World Reason or Providence, submitting without complaint to what it brings. Well, at the very least, the name Providence, is Stoic!

(2) Marcus Aurelius (121-180 ) who opposed the theological teachings of Christianity found relief from the cares of government in the Stoic teachings and believed man's duty was to resign himself to the will of God and to love all mankind. He believed in a rational world directed by Providence. Even the enemies of Christ apparently can take some comfort in Providence!

(3) Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), the Dutch Jewish philosopher excommunicated from the synagogue for his pantheistic views regarded both the molecular and mental processes as constituting the double history of the world, and their laws and causes as God. Attempting to clear himself, Spinoza distinguished between natura naturans (nature begetting) and natura naturata (nature begotten)-the former was God, the latter was not. The former was the "I AM" of Exodus 3:14). Spinoza believed Jesus to be the greatest and best of the prophets-indeed "the eternal wisdom of God." Yet he denied everything miraculous associated with Jesus regarding those supernatural elements as parabolic, designed to teach eternal truths to the public mind. How we need to define our terms and distinguish our faith!

(4) Voltaire (1694-1778) François Marie Arouet

Voltaire, the famous French skeptic of the Enlightenment, following Spinoza, reduced religion to the level of nature, designated the supernatural elements in the Bible as "superstition," and embraced doubting Thomas as his patron saint. "True prayer," for Voltaire, as Will Durant noted, "lies not in asking for a violation of natural law but in the acceptance of natural law as the unchangeable will of God." Note: Voltaire apparently did not have a problem with divine immutability. Durant noted that Voltaire gladly accepted the theology of the Sermon on the Mount and acclaimed Jesus in terms that could hardly be matched by the greatest of saints. To those who accused him of atheism, he replied, ""If it is very presumptuous to divine what He is, and why He has made everything that exists, so it seems to me very presumptuous to deny that He exists." Do our prayers ever rise above natural law? Is our God distinguishable from Voltaire's god? -our religion from his natural religion?


(5) Perry Miller writes of the New England Puritans who were contemporaries of Spinoza: "Miracles gave very little trouble. They were out-and-out deviations from the settled order; as Willard put it, the rules of ordinary providence are unalterable, but God may if He wishes 'go from or beside these Rules' in His extra-ordinary providences." (The New England Mind). Is the suppression or cessation of miracles what Paul had in mind when he commended the Colossian Christians for their orderliness (Col. 2:5)? Jonathan Edwards's theology has been characterized, rightly or wrongly, as "concrete theism." John Gerstner described Edwards's theology as "pantheistic by implication and panentheistic by intention."

(6) Deism and natural religion

Deists, those who believe in the doctrine of the "Absentee Landlord" were never averse to speaking of Providence, and it was a very thin line that separated them from the natural religion of the Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson left the Christian ministry and began to spell nature with a capital "N." Spinoza's monistic pantheism can be detected in Emerson's statement: "The word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is a Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain." "What is the operation we call Providence?", he asked. "There lies the unspoken thing, present, omnipresent. Every time we converse we translate it into speech." Emerson had "no need" for the cross, and miracles were an affront to his dignity. Perry Miller described Emerson as a Jonathan Edwards "in whom the concept of original sin has evaporated." Is there, then, nothing more than a nominal difference between Christians and Deists? -between Christians and Transcendentalists? Webster, acknowledging these differences, or perhaps minimizing them, defines providence as "the care or benevolence of God or nature." That definition confronts us with a choice. More than that, it demonstrates the ambiguity of the term and the need for Christians to define their doctrine with clarity.


(7) Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology (1872-1883), Mark Noll states, breathed the spirit of Samuel Stanhope Smith, Witherspoon's protege. ". . . the Princeton theology carried on where Green and Smith had left off." (Noll 1989, 290). Noll stated that echoes of the Witherspoon influence could be heard in 1866 when the college supporters "created a professorship for the harmony of science and revealed religion" and later "discerned in the work of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, the nation's most capable theological conservative at the end of the nineteenth century." Warfield contended that "'faith, in all its forms, is a conviction of truth, founded as such, of course, on evidence. . . Christianity has been placed in the world to reason its way to the dominion of the world'" (Noll 1989, 291). To be sure, Jonathan Edwards had pushed reason to the limit in Christian theology. But Warfield's position represented a rationalistic step away from the "divine supernatural light" of Jonathan Edward's theology whereby men were converted to the gospel, not by a long train of rational argument, but by being overcome by the glory of it. Is the church really at the mercy of its own reason in advancing the Kingdom of God? Are the weapons of our warfare merely fleshly? To frame the question another way--Is the Holy Spirit restricted to natural law now that the biblical canon is complete?

(8) Theistic Evolution

In the Fall 2002 issue of the College of Wooster alumni journal an article appears with the following title: "Our Origins of Scientific Thought: Professor Horace Mateer's early teachings on evolution helped the College embrace modern science while retaining its Christian heritage." The article shamelessly details a fascinating but tragic period of intellectual history involving the great stand-off between William Jennings Bryan and President Charles F. Wishart who defeated Bryan in an election for Moderator of the General Assembly-a great watershed in the Presbyterian Church. The article, however, could just as accurately be subtitled "A Study in Disingenuousness," "Deceiving the Faithful while Preserving the Constituency," or "Pulling the Wool of Natural Religion over the Eyes of the Sheep," as it celebrates the incremental triumph of natural selection at the College of Wooster. Did Warfield who himself fairly embraced evolution unwittingly prepare the way for this triumph? "By faith we understand . . . " (Heb. 11:3).

(9) Profaning God's Sovereignty

A colleague recently tried to reassure me that we must take consolation in God's providence in that a woman was recently elected to the board of directors at an evangelical denomination historically known for its theological conservatism. Was it really God's providence at work here, or was it the leaders of his people mentally rolling the dice, in a manner of speaking, by withholding their protest as though God's will were unclear in the matter--thereby profaning God's sovereignty by presuming upon it, while the Deceiver of the Lord's people exerted his will with little or no resistance? Is this not tantamount to playing the lottery? Surely we would argue that the casting of lots was never intended to be used in place of acting intelligently and in obedience to the revealed will of God who has instructed us how we are to earn our living. When we know the truth and fail to act upon it, do we not presume upon God's sovereignty and move toward that superstition commonly known as Lady Luck? Is it not a tempting of the Deity much as it would have been had Jesus succumbed to the devil's temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple?

If, by our presumptuous non-action, we profane divine providence, do we not by the same unholy process profane the Holy Spirit by identifying Him with the Zeitgeist (the Spirit of the Age) much as Hegel did? The Kingdom of God, accordingly, becomes the Movement of whatever cause happens to be fashionable-whether the Third Reich, Marxism, a New World Order, or gay rights.

(10) Benny Hinn

R.C. Sproul in his brilliant lecture on "The Nature of Truth" distances his position from the "superstition" or "magic" of the tel-evangelists who urge their audiences to place their hands on the television or radio and receive their healing. To be sure, Benny Hinn appears to have been caught red-handed in pantheistic doctrine (which he inherited from his mentor-idol, Kathryn Kuhlman). At the very least, his anthropomorphisms have gotten out of hand! And that may not be the worst of it! He is no theologian. But does the mere act of laying hands on the radio or television set to receive healing necessarily suggest "magic"? Ironically, Howard Van Til desiring to distance himself from the scientific creationists in his book The Fourth Day, characterized the notion of the Deity's instantaneously speaking a universe into existence as "magic." Of course, the second-century heretic Celsus had attributed Christ's extraordinary deeds to magic which, according to this absurd theory, he learned in Egypt!

If, in our rationalism, we begin to address God as Providence, or embrace evolution (theistically, of course), are we not flirting with pantheism or natural religion? Historically, both pantheism and natural religion have been associated with Providence and evolution. If our prayer life is confined to the level of natural law, how do we distinguish our God from the god of Spinoza or Voltaire? To take it a step further, no matter how much we apply biblical names to our deity, if, by "Deity" we actually mean Nature or natural process, how do we differ from a Benny Hinn? The difference is that we arrived at our pantheism via rationalism while he arrived at his via superstition. But our intentions were right-we wanted to rationally convey the concept of divine sovereignty, and so were his-he wanted to confront the skepticism of the age by a demonstration of the Lord's power. And though we interlace our sermons with catch phrases like sub specie aeternitatis (under the look of eternity), dare we forget that Spinoza, who coined that Latin expression, did not even believe in the immortality of the soul?

Conclusion

To be sure, God is our Provider-the one who satisfies the desire of every living thing, the Giver and Sustainer of life. And if Paul quoted the Greek philosophers to illustrate his point, we need not retreat from sub specie aeternitatis, but we had better know what we mean by the expression and be able to distinguish our use of it from Spinoza's use. To be sure every molecule of the universe is under God's dominion, and every hair on our head is numbered. Not a sparrow falling to the ground escapes his notice. To say that God is Provider and sovereign over all that he has made, however, is not the same as to say that nature is God or that God is nature. All nature bows down in obedience and submission to the God of Glory, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. To say that nature is under God's dominion is one thing; to say that God is simply the law of nature is quite another. Those who spell the universe with a capital "U," or nature with a capital "N," as though either cannot be distinguished from Deity are greatly deceived. Those who worship at the shrine of Reason are likewise in error. And so are those who refuse to acknowledge that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14, supposing it to be idolatry to worship Jesus Christ, or that there is some transcendent truth or theological mystery that lies beyond him that can excuse us from submitting to him or upstage our soul's delight in him-even if that truth be providence.

If our doctrine of providence becomes so central to our focus that we raise it to the level of Deity Himself-by that I mean spelling it with a capital "P," as though Deity and providence are one and the same-- we risk the fallacy of equivocation whereby nobody is quite sure whether we have brought Deity down to the level of nature or elevated nature to the level of God. What is worse, our religion is then no better than that of the enemies of Christ. When providence becomes an impersonal Deity, whether we realize it or not, we have become Deists, and that is apt to occur when we fail to view the doctrine through the cross. It is in the cross that we see the greatest display of God's providence. It is here that God make the wrath of men to praise Him. Here the devil overplays his hand and is defeated. It is in the foolishness of the cross that rationalism is put to death. Here God's power is displayed. Here theism is defined, for in the cross God gets up close and personal with sinful men. Through the cross the veil of skepticism is removed from the human heart, and natural religion is uprooted.

At the cross the so-called "anthropomorphisms" of Scripture (Gen. 11:7; Exod. 32:14) suddenly become less of a theological problem, as the Almighty condescends to human weakness-Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance and being "numbered with the transgressors" (Isa. 53:12). The personhood of God is the issue here. Here, for the first time, God has a human face. The language of theological abstraction suddenly becomes unnecessary and is made to appear, in fact, quite foolish. At the cross the profanation of divine sovereignty is exposed, as evil men gamble for the seamless garment of the Savior. Jesus said, "If any man would come after me . . . "