After fading out during the Advent season, I’m re-engaging my attempt to offer some brief reflections and commentary on the historic Belgic Confession. Finally, then, on to the next article…
OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE
We believe that the same good God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will (John 5:17; Heb 1:3; Prov 16:4; Ps 104:9; 139:2), so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment (Jas 4:15; Job 1:21; 1 Kgs 22:20; Acts 4:28; 1 Sam 2:25; Ps 115:3; 45:6; Amos 3:6; Deut 19:5; Prov 16:1, 9, 33; 21:1; Ps 105:25; Isa 10:5-7; 2 Thess 2:11; Ezek 14:9; Rom 1:28; Eph 1:11-12; Gen 45:8; 50:20; 2 Sam 16:10; Gen 27:20; Ps 75:6-7; Isa 45:7; Prov 16:4; Lam 3:37-38; 1 Kgs 22:34, 38; Exod 21:13); nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed (Jas 1:13; 1 John 2:16). For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly (Matt 8:31-32; John 3:8; Job 1:21; Isa 10:5; 45:7; Amos 3:6; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us (1 Kgs 22:12-23; Rom 1:28; 11:33–34; 2 Thess 2:11), contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits (Deut 29:29; 1 Cor 4:6).
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power (Matt 8:31; Job 1:12; 2:6) that not a hair of on our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father (Matt 10:29-30), in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission , they can not hurt us (Gen 45:8; 50:20; 2 Sam 16:10; Rom 8:28, 38-39).
And therefore we reject that damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God regards nothing, but leaves all things to chance.
Dry stack stone walls are a distinct and unique kind of masonry, and skilled builders are able to produce structures out of seemingly disparate and ill-shaped material. Each intentionally placed piece is critical to the strength, stability, and beauty of the whole.
The Belgic Confession’s treatment of the doctrine of providence points us in a similar direction: no event, however haphazardly ‘shaped’ it may seem, is irrelevant nor do they occur meaninglessly or accidentally. Rather, it is the “same good God” who created all things that continues to direct and uphold all things.
The doctrine of providence holds a prominent place in the theology and confessions of the Reformed tradition. While certain points of doctrine may be considered by some to be abstract or inconsequential, the relevance of this one should be obvious. It says, simply, this: nothing that happens is arbitrary.
Herman Bavinck’s treatment of this is excellent (check out the full quote), and builds upon what might be my favorite confessional treatment of this topic, found in questions 26-28 of the Heidelberg Catechism–which begins with one of the most famous confessional affirmations of this doctrine, to wit:
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
In all of these treatments we find certain weight-bearing themes and melodic refrains present, among them the assertions that:
- God did not create the world and then sit back to watch it spin around and see history unfold according to its own whims. Rather, God actively upholds, rules, and governs his creation.
- Although God ordains and appoints all things, he is “neither the author of nor can be charged with the sins which are committed” by the fallen men and women who act within that creation. [Though this confession does not touch on it, Reformed theology affirms the non-contradiction of the sovereignty of God and corresponding moral responsibility of all people who, while not coerced or forced into sin, nevertheless sin inevitably and necessarily due to what Luther famously called “the bondage of the will”.]
- We cannot, and therefore ought not to try to, fully explain away this doctrine. No matter how much we may want to find pithy answers to questions about how a good God could allow suffering or whether it is possible, when looking at the realities of this world, to affirm that God is both all-powerful and all-loving, we must remember one simple truth: God is God, and we are not. His ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). Even Paul, when writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit about the sovereignty of God, reaches a point where he says in doxology: “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?…For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36) Where explanation stops, adoration begins.
- It is of inestimable comfort and consolation to know that the God who loves us and has given us all things in Christ, is the one through whom “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
To deny these things is to place the unfolding of history into the hands of ‘chance’ or ‘blind fate’. An example of this is the “damnable error of the Epicureans” (perhaps the least irenic phrase in this particular confession), of which many versions exist–some more subtly dangerous than others.
One that may seem harmless, but still betrays this assumption, is the expression “good luck”. You could argue that its more of a meaningless colloquial expression than a theological assertion–and I’d probably agree with you–but it still furthers the idea that ‘luck’, or some other impersonal force, has a role to play in the events that are about to transpire. Why not, if you are a believer, simply say, “God bless”?
One that is decidedly less harmless is often called ‘open theism‘, which is related to, but different from, the even more dangerous ‘process theology‘. The former says that although God is omnipotent and omniscient, he nevertheless leaves the future ‘open’ so that we can participate in its formation and direction. God collaborates with us, and even reacts to us, as this future–unknown in its fullness even to him–unfurls. The latter says that not only is the future unscripted and unknown, but that God himself is changing/developing/evolving. Misguided attempts to affirm human responsibility and free agency end up denying the very attributes of God that Scripture so consistently and clearly reveals and affirms.
In contrast to these, the Belgic Confession adds its voice to the chorus of Reformed theology and the very melody of Scripture itself, which joyfully sing of the wisdom, power, and justice of God who fully and actively governs his creation in glory and grace.