Providence: What a wonderful word. Unfortunately, if you hover around Lutherans, you will not hear it often. You can look for it with word search on a computer or in the index to the big fat book of Lutheran Confessions, and you won’t find any more than “Providence. See Foreknowledge.” “Foreknowledge” references do not get us very far, except to warn us not to confuse it with God’s eternal election, which we probably were not doing anyhow. More positively, we are reminded that it “extends over all creatures, good and evil,” but is “not the cause of evil” and sets limits on it. It is also not the cause of contempt for the Word. That’s it. It is clear that the sixteenth-century Lutherans did not need the word “providence” and that what they were fighting over then may not match what we are curious about now.
Correction: The Lutheran writings do witness to Providence, but in the form of verbs. Those who get to memorize key parts of Luther’s Small Catechism (highly recommended!) will read and then tuck away wonderful words explaining the Third Article of the Creed or the work of the third person of the Holy Trinity. ... We read that God “has given me and still preserves my body and soul with all their powers.” Now, in addition, God “provides me with food and clothing ... and all I need from day to day.” Third, God “protects me in time of danger and guards me from every evil.” “Preserving” and “providing” are acts of Providence, undeserved from a merciful God.
While Lutheran encyclopedias and indexes are sketchy and skimpy, others relish the word. The Founding Fathers of the United States—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and most of the rest—used it because they did not want to get too close to the Bible’s names for God and wanted to be rather abstract and impersonal and fair to all religions while not offending the non-religious. Within Christianity, Calvinists, who are more at home with “election” and “predestining” and “foreknowledge,” are also more ready to speak of Providence. And they make a good “practical” use of it.
So may Lutherans and all other Christians. If you detect a certain nervousness about the concept here, it results from a Lutheran fear about humans claiming and knowing too much about the purposes of God. Two cars head home from a party; one takes one route and the other takes another. A train kills those in one and spares those in another. So survivors are tempted to speak of how “Providence” protected them. That is not much comfort or helpful as an explanation to survivors of those killed.
Americans like to say that Providence has taken care of this nation. Does that mean that when we have lost wars or fallen into a Civil War or undergone economic depressions or experienced Katrinas, God’s providence was withdrawn and we have to figure out or, worse, explain why God acted as God did? Jesus would have little of that. In one little story, asked about such a question, he threw back a question: when the tower of Siloam fell on some people, he asked, had they been worse sinners than others? No, they happened to have been standing where a tower fell, and the fall was lethal (Luke 13:1-4). Some of that kind of common sense can actually be comforting, and using it can be a first step of returning to the language of how God does “preserve” and “provide.”
Jesus speaks of the providence of God in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-33), and elsewhere he said that no sparrow falls without God’s knowledge or care (Matthew 10:29). Interpreting Providence works most helpfully, not when we are particular and precise and verging on superstition, but when we see that the whole of creation and all of our lives are under God’s care, and that “our lives are hid with Christ in God,” who provides.
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