In the previous post we considered what it means to say “I believe in God the Father almighty. One of the most scurrilous things that some neo-Pentecostalists have alleged against the historic Christian view of God is that we are Deists. Quite to the contrary. The triune God is quite active in the world. All three persons were active in creation (the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep) and they are equally active in inaugurating a new creation, in Christ. The Father elects, in Christ, and the Spirit sovereignly applies salvation to the elect but we are not canonical actors. Here is the way the argument works. The neo-Pentecostalist (or neo-Montanist, or neo-Anabaptist) says, “The Spirit operates in our ministry exactly today as he did during the Apostolic period, during the first century, as recorded in Acts. Anyone who denies this view is a Deist.” Of course, we deny the premise. The Spirit is just as powerful, just as active, just as sovereign as he was in the 1st century, during the apostolic ministry, but the apostolic ministry ended with the death of the Apostles. The neo-Pentecostalists are not Apostles, even if the name on their building claims apostolic authority and power. The neo-Pentecostalists do not put people to death (Acts 5)—or perhaps more accurately, the Spirit is not executing a death sentence through their ministry. Neither is the Spirit raising people bodily from death to life through their ministry (Acts 9) any more than he is parting the Red Sea or leading a national people through the wilderness. Those were signal acts in the history of redemption. They weren’t meant to be repeated perpetually. They were meant to be unique.
We do understand God to be constantly, actively working in the world both sustaining all things and in saving all the elect. The same folk who accuse the historic Christian view of God’s providence of deism sometimes also speak as if God is only partly in control or as if his control of all things is limited or even as if the Evil One is a co-equal power to God. That last position, of course, you will recognize as virtually Manichaean. Scripture says, “In the beginning God..” not “In the beginning God and Satan.” We’ve already addressed the notion that God is limited relative to human wills either by nature or by choice. These are sub-biblical points of view that have increased plausibility today because they jibe with the Modern (and late Modern) assertion of human autonomy. The God who sends his Spirit over dry bones (Ezek 37) is not a God who is limited by nature or choice by our wills. We work for him, not he for us.
We confess in Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 27:
27. What do you understand by the providence of God?
The almighty, everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His Fatherly hand.
One need not even be a Christian theologian in order to grasp some of this. The Apostle Paul, in his speech/sermon to the Athenian Philosophical Society (as it were) at the Areopagus reminded them:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for“‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:24-31; ESV)
Paul quotes the pagan poet Aratus (Phainomena, 5; late 4th to mid-3rd c. BC) to remind the pagans that even they know that God is not far away. Notice how easily Paul speaks of God’s active providence and sustaining work in the universe. He give life and breath to all humans. He has made all humanity out of Adam and Eve. He allots boundaries.
Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus is “bearing” or “upholding” (φέρων) all things by the power of his Word. This is the same Word of God incarnate (John 1:1–3), through whom all things came into being and without whom nothing came into being that has been created, who is actively sustaining all things. When the Apostles preached the law and the gospel (the whole counsel of God), they taught unbelievers that there is a sharp distinction, a categorical distinction to be made between God and his creatures. For proof that God is and is active in the world, they appealed not to the miraculous signs and wonders that the Spirit did through them but they did appeal to the fact of God’s continual witness to his active work in the world in giving to all (just and the unjust; Matt 5:48) “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17; ESV).
All that we have comes from the hand of our triune God. In is common, general providence he sends gifts even to rebels who do nothing but curse and deny him. Believers, by contrast, recognize these gifts for what they are: tokens of his goodness and mercy. The desire for the extraordinary that marked the Montanists in the 3rd century, the Anabaptists in the 16th century, and that characterizes neo-Pentecostalism in our age, is a quest for the miraculous that overlooks the ordinary. Their lust for the supernatural, however, is not a paradigm that we have to satisfy and it’s certainly not a paradigm to which we should conform.
The question is not whether God is active in the world but whether we are willing to accept the witness to himself that he has given.
Next: The “as it were” principle.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.