Providence (3): The “As It Were” Principle

earthrise-apollo-8In part 2 we considered the biblical and confessional Reformed teaching that the triune God is actively present, sustaining and governing all that is. In our account of the doctrine of providence we use an interesting little expression that is freighted with significance: “as it were.” In Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 27 we speak of the “almighty, everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds heaven and earth with all creatures….” When we speak of God’s “hand” we are speaking figuratively. I wrote about this “as it were” principle, i.e., the use of figurative language in Recovering the Reformed Confession (available in print and on Kindle). We use both literal (non-figurative) and figurative language about God and we expect reasonable people to be able to tell the difference. To be perfectly clear, however, we add the qualifier “as it were” to signal just when we’re speaking figuratively. God doesn’t literally, actually have a bodily hand.

1Samuel 5:11 speaks of “the hand of God” as a way of describing God’s punishment of the Philistines for attempting to keep the ark of the covenant. Scripture here does not intend us to think that God actually has a hand. It’s a figure of speech. 2Chronicles 30:11 says “The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the princes commanded by the word of Yahweh” (revised from the ESV). In this case Scripture uses a figure of speech to account for God’s gracious work in the people to enable them to be courageous. According to Ecclesiastes 2:24, everything under the sun comes “from the hand of God” and it is this truth that keeps life from being meaningless.

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 ESV)

It is in view of God’s sovereign providence that Christians are exhorted in 1Peter 5:6 to submit “to the hand of God,” which, in this instance means to trust the Lord with all our anxieties (ESV) and to remember that the Lord who redeemed us also cares for us in our daily needs. Peter warns us to resist the temptation to take things into our own hands because the devil roams about “like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” Notice how Peter juxtaposes figurative language about God (i.e., his “hand”) with figurative language about the Evil One as a lion. He isn’t actually a lion but his relentless attempts to destroy Christians is aptly described with the simile. Just as one would never turn his back on a lion, so one should never turn his back on the Evil One. We take such language seriously in Southern California as mountain lion sightings (and occasional attacks) are a reality.1

Scripture uses figurative language of various sorts to help us think about God. This might seem obvious to some readers but I labor over it just a bit because we live in a time when we can’t take the obvious for granted. We live in a time when leading “evangelical” writers such as Clark Pinnock were willing to write about God having a body and to quote Mormon theologians approvingly. Though his Open Theism attracted much attention from other evangelicals one did not see much comment about his apparent return to the theological vomit of the Anthropomorphite heresy. This is, one fears, because evangelicals frequently use a biblicist approach to Scripture. Biblicism is the attempt to read Scripture as if no one has ever read it before, to read Scripture in isolation from the church, without the help of the church’s confessions and catechisms, and typically without accounting for Scripture into its original or literary contexts. So, biblicists aren’t much interested in accounting for the genre of Scripture. If, e.g., they cannot find the word “trinity” in Scripture they say that we cannot believe the doctrine of the Trinity. This was the approach of the Socinians in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It is the approach of the Open Theists and has even been adopted by an ostensibly Reformed theologian to justify his doctrine that God changes (i.e., to deny the confessional and catholic doctrine of divine immutability).

That Scripture uses figures of speech is a reminder of the broader truth that, when we are discussing the doctrine of providence, we are talking about God. All biblical, orthodox, catholic, and Reformed theologians recognize that all our language about God, though true is limited. We do not know God or anything as he knows himself or anything else. Calvin spoke of God’s “accommodation” to us.  In Institutes 1.13.1 he said, “ho has so little intellect who does not to understand that God, in a certain sense, speaks baby-talk (balbutire) with us as nurses do with infants?”Following Augustine’s commentary on Genesis, he argued that, Scripture “proceeds at the pace of a mother stooping to her child, so to speak, so as not to leave us behind in our weakness” (Institutes 3.21.4)3 In his account of the creation of angels, Moses was accommodating himself to the roughness of the common people.”4 In describing the beginning and ending of each creation day (Genesis 1:5) Moses did not intend to establish a rule for the ways all days are measured. Rather, he “accommodated his language (as was already said) to the received custom.” 5 For Calvin, it is not that Scripture presents an artificial account of what really happened. Rather, the entirety of the creative act itself must be regarded as an artifice (temperaret) wrought by God for the sake of human weakness. 6 He read Scripture this way because he was zealous, on the one hand, to maintain the truth of what Scripture says, but on the other hand, to recognize that when, e.g., Hebrew idiom says that God’s “nose” gets “hot” as it does in Lamentations 2:3, we neither think that God, in himself, has a nose or that it actually changes temperature. When Genesis 6:6 says that God “repents,” we are to understand that “the repentance which is attributed belongs not properly in himself, but is referred to our understanding.”Because of the nature of divine-human relations, because God is so utterly transcendent in himself, so other, it is not possible for us to comprehend even what sort (qualis) he is, it is necessary (necesse est), in a sense transform (transfiguret) himself for our sake (nostra cause).

Using Hebrew idiom and familiar speech, Scripture means to say is that God is morally displeased and to help us understand this truth, it uses colloquial speech. To read too much or too little into the form of expression is to actually misunderstand the teaching of Holy Scripture. Sometimes this accommodation is intensified by the use of anthropomorphism (the application of human behavior to God) or anthropopathism (the application of human emotion to God). Thus, in Scripture, God is sometimes said to have eyes (Zechariah 2:8) or to travel (Genesis 20:3) or to repent (Gen 6:6-7). In each of these cases, rather than reading these passages woodenly to say that God really, in himself has eyeballs or that he literally changes location or that he changes his mind from moment to moment, following Calvin, we understand such passages to teach us something about God´s disposition toward us, that he is aware of us, that he is immanent, and that he is morally outraged with sin. This way of reading Scripture does not downplay the image because, as Open Theists charge, we are too deeply influenced by Greek notions of God, but rather, understanding the revealed intention of such language we may be, as Van Til said, “fearlessly anthropomorphic.”8

Next: Not a chance in the world.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. Apparently mountain lions are everywhere. There was a report in the Lincoln, Neb newspaper (The Journal Star) today of a mountain lion near Wahoo, Neb.

2. “Quis enim vel parum ingeniosus non intelligit Deum ita nobiscum, ceu nutrices solent cum infantibus, quodammodo balbutire?” Opera Selecta 3.109.13-15. I first posted the material in this section on the Puritanboard.  Much of this material also appears in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

3. “quae velut materno incessu submissius graditur, ne infirmitatem nostram deserat.” OS 4.373.22-25.

4. “Moses vulgi ruditati se accommodans” Institutes 1.14.3; OS 1.154.28-29.

5. “receptae consuetudini (ut iam dictum est) accommodavit sermonem suum.” Ioannis Calvini, Opera quae supersunt omnia (Brunswick: C. A. Schwetschke and Sons, 1882), 23.17 (Corpus Reformatorum, 51).

6.  “Quin potius Deus ipse, ut opera sua ad hominem captum temperaret, sex dierum spatium sibi sumpsit “CO, 23.18.

7. “Poenitentia quae tribuitur Deo non proprie in ipsum competit, sed ad sensus nostrum refertur.” CO 23.118.

8. Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1947), 73.

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