In part 3 we considered the “as it were” principle when thinking and talking about God and his providence. We talk about chance all the time. “Not a chance” or “He never gave me a chance” and in those cases we’re talking about the ordinary providence of God, the way things usually work or about an opportunity to do something. The idea, however, that the world is run by chance or fortune seems to be making a comeback as the culture continues to descend into neo-paganism. When we moved to Southern California the first time I remember being a little shocked to see a seedy, tawdry looking little shop on Broadway in our city which announced a fortune teller. I had never seen such a thing before except on television. It was surprising that people would actually spend money on such foolishness. Back then it seemed that the only real choices were the Christian explanation for the nature of things or some sort of naturalistic explanation but the idea of magic, superstition, or witchcraft never held any attraction. Even as an unbelieving child, when I participated in athletics, I never understood the attraction of superstition—wearing the same pair of socks for every game, as if the socks might somehow influence the outcome more than playing good defense, not turning the ball over, and shooting a good percentage from the field. Nevertheless, according to the (ostensibly) all-knowing interwebs, there are today 5 fortune tellers in Lincoln, Neb my hometown. I recall a public service announcement from c. 1980 which contained the tagline, “brought to you by the 52 United Methodist congregations in Lincoln.” It was Methodist country. Buying alcohol was complicated. To this day I don’t understand what “off sale” is or was but it was the law. Now there are fortune tellers in that place that was more or less settled by John Wesley’s spiritual children. The point is that if there are 5 fortune tellers in the Methodist heartland, it’s everywhere. There are psychics in Jackson, Miss. There are at least two psychics in Topeka, Kan. As I said, they’re everywhere. Why? Because there’s a demand.
That’s the real question. Why is there a demand? Why would people who, instead of chanting an incantation and scattering magic powder on the hood of their car, turn the key in the ignition to their car when they want it to start, who, when they want food, put it in the oven rather than dancing around it, ask another mere mortal to try to peer into the future? Because, at heart, we all want to be God and if we know the future then we have just a little bit more control over things—or at least we think we do. That’s what Saul thought when he consulted with the witch at Endor (1Sam 28). Yesterday, in class, I was giving the annual lecture on the Radical Reformation in the Medieval-Reformation Church class. The King of Denmark appointed to his court Melchior Hoffmann (c. 1495–1543) an apocalyptic lay preacher and furrier, because he wanted to know the future. That’s why popes and kings consulted with Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202) because they thought he could give them an advantage over their rivals, power.
We can see the turn to chance in the growth of gambling in the North America. Once the preserve of seedy boardwalks in Atlantic City and the Vegas strip, now casinos are seemingly everywhere. It seems as if Americans want to be wealthy but they no longer want to work for it. The old Protestant work ethic is on the ropes. Increasingly our towns look more like Pottersville than Bedford Falls. Increasingly gambling is an accepted middle-class past time. No longer must people sneak away for a naughty weekend in Vegas. They just drive to the local casino. There are 5 in my county alone. Vegas is re-branding itself but it was only a few years ago that it was marketing itself as a family destination, the equivalent of Disneyland or Seaworld. Our governments advertise gambling as a way of raising revenues, a substantial portion of which they then must spend to treat the gambling addiction they helped to facilitate. We live in Bizzaroworld.
Against the turn to chance and neo-paganism of all sorts, we confess that our sovereign, triune God
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.
There is no such thing as chance. There is only God’s Fatherly hand. There is only his providence. The old Reformed knew that that’s why they were negative, so dour about gambling. Did they overdo it? Yes. Is there a material difference between playing cards for fun with friends and playing with providence or laziness? Yes, there is. In lumping all TV, all dancing, all card playing together the older, more reactionary approach to it helped to foster a counter-reaction, a sort of libertine approach to providence and gambling and work. I once had a serious discussion with a young man about his plan to make a living by playing poker. He argued that it was no different from investing in the stock market. I reply that there’s a genuine difference between taking a reasonable risk to make an investment in an enterprise that will benefit others through goods and services and playing poker, which entails an unreasonable risk—if there wasn’t considerable risk it would no fun. If there was no risk or drama television producers wouldn’t broadcast it and film makers wouldn’t produce films about daring, skilled gamblers and hustles.
That’s why Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 27 is so detailed. Whatever grows, whatever we receive, however things go for us, whatever we eat, whatever the state of our health and wealth (or lack of same)—it all comes the all-wise, all-good, all-knowing, all-compassionate providing hand of God.
It’s interesting that the ESV translates “witch” in 1Samuel 28 as “medium.” That’s a fine translation. From a Reformed perspective it’s also ironic because we’re all about media. Books three and four of Calvin’s Instututes are, in different ways about those media that God has appointed to bring us to faith and to nurture us in that new life and faith, in Christ. God has appointed his own medium to bring us to faith: the preaching of the holy gospel (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 65) and to media by which to strengthen that faith: the holy sacraments (ibid).
Whatever God wants us to know about the future—which, judging by holy Scripture, isn’t much—is contained in holy Scripture. Sola Scriptura. The Lord’s revealed will (in Scripture) is that we mind our own business (which means that we attend to our vocations in this world), love our neighbors, honor the king, and serve and love the triune God in Christ above all. Fortune is a pagan myth. Chance is a pagan (neo-pagan) myth. The world isn’t random. Stuff doesn’t just happen, even if it might seem that way to us. We’re not the final arbiter of the meaning of life. We barely know our own minds and hearts let alone God’s or the future. We are mere creatures. God is he who spoke into nothing and made all that is and he will bring everything to a glorious conclusion. In the interim, between the ascension and the parousia (Christ’s bodily return) we work for him, out of gratitude for his mercy and grace to miserable sinners.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.