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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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PROVIDENCE.—The word ‘providence’ (Gr. πρόνοια) is found only once in Authorized and Revised Versions of the NT, viz. in Acts 24:2, where it is applied to Felix by Tertullus. ‘Providence’ (Lat. providentia, fr. pro and videre) literally means ‘foresight,’ but in its recognized use a much nearer equivalent is ‘forethought’ (πρόνοια). But providence is more even than forethought. It implies not only thought about the future, but practical arrangements for the purpose of securing premeditated ends (cf. Romans 13:14 ‘Make not provision [πρόνοιαν—the only other occasion of the use of the word in the Gr. NT] for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof’). And in the specific and most familiar sense of the word, as applied to the providence of God, it carries with it, as follows of necessity in the case of the Divine Being, the actual realization of the ends which God has determined. Though the word nowhere occurs in the Gospels, the subject is one that meets us constantly. And while it is the providence of God that is especially brought before us, there are not wanting suggestive references to providence on the part of man.

1. The Divine providence. (1) In the OT the fact of God’s providence—in nature, in history, and in the individual life—is everywhere prominent; and the problems presented by the doctrine of providence appear and reappear in the Prophets, and receive a special treatment in the book of Job and in certain of the Psalms (e.g. 37, 73). In the Book of Wisdom the very word ‘providence’ (πρόνοια) twice occurs. In Wisdom of Solomon 14:3 it is applied to God as governing the waves of the sea; and in Wisdom of Solomon 17:2 the heathen oppressors of Israel are described as ‘fugitives from the eternal providence.’ From Josephus we learn that Rabbinical Judaism was much occupied with the mysteries of Divine providence in its relation to human freedom; and that, as against the Sadducees who held an exaggerated view of liberty, and the Essenes who maintained a doctrine of absolute fate, the Pharisees kept to the middle path represented by the OT teaching, affirming the freedom and responsibility of man on the one hand, and the Divine providence and omnipotence on the other (Ant. xiii. v. 9, xviii. i. 3, BJ ii. viii. 14).

(2) In the Gospels, as in the NT generally, there is everywhere assumed the faith in the Divine providence which characterizes the OT writings, and is continued in orthodox post-canonical Judaism. The confidence of the Evangelists in the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy in the Person of Jesus is a testimony to their belief in the far-sighted operation of the Divine counsels (Matthew 1:22; Matthew 2:5; Matthew 2:15; Matthew 2:23; Matthew 3:3, and passim). Their statements as to the incarnation of the Son of God furnish a supreme proof of a Providence that overrules the laws of nature by an indwelling governance, and moves down the long paths of history to the accomplishment of its own ends (Matthew 1:18 ff., Luke 1:34 ff., John 1:1-14; cf. Galatians 4:4).

(3) A doctrine of providence underlies the whole life and teaching of Jesus Christ. As against a Deistic view which makes God sit aloof from the world He has created, and a Pantheistic view which identifies Him with Nature and its laws, Jesus always takes for granted the fact of God’s free and personal providence. It is in this confidence that He turns to His Father for power to work His miracles—miracles which in turn become signs that His trust in God’s providence was not misplaced. It is in the same confidence that He goes to God in prayer (Matthew 11:25; Matthew 26:39 ff., Mark 1:35; Mark 6:46, Luke 3:21; Luke 11:1; Luke 22:32, John 11:41 f., John 14:16-17), and teaches His disciples to do likewise (Matthew 6:6; Matthew 6:9 ff., Matthew 7:7 ff., Matthew 9:38 etc.). Such petitions as ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matthew 6:11), and ‘Lead us not into temptation’ (Matthew 6:13), would be mere hypocrisies apart from an assured trust in the loving providence of our Father in heaven.

(4) Not only is a doctrine of providence a constant implication of our Lord’s life and ministry, it forms an express part of His teaching. Jesus told His disciples that God rules in nature, making the sun to shine and the rain to fall (Matthew 5:45), feeding the birds of the air (Matthew 6:26), and clothing the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28 ff.). He taught them that God also rules in human lives, bestowing His blessings on the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45), supplying the bodily wants of those upon whom He has conferred the gift of rational life (Matthew 6:25), devoting a peculiar care to such as seek His Kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). As against the pagan notion of chance (wh. see), and the analogous idea that at most the Almighty cares only for great things and does not concern Himself with the small (cf. ‘Magna dii curant; parva negligunt,’ Cic. de Nat. Deor. ii. 66), He affirmed that there is ‘a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’ (Matthew 10:29, cf. Hamlet, Ac. v. Sc. ii.), and that even the very hairs of our head are all numbered (Matthew 10:30). As against a doctrine of providence which would turn it into a blind fate, and make the strivings of the human will as meaningless as the motions of a puppet, we have to set His constant emphasis on the momentousness of choice and effort and decision (Matthew 7:13; Matthew 7:21, Matthew 13:45 f., Matthew 16:24 ff., Matthew 18:3, etc.). As against a narrow philosophy of providence, according to which good men are openly rewarded in this life and wicked men openly punished, He taught that God governs the world by general laws (Matthew 5:45), that persecution is often the earthly portion of the righteous (Matthew 5:10 ff.), that disasters falling on the individual are not to be taken as Divine retributions upon special guiltiness (Luke 13:1-5), and that our views of Divine providence must be extended so as to include a coming day of judgment for nations as well as individuals (Matthew 25:31 ff.). Thus in His teaching He anticipated most of those questions which have been so much discussed by theologians in connexion with this whole subject—questions as to the relation of God’s government to secondary causes, of providence to free will, and as to distinctions between a providence that is special and one that is merely general.

(5) But besides the underlying implications of His teaching and its broad lines of treatment, our Lord brings forward in one well-known passage some special views and arguments bearing on faith in the providence of God as a means of deliverance from anxious care (Matthew 6:25-34 = Luke 12:22-34). (a) The first thing that strikes us here is the emphasis He lays on the Divine Fatherhood (Matthew 6:26; Matthew 6:32). The revelation of God as our Father in heaven is the central fact of Christ’s teaching, and it illuminates His doctrine of providence just as it illuminates His whole message. This is the point at which His doctrine of providence rises above the highest and best teaching of the OT upon the subject. God’s providence is a more individual and a more loving care than the saints of old had ever dreamed of, and this it is precisely because He is our Father. Once we have realized the fundamental truth about our relation to Him, we find it not merely possible to believe in His loving guardianship of our lives, but impossible to conceive of anything else (cf. Matthew 7:11 = Luke 11:13). (b) Taking for granted that His hearers believe in God as their Creator, Jesus argues from creation to providence as from the greater to the less. The life is more than meat, and the body than raiment. He, therefore, who breathed into the body the breath of life will assuredly sustain the life He has inspired, and clothe the body He has framed (Matthew 6:25). (c) Next He argues, we might say, from the less to the greater. If God feeds the birds of the air, shall He not much more feed His spiritual offspring? If He clothes the flowers of the field in their radiant beauty, how can He fail to clothe His own sons and daughters? (Matthew 6:26; Matthew 6:28-30). (d) Again, He argues generally that the fact of our Father’s knowledge of our needs carries with it the certainty that all our needs shall be supplied—an argument based directly on the thought of Fatherhood, and the love that Fatherhood implies (Matthew 6:31-32).

2. Human providence.—Christ’s special teaching on the providence of God in the passage just considered has sometimes been misinterpreted into a pronouncement against any providence on the part of man. The language of the Authorized Version no doubt lends itself to this; for in modern English ‘Take no thought’ is a very misleading rendering of μὴ μεριμνᾶτε (Matthew 6:25; Matthew 6:31; Matthew 6:34; cf. Matthew 6:27-28). It was not forethought, however, but anxiety (see Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ) that Jesus warned His disciples against, when He turned their minds to the great truth of the heavenly Father’s providence (see art. Care). That He believed in the value and the need of prevision and forethought we may learn from His own example. The long years of silence at Nazareth were evidently spent in a deliberate preparation of Himself for the high tasks that lay before Him. And when His public ministry began, so far from being careless of the morrow, He shaped all His days according to a pre-conceived plan (cf. Matthew 3:13 ff., Mark 1:14 f., Luke 12:50, John 9:4; John 17:4). In His teaching He lays frequent stress on the value of prudent forethought (see art. Prudence), both in worldly matters and in the affairs of the Kingdom of heaven—witness the parables of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1 ff.), of the Pounds (Luke 19:13 ff.), and the Talents (Matthew 25:14 ff.), of the Wise and the Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1 ff.). His appeal, therefore, to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field was not meant to encourage a belief that God would work for the idle and provide for the improvident. The argument rather is, If God provides for His unconscious creatures who cannot exercise forethought, much more will He provide for His conscious children who can and do. If He feeds the birds that neither sow nor reap, much more will He prosper you in your sowing and reaping; if He clothes the lilies that toil not neither do they spin, be sure He will see to it that men and women, on whom He has laid toiling and spinning as a necessity, do not lack the raiment they require. Work you must; it is the law of your lives as God’s rational creatures; but learn from the birds and the lilies not to be anxious in the midst of your toil. Sow your seed, trusting in God to send the harvest. Fulfil your appointed tasks, but leave the results with confidence in your Father’s hands. Jesus, then, does not commend improvidence. On the other hand, He does condemn a providence that confines itself altogether to the provision of earthly things, or even gives these the chief place in the heart. He condemns the providence of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21), and urges His disciples to lay up their treasure in the heavens (Luke 12:21-33). ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33) is the counsel with which He concludes His special teaching on the relation of His disciples to the providence of the heavenly Father.

Christ’s doetrines of Divine and human providence are thus complementary to each other. The thought of God’s foreseeing care does not do away with human freedom and responsibility. On the contrary, it accentuates these by assuring us that we are not the creatures of fate, but the free children of God, and that we live our lives and fulfil our tasks under His watchful and loving eyes. The realization of the need of forethought and preparation on our part for the duties and events of life does not render us independent of the Almighty care. On the contrary, man’s providence rests altogether upon the providence of God, and apart from it is utterly vain. And so to win Christ’s approval human providenee must be the providenee of religious faith, and must be directed above all to the securing of higher than earthly blessings. It is only when we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness that we have the promise that ‘all these things’—food and raiment and whatsoever else we require for the bodily life—shall be added unto us.

Literature.—Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 14 ff.; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, i. 205, 289; Martensen, Dogmat. p. 214; C. G. Monteflore, ‘Heb. and Greek Ideas of Providence and Retribution’ in JQR [Note: QR Jewish Quarterly Review.] v. (1893) 517; Ritschl, Chr. Doct. of Justif. and Recon. (English translation 1900) 614; F. H. Woods, For Faith and Science (1906), 93; E. A. Abbott, Silanus the Christian (1906), 109; W. N. Clarke, Outline of Chr. Theol. p. 147; Dykes, Manifesto of the King, p. 483; Dale, Laws of Christ, p. 157.

J. C. Lambert.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Providence'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Sunday, December 8th, 2019
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