Providence and Predestination 1: Providence

Augustus: Evidence of God's providence?
Augustus: Evidence of God’s providence?

Every once in a while, the concepts of providence and/or predestination come up. Maybe it’s because I’m reading Leo, Epp. 1, 2, 18. Maybe I’m reading Augustine. Maybe I’m hanging with Presbyterians. Maybe John Cassian flits through the mind. Or maybe a friend sends an e-mail:

Augustine and predestination. Discuss.

How could I resist?

One of the important distinctions I learned in theological discussion is that between predestination and providence in the way people talk. Predestination is usually geared specifically to the question of salvation, while providence focusses itself on God’s will working itself on the cosmos and history in a big way. And maybe in small ways, too.

Important for providence, to my mind, is Eusebius. Providence, more specifically, is the idea that all of human history is, at some level, organised by God to bring about his ends — some, such as some modern Calvinists, will say that this goes as far as God determining which shirt I’m wearing today; others allow for greater human freedom, arguing rather that the grand sweep of the narrative is tweaked by God when He so desires, but our ability to choose our clothing of our own free will remains untouched.

This is the sort of idea that undergirds Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica. For example, Eusebius and others see the Roman Empire as having been established by God for the propagation of the Gospel, the pax Romana being perceived as an essential ingredient therein. Augustine’s views along these lines are set out in the City of God are somewhat similar; unlike some, such as Orosius (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans; I’ve not read him, so this could be a misrepresentation) or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1066: The French were sent as God’s judgement on the English), however, Augustine does not think that God’s ordering of history means good people prosper while bad people fail — rather, the rain falls on the just and the unjust (passage in Isaiah somewhere), and God works towards his own sovereign will, even if things perceived on this mortal plain as ‘evil’ befall the demonstrably good.

The pax Romana is interesting because the idea of it’s foundation by God lives on. Orosius sees the age of Augustus as a highly significant moment in the history of grace, and not just because Christ was born therein (I heard someone give a paper on this aspect of Orosius). Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, presents basically the same idea. He argues that Christ was born in the fullness of time, kairos, because the pax Romana ensured the propagation of the Gospel through Roman roads and trade networks in a unified and relatively safe Mediterranean world. He also argues that the cultural unity effected by the Hellenistic world is also part of the kairos of Christ’s birth — the shared linguistic culture and thoughtworld meant that the Gospel could more easily be communicated not only in the Mediterranean world but to Hellenised lands to the East. Green also argues that, with these two cultural forces at play, the hearts of Mediterannean peoplel were ready for the Gospel, visible in the philosophy and religion in the period.

What’s dangerous, of course, is when we turn from seeing how God has made conditions right for Gospel and justice and start equating our culture with providence and blur the lines between what we like and what is Gospel. On these grounds has injustice been perpetrated in the name of providence.

Closing on providence, then: I could imagine Eusebius being a contender for first place in this arena vis a vis Augustine, considering that the others in the playing field are either students of Augustine such as Prosper of Aquitaine (On the Call of All Nations), continuators of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, or folks like Orosius (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans).

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