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).

George MacDonald & Universalism

The Last Judgement, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus (Photo Mine)

George MacDonald (saint of the week here) is one of those fantastic people that should hopefully make many of my contemporaries rescind their blanket statements about ‘Victorians’. Just read The Princess and the Goblin. Or consider some of his ideas about the afterlife.

MacDonald was a Congregationalist pastor who lost his licence to preach for not believing in the ‘Providence’ of God– by which, I think, is meant that extreme predestinarian view which teaches that God predetermined that I would have toast for breakfast and wear purple underwear on Ash Wednesday — and for teaching ‘Universalism.’

But MacDonald’s so-called ‘Universalism’ isn’t so bad. His belief was that everyone gets one last chance, basically. Thus, those whose hearts were prepared on Earth for Christ but who did not accept Him due to, for example, a lack of understanding of Who the Real Jesus Is, or who never heard of Jesus, or something like that, will look upon Him in the next life, and when they see Him, they will know that He is the one for whom they had been searching all along. And so they will enter the rest of the saints.

Those who did not prepare for meeting Christ will not enter that rest.

C.S. Lewis (saint of the week here) counted MacDonald as his great Teacher, and this seems to be the point of view we see at the end of The Last Battle when a Calormene (sp??) makes his way into Heaven because his worship of Tash was actually worship of Aslan all along — he just misunderstood Tash and Aslan, believing Tash to be basically Aslan and Aslan, Tash. That is to say, the basic character of the two. Thus, he joined Aslan in heaven.

Now, we don’t really know what will happen beyond the grave. The Bible exhorts us time and again to make our decision here and now. This means that here and now is very important. Nevertheless, I think that the living Christ can make Himself known where and when He wills. How did Abraham know the true God? Or Melchizedek? God is everywhere, and can be known by anyone. All those who choose God and His gift of Life, will receive that gift from Christ, our only advocate and mediator, in the life of the world to come.

The idea that some of them may officially be Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Confucians, pagans, or animists shouldn’t bother us. That Judgement is Christ’s to make, as He sits on the dread seat of judgement. What matters is Christ Himself and His Spirit.

Maybe Augustine is right, and only about 3% of all humanity makes it into heaven, that 3% being members of the visible Church who truly believe in and trust Christ. Maybe Origen is right, and we all make it, even the Devil. However, I’d rather MacDonald be right. Some of us make it, and it’s all about our Faith in Christ. Will we greet Him as our Brother and Friend, or fear Him as our King and Judge? ‘Twill only be seen as we pass the curtain.