A small group of us have spent many early Friday mornings over the past two years attempting to wade through Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. We have routinely brought questions to the table that Barth was clearly trying to avoid answering and rightly so. Recently, it has led me to reconsider God’s providential work in creation, in other words, the old “what is God’s will” kind of questions.
What I am about to suggest is not necessarily consistent with Barth (I don’t know Barth well enough to judge this definitively). That said, I do not think it is inconsistent. It is the concept of immediate providence. I do not know if this term is original. It probably is not, so who ever wants to take credit for it, go right ahead.
How many places in Scripture do we read about how we are to pray, petitioning God? If we presume some sort of fatalistic predetermination, such prayers are either “predetermined” or a fraud. After all, if we are told to ask, but it will not make any difference, what does that say about God? On the other hand, if we presume that God is off in the distance, unconcerned with us, asking is just as meaningless. Even prayers of thanksgiving are mere divine vanity in either scenario. On the other hand (apparently I have a lot of hands), if God is working immediately, here and now in relationship with creation and humans in creation, prayer takes on rich significance.
If God is in immediate relationship with creation and humans in creation, prayers of thanksgiving, lament, and petition are communion with God. Our requests are neither a charade nor a waste of time. The Scriptures are full of examples of this. The Exodus narrative is certainly loaded with the immediacy of God’s providential work, as are the Gospels. Certainly, the presence of the Holy Spirit shouts this basic truth.
Some of you maybe thinking, “but doesn’t God have a plan”? What about the Scriptures that speak to God’s knowledge of the “days of our lives” (not the soap opera), prophesy or Paul’s predestination language?
Here I appeal to a time honored principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. However we are to understand these things, we must do so in a way that is consistent with the greater narrative and teaching of Scripture. From these Scriptures we must surely understand God’s redemptive work as intentional and unstoppable. God does not deal with creation in some sort of whimsical way even if those He created do. Neither does God manipulate creation in a fatalistically deterministic way. If He did, the appearance of God’s response to both Israel as a nation and various individuals would be little more than an illusion.
So what does this mean? I suggest that God is working out His unstoppable redemptive plan through His immediate providential work in, and in relationship with, creation and humans. We have the opportunity to participate with God through the leading of His Holy Spirit. We can also be stubborn and attempt to thwart His redemptive plans (makes as much sense as drilling holes in life boats), but to presume we can alter the meta-narrative of redemption is folly indeed. We can, however, by the grace of God, participate in God’s work with our limited human capacity, because of God’s immediate providence.