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God is Provident & Sovereign

God Acting in Human History


Although not usually given much attention, one critical attribute of God for many believers is the idea that God is “provident,” which means that God acts in some fashion that requires God to become involved with humanity and causes the course of human history to be aligned with God’s ultimate desires and purposes.

God’s providence is directly related to God’s perfect moral goodness (because God’s ultimate purpose is also perfectly good, otherwise God’s interference with human history couldn’t be characterized as “provident”) and God’s omnipotence (thus allowing God the power to become involved).

Providence is also sometimes derived from the idea of God as continually sustaining the world through an act of will, thus also ensuring the existence of all the things we need in order to exist ourselves. This conception of God is important for differentiating between classical philosophical theism and deism, a theistic belief system which postulates a creator God who isn’t at all involved with the course of human history.

Now, how exactly God becomes involved in human history and what direction the ultimate course humanity will take varies considerably from one religion to another. Indeed, many religions have directly opposing ideas of just what it is God has planned for humanity and how God intends to achieve those plans. Nevertheless, they share in common the more fundamental principle that God is even interested in such matters in the first place and bothers to act in human history in order to bring something in particular to reality.

One of the most serious problems with the divine attribute of providence is the implications it might have for human freedom. After all, if it is certain that God is going to bring about some particular set of results in human history, then there must be at least the theoretical possibility, if not the actual reality, of God interfering with human freedom (to ensure that the plans work out). That, in turn, undermines the principle that humans should be held morally accountable for their actions.

A classic example of this dilemma would be the Old Testament story of how God ensured that the Hebrews would be released from slavery in Egypt. God is portrayed as acting in human history for two purposes: first, to free the Hebrews, and second, to make sure that they knew that their freedom was dependent upon the power and sovereignty of God rather than the benevolence of the Egyptian pharaoh.

To achieve the former, God sent plagues to Egypt in order to intimidate the Egyptians. To achieve the latter, God made sure that whenever the pharaoh was about to be generous and let the Hebrews go, his heart was “hardened” and he refused to release them, thus ensuring that another, even worse plague would be sent the next day. If God had to act and harden the pharaoh’s heart, to what extent can we argue that pharaoh was morally responsible for his actions?

Closely related to God’s providence is his sovereignty — the idea that God has the authority to act in human history in order to bring it to some desired goal or end. God’s sovereignty is traditionally derived from God’s attribute as absolute creator. As creator of all existence, God has the right to do with existence and everything in existence whatever God wants. If God desires that some particular state of affairs occur, then God has the right to achieve that state of affairs, even if it means interfering with human freedom and human history.

Are Divine Providence and Divine Sovereignty coherent attributes? They appear to be - it is possible to understand what they mean and they do not appear to contain any internal contradictions. They are also meaningful because they provide real information about God, in the sense that we learn more than we knew before. That does not, however, mean that these attributes are necessarily compatible with other attributes which might be postulated or compatible with known features of the world around us.

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