MORAL GOVERNMENT OF GOD.
NATHANIEL W. TAYLOR, D. D.,
APPENDIX -- No. II:
ESSAY ON THE PROVIDENTIAL GOVERNMENT OF GOD.
PART III. -- THE DIFFERENT KINDS OR SPECIES OF PROVIDENCE.
Kinds of providence incorrectly divided. -- Providence considered as mediate, particular, universal, ordinary, and extraordinary -- Question of special providence discussed at length.
The providence of God has been divided into ordinary and extraordinary, common and special, universal and particular, mediate and immediate.
1. Ordinary providence denotes that which is exercised in the common course of events through the medium of second causes. Extraordinary is that in which He departs from the common course of events, as by miraculous interference.
2. Common providence, that which pertains to the world; special, that which pertains to the Church.
3. Universal respects a general superintendence of all things; particular respects each individual being and event.
4. Mediate providence is that which is exercised in the use and by the efficacy of means; immediate, that which is exercised without the efficacy of means, though there may be some medium, as a word, &c.
This classification of the modes of God's providence is objectionable, as it makes distinctions without a difference, applies terms in a peculiar sense without definition, and affirms that to be of which there is no evidence.
First, it makes distinctions without a difference. Thus the ordinary providence of God is not distinguishable from that which is common in the true import of this term; ordinary providence as administered through the medium of second causes is mediate; and since the purposes of God extend to every event, his providence is both particular and universal, as these terms are commonly used.
Secondly, in the above classification terms are used in a peculiar sense without definition and without conveying a distinct meaning. Thus the terms common and special, as they are applied to the providence of God toward the world and toward the Church, are either used simply to denote the different objects of his providence, which is an unreasonable principle of classification, or they are used to designate some difference in the mode of his providence, without specifying what that difference is.
Thirdly, the above classification asserts that to be of which there is no evidence. Thus there is no evidence from the light of nature of a common in distinction from a special providence in the sense intended, or of an immediate providence, nor of a universal providence as distinguished from a particular providence.
For the purpose of simplifying this subject, I remark that the providence of God, or that government of God which we term providential, may be considered as mediate, as particular and universal, as ordinary and as extraordinary.
First, as mediate. That God has acted since the creation of the world immediately in the production of any event, that is, without the intervention of second causes, there is no evidence. That he has acted through the medium of second causes in such a manner as to preclude the belief of the efficiency of second causes and to command the belief of his own direct agency, natural religion cannot deny and revealed religion may fully establish.
Secondly, as particular and in the strict sense universal. This has been already proved in considering the extent of the divine purposes, and the certainty and manner of their accomplishment. There is however a sense in which it has been maintained that the providence of God is not particular, that he only exercises a general superintendence over the affairs of the world, without extending his purposes and his government to every event.
This theory is not only contradicted by what we have already proved respecting the extent of God's purposes, but is most obviously inconsistent with itself. So intimately connected are the events of this world; so entirely in many cases do events the most important in reality depend on the most trivial in appearance, that it is impossible to conceive that God should act as the governor of the world at all, unless his superintendence extend to every event which happens.
Thirdly. The ordinary providence of God is that which is exercised according to certain stated regular laws of operation. The proof that God exercises such a providence is furnished by experience and observation.
Fourthly. The extraordinary providence of God is that in which he dispenses with, or departs from the stated regular laws of operation in the production of events. Thus admitting the facts on the authority of historical evidence, the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and the conducting of them to the land of promise, is an instance of extraordinary providence. So also is every miraculous event.
Besides these kinds of providence another has also been supposed, commonly termed special providence, which, though not producing events strictly miraculous, is deemed extraordinary. It is supposed to differ from that kind of extraordinary providence by which miracles are wrought, as marking less decisively the mighty agency of their author, and to differ from ordinary providence, as satisfactorily evincing a departure from the regular course of events in reference to some special individual purpose.
Of this view of special providence I remark. It cannot be proved to be impossible.
There is no inherent absurdity or impossibility in such an occasional mode of divine interference, and the assertion of its actual existence is to be received or rejected as the result of the examination of evidence.
2. There is no argument a priori which will support the doctrine. For no necessity for such special interposition to accomplish the purposes of God can be shown. He can arrange the succession of events in that luminous and exact order, from eternity, which shall supersede the necessity of the least variation, and so direct all, that each shall fall in at its appointed time and place.
3. There is no decisive proof of this doctrine from any actual phenomena.
Second causes do not in many cases so clearly and fully come under our observation, as to authorize us to believe in every case in which we cannot assign the particular cause of an event, that it was not produced in the regular way. In those cases in which we possess what we deem satisfactory knowledge of the whole combination of causes, we find no evidence of special interposition from the phenomena themselves. We never see a stone projected at another's head, arrested in its progress lest a wound should be inflicted, nor a falling tree upheld in its descent to furnish time for the escape of one beneath it. It is true that the want of such evidence is not decisive proof against the supposed special interposition. There may still have been a retardation in the motion of the falling tree for the purpose specified, which is not discernible by us. In such cases we cannot say positively that there has not been a special divine interposition; but we can say that any decisive evidence of such interposition is not furnished by any known phenomena.
4. There is a degree of presumptive evidence against this doctrine, from what we know of actual phenomena.
That there is a general continued uniformity in the phenomena of the world is an acknowledged fact. That such uniformity is designed and is even necessary to the creatures of God for the purposes of existence -- that it is maintained regardless of particular consequences -- must also be confessed. But such extensive prevalence leads to the belief of entire universality, so far as any reasoning from the nature of the subject can effect belief. At the same time it must be admitted that this extended uniformity is not decisive proof against the doctrine of special providence; for the maintenance of general uniformity with all its advantages is not inconsistent with occasional special interpositions. The more extensively however we explore, and the more minutely we are able to analyze the phenomena around us, the more are we confirmed in the belief that the regularity and uniformity of cause and effect pervades the whole system, and that a more extended and accurate acquaintance with what is now unknown would fully evince such regularity and uniformity to be universal. Such is the actual influence on our belief when we listen to a narrative of wonders, while to pronounce absolutely that any exception to this general course of providential events is an impossibility, would be a confidence of decision unauthorized by evidence. Should a wave next succeeding to that which had plunged the mariner into the boisterous ocean, bear him again to the place of safety at the very instant of his exhaustion and despair, it might be impossible to say the event was not the result of special divine interposition. But on the other hand, did we know all the causes which in their regular operation resulted in the event, we should feel no surprise on finding it explained by their ordinary influence. So far from it, if we reasoned as we do in similar cases of ignorance, we should confidently expect that such knowledge would furnish such an explanation.
The argument which probably has the greatest influence to conduct the mind to the belief of a special providence, is taken from the supposed peculiar tendency of the doctrine to awaken devotional feelings. It cannot be doubted that the tendency of the doctrine is to excite devotional feelings. The mariner preserved in the manner supposed, would doubtless find reason for devout gratitude to his deliverer in the supposed peculiar interposition of the Divine Hand. Nor would it be strange if in his ignorance of the second causes which were connected with his deliverance, and in the vividness of his joy while yet sensibly alive to the danger he had escaped, his reasoning should be governed more by his feelings than by a calm and dispassionate estimate of evidence.
The question however, is not whether the belief of this doctrine tends to awaken the delightful and amiable feeling of gratitude to our Divine Benefactor, but whether this tendency pertains to the belief of no other doctrine of providence.
It is undeniable that the view of Divine Providence which supposes special divine interpositions, has a tendency to gratitude superior to that which proceeds from some other conceivable theory of this agency. To suppose for example, that the ordinary events of providence are no expressions of the divine will, that they are merely results of a general providential machinery which produces effects regardless of the individual interests of men, is certainly to remove every ground for this virtue. Nor is it to be doubted that some such plan of providential dispensation as this with respect to all ordinary events, is that which is assumed, and with which is compared that of special interposition, when the superior tendency to awaken gratitude is so confidently assigned to the latter. The mind first removes from its conceptions, every such view of the ordinary providence of God as would tend to produce gratitude at all for blessings received, then imagines one which has indeed a direct and powerful tendency to such an effect, and on this assumption pronounces this tendency peculiar. But such a mode of ordinary providence is not properly introduced into the comparison. The doctrine of ordinary providence supposes a particular purpose of God respecting every event, and that while all events are brought to pass through the intervention of second causes, and as it may be, through a long and connected series of successive causes and effects, the plan in all its minuteness of arrangement lay in the Eternal Mind, and contemplated each event as the result of an eternal and unchangeable purpose. With such a system then, let the doctrine of special providence be compared in respect to practical tendency.
Two ministers were conversing together: one said he had met with a remarkable providence; for his horse had stumbled on the brink of a precipice, thrown him up on the very verge, and yet he was saved.
The other said that his life had also been preserved by a providence also remarkable; for his horse had not stumbled at all.
1. There is nothing in the scheme of an ordinary particular providence to render our gratitude less under the reception of blessings, than it should be on the supposition of a providence.
That we may make a just estimate of the comparative practical tendency of the two schemes, we must suppose the value of the blessing in a given instance the same, for the inquiry respects not the value of a gift but simply the mode of conferring it. Now the real and the only foundation of gratitude to a benefactor is the manifestation of kindness to us, and the measure of gratitude we owe is in proportion to the measure of kindness manifested. In either of the cases under consideration, it must be admitted that there is a real manifestation of kindness, and of course a real foundation for gratitude. The question is, whether the measure of kindness manifested according to the scheme of special providence, is greater I than that manifested according to the scheme of ordinary providence. If there be any difference in this respect, it must result from the mode of conferring the blessing. What then is there in this which bespeaks the difference? The one involves no greater sacrifice on the part of our Benefactor than the other; the blessing is the same in value to us in either case; it comes from the same hand, it is dictated by the same benevolence; that benevolence is shown to be equally intent on our welfare.
The blessing therefore bespeaks the same kindness in our Benefactor in one case as in the other, and therefore lays a foundation for equal gratitude.
It may be true that the belief of a special divine interposition in our own favor, may greatly heighten our gratitude when compared with the influence of our faith in an ordinary particular providence; but the reason may be, not in the different schemes of Providence, but in the weakness of our faith in that which we profess to believe, or even a measure of atheism that mingles with our faith or annihilates it, and thus excludes or nearly excludes from our conceptions the benevolent purpose and the agency of God. Indeed that the supposed, and it may be the real diversity of practical effect is wholly owing to these or other similar causes, will appear from an example which implies an equal measure of faith in the different methods of conferring benefits. Should a human benefactor, foreseeing our future wants, devise and put into operation a train of causes for our relief; should he steadily pursue his benevolent purpose, and should the designed benefit reach us at the very moment of our extremity, every one would feel his obligation to gratitude to be the same as had the blessing come by direct communication.
2. On the scheme of special providence there is far less reason for gratitude on the whole than on the scheme of an ordinary particular providence.
The real ground of gratitude in either case can be nothing more nor less than the manifested kindness of our Benefactor. But if such manifestation be peculiar to the scheme of special providence, it cannot pertain at all to that of ordinary providence. Thus the scheme of ordinary providence furnishes no foundation for gratitude at all, and thus that extended and uniform system of arrangement by which the Author of all is ministering his providential bounties to his dependent creatures is overlooked in our praise for some particular blessing imparted by an occasional and infrequent interposition of kindness. It need not be told how inferior that tribute of gratitude to God must be which is produced by considering him as only the occasional benefactor of his creatures, compared with that view of his providence which in the whole of this beautiful system of things, makes it a ministration of particular and universal bounty.
3. On the scheme of ordinary particular providence there is a foundation for a higher and a purer gratitude than on the scheme of special providence.
In proportion as we discover the disinterestedness and strength of benevolent affection will our gratitude be augmented in intenseness and in purity. One may confer a kindness on us from sinister motives, and we shall not, we cannot feel real gratitude. He may do it from real affection, and yet that affection be evinced by the mode of its manifestation to be fitful in its nature or to be a mere matter of favoritism. In either case it might not unnaturally be regarded as unworthy of any thing more than a lawful joy in the advancement of our own wellbeing. But how much stronger and purer would our emotions be when called for by that disinterestedness and enlargement of affection, which should as it were, continually watch and promote our happiness in almost ceaseless acts of communication!
There is no reason to doubt that a belief in a special providence has a tendency to produce a sort of selfish congratulation and self-importance, as if we were objects worthy of that kindness which departs from the common course of things for our benefit, and to cherish within us the fond conceit that we are heaven's peculiar favorites. In the imagined special interpositions of his providence, God appears to us as peculiarly provident for us in some circumstances of peculiar necessity; but in that extended and yet minute communication of good which flows from the uniform laws of providential operation, while he is not less but more provident for us as individuals, he appears also in the unmistakable character of the benevolent provider of all. It is surely in the latter character that he preeminently manifests the purity and intensity of his benevolent regards for his creatures, and becomes pre-eminently worthy of their grateful adoration.
The conclusion is, that if it be too much to assert that there never has been any special interposition of Divine Providence in behalf of individuals, there is no decisive proof that there has been; that it is far more philosophical to believe that there has not been than to pronounce positively that there has.
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