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Fate implies the idea that all things which happen were meant to happen. They could not have happened another way. I am curious to know whether providence also implies this idea. I know that the two concepts are different, but I am interested to know whether they are different or similar in this one particular way. If one believes in providence, then does it follow that all things which happen were meant to happen?

Are there any philosophers or theologians who write about this idea? Do they differ on the question or do they generally agree? I am talking, specifically, about the Christian concept of providence. If this question has different answers across different denominations, then feel free to explain. Just to be perfectly clear, the question I refer to is whether providence implies that all things which happen were meant to happen.

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    Is this philosophy or a question of definitions? – 10479 Jun 4 '17 at 6:04
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    I'm not quite sure how someone could really provide a good answer to the question as worded. Can you provide (1) clear definitions of what you take each term to mean, (2) what you imagine makes them "imply the same thing", and (3) then where there's a question about philosophy you think we can answer for you. – virmaior Jun 4 '17 at 12:02
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    If "fate" stands for negation of free will and "providence" for God's foreknowledge of all actions then the issue has been very much discussed under the heading of theological fatalism. SEP has a detailed article Foreknowledge and Free Will outlining various positions. Many theologians and philosophers are compatibilists, i.e. they argue that free will is compatible with providence properly construed, so their answer to the title question is no. – Conifold Jun 4 '17 at 21:50
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I take this to be a question about the relation between two concepts and as such a properly philosophical question. An illuminating answer cannot be peeled from the pages of a dictionary.

Providence

On a Christian view, the sphere of providence is that of all the affairs and events of human life and the activity of (divine) providence is one of God's accomplishing Godself's purpose in and by means of them. More specifically, the Christian idea of providence assumes an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God who directs all the affairs and events of human life towards the realisation of perfect ends. If we accept the limitations of human thought and language, we recognise that this language of providence embodies a degree of metaphor. If we describe God as accomplishing purposes by means calculated to achieve certain ends, we are using the language of human agency. It is the only language we have and it is unlikely to be adequate to the divine nature.

General and special providence

A Scholastic distinction was drawn in the Middle Ages between God's general and special providence. This is hard to justify. If God's special providence provides for the welfare of particular individuals by specific intervention, how can this be necesssary if God's general providence encompasses all the affairs and events of human life ? The intervention of special providence would imply some deficiency in God's general providence, to be remedied by special intervention. But there can be no such deficiency in the general providence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God.

No trace of fatalism so far. Let's delve into fatalism in its own right and see what relations it might bear to providence.

Fate - 1

If fate is seen as an inexorable necessity determining past, present and future independently of God, then it can have no place in Christian faith or theology. Any such necessity would nullify God's omnipotence. A clash here between fatalism and providence : how could God direct all the affairs and events of human life towards the realisation of perfect ends, constrained by the inexorable necessity of fate ?

Fate - 2

Some varieties of Christianity do assume a fate created by God. In St Augustine we can trace the view that God has elected some by grace and rejected others. In the elect God operates by irresistible gratia; the elect cannot procure their election or forfeit it either, and the rejected can do nothing to secure God's grace. If the elect and the rejected are not subject to inexorable fate, I don't know how else to describe their situation. But how could God, arbitrarily (so it seems) blessing some and damning others, be a God of general providence directing all the affairs and events of human life towards the realisation of perfect ends? Damnation looks a far from perfect end.

Fate - 3

Divine omniscience, involving foreknowledge, has been thought by some to be incompatible with free will.

If God knows everything he must know the future, and if he knows the future he must know the future acts of his creatures. But then his creatures must act as he knows they will act. How then can they be free? This dilemma has a long history in Christian philosophy and is now as hotly disputed as ever. The medieval scholastics were virtually unanimous in claiming both that God is omniscient and that humans have free will, though they disagreed in their accounts of how the two are compatible. With the Reformation the debate became even more lively since there were Protestant philosophers who denied both claims, and many philosophers ever since have either thought it impossible to reconcile them or have thought it possible only because they weaken one or the other. (Linda Zagzebski, 'Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will', Religious Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Sep., 1985), pp. 279-298 : 279.)

The issues here are a matter of extreme difficulty to clarify and to work out a coherent view about. I certainly find them so. But I suggest that there is no actual, plain, indisputable inconsistency between God's foreknowledge and God's providence. Even if (and I leave the matter open) God does know what we will do and we cannot but do what God knows we will do because it is true that we will do it, it does not follow that God does not direct all the affairs and events of human life towards the realisation of perfect ends. Foreknowledge is consistent with God's exercising a general providence.

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Reading

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, ISBN 10: 0571092322 / ISBN 13: 9780571092321. Published by Faber and Faber, 1975. See index under 'grace and free will'.

T.J. Gorringe, God's Theatre: A Theology of Providence, ISBN 10: 0334024935 / ISBN 13: 9780334024934. Published by SCM Press, 2012

R. Hazleton, Providence: A Theme with Variations, Published by SCM Press, 1958.

Richard Rice, God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will, ISBN 10: 0871238454 / ISBN 13: 9780871238450. Published by Bethany House Publishers.

M.J. Fischer, ed., Freedom, Fatalism, and Foreknowledge, ISBN 10: 0199942412 / ISBN 13: 978019994241. Published by OUP USA, 2015. (Useful analyses of fatalism.)

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The Two concepts are different and to a believer's mind they create different domains and are not compatible.

Here I just present the two understanding and a comparison can be made to clear the dilemma.

The divine providence-

The hallmark of the traditional free will defense is its fastidiousness: it seeks to distance God from as much evil as possible so that his goodness will not be tainted by it.

The God of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions are not so fastidious. He is active in all our deeds, turning our hearts where he wills (Prov. 21:1), and working in us to will and to do as he pleases. Part of his purpose in this, the tradition holds, is that we be creatures with the moral authenticity that can only come with free will.

The inevitable accompaniment, however, is that we sin. God does not will this for its own sake, but if God’s providence is complete he does will for us the independence that amounts to our rebellion, for it is indispensable to his purpose. The question the tradition faces is whether God’s providence can be complete here,

whether he can have full sovereignty if we are truly free.

The second focus of concern is the fact of suffering, which also falls under God’s will.

According to theodicies that emphasize soul-making and defeasibility, this is not because God is malevolent, but so that we can share with him the knowledge that evil is creation’s enemy, and partake in the glory of its defeat.

The scriptural God evinces no fear that he will be tainted by any of this, nor does he distance himself from evil in any way.

On the contrary: even after Adam’s sin God remains fully engaged with humankind, sparing no effort to secure our rescue, and treating our suffering with healing concern and compassion.

In the Christian tradition, he is even willing to send his son to bear our sorrows with us and to be sacrificed so that we may again find acceptance with God in repentance.

The fallenness of creation is not, then, an object of heavenly disdain, and for defenders of divine providence, it is not cause for philosophical disappointment. Rather, they hold, the task of overcoming evil is central to the creative enterprise.

We sin and suffer because God is out to defeat sin and suffering and to see that all who are ordained to share in the victory do so.

The theist is forced to admit, however, that we do not always understand in detail how this occurs, and some sort of appeal to the mystery may, in fact, be necessary. In that respect, at least, any theodicy has to be incomplete.

Fatalism-

Some philosophers, notably Luis de Molina (1535–1600) and Alvin Plantinga, have held that God knows not only what actual people will freely do in the future, but what each possible free creature would have freely done in each set of possible circumstances, if fully specific;

and that he had this knowledge at the creation. (An action is free in the required sense if not causally determined and not predetermined by God.)

Propositions about what a creature would do in a set of circumstances (possible as well as actual) are commonly called “counterfactuals of freedom”, and God's knowledge of them is called “middle knowledge”. (Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge (Part IV of the Concordia); Plantinga 1974, IX))

If God's knowledge of actual future actions would constitute a fatalistic threat, his middle knowledge could not be less threatening, since, given middle knowledge, he would have knowledge of actual actions on the basis of his knowledge of the circumstances. In fact it seems that it is more threatening.

Of course, one way of avoiding the threat would be to deny that there are in general any facts about what people would have freely done in circumstances that have not actually arisen; there may be facts about what they might have done, or what they would very probably have done; but not what they would have done. (Adams 1977; Hasker 1989, 20–9)

Indeed this seems to be quite plausible if we really think of people's actions as undetermined.

It may help us to see this if we consider the tossing of a coin. Let us suppose that a coin is tossed on some occasion, and it comes down heads, and suppose we then ask if it would have come down heads again if we had tossed it again in exactly the same circumstances. It seems plausible if we think that how it landed was undetermined, that the right answer is that it might have come down heads and it might have come down tails, but that it is not the case that it would have come down heads, nor the case that it would have come down tails.

So one solution to the fatalistic threat posed by middle knowledge is akin to the Aristotelian solution. Since there are no facts of the relevant sort, God cannot have knowledge of them. But, because there are no such facts, God's lack of knowledge of how free creatures would freely act is no bar to his omniscience.

Are there any other solutions?

It is difficult to see how there could be. In the case of actual actions, the solutions depended on suggesting ways in which it might have been possible for Jones to do something which would bring it about that some fact about God was different; that is to say that they depended on showing how some fact about God might be dependent on what Jones did.

Now in the case of middle knowledge, we know how such a dependence would have to operate; it would have to operate by way of God's knowledge of counterfactuals of freedom.

So, could the truth of counterfactuals of freedom related to Jones be dependent on Jones's actions? It seems that they could not be, because the facts that make them true were available to God at the creation before he had decided to create anything, let alone Jones.

So the facts, like God's decision, must have been ontologically prior, it seems, to any act of Jones's. So it seems that it could not be in Jones's power so to act that any actually true counterfactual of freedom relating to him would not have been true. (Hasker 1989, 39–52; see Hasker et al. 2000 for a collection of writings on middle knowledge.)

Ref.- https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/providence-divine/#Con Ref.- https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fatalism/#8

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For the Reformed Protestant perspective, the Westminster Confession of Faith's chapter 5 on Providence explains clearly that God is completely free in his activity.

  1. God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible fore-knowledge and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

  2. Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

  3. God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.

...

God is free to work as he wills. He often works according to natural causes, but he is not bound even by the laws of nature, laws which he himself upholds ("miracles" are when God decides to act in unusual ways. I have written another answer on miracles if anyone is interested.) But God never acts in ways that are contrary to his nature, and it's not inaccurate to say that it's even impossible for God to not be true to himself. So there are limits to how God acts, but the limits are akin to a triangle necessarily having three sides, or else it could not be a triangle. God always acts in love because that is who he is.

If "fate" means that all things were "meant to happen" then it would indeed be very similar to providence, for God has purpose in everything he does. But I don't think that's really how most people use the word fate. We don't say that it was fate when our alarm woke us up on time when that was our plan.

I think for most people fate is impersonal. So Wikipedia says "Fate defines events as ordered or "inevitable" and unavoidable. This is a concept based on the belief that there is a fixed natural order to the universe, and in some conceptions, the cosmos." I think the difference between this and Christian theology is that while both believe the universe is ordered, fate says that it is in some sense intrinsic to the universe, whereas Christian theology says it is God who is actively and deliberately ordering it.

Finally, fate is related to fatalism, "that humans have no power to influence the future, or indeed, their own actions". There's a lot of debate within Christianity over human free will, but almost all Christians do say that we have genuine real wills and have agency in the course of our lives. How that is compatible with providence is complicated and perhaps beyond our understanding, but fatalism as defined above is not compatible with Christian theology.

  • The Westminster Confession of Faith doesn't explain whether there has been agreement or dissidence between different scholars on the Christian view of providence, which is what the latter half of the question was asking. – Carl Masens Nov 20 '18 at 1:08
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As others have noted, many philosophers and theologians have tried to explain how God’s providence does not negate free will; and after centuries of debate, the most popular argument is that it’s a mystery. Mystery is sort of a catch-all word for ideas that have been impossible to explain using any sort of logical tools we have available. You can see it’s use in the trinity, incarnation, fall of man, and other unscriptural doctrines. This is a consequence of merging the Hebrew scriptures with Greek and Roman philosophy.

However, when you read the material from the original philosophers who wrote the actual scriptures, they seem to have no concept of a free will. God’s divine purpose will stand, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.

Take Isaiah for example. He quotes God as saying:

”Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me,

Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:

Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.” Isaiah 46:9-11

He even explicitly states the purpose God has for mankind in the previous chapter:

”Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.

I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” Isaiah 45:22-23

God says that when His plan is complete, every knee will bow to Him and every tongue will swear that He alone is God. There is nothing in the scriptures that contradict this, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. However, this doesn’t mean anyone will do this against their will. Isaiah is saying it will be impossible not to want what God has purposed.


There have been philosophers who have written about this. You may be interested in Joseph Priestley’s The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated, which was written in 1777 and is free to read.

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