Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/16/2012

Is “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” political or religious?

Jean Calvin - Final Cause?

Jean Calvin – Final Cause?

In every election year, the topic of discussion for students in my first-year writing classes is, “’Live Free or Die’: Slogan or Belief.” To learn to write effective essays using various sources, the students read 18th-century texts and current commentaries. We begin with the Declaration of Independence, concentrating on three phrases in preparation for the central work of the semester, writing about the First Amendment. The phrases are, “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” “endowed by their Creator,” and “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”

In 2004 I began to research “the protection of Divine Providence.” With George W. Bush running for reelection, trying to understand “Divine Providence” seemed to be a good idea. “I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me” (1).

I have written before that my research led me to the fascinating possibility that the inclusion of “Divine Providence” in the Declaration was as much a political statement as a religious one—perhaps even more so. I had never given the phrase a second thought—we all know what it means. Even non-Christians can understand that no-brainer.


My first discovery was that the word “providence” occurs only once in the King James Bible referring to the “providence” of the Roman governor of Palestine (Acts 24:2). It does not occur in the Revised Standard Version. “Providence” is not a Biblical concept. I’ve heard the word used so much in churchy situations that I (like all my churchy friends) assumed it was from the Bible.

The concept is apparently inferred from such passages as Psalm 149:9, “The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works” (KJV). The most famous proof-texting for “Providence” is, the statement of Jesus, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31, KJV).

The Bible is peppered with passages from which are extrapolated the belief that God will protect the fomenters of revolution and provide the proper person to run for President. But, even knowing those interesting historical possibilities about the meaning of “Providence,” I am perplexed.

Adam Smith - Formal Cause?

Adam Smith – Formal Cause?

My morning writing is most often the result of reading an article or two that gives me an idea (logical or not) that I force into something like an essay. This topic is different. My inability to sustain ideas I was taught as a child—as well as religious/spiritual beliefs I hear and read about in incipient old age—has resulted in my continuing struggle to believe in much of anything about “god.” The concept “Providence” lies at the center of my agnosticism. The couple of articles about Providence I found to prepare for class have multiplied to a desktop folder “Providence” of more than fifty scholarly (historical and theological) essays.

I suppose this is all very sophomoric . One might ask, as I have asked before, why a 67-year-old man is just now at this point in his life pursuing this line of thought. My questioning is influenced by Jefferson’s insistence that God cannot be described and that God does not perform miracles outside the “laws” of nature. My question is whether, if I believe in God, or in a god, or in a higher power, or in the Great Spirit, or in Vishnu or Shiva, that necessitates belief in a god or spirit or power that has the future of the world in its purview and watches out for it. More especially, my future.

For me, that’s not an idle question or my version of how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin. Where did the idea come from that, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free; for His eye is on the Sparrow, and I know he watches me?”

I’d guess most of my friends who profess strong religious (Christian) beliefs would agree, at least in part, with the following exchange from the Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Church tradition—Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and others—the first widely-used outline of the theology of Jean Calvin—compiled in 1563.

Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but his fatherly hand

The fact is, even my friends who profess no “theological” or “religious” understanding— who say they are “spiritual, not religious”—would agree with this in principle, if not in wording.

This concept apparently comes from thought as early as Aristotle’s (and the Hebrew scriptures, perhaps). Early Lutheran philosopher-theologians followed Aristotle’s “scheme of material, formal, efficient and final causes” (3). I make no pretense of knowing what this is about, but it has something to do with natural versus phenomenological events (such as comets). Are they part of the natural order of things, or are they signs of good things to come or portents of catastrophe? One 16th-century Lutheran scholar asserts that

Holy Writ affirms that many of [these signs] arise not in the ordinary and customary way, but from the first cause, director and moderator of the whole of nature, incomprehensible and infinite; which by its perfectly free will. . . perfects, moves, sharpens, represses, contains, changes and arouses many things, which are omens of unusual and singular occurrences (4).

Thomas Jefferson - Material Cause?

Thomas Jefferson – Material Cause?

I am certain that the God of my Fathers and Friends “perfects, moves, sharpens, represses, contains, changes and arouses many things.” Just two days ago, when I was wondering out loud on Facebook what might have happened had I chosen to be a Double Bass rather than an Organ major in college, a friend responded that I am “where [I am] meant to be.” Seems so innocuous. But assuming that there is “meaning” in where one is takes a giant leap into “first causes” as opposed to “nature.” That is, “Providence” as opposed to order.

And then I discover Jefferson who says (as every high school student knows) that, even though reason must lead us to believe in “a fabricator of all things,” it is also true that “of the nature of this being [God] we know nothing.” Jefferson did not write the phrase “Divine Providence” into the Declaration (5). The phrase was added by the Continental Congress at the behest of the Puritan members. They alone comprehended the extreme political nature of the phrase.  If God is omnipotent, God obviously “perfects, moves, sharpens, represses, contains, changes and arouses many things.” Among them the outcomes both of revolutions and of college music majors’ decisions which instrument to play.

Or does God?

More of my sophomoric (yet dead serious—pun intended) ruminations will be revealed.
(1) Harris, Paul. “Bush says God chose him to lead his nation.” The Observer. Sunday 2 November 2003 07. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.
(2) Fergusson, David. “Calvin’s Theological Legacy.” Ecclesiology 6.3 (2010): 274-289.
(3) Vermij, Rienk. “A Science Of Signs. Aristotelian Meteorology In Reformation Germany.” Early Science & Medicine 15.6 (2010): 648-674.
(4) Garcaeus, Meteorologia (1584). Quoted in Vermij.
(5) For a thorough discussion of the “religious” language in the Declaration, see: Morrison, Jeffrey H. “Political Theology in the Declaration of Independence.” A Paper Presented at a Conference on “The Declaration of Independence.” The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Department of Politics, Princeton University. April 5-6, 2002. Web. 12 February 2012.


  1. Looking forward to those ruminifications.



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