Science in Christian Perspective

Guest Editorial



Providence, Science and the Sovereignty of God

R.C. Sproul

President, Ligonier Ministries

Orlando, Florida

From: PSCF 41 (June 1989): 67-68.

Reprnted by permission of ETERNITY Magazine, Copyright 1988, Foundation for Christian Living, c/o 1716 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19103.

The ongoing struggle between naturalism and supernaturalism often revolves around our understanding of the relationship between divine providence and natural causes. Insurance companies still have room for "acts of God." But there seems to be less and less room for acts of God in our expanding knowledge of the inner workings of nature.

As Christians assimilate new discoveries in natural science, it is important that they approach the problem with a sound concept of the providence of God.

There is a crucial linguistic gap between the etymology of the word "providence" and its theological, functional usage. The word providence comes from a Latin root meaning ."to see beforehand." But the doctrine of God's providence conveys much more than an insight into God's vision.

The doctrine of providence has to do with God's government of the universe. God does more than observe the universe. He must not be relegated in our thinking to the level of a mere cosmic spectator who creates a world and then sits back to observe what will happen. Such a deity would resemble Aristotle's Unmoved Mover more than Israel's Yahweh.

At the same time, the biblical God is not a does everything king who refuses to delegate. He is a ruler who governs through means, via intermediate agents and forces.

In the 17th century Ren6 Descartes made an important distinction between primary and secondary causality. This distinction found its way into the Reformation creeds (most notably the Westminster Confession). Primary causality refers to God's act of creation as well as his ongoing work of sustenance over creation. His sovereignty stands over and above the created order at every moment. This makes him not only the Creator but the Lord of history as well.

Secondary causality refers to what we commonly call the laws of nature. These "laws" reflect not an independent power of nature but rather the ordinary manner by which God rules his creation. Nature's laws are God's laws. To discover them is to think God's laws after him.

What we call natural causes may also be called examples of ordinary providence. It is when we conceive of these secondary causes as being independent of God that we commit a form of idolatry.

It is not idolatrous for scientists to seek a more comprehensive understanding of ordinary providence. Indeed it may reflect a very advanced form of reverence.

There are times when scientists overstep their bounds and seek to exalt nature over God. Sadly, sometimes this stems in part from a reaction to a religious community that persecutes and oppresses scientists for pushing back the frontiers of mystery.

The Christian need not be threatened by any bona fide scientific discovery. Of all people we have an enormous investment in truth. Of course not all claims by scientists represent truth. But where truth is found and truth is published, God is honored. The secondary causes bear witness to the primary cause. Nature bears witness to supernature. The heavens are still declaring the glory of God.

Another crucial distinction that closely resembles the distinction between primary and secondary causality is the distinction between the immediate and mediate work of God. The term "immediate" is not used here with respect to time. It does not so much refer to 11 suddenness" as to a work directly done without intervening means.

Let us illustrate the difference between immediate and mediate works of God. The parting of the Red Sea was a mediate act of God using an intermediate force. God caused a great wind to blow to separate the waters. Here was a bona fide miracle of timing. But God used the intermediate force of nature to bring about a supernatural event.

In the raising of Lazarus from the dead Jesus brought forth resurrected life immediately. He called Lazarus out of the tomb. No C. P. R., no mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, no medicine administered. Here the event was wrought by the immediate, primary cause of the power of God.

It is when the distinctions of primary-secondary causality, and immediate-mediate works of God are not observed that conflicts may arise between science and theology. Some want to explain everything in light of secondary causality, excluding God. Some want to explain everything in terms of primary causality, excluding science.

Nature is a book of revelation that is to be studied with no less care than is demanded by the sacred Scriptures. The same God is the author of both. What he reveals in nature is not contradicted by what he reveals in Scripture. The Lord of providence is also the Lord of truth.


Praise the Lord from the heavens praise him in the heights.

Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host.

Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, shining stars.

Praise him, highest heavens, and the waters above the heavens.

Let them praise the name of the Lord. He commanded: they were made.

He fixed them for ever, gave a law which shall not pass away.

Praise the Lord from the earth, sea creatures and all oceans,

fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy winds that obey his word;

all mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars,

beasts, wild and tame, reptiles and birds on the wing;

All earth's kings and peoples, earth's princes and rulers;

young men and maidens, old men together with children.

Let them praise the name of the Lord for he alone is exalted.

The splendor of his name reaches beyond heaven and earth.

He exalts the strength of his people. He is the praise of all his saints,

of the sons of Israel, of the people to whom he comes close.


Psalm 148