Themes in Puritan Theology: Creation and Providence

Having considered the decrees of God or his eternal purposes in which he foreordains whatever  comes to pass (WSC, Q7), we now look at how God “executes” or carries out these plans “in the works of creation and providence” (WSC,Q8). In connection with decree and execution, Edward Leigh (1602–1671) sees two basic works of God (A Treatise of Divinity, 1646):

  1. His decree as his “internal” (ad intra, within himself apart from all else) operation “before time” in which he “determined from eternity, what he would do in time;”
  2. His work occurring “in time” as his “external” operation (ad extra, outside himself and related to all else) in the “creation of all things” in the “past” and “government and preservation of all things” in the “present” (relatively speaking!)

Let’s open up the past and present external work of God in creation and providence, respectively, according to the Puritans.

First, God made all things out of nothing and all very good. William Ames (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, 1627) observes that creation “respects the whole world, that is, whatsoever doth exist besides God.”  He created, notes Thomas Watson, ex nihilo, “without any pre-existent matter . . . out of the womb of nothing” and “at first very good (Gen 1:31), without any defect or deformity” prior to the fall (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, 1692).

Second, God made all things by the word of his power and in the space of six days. Watson compares God’s creating with Solomon building his temple, the former of which was “wrought without tools” and accomplished simply “with a word” (Psa 33:6). Ames, like Calvin before him and the Irish Articles (1615) and Westminster Confession (1646) and Catechisms (1647) after him, uses the phrase “in the space of six days” to express creation’s duration. He like Calvin opposed the well-known Augustinian instantaneous view, arguing that creation “was not altogether and in one moment.” Using the same phrase at the Westminster Assembly may mean that they deemed it enough to refute instantaneous creation without specific mention to it.

Some point out that views existed seeing the creation days as figurative and not literal (so A.F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, 1883; of Philo of Alexandria and Christian humanist, John Colet). Thus, the simple biblical phrase, “in the space of six days,” addresses duration with openness to non-literal views.  This seems unlikely to me. At times, the language of the Confession remained open-ended to make room for different views. Yet, in such instances, evidence existed of discussion and debate on such matters.  To my knowledge, no one has shown any member of the Assembly to hold a figurative view or that such were even being discussed, apart from instantaneous creation. It seems that those views (even Augustine’s) were really not much of an issue, and so went without mention. So, I ask, why read the statement “in the space of six days” as imprecise when there was no one (known at least) to accommodate?

In support of my arguments here, please consider Thomas Vincent (1634–1678) who while too young for Westminster was a contemporary to many divines, who knew of his commentary on the WSC (An Explicatory Catechism, 1675). Vincent obviously refutes instantaneous creation and presents a clear six literal day creation with some rationale to back it up: “God created all things in the space of six days. He could have created all things together in a moment, but he took six days time to work in, and rested on the seventh day, that we might the better apprehend the order of the creation, and that we might imitate him in working but six days of the week, and in resting on the seventh.” Given that his commentary received the commendation of several prominent Puritans (e.g. Thomas Brooks, Thomas Manton, John Owen) and at least two members of the Assembly (Joseph Caryl and Edmund Calamy), it seems quite reasonable to assume that Vincent understood the phrase “in the space of six days” just fine here.

Third, God created man in his image. God created man, notes Watson, as “the most exquisite piece in the creation,” in the image (likeness) of God.  Ames, very much pre-empting Larger and Shorter Catechism thinking, sees this image inwardly in the perfection of body and soul with man adorned with faculties as the “understanding and will” and the fitness to “live well” in “wisdom, holiness, and righteousness” (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10). The image manifests itself outwardly also in man’s “dominion over other creatures” (Gen 1:26, 2:19,20). John Bunyan (1628-1688) captures these aspects allegorically in The Holy War (1682) when he refers to man, by way of the city of Mansoul, as “the mirror and glory of all” that Shaddai (God), “even the top-piece . . . And as he made it goodly to behold, so also mighty to have dominion over all the country round about.”

Fourth, God in his ‘present’ external work of providence, upholds all that he has created in history. With an emphasis on man, WSC, Q11 renders the classic definition of God’s works of providence as “his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions” (see e.g. Heb 1:3, Neh 9:6, Prov 16:33). Watson similarly calls providence God’s “ordering all issues and events of things” as the “queen and governess of the world” that reaches from the “least of things” (e.g. birds and ants) to “all persons, especially the persons of the godly.” These views were continuous with standard Reformation (e.g. Calvin), medieval (e.g. Aquinas), and patristic (e.g. Augustine) theology and opposed Deism’s uninvolved and impersonal Creator and Socinianism and Arminianism’s dilution of God’s sovereignty over human decisions.

Fifth, God’s providence reached every aspect of life and warranted careful attention. The classic Puritan work on providence was John Flavel’s Divine Conduct, or the Mystery of Providence Opened (1678). Flavel stands as a representative for an exhaustive and eminently practical Puritan treatment of providence. For example, in considering that sovereign control does not rule out the use of means, Flavel speaks of them as “the tools of all sorts and sizes in the shop of Providence,” which make nothing by themselves apart from “a most skillful hand that uses them.” Up to the 17th century, no one thought and expanded upon providence to the extent of  the Puritans, which in part can be explained by the afflictions they endured. A wonderful treatment of how God uses afflictions in the Christian life (based on Rom 8:28) came with Thomas Watson’s A Divine Cordial (1663), where he claims, “nothing hurts the godly” when their inward and outward comforts are troubled in the “providences” of God. Such really do work together for the best of his saints like a cordial, “an invigorating medicinal drink concocted even with ingredients that may be poisonous by themselves.”

Two other relevant areas I want to briefly mention concern providence in relation to our sin and our understanding of God’s will. Watson, in A Body of Divinity, observes that God “is the cause of no man’s sin” yet he “permits” sin (more than “barely as in line with Calvin’s rejection of bare permission) in his control of all things in which has a hand in the action but not the sin. In the end, while it defies explanation, God so orders things that he uses man’s sin to fulfill his good divine purposes. Related to understanding God’s will for our lives, Watson argues that we should observe how God is at work in our lives by providence but without making such a “rule of our actions”: “Providence is a Christian's diary, but not his Bible.”

 

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For previous posts in this series, see:

  1. What is Puritan Theology?
  2. William Ames and Puritan Theologizing
  3. William Ames and Shorter Catechism Q&A 1
  4. The Two Lights
  5. Scripture
  6. God Is
  7. Trinity
  8. God's Decrees

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