TheologyProvidence and Preservation The different methods and modes of divine providence help us better understand God’s role in the Bible’s preservation. Richard BrashAugust 23, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level Christians believe that all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). But what has God done to preserve his written word? In particular, what is the relationship between God’s work of preservation and the work of sometimes sleepy scribes, whose pens might slip, and whose parchments might disintegrate? The concept of “providence” can help us here. What does it mean to say that God has preserved the text of Scripture “providentially”? And what degree of textual preservation does a biblical assessment of the work of providence give us reason to expect? What is providence and how does it work? “Providence” is not itself a word found in the Bible. But it is a theological term that sums up Scripture’s teaching about one particular work of God. This work includes the biblical concepts of God’s purpose (prothesis, πρόθεσις), foreknowledge (prognōsis, πρόγνωσις), and predestination (proorismos, προορισμός). The word “providence” itself (which has the etymology of pre-seeing) is sometimes linked to the introduction of God as “Jehovah Jireh” or “the Lord who sees/provides” in Genesis 22:14. The thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas defined providence as God’s ordering of all things towards their end. He further distinguished two parts to this “ordering”: (1) God’s eternal arrangement of all things, and (2) his temporal execution of that order by means of his government of the universe (Summa Theologica, I.22.1). After the Reformation, many Protestant theologians basically accepted Aquinas’s definition, commonly discerning three elements of God’s work of providence in the world: preservation, concurrence (i.e., co-operation with secondary causes), and government. It’s important to notice that providence encompasses all things: in the most basic sense, if something is (or happens), it is (or happens) providentially. Two methods of providence Can we be any more specific? Here we may introduce two useful distinctions, which are frequently misunderstood or confused. Theologians distinguish first between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” providence. This distinction is about the method of providence. “Ordinary” providence perhaps sounds boring, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate something humdrum: the term comes from the Latin ordinarius, which means “according to rule.” In this case the “rule” is God’s own, which we find established in the divinely given laws of nature. In his ordinary providence God works through and according to creaturely means. For example, your birth was hardly a boring or everyday event, but it was very much part of ordinary providence. Your birth was hardly a boring or everyday event, but it was very much part of ordinary providence. Extraordinary providence, on the other hand, is outside, above, or against regular, creaturely means. We see this in the biblical miracles. When Jesus walks on water, that is outside or beyond God’s normal way of ruling over the physics of water. The really key thing to remember is that, whether God’s providence is ordinary or extraordinary, it does not change the fact that God is always working, and his work is always praiseworthy. All God’s works praise him, and should lead us to bless his name (Ps. 145:10). Two modes of providence A second distinction (found, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 5:7) is sometimes made between “general” and “special” providence. This distinction is about the mode or object of providence. General providence is about God’s work with respect to all things. Special providence, on the other hand, is particularly applied to God’s care for his church. By extension, it could reasonably apply to God’s particular plan and purposes for the lives of individual believers. When Christians say, “That was providential!” we are often referring to God’s special providence. Two important points need to be made about these distinctions before we consider how they might apply to the text of Scripture. First, we must be careful not to confuse these categories, as the mode does not in itself determine whether or not God makes use of means. “Ordinary” providence is not necessarily “general” providence, just as “extraordinary” providence is not necessarily “special” providence. One way to see this is to closely compare Psalm 104 with Psalm 105. If Psalm 104 is a psalm about general providence (“preservation” of the world), Psalm 105 focuses on special providence (“preservation” of God’s people). Yet both psalms are full of examples of both ordinary and extraordinary providence. Whether by miracle or by various “means,” both psalms celebrate the wonderful works of God! RelatedThe Letter and the SpiritMaurice A. RobinsonAppreciating the Diverse Evidence from the Dead Sea ScrollsAnthony FergusonTwo Reasons There Are Variants in Our Copies of the BiblePeter J. Gurry Second, the Bible gives us cause to be cautious about determining exactly where special providence is operative and what it should look like. It is often a good deal messier than we might prefer: look at the history of God’s people! Believers are encouraged to acquiesce—and even to rejoice—in God’s loving working of all things for our good (Rom. 8:28), rather than to presume access to the divine counsel in respect of the details, many of which are hidden from us (Deut. 29:29). This explains why our judgments about precisely how God is at work can be quite wrong. We simply don’t share God’s view of all things to know how he is working in the midst of so many details. What has all this got to do with the preservation of the Bible? I suggest that there are indications in Scripture itself that God has preserved the text of the Bible according to his ordinary providence, in a combination of special and general modes. This indicates a more complex picture of providential preservation than is sometimes allowed. Providence and preservation The Bible’s own teaching about God’s written revelation leads us to expect, at the very least, adequate or sufficient preservation of the autographic or original texts. Adequate to what? Here the answer depends on stated ends and purposes. Scripture is principally for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:15–17). It is inconceivable, on biblical presuppositions, that God would allow his written word to be so lost or corrupted that his saving purposes might fail. God’s providence ensures this. But this is only a minimum. Other biblical evidence indicates that we should expect extremely accurate preservation of the text. (Etymologically, “accuracy” refers to the property of having been taken care of, in this case primarily by God himself.) The biblical writers, along with Jesus himself, cite copies of Scripture with the authority of the divine voice. Both testaments, in claiming the relevance of past written revelation for new generations, acknowledge the ongoing authority of Scripture as it is mediated through copies (Isa. 8:16; Rom. 15:4). Since God’s word “stands forever” (Isa. 40:8; 1 Pet. 1:25) we should expect his canonical, written word also to be preserved for us. In a famous passage, Jesus teaches that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). This likely points to the work of special providence. However, the verse does not tell us exactly where the words of the Law are to be found, nor does it promise perfect and immediate access to those words for every believer. How, then, is providential preservation achieved? Dr. Brash’s book on preservation First, let’s consider the category of extraordinary providence, or miracle. At various times in church history, it has been popular to apply this category to the preservation of the biblical text, as I describe in chapter two of my book on preservation. It is not a priori impossible that God should have used miracles to preserve his written word. But the Bible does not give us any examples of miraculous preservation or copying of texts, except perhaps Exodus 34:1. Rather, the few biblical references to making copies of texts (such as Deut. 17:18 and Jer. 36:32) seem to indicate the meticulous but still mundane process of transcribing by ordinary means. Preservation as a work of ordinary providence implies that scribal error or willful corruption of the text are realities. The real possibility of deliberate changes to the text explains the need for biblical warnings not to add to or subtract from the word (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18–19), just as reference to “the lying pen of the scribes” (Jer. 8:8) indicates that some copyists felt free to corrupt the written word to their own advantage, even during the Old Testament period. Jesus’ correction of the faulty assumptions contained in the text of the Samaritan Pentateuch is another biblical example of deliberate textual changes being implicitly recognized and criticized (John 4:20–22). It is likely that one reason why the Levitical priests were to be on hand while Israel’s kings copied the law was to prevent either deliberate changes or errors in copying. The biblical evidence thus suggests that accurate copies of Scripture are to be distinguished from inaccurate ones. Recognizing providence But how is this identification to be made, and by whom? At this point, the distinction between general and special providence becomes helpful. From Scripture itself, we can acknowledge clear examples of special (albeit ordinary) providence at work in the preservation of the biblical text. The involvement of the priests in approving copies (mentioned above) is one. Another is the divinely ordained requirement to keep the Book of the Law by the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle (Deut. 31:26). In much of the Old Testament period, then, we find providential preservation of Scripture closely tied to God’s providential preservation and government of his people and their ordained leadership. This is akin to special providence. It is unwise to tether our doctrine of providential preservation to a particular “approved” manuscript or manuscript tradition. In the New Testament era, the picture is more complicated. The church is called to be “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and part of this calling is surely to take care of the text of the Bible. God’s providential preservation of his people is still tied closely to the providential preservation of his written word. It is therefore reasonable to identify the process of canonization as an instance of special providence. But just as it can be spiritually dangerous to attempt to define the precise contours of special providence in our own lives, or even with respect to the preservation of the church, it is unwise to tether our doctrine of providential preservation to a particular “approved” manuscript or manuscript tradition. The Bible does not give the church today the authority to do this. We cannot always tell where general providence ends and special providence begins, and this is all the more true outside the church. Unbelieving Jewish scholars helped preserve the Old Testament text for some centuries after Christ, and God certainly used their work. We therefore have no reason to exclude the work of general providence in the copying of, preservation of, and even discernment between, the manuscripts that lie behind our translated Bibles today. Conclusion In conclusion, God has preserved his written word by his singular care and providence, with great accuracy and in great purity. Despite its complexities, preservation by ordinary providence in both special and general modes (though we cannot always discern the difference between these two) seems to be the best theological account of providential preservation based on the biblical data. Richard Brash Richard Brash (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is a Mission Partner with Japan Christian Link and Associate Professor of Theology at Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya, Japan. He is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, International Christian College, Japan Bible Seminary (Tokyo), and Westminster Theological Seminary. He has five years of pastoral experience at St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford and his most recent book is Knowing Me, Knowing God: Six Theological Keys to Scripture. Learn more at richardbrash.net.