Quick quiz — or maybe it’s a riddle: What makes you
- patient when things go against you?
- thankful when things go well?
- and confident as you face all the unknowns of the future?
Or maybe I should switch it around and make it a survey — something they could have used on the old game show “Family Feud”:
How many people out there want to be
- more patient?
- more thankful?
- and more confident?
That sounds like pretty good stuff to me. I want more of those things in my daily experience. So maybe I should turn it one more time, spin it as something for the self-help shelf at Barnes & Noble:
- Want to know how to live with patience, thankfulness, and confidence?
The Heidelberg Catechism answers the quiz, solves the riddle, and gives us advice for self-improvement all in one word:
A while back @Dawn_Morris1 tweeted me a question: how can we reconcile a sense of God’s sovereignty and providence with a sense of our own accountability?
That tweet was the spark for an informal series of posts in my otherwise fairly random blogging about the Heidelberg Catechism, the most beloved and widely used Reformed theological summary, which is currently celebrating its 450th anniversary. This is probably the last of that informal series, at least on the sovereign providence side of the issue.
At Question 28 the Catechism wraps up its three-question discussion of providence — which, it turns out, is also its three-question discussion of what we need to know about God the Father. And in its encouraging way, Heidelberg tells us this often troubling doctrine is actually very helpful to our daily living.
Heidelberg makes its strongest claim about providence in this question here in this question:
“For all creatures are so completely in God’s hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.”
Not as bold as some of Calvin’s claims on the topic, nor as stark as those of the Westminster standards, but plenty strong enough.
Much too strong for most 21st century Americans. We hear claims like these and can’t help raising objections: It makes us feel like puppets on strings. It takes away our freedom — the kind of freedom that is our culture’s secular religion. Or we point out bad things that have happened to good and innocent people, thinking that this disproves any kind of providence. And our reflection on the topic goes no further.
The crucial factor for Heidelberg’s authors is their deep, thorough conviction that the God who providentially guides every creature is good and loving — more so than we can imagine, working behind the scenes of every circumstance to bring us to salvation. God’s love aims at our big-picture best interests, not our momentary preferences. And most of God’s work in bringing to pass our eternal good will surely be beyond our knowledge.
- Knowing our lives are in the hands of a loving God can help in hard times: we can be patient because hard times are not the end of the story.
- Knowing our lives are in our loving God’s hands can be important in the good times too: rather than arrogantly thinking we caused all our own blessings, or the emptiness of crediting dumb luck, we can give thanks.
- Knowing our lives are in such good and loving hands also helps as we face the future: what lies ahead is a mystery, but whatever happens will be part of God’s fitting us for heaven.
So what does this have to do with Dawn’s question about accountability and responsibility? God guides our futures, but we are responsible for our response in the present — responsible to live in patience, thankfulness, and confidence precisely because we know God is in charge.
I know I haven’t convinced all of you to believe in Heidelberg’s view of providence. I hope you’ll share your objections.
And if you do have a strong sense of providence, how does it help you?
If you like the post I hope you’ll share it. As well as the buttons below, here are some potential tweetables:
Click here to tweet this: “What good does it do to believe God is active in everything? @garynealhansen #YRR http://bit.ly/11l0qjq “
Click here to tweet this: “Check out @garynealhansen on providence in the Heidelberg Catechism. #YRR http://bit.ly/11l0qjq “
Click here to tweet this: “Want to know how to live with patience, thankfulness, and confidence? #Jesus @garynealhansen | http://bit.ly/11l0qjq “
Thomas L. Fultz, Ruling Elder says
Interesting conjunction of blogs: see Comings and Goings a blog written by Theology, Worship and Education Director Charles B. “Chip” Hardwick. http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/comings-and-goings/2013/4/17/confessions-contemporary-or-historical/
In it he addresses the question of applicability of Reformed Confessions to today’s life from the perspective of a recent installation of a pastor. As at all PC(USA) ordinations and installations, the pastor was asked a series of questions, including:
Will you be instructed and led by [the] confessions [of the church] as you lead the people of God?
This question reminded him of another question about these statements of faith that fill the Presbyterian Book of Confessions: are the confessions historic or contemporary?
Harwick’s answer – of course, is both – They are historic in that they were each written at a particular point in time, answering particular concerns that face the church. At the same time, the confessions are contemporary in that they speak to us today. They help us to understand scripture today. They communicate the Gospel to us today. They are not simply reminders of what the church used to believe; they tell us who and what the church is today, what it believes today, and what it resolves to do today.
A conversation followed which only confirmed how contemporary the confessions are. It was mentioned that the new president of Princeton Theological Seminary, Craig Barnes, has written on the Heidelberg Catechism, Body and Soul.
…..and a reader of that book said, “It’s like he is talking to me! It’s like the catechism is talking to me! I can’t wait to use this book for our young adults Sunday School class at church! They are going to love it!”
When a confession like the Heidelberg Catechism is studied, it speaks right to us today, because it is grounded in the witness of Scripture to our Lord Jesus Christ. Focused on the eternal Truth, the confessions point us to Scripture – a measuring tool for faith and life. God’s sovereign providence or providential sovereignty is keeping us safe in the redemption we have be given. Another resource to consider in this area is James Bryan Smith’s Good and Beautiful God. Replacing false narratives of God with Jesus’ narratives of God.
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thomas, thanks for sharing this!
When I teach the Confessions to seminarians preparing to be Teaching Elders/Ministers and to Ruling Elders preparing for service as what we used to call “Commissioned Lay Pastors” I always start by emphasizing those ordination and installation questions. We all take vows to be instructed and guided by our Confessions — but far too few spend time reading, studying, and listening to them.
They do indeed speak to us today for the reasons you mention: they are attempts to summarize the biblical faith and they bring us deeper into that faith.
There is also something else, something often forgotten in our day when we often act as if Christianity is something we ourselves invented: we living Christians are part of the communion of saints, the Church which spans the boundaries of all time. The people who wrote the Heidelberg Catechism are not simply historical figures or artifacts of the past. They are our brothers in Christ every bit as the readers of this blog are brothers and sisters in Christ. I listen to them as people bearing witness to Christ, not as voices of a distant and foreign world.
Thomas L. Fultz, Ruling Elder says
Great reply to remind us what many have forgotten in our day: ” as if Christianity is something we ourselves invented” You are on target to say “we living Christians are part of the communion of saints, the Church which spans the boundaries of all time.”
Those who wrote and affirmed the Heidelberg Catechism are not “artifacts of the past. They are our brothers in Christ” from among the great cloud of witnesses and we must “listen to them as people bearing witness to Christ” AMEN!
Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
Nice work from Gary.
Gary Neal Hansen says
Jim, thanks for the affirmation and for reblogging the post — I’ve never been reblogged before, and I’m honored.
I do agree with that summary, Gary! Very good, and as a believer, I know how I respond is important and that flows out of the truth I know about God, who I am in Christ and how closely I am relying on the help of the Holy Spirit as I daily walk. My responses, especially in trial, can be a “bible” or a libel to those around me.
But could someone take the “For all creatures are so completely in God’s hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.” to mean that God causes evil~which I know Scripture specifically addresses as “no!” (James 1:13-17, etc), or would you say that He allows people who want to do evil to exercise their own choices?
Gary Neal Hansen says
Hello Dawn! Thanks for joining in — and for the question that prompted the mini-series.
You ask if someone could interpret it that way — well, yes, it is possible to take it that way. However, it is another question whether they should — and no, they shouldn’t.
The authors of the Catechism would have a lot to say about God’s providence and evil. They would probably say at least that God’s providence is over all, but that God does not do evil. They would probably also say that it is too complex a question to deal with in the short Q&As of a catechism.
There is more to unfolding the apparent paradox than a blog conversation can hold too. A great writer to explore on the topic is John Calvin, both in his Institutes and in his commentary on Exodus where he deals with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
Joe Pruett says
Dr. Hansen, this just might be my favorite blog. Patience, Thankfulness and Confidence, what three wonderful words to have in our lives. I especially liked the part, God’s love aims at our big picture best interests and not more momentary preferences. I’m reminded here of a phrase that I”d like to share: Everything will be ok in the end, if everything is not ok, then it’s not the end.
Thank you for this blog, just what I needed in my mental arsenal!