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Providence Lost

Genevieve Lloyd.
Published by Harvard University Press in 2020

In the introduction to American Providence (2004), theologian Stephen H. Webb observes, “The cultural elite dismiss the doctrine of providence as the illusory product of fundamentalist fantasies. Providence is caricatured as a theological version of hide-and-seek.” He concedes, “There is some truth to this caricature. When history is treated like a secret message, theology becomes little more than cryptology.”1

Australian philosopher Genevieve Lloyd occupies the fuzzy middle ground of the post-secularist, neither rejecting nor affirming the doctrine of providence. Her intention in Providence Lost is

not to argue for a revival of providence—either by reasserting the importance of religion or by attempting to develop an alternative secular version of providence. The guiding conviction informing the book is simply that a better understanding of this largely forgotten strand in the history of Western thought can throw some light on the functioning—and increasingly the malfunctioning—of familiar ideas of free will, autonomy, and responsibility that we now so readily take as defining our modernity (1).

I am reluctant to accept the authorial intention at face value because throughout the book Lloyd tries to accommodate her imagination and emotions to an idea of providence that is palpable to the post-secularist—an idea that is austere enough to strip the “buffered” self of modernity from its illusions of autonomy and progress; consolatory enough to assure us of cosmic order amid “a heap of random sweepings” (16); and temporal enough to vanquish further the shadow of God.

Lloyd regrets that the West inherited the Cartesian (read: Augustinian) “idea of the will as the locus of freedom” (8) instead of the Spinozist (read: Stoic) “idea of freedom as the shaping of necessity” (9). Note the peculiarity of a human being who wishes for less freedom. It is tantamount to a giraffe that prefers the zoo to the wilderness. Why should “contemporary challenges arising from living in conditions of uncertainty” induce the desire for a fatalistic universe? Lloyd points out needfully “the limitations in our modern preoccupation with the idea of the autonomous human will,” but her Stoic-cum-Spinozist ethic of accepting necessity is not one that Christians can or should welcome because free will is both a fact of creation and gift of God (12). The solution to an overweening will is chastisement.

Assuming the role of intellectual archaeologist, Lloyd digs through the classical and modern theories of providence to unearth a link between Spinozism and its antecedent, Stoicism. The Greek tragedian and proto-Stoic, Euripides, offers a congenial voice for the post-secularist because he subverts conventional religion with his claim that gods and men alike are subject to necessity. Lloyd writes approvingly:

The providence of the gods, even when they do wish us well, does not allow us to escape from chance. The real issue is not how to please or follow the gods; nor is it to accept our lot as the mysterious providence of the gods, who know what is for the best. It is rather to learn how best to live with uncertainty (38).

To navigate the precarious world of necessity and chance, Euripides’ characters need judgment, “the capacity to know when to accept something as inevitable, and when to continue trying to change it” (41).

Once the Stoics appear on stage, the gods retreat forever to the cloudy heights of Olympus. They already started to retreat with Plato’s “great Artificer,” who anticipates the deistic God of the 17th and 18th centuries. This divine craftsman formed the world and endowed human beings with soul and reason, but “all our cares, toils, annoyances, and other burdens” are not “under the superintendence of God,” as John Calvin believed.2 The Stoics are responsible for the retreat of the gods insofar as they turn the creator-god into the cosmos-god, captured famously in the metaphor of a cosmic city populated with gods and men, governed by the universal law of reason. Their shift from transcendent to immanent providence struck a death blow to the irrational and vicious gods of the Greek pantheon, but the latter view was ill-equipped to answer the problem of evil, as Cotta, a skeptical Academician, expresses in Cicero’s Nature of the Gods: “Either providence does not know its own powers, or it does not regard human affairs, or it lacks power of judgement to discern what is the best”3 (88).

The Epicureans raised another serious objection to Stoic theology: men traded being playthings of the gods to being victims of necessity. Against Greek mythology and immanent providence, Epicureans envisioned a world free of nettlesome gods and crushing fate, a world where the exercise of free will is contingent on the random swerving of atoms, a world not unlike the one articulated by Charles Darwin and his latest enthusiast, Richard Dawkins.

For the Stoics, providence, fate, and divine will are inseparable. Lloyd acknowledges the philosophical paradox in their claim that god is both the author of fate and a being subject to it, which bears resemblance to the Christian claim that God is both omniscient and self-limited in his knowledge. Setting aside this tension, she devotes considerable space to explaining how the Stoics found “a good flow of life” by conforming to nature, as another famous metaphor illustrates: “When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, but if it does not want to follow it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined” (96). Freedom, under this construal, can be attained when we adapt our impulses to necessity. Friedrich Nietzsche, a devotee of antiquity, captures the Stoic ideal best with his oft-used Latin phrase, Amor fati:

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall bemy only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.4

In Lloyd’s history of providence, Augustine serves not only as a transitional figure between antiquity and modernity, but also as a transformational figure. Threads of Stoic thought are woven into the Christian tapestry: the cosmic city of gods and men is divided into the City of God and the City of Man; the Creator is separated from the creation; necessity and fate are absorbed into a “unified, omnipotent divine will;” and Amor fati evolves to Amor Deus (89). Although Lloyd does not make this speculation, Stoic piety seems to offer fertile ground for Christian seeds to grow. Just as Epictetus teaches his students that serenity is possible when they learn to “keep [their] wills in harmony with what happens,” Paul teaches his disciples that contentment is possible in whatever situation, as long as all things are done through Christ (112). In both teachings, contentment hinges on knowing what lies outside human control. When Epictetus connects anthropology and teleology, he formulates an astonishing intimation of Imago Dei: “What else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God? If indeed, I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God” (112-13). With catechismal training, Epictetus may have lent his voice to the church choir.

Before turning to the link between Stoicism and Spinozism, I want to unpack briefly Augustine’s doctrine of providence because it promises a rich alternative to Lloyd’s preferred theory. According to Augustine, human beings are gifted with freedom but they are not free from the constraints of necessity. As a result, they are responsible for their use and misuse of freedom because God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Divine justice is the key to his doctrine of providence; it ensures that both good and evil are brought into an ordered whole, although often our finitude prevents us from grasping what Augustine calls “the integral fittingness of things” (137). He compares human life to a mosaic floor. Just as we may not see how little stones are arranged to form a pattern in the pavement, so too, we may not see how evil and suffering are permitted for ultimate harmony. Augustine writes,

Whoever narrow-mindedly considers this life by itself alone is repelled by its enormous foulness, and turns away in sheer disgust. But, if he raises the eyes of his mind and broadens his field of vision and surveys all things as a whole, then he will find nothing unarranged, unclassed, or unassigned to its own place (139).

As Lloyd observes astutely,

The Christianizing of providence came at a cost; its reconciling power would henceforth carry the moral ambiguities of an omnipotent divine will answerable for its purposes. Human freedom, too, would now assume an awesome responsibility and would increasingly break away from Augustine’s framing context of universal necessity (149).

She blames Rene Descartes for the break because he nearly exempts human freedom from “the necessities of mere nature,” so that hubristically, it approximates divine freedom (151). Christian readers are likely to agree with the author when she contends that the Cartesian delusion of absolute autonomy needs a corrective. But where Christians might return to Augustine’s “framing context of universal necessity,” which she deems quaint or irretrievable, Lloyd embraces Baruch Spinoza’s “radical rapprochement of freedom and necessity,” which could also be deemed quaint or irretrievable (150).

Spinoza rejects the idea of providence that originates with Augustine and continues with Descartes. He says their association of providence and divine will is “the sole cause of superstition, and perhaps of much knavery” (203). His theory, by contrast, associates providence and intellect. The casualty of this revision is particular providence, defined as “that striving which pertains to each particular thing for the preservation of its being, insofar as it is considered not as part of Nature but as a whole” (204). All that remains is universal providence, defined as “that through which each thing is produced and maintained, insofar as it is part of the whole of Nature” (203-04). Spinoza’s thorough going pantheism means that “belief in a particular providence becomes the deluded thought of individual things as self-contained wholes” (204). Where Augustine and Descartes believed in a personal, transcendent deity who intervenes in human affairs, Spinoza—hearkening back to the Stoics—believes only in an impersonal, immanent deity who pervades the natural order. To invoke Augustine’s analogy, God is no longer ordering the little stones of the mosaic floor because he is now the mosaic floor itself. Lloyd spells out the unorthodox consequences: “Not only does this God not act out of concern for human well-being; this is a God who does not act for ‘ends’ at all—a God with no will, either benign or malign” (205).

At this point, a theological critique is relevant. “Presupposing the doctrine of an initial creation out of nothing,” Niels Henrik Gregersen says, “providence comprises: (1) God’s continuous preservation of the world order (conservation); (2) God’s cooperation with the capacities of creatures (concurrence); and (3) God’s government of the world for the fulfillment of his creation (divine ruling).”5 The Stoic-cum-Spinozist model that Lloyd advocates only touches upon conservation as a feature of universal providence; concurrence and governance are features of particular providence. Even conservation is downplayed because the Stoics are largely silent about creation.

Two points are worth mentioning. First, creation and providence in here within the character of God as Creator and Preserver, as Stephen Webb argues persuasively:

Ceatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and creatio continua (the continuing action of providence, which brings new things into being rather than just preserving what already is) must be understood together, not separately. Creatio ex nihilo alone results in deism, where God begins the world but then steps aside, while creatio continua alone leads to pantheism, where God is involved in the world but is not sovereign, majestic, and transcendent.6

The mistake of the Stoics and Spinoza is to collapse the Creator into creation. What follows is not, contrary to the author ’s hope, an “emotionally viable” idea of providence, but an emotionally barren idea. Lloyd qualifies as one of those philosophers who, according to Calvin, “conceive of a diffuse kind of providence, as if God had no concern for individual creatures. But Christ asserts, that each single creature is distinctly under God’s hand and protection, that nothing may be left open to chance.”7 A “providence without the will” has no capacity to assuage the feeling of radical uncertainty that Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski describes as “metaphysical horror.”

This brings me to the second point: all providence is particular at the individual and collective levels, as the story of Joseph shows in the Book of Genesis. Calvin and Karl Barth assume universal providence while emphasizing particular providence strongly for two reasons. One reason is the biblical belief that God acts in history through the election of Israel and the climax of Jesus Christ. The other reason is the spiritual conviction that love motivates providential care. As one scholar notes, Calvin’s lengthy “exposition of providence approaches more nearly the tone of ecstasy than any other section of the Institutes” precisely because he is aware of how providence applies to small things, as small as sparrows and the hairs on our head.8 Calvin writes,

[God] willed to commend his providence and fatherly solicitude toward us in that, before he fashioned man, he prepared everything he foresaw would be useful and salutary for him. How great ingratitude would it be now to doubt whether this most gracious father has us in his care, who we see was concerned for us even before we were born.9

Where the cultured despisers of religion have either abandoned or reduced the doctrine of providence, Lloyd tries commendably to reintroduce providence in post-secular discourse. Even if her audience agrees that the sad legacy of Descartes has been “the pervasive illusion of unlimited human control,” why should they reconnect with ancient Greek approaches to necessity over Christian approaches to reconciling divine sovereignty and human responsibility (310)? Lloyd does not reconnect with the Christian approaches for the same reason that Princess Elizabeth struggled with the Cartesian strategy. Neither the Australian philosopher nor the Bohemian princess finds it possible to draw “a clear distinction between the things that depend on divine will and those which depend on human will” (305). They are marked by a “temperamental tendency to self-doubt” (305). Calvin understands why an unbeliever would find it difficult to trace the workings of divine providence: “The providence of God, I confess, shines forth principally for the sake of the faithful, because they only have eyes to behold it.”10 So it should come as no surprise to us that “providence is now the stuff not of philosophical seminars but of sermons” (9).

Cite this article
Christopher Benson, “Providence Lost”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:4 , 471-475


  1. Stephen H. Webb, American Providence: A Nation With a Mission (New York: Continuum, 2004), 3.
  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990),35.
  3. Cicero, Nature of the Gods 3.39.92-93.
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann(New York: Vintage, 1974), 223 (emphasis inoriginal).
  5. Niels Henrik Gregersenr, “Providence,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings,(Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 574.
  6. Stephen H. Webb, American Providence: A Nation With a Mission (New York: Continuum, 2004), 7.
  7. Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 114.
  8. Ibid., 106.
  9. Ibid., 106.
  10. bid., 116.

Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson (St. John’s College, M.A., Missouri School of Journalism), writer and teacher in Denver, Colorado