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.
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.
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.