One of the dominant concepts in Western culture for the past two hundred years, as we saw in the previous chapter, is that we live in a closed, mechanistic universe. The theory is that everything operates according to fixed natural laws, and that there is no possibility for intrusion from outside. So, the universe is like a machine that functions by its own inner machinations.

However, even those who introduced this concept as early as the seventeenth century still posited the idea that God built the machine in the first place. Being intelligent thinkers and scientists, they could not get away from the need for a Creator. They recognized that there would be no world for them to observe if there were no ultimate cause for all things. Even though the idea of an involved, providential Governor of the daily affairs of life was questioned and challenged, it still was tacitly assumed that there had to be a Creator above and beyond the created order.

In the classical concept, God’s providence was very closely bound up with His role as the Creator of the universe. No one believed that God simply created the universe and then turned His back on it and lost touch with it, or that He sat back on His throne in heaven and merely watched the universe work by its own inner mechanism, refusing to involve Himself in its affairs. Rather, the classical Christian notion was that God is both the primary cause of the universe and also the primary cause of everything that takes place in the universe.

One of the foundational principles of Christian theology is that nothing in this world has intrinsic causal power. Nothing has any power save the power that is vested in it—lent to it, if you will—or worked through it, which ultimately is the power of God. That is why theologians and philosophers historically have made a crucial distinction between primary causality and secondary causality.

God is the source of primary causality; in other words, He is the first cause. He is the Author of all that is, and He continues to be the primary cause of human events and of natural occurrences. However, His primary causality does not exclude secondary causes. Yes, when the rain falls, the grass gets wet, not because God makes the grass wet directly and immediately, but because the rain applies moisture to the grass. But the rain could not fall apart from the causal power of God that stands over and above every secondary causal activity. Modern man, however, is quick to say, “The grass is wet because the rain fell,” and he looks no further for a higher, ultimate cause. Twenty-first-century people seem to think we can get along just fine with secondary causes and give no thought to the primary cause.

The basic concept here is that what God creates, He sustains. So, one of the important subdivisions in the doctrine of providence is the concept of divine sustenance. Simply put, this is the classical Christian idea that God is not the great Watchmaker who builds the watch, winds it up, and then steps out of the picture. Instead, what He makes, He preserves and sustains.

We actually see this at the very beginning of the Bible. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The Hebrew word translated as “created” is a form of the verb bārā, which means “to create, make.” This word carries with it the idea of sustaining. I like to illustrate this idea by referencing the difference in music between a staccato note and a sustained note. A staccato note is short and crisp: “La la la la la.” A sustained note is held: “Laaaa.” Likewise, the word bārā tells us that God did not simply bring the world into existence in a moment. It indicates that He is continuing to make it, as it were. He is holding it, keeping it, and sustaining it.