The positive reception of Seneca's doctrine of providence during the Protestant Reformation as narratively sanctioned

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The doctrine concerning the omnipotence of God as reflected in his divine providence and predestination was one of the core theological doctrines of the Protestant Reformers. In his De Servo Abitrio Martin Luther expressly appealed to the doctrine of providence in refuting Erasmus’s doctrine concerning free will. Luther considered this particular theological issue as central to the very heart of the Reformation (Luther 1525:334). It is noteworthy that John Calvin’s first known reference to the doctrine of providence was in his commentary on the pagan Roman philosopher Seneca’s De Clementia. Here he defended Seneca’s views on the matter against the idea of coincidence as taught by the Epicurean philosophical school (Calvin 1532:5–6). In Ulrich Zwingli’s most famous work on providence, Sermonis de Providentia dei anamnema, he also made extensive use of Seneca as his authority and used arguments indebted to the pagan philosopher (Zwingli 1530:19, 22). The Reformers appealed to and used a pagan author like Seneca as a doctrinal authority in defence of one of their core teachings, in spite of their understanding of divine revelation in the Bible as the only standard for Christian doctrine and practice (Barrett 2016:ii). This presuppositional acceptance of Scripture as sole authority creates the expectation that accepted sources with regard to doctrine would at least derive their authority from knowledge gained from divine revelation in the Bible. Their positive reception of Seneca’s doctrine of providence is therefore particularly interesting given the fact that Seneca never expressed any knowledge or appreciation of the Christian Canon as divine revelation.

The research question this article addresses therefore concerns how the Reformers as Christian theologians strategically positioned themselves in terms of their high appreciation of a pagan author like Seneca’s doctrine of providence. By means of the contemporary American philosopher of history David Carr’s phenomenological-narrative approach the narrative strategies employed by the Reformers with regard to their positive reception of Seneca’s doctrine can be amplified. Carr (2014:2, 7) shows how narrative is inherent to all human existence and participation in reality. The structure of narrative reflects everyday human experience and forms the means of self-understanding as “the organizing principle not only for actions and experiences, but also for the self who acts” (Carr:113–4). Carr’s narrative realism emphasises that narrative does not function as an ex post facto justification of a particular position, but that narrative itself forms the framework within which such a position becomes possible. The focus of this article is therefore not to analyse the exactitude of the Reformers’ interpretation of Seneca’s doctrine of providence, but rather the narrative strategies they used in sanctioning their positive reception thereof.

These narrative strategies must, of course, be understood within the context of 16th-century Humanism. What makes these narratives particularly compelling, however, is the fact that the Reformers went further than was expected of a humanist at the time by not only appreciating the pedagogic value of Seneca’s teachings, but also applying it as authoritative in terms of a core doctrine.

Seneca’s De Providentia was written during the first century A.D. as a response to questions by the governor of Sicily, Lucilius, concerning why unfortunate things happen to good people (Sanchez 2019:98). Seneca responds by noting that there is no doubt that the gods desire the best for virtuous people (Seneca 1928:I.1.5). He argues that while there is an Aternae lex (eternal law) which governs all that happens in the universe (Seneca:I.1.2), unfortunate events in the lives of virtuous people must be seen as tests of character for the sake of moral improvement (Seneca I.2.3–4). In this way the animus (rational soul) of a virtuous human being is trained and strengthened (Seneca:I.4.11–14). Regarding the relation between human freedom and providence Seneca takes a fatalistic position, in which humans are unable to change the fate that providence has decreed for them, and in which resistance to this fate only makes life more unbearable (Seneca: I.5.4–6).

Despite notable differences, significant similarities between Seneca’s doctrine of providence and that of the apostle Paul can be identified. Both emphasise the divine ability and will to utilise unfortunate events in the lives of good people – in Seneca’s case the virtuous, in Paul’s case the faithful – for the ultimate benefit of these people (see Seneca I.1.4–6 and Romans 8:28–9). Both also emphasise the inescapability of the fate of providence (Seneca I.5.4–6 and Romans 9:16–21). The Early Church also expressed appreciation for these similarities. In a pseudographic exchange of letters between Seneca and Paul dating from the fourth century, Seneca encourages Paul to patiently endure whatever providence brings (Pseudo-Seneca 1895:481).

This appreciation also marked the narratives of the Reformers of the 16th and early 17th century. Calvin (1532:6) expressly noted that the Christian religion’s teachings on providence are similar to those of Seneca.

The decisive influence of Seneca in shaping Zwingli’s doctrine of providence is particularly evident in the latter’s appeal to Seneca’s understanding of humans as passive receptors of their fate and his consequent rejection of secondary causes (Zwingli 1530:22). Zwingli’s appreciation of pagan philosophy and culture extended beyond its ideas, however. He proposed the idea of a category of redeemed pagans – virtuous figures from the ancient Graeco-Roman civilisation who also obtain salvation (Zwingli 1536:27). He also included Seneca in this category (Zwingli 1526:17).

Zwingli’s successor in Zürich, Heinrich Bullinger, likewise expressed an appreciation for Seneca’s ideas on providence and even regarded his doctrines as more pure than many Christian theologians (Bullinger 1582:6). His appreciation of pagan philosophy was more nuanced than that of Zwingli, however, arguing that pagan authors must always be judged on the basis of Christian theological principles (Muller 2003:106–7).

Despite Luther’s own appreciation for Seneca’s ideas on providence (Holm 2019:310–12), he strongly rejected Zwingli’s idea of redeemed pagans, emphasising that Zwingli thereby counteracted the very message of the gospel (Luther 1955:289–91).

High appreciation for Seneca’s doctrine of providence was also characteristic of second-generation Reformers such as the Westminster divine Thomas Gataker. He positions his own view of the providence of God within a theological tradition that includes Seneca as a theological forebear (Gataker 2008:16).

The positive appreciation of Seneca’s doctrine of providence was an outstanding example of the Reformers’ theological and philosophical appreciation of pre-Christian paganism. The narrative strategies by which this appreciation for Seneca was sanctioned are evident from Calvin’s polemic use of his doctrine of providence, as well as Zwingli’s, Bullinger’s and Gataker’s references to Seneca’s knowledge of God and his providential decrees.

Characteristic doctrinal positions for which the Reformers appeal to Seneca’s De Providentia include 1) the all-encompassing and inescapable nature of providence, i.e. that there is nothing that occurs outside of the decrees of providence; 2) that all that occurs has a divine purpose; 3) the idea that all things work together for the good of God’s children; 4) that the inescapability of providence does not remove human moral responsibility; 5) in the case of Zwingli and Bullinger, that they understood the doctrine of predestination unto salvation as pars providentia, i.e. as a subcategory of the doctrine of providence.

Narrative self-positioning was crucial for the Reformers, especially in terms of a historical context in which the ideas behind their movement could be regarded as completely novel. Within the context of the 16th-century Humanism of their time they strategically narrativised pre-Christian paganism to be a legitimate predecessor not only of Christianity, but of the Reformation itself. In showing that their doctrines were not at odds with ancient wisdom, they could counter the view that they were radical revolutionaries or rebels against authority. An important witness of the primary sources is, however, that in their use of Seneca the Reformers went even further than was expected of 16th-century humanists. They appeal to his doctrine of providence not only as authoritative, but also as important for polemic purposes, in spite of their acceptance of divine revelation in the Bible as the only standard for doctrinal matters. With regard to this appreciation of a pagan author as an important authority in doctrinal matters, the Reformers’ understanding of natural revelation played a decisive role. Their rhetorical purpose for employing Seneca in this way was not only to establish their historical legitimacy; to them it was also to shape the future understanding of the doctrine of providence within the Christian Church. In this way their positive reception of Seneca’s doctrine of providence was sanctioned by the rhetorical strategies they employed in the context of what Carr (2013:110) describes as the necessary narrative framework by which sensible interaction with the past, present and future becomes possible.

Keywords: Bullinger; Calvin; David Carr; Luther; Narrative; Providence; Reformation; Seneca; Thomas Gataker; Zwingli


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Die narratiewe bekragtiging van die positiewe ontvangs van Seneca se voorsienigheidsleer tydens die Protestantse Kerkhervorming

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