14 August 2023
By Dr. Adi Schlebusch
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 Reformation. In his De Servo Abitrio (On the Bondage of the Will) 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 therefore 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 (Barrett 2016:ii). Such an acceptance of Scripture as sole authority in doctrinal matters 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. The reformers' positive reception of Seneca’s doctrine of providence is therefore particularly interesting given the fact that Seneca, a contemporary of Christ and the apostles, never expressed any knowledge nor appreciation of any part of the Christian Canon as divine revelation. So how did the Reformers justify such a high appreciation of a pagan author like Seneca’s doctrine of providence? In answering this question, the focus of this article will therefore be not an analysis of the exactitude of the Reformers’ interpretation of Seneca’s doctrine of providence, but rather the strategic reception of Seneca in their historical context.
Their strategies must, of course, firstly be understood within the context of 16th-century Humanism with its high appraisal of the wisdom of the ancients. But more than this, they positioned themselves within the age-old Augustinian tradition of reappraising and re-interpreting pagan philosophy within a distinctly Christian theological and philosophical framework (Cilliers 1995:79). What is particularly interesting 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.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca authored his De Providentia 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 and providentially directs 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 elect – 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, even if Seneca takes a fatalistic and Paul a deterministic position (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 positive appreciation also marked the writings 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). In this regard Zwingli himself exhibited a tendency towards fatalism not found in the works of any of the other reformers. Zwingli even appeals to Seneca to when claiming in his Providentia Dei that “it can therefore be said that ‘secondary causes' cannot legitimately be considered real causes.”1 For this reason Zwingli has, to my mind, often rightly been accused of making God the author of sin (Tiessen 2000:278). Zwingli’s appreciation of pagan philosophy and culture unfortunately also extended beyond its ideas, however, and this caused him propose the heretical idea that there exists 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 made the rather bold claim that “Seneca’s theology is superior to that of all the scholastics"2 (Bullinger 1582:6). His appreciation of pagan philosophy was, however, much more nuanced than that of Zwingli, arguing that pagan authors must always be judged on the basis of Christian theological principles, and he most certainly didn’t believe anyone could attain salvation apart from faith in Christ (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. In his work, On the Nature and Use of Lots, originally published in 1619, and which, as the title suggests, aimed to outline the correct and incorrect use of lots, he writes that
The prescience and providence, or if you prefer it, the will, pleasure and omniscience of God extends itself in general into all things, even unto the alighting of a sparrow or to the shedding of hair. “God” as Seneca well said, “is the author of all things, be they random or other.” “God is author I say,” the well distinguished Augustine also said, “of the action, though only the disposer, not the author of evil, where any is, in it.” If a providence of God is therefore in all things, then it is in random events also. (Gataker 2008:16)
Gataker therefore positioned himself in a theological tradition which he believed to include both the pagan Seneca as well as the church father Augustine. His appeal to Seneca as a theological forebear even leaves one with the impression that he believed that Seneca himself was referring to the Christian God.
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 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, Bullinger 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.
Self-positioning was crucial for the Reformers, especially in terms of a historical context in which the ideas behind their movement could be so easily jettisoned as completely novel. Within the context of the 16th-century Humanism of their time they strategically presented pre-Christian paganism as 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 established authority and accepted traditions.
An important fact derived from the primary sources, however, is 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 vital 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, their understanding of the practical implications of providence itself played a decisive role, as they understood divine providence itself as having established, even through the works of a pagan author such as Seneca, fertile soil in the ancient world for the reception of the gospel.
Furthermore, the Reformers’ appreciation for pagan wisdom in terms of a doctrine such as providence and even a strictly soteriological doctrine such as predestination poses a serious challenge to the Two-Kingdom theological paradigm in which special revelation through Scripture is viewed as authoritative standard in the spiritual realm, while natural revelation through reason is decisive in terms of civic ethics, if only because the Reformers’ use of Seneca clearly shows that they exhibited no hesitation when appealing to pagan wisdom even in soteriological matters, which clearly fall decisively within the realm of special revelation and not natural revelation. This shows that some of the Reformers, at least most certainly Bullinger and Zwingi who expressely appeal to Seneca in support of their soteriological claims regarding the doctrine of divine predestination, could not have adhered to an understanding of the nature of revelation commonly associated with a classical two-kingdom paradigm.
Barrett, M. 2016. God’s Word alone – the authority of Scripture: What the Reformers taught … And why it still matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Basore, J.W. 1928. (ed.). Moral essays, volume I. London: Heinemann.
Bullinger, H. 1535. In D. Apostoli Pauli ad Galatas, Ephesios, Phillipens et Colossens epistolas. Zürich: Froschauer.
—. 1582. In omnes apostolicas Epistolas D. Pauli XIV et VII Canonicas, Comentarii. Zürich: Froschauer.
Calvin, J. 1532. L. Annei Senecae, Romani senatoris, ac philosophi clarissimi, Libri duo de clementia, ad Neronem Caesarem: Ioannis Caluini Nouiodunaei commentariis illustrate. Paris: Ludouicum.
—. 1559. Institutio christianae religionis. Geneva: Robert Estienne.
Cilliers, J.F.G. 1995. Augustinus se De Doctrina Christiana, boek 4, as ’n skakel tussen die profane klassieke kultuur en die vroeë Christendom. In Raath, Cilliers en Ellis (eds.) 1995.
Dodson, J. and H. Briones (eds.). 2017. Paul and Seneca in dialogue. Leiden: Brill.
Gataker, T. 2008. On the nature and use of lotteries: A historical and theological treatise. Exeter: Conall Boyle.
Haase, F. (ed.). 1895. L. Annaei Senecae opera quae supersunt. Leipzig: Teubner.
Hine, H.M. 2017. Seneca and Paul: The first two thousand years. In Dodson en Briones (eds.) 2017.
Holm, B.K. 2019. Luther, Seneca, and benevolence in both creation and government. In Kärkkäinen en Vainio (eds.) 2019.
Kärkkäinen en Vainio (eds.). 2019. Apprehending love: Theological and philosophical inquiries. Helsinki: Luther-Agricola Society.
Ker, J. 2009. The deaths of Seneca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Luther, M. 1525. De Servo Abitrio. Wittenberg: Luft.
—. 1955. Word and sacrament IV. In Pelikan et.al. (eds.) 1955.
Muller, R.A. 2000. The unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the foundation of a theological tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.
—. 2003. After Calvin: Studies in the development of a theological tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pelikan, J., H.C. Oswald, H.T. Lehman, C.B. Brown (eds.). 1955. Luther’s works, volume 38: Word and sacrament IV. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia.
Pseudo-Seneca, L.A. 1895. Epistolae Senecae, Neronis imperatoris magistri, ad Paulum apostolum et Pauli Apostoli ad Senecam. In Haase (ed.) 1895.
Raath, A.W.G., J.F.G. Cilliers en A.J. Ellis (eds.). 1995. Huldigingsbundel H.A. Wessels. Bloemfontein: UOVS.
Sanchez, M.C. 2019. Calvin and the resignification of the world: Creation, incarnation and the problem of political theology in the 1559 Institutes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Seneca, L.A. 1928. De providentia. In J.W. Basore (ed.) 1928.
Tiessen, T.L. 2000. Providence and prayer: How does God work in the world?. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Zwingli, U. 1526. De peccato originali declaratio. Zürich: Froschauer.
—. 1530. Sermonis De providentia Dei anamnema. Zürich: Froschauer.
—. 1536. Christianae fidei a Huldrycho Zvinglio praedicatae, brevis & clara expositio. Zürich: Froschauer.
1. Constat igitur causas secundas non rite causas vocari.
2. Seneca plus syncerioris theologiae ... quam omnes fere omnium scholasticorum libri.