Providence, Divine Power, and the ‘Invisible Hand’ in Adam Smith

Cornelis van der Kooi
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam / Erasmus School of Accounting & Assurance

Jordan J. Ballor
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam / Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty

This contribution advances a critical examination of Smith’s thought in theological perspective, with a point of departure in a recent interpretation of the ‘invisible hand.’ We show that the concept of general providence has displaced traditional understandings of special providence in the way Smith presents God’s care for the world. Whereas in traditional Reformed theology providence functions within the framework of a qualitative difference between the two orders of God’s being and the order of creation, in Smith we encounter an ‘immanentized’ providentialism, in which these orders are collapsed into one. It is argued that an application of a particular version of the distinction between special and general providence to Smith’s thought obscures older classical theological categories and distinctions—most specifically the dialectic of divine power—and that a retrieval of these older categories provides a more helpful framework for contextualizing and understanding Smith’s own thought.

Adam Smith, providence, happiness, invisible hand, divine power, economic life

27 October 2020 (first view)
23 March 2021

How to cite
van der Kooi, C., and Jordan J. Ballor. 2021 “Providence, Divine Power and the ‘Invisible Hand’ in Adam Smith.” Journal of Economics, Theology and Religion 1, no. 1: 25-44


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