Book Review: Four Views on Divine Providence
by Rich Deem

Introduction

Predestination or Free will?

Christians disagree about the nature of God's divine providence. The range goes from God predestinating every action within the universe to God not knowing most of what will happen in the future.

Rich Deem

Four Views on Divine ProvidenceThe extent of divine providence in the lives of people has been a contentious issue among Christians. However, the Bible clearly teaches both predestination and free will. Does God predestine everything or only certain things? If God predestines everything, then are we responsible for the sin we commit? Four Views on Divine Providence presents the views of four prominent theologians (Paul Kjoss Helseth, William Lane Craig, Ron Highfield, and Gregory Boyd) advocating the positions, "God causes all things," "God directs everything," God controls by liberating," and "God limits his control," respectively. The really good thing about the book is how each author critiques the other's arguments. The editor, Dennis Jowers provides a nice introduction to the topic, including a historical perspective on the writings of Christians throughout the centuries.

God causes all things

Paul Kjoss Helseth begins his argument with a striking story attributed to General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. When asked by a captain how the general could remain so calm "with a storm of shells and bullets raining about his head" Jackson reportedly said, "my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time of my death..." There is obviously a certain advantage to believing in such a deterministic view of life. Such a view of God's providence is the over-arching foundation upon which reformed theology is based. This perspective has its roots in creation, where God is the sovereign Creator, making a universe that is both independent of Himself and yet completely dependent upon His continuous sustaining power. Helseth calls this concept "divine omnicausality." In other words, God is the cause of all things that happen within the universe. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means that God controls the continuous orbits of every electron around all of the approximately 1080 atoms in the entire universe. Helseth dances around the implications that divine omnicausality means that God causes all the evil that occurs within the universe. William Lane Craig concludes that Helseth's interpretation of divine providence "...makes God the author of sin and denies human responsibility."

God directs all things

William Lane Craig gives a defense of the Molonist view of divine providence. This interpretation is based upon the absolute omniscience of God. Not only does God know everything that will happen in the universe at all times, but He also knows what might happen given a certain set of circumstances, termed "counterfactuals" or "if...then" statements. Craig gives the example of Jesus saying to Pilate, "If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews" (John 18:36, RSV). The concept that God possess knowledge of what might happen under diverse circumstances has been called "middle knowledge." The Molonist interpretation says that through God's middle knowledge, He determines which individuals would perform in certain ways and places those persons in history to arrange all that will happen. Therefore, God controls all events while allowing spiritual beings complete free will. In rebuttal to the Molonist view, Paul Helseth points out that scripture itself never presents middle knowledge as the means by which God allows human free will while directing all that happens. However, scripture never directly presents that God is one God consisting of three persons (Trinity), although the doctrine is consistently presented throughout scripture.

God controls by liberating

Ron Highfield argues that God is completely sovereign and that all acts are in cooperation with His will. It was difficult to see the difference between Highfield's and Helseth's interpretations of divine providence (also noted in Craig's analysis of Highfield's interpretation). According to Highfield, "The complete divine sovereignty view argues that God acts before, in, through, and beyond our acts - even our evil acts - to accomplish his will. ...whatever my act truly and lastingly accomplishes is the will of God because it is an act of God." Like Helseth, Highfield dances around the implications of his interpretation - that God is the author of evil, because it is part of His will.

God limits His control

Gregory Boyd argues for the open theism view of divine providence. In this interpretation, God does not necessarily know or control all moral actions of His created spiritual beings. Boyd presents what he calls the "christocentric" interpretation of God's providence, based upon the life and works of Jesus Christ. This interpretation is based upon four criteria:

  1. God wages spiritual warfare
  2. God relies upon power and wisdom
  3. God relies upon other-centered love
  4. God wins by bringing good out of evil

Open theism says that God allows human beings complete free will in their decisions, making them accountable for their moral decisions and ultimate destiny (heaven or hell). Accordingly, although God knows all that might happen in the universe, He does not know with certainty what will happen within each person's sphere of moral choices. Therefore, God is not truly omniscient under the open theism interpretation of divine providence. Besides the obvious loss of God's omniscience, the christocentric interpretation of God's providence suffers from the fact that scripture makes it clear that Jesus gave up some of His divine attributes in coming to earth as a human being.1 Scripture also makes it clear that at least one of the things Jesus gave up as a human being was His omniscience.2 So, basing one's theology of the godhead solely upon the earthly life of Jesus might lead to erroneous conclusions about the power and providence of God.

Conclusion Top of page

Four Views on Divine Providence is a great book for examining one of the most contentious issues in Christian theology - the providence of God. The four authors do a good job of presenting their cases for their interpretations of divine providence. There is a good emphasis on what the Bible says about these issues, since scripture is amply cited by all authors. However, as one might expect, not every author cites the breadth of scripture in making their case. Who wins? In my view, William Lane Craig does the best job presenting the Molonist view, with Paul Kjoss Helseth coming in second. If you are interested in getting a handle on the question of God's providence, Four Views on Divine Providence puts it all together in one thorough but readable package (254 pages).

Four Views on Divine Providence

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References Top of page

  1. ...Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Philippians 2:5-7)
  2. "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Matthew 24:36)

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Last Modified April 11, 2011

 

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