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But this book does not merely answer readers’ questions. Four Views on Divine Providence helps readers think...
But this book does not merely answer readers’ questions. Four Views on Divine Providence helps readers think theologically about all the issues involved in exploring this doctrine. The point-counterpoint format reveals the assumptions and considerations that drive equally learned and sincere theologians to sharp disagreement. It unearths the genuinely decisive issues beneath an often superficial debate.
Volume contributors are Paul Helseth (God causes every creaturely event that occurs); William Lane Craig (through his “middle knowledge,” God controls the course of worldly affairs without predetermining any creatures’ free decisions); Ron Highfield (God controls creatures by liberating their decision-making); and Gregory Boyd (human decisions can be free only if God neither determines nor knows what they will be). Introductory and closing essays by Dennis Jowers give relevant background and guide readers toward their own informed beliefs about divine providence.
PAUL KJOSS HELSETH
Shortly after the Battle of Manassas in Ronald Maxwell's film adaptation of Jeffrey Shaara's historical novel Gods and Generals, a shell-shocked captain in the Confederate army asks Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson how he could remain so tranquil in battle when the fight was raging all around him. "General," the young captain asks in an almost reverential tone, "how is it that you can keep so serene and stay so utterly insensible, with a storm of shells and bullets raining about your head?" Jackson's response reveals his unshakable confidence in the absolute sovereignty of God over all things, including the seemingly random events that take place on the battlefield. "Captain Smith," Jackson thoughtfully responds, "my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death; I do not concern myself with that, but to be always ready, whenever it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live; then all men would be equally brave."
While Maxwell's portrayal of this exchange takes certain liberties with the historical record, it accurately depicts both the tone and the theological substance of the actual exchange. Apparently, Jackson really was a profoundly courageous man, and his courage really was grounded in his belief in the all-encompassing sovereignty of God. At a memorial service shortly after Jackson's death from pneumonia on May 10, 1863, the erstwhile adjutant general of the "Stonewall" Brigade, Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney, confirmed that the source of Jackson's courage was not found in one form of pagan fatalism or another, as some who "knew not whereof they affirmed" were apparently insisting. It was found, rather, in his "strong" belief in the providence of God, a belief that viewed all events not as "fixed by an immanent, physical necessity in the series of causes and effects themselves," but as "directed by his most wise and holy will, according to his plan, and the laws of nature which he has ordained." In short, Jackson's fearlessness, Dabney explained in a memorial address titled "True Courage," was grounded in his conviction that the providence of God "is over all his creatures, and all their actions." As such, he was confident that
there is no creature so great as to resist its power, none so minute as to evade its wisdom. Each particular act among the most multitudinous which confound our attention by their number, or the most fortuitous, which entirely baffle our inquiry into their causes, is regulated by this intelligent purpose of God. Even when the thousand missiles of death, invisible to mortal sight, and sent forth aimless by those who launched them, shoot in inexplicable confusion over the battle-field, his eye gives each one an aim and a purpose, according to the plan of his wisdom. Thus teacheth our Saviour.
The Irresistible Ruler: No Mere "Godling"
That Jackson thought about the providence of God in such a fashion is not surprising given his confessional commitments. As a deacon in the Presbyterian Church, he subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith and also embraced the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. He stood, therefore, in the doctrinal mainstream of the Reformed wing of the Augustinian tradition. According to those in this wing of the tradition, "There is nothing that is, and nothing that comes to pass, that [God] has not first decreed and then brought to pass by His creation or providence." As B. B. Warfield makes clear in his essays on the doctrines of providence and predestination, the God of Reformed believers is no mere "godling" that is subject to forces acting "independently ... and outside of his teleological control." Rather, "over against all dualistic [or deistic] conceptions" of God on the one hand and "all cosmotheistic [or pantheistic] conceptions" of God on the other, he is "the irresistible Ruler" who is the Creator of "all that is and, as well, the upholder and powerful governor of all that he has made, [and] according to whose will, therefore, all that comes to pass must be ordered." In short, the God of Reformed believers is "an infinite Person" whose "cosmical purpose" is "eternal and independent, all-inclusive and effective." He is "the free determiner of all that comes to pass in the world which is the product of His creative act," yet he determines all things in such a way that "the real activity of second causes" is both affirmed and maintained, and for this reason he is neither the "sole cause" of everything that transpires in the universe that he has made, nor is he the author of evil. Since God's "providential control" extends to all his "works" and "all his creatures and all their actions of every kind," Reformed believers conclude that "all things without exception ... are disposed by Him, and His will is the ultimate account of all that occurs. Heaven and earth and all that is in them are the instruments through which He works His ends. Nature, nations, and the fortunes of the individual alike present in all their changes the transcript of His purpose."
Preservation and Government
Among the most thoughtful and compelling articulations of the classical Reformed understanding of providence is that which is found in the second volume of Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics. According to Bavinck, "The providence of God ... is—in the beautiful words of the Heidelberg Catechism—'the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures and so rules them that ... all things, in fact, come to us, not by chance but from his fatherly hand' (Lord's Day 10, Q. & A. 27)." When the doctrine of providence is understood in this fashion, it has, as Bavinck insists, "enormous scope," for it encompasses not just some of God's works but "the entire implementation of all the decrees that have bearing on the world after it has been called into being by creation." Indeed,
if the act of creation is excepted from providence, it is as full as the free knowledge of God (scientia libera) and the decrees of God, as is everything that exists and occurs in time. It extends to everything that is treated in dogmatics after the doctrine of creation and includes both the works of nature and of grace. All the works of God ad extra, which are subsequent to creation, are works of his providence.
For Bavinck and Reformed believers generally, then, the providence of God has to do with everything that God does to ensure that his purposes are accomplished in time. It does not have to do with the "works of God" per se but "limits itself to a description" of the relationship in which God always and everywhere stands "toward his creatures." In short, God actively "works all things according to the counsel of his will" (Eph. 1:11 ESV) not simply by preserving "all creatures in their own state (which is done by a conservation of essence in the species, of existence in individuals and of virtues to their operations)." His providential activity has to do, in other words, with more than simply "giv[ing] and conserv[ing] to second causes the power of acting and permit[ting] them to act," as "the Jesuits followed by the Socinians and Remonstrants" were eager to maintain. Rather, as Turretin puts it, God's providence "consists not only in the conservation of things, but also in the concourse of God; not indifferent and general [in the sense that it passively allows second causes to determine themselves], but particular and specific (by which it flows immediately into both cause and effect)."
As such, Reformed believers are persuaded that God actively accomplishes all his good purposes not just by preserving and passively observing what he has created but also by simultaneously working concurrently with created things "to cause them to act as they do," and governing their activity according to his wisdom to direct them to fulfill what Warfield calls "His all-determining will." While Reformed believers concede that the modes of God's operation in preservation, in concurrence, and in government can be distinguished in one sense, they insist that these operations cannot be in another sense because they "are not parts or segments in which the work of providence is divided and which, being materially and temporally separate, succeed one another." Rather, these operations "are always integrally connected; they intermesh at all times." It is for this reason, then, that the providence of God involves, not a series of isolated and independent acts in which God works in one way and then in another with created things, but rather the organic and integrated means by which "the purposive will of the eternal God" is progressively realized. "From the very beginning," Bavinck argues,
preservation is also government, and government is concurrence, and concurrence is preservation. Preservation tells us that nothing exists, not only no substance, but also no power, no activity, no idea, unless it exists totally from, through, and to God. Concurrence makes known to us the same preservation as an activity such that, far from suspending the existence of creatures, it above all affirms and maintains it. And government describes the other two as guiding all things in such a way that the final goal determined by God will be reached. And always, from beginning to end, providence is one simple, almighty, and omnipresent power.
Providence as "Continuous Creation"
The Creator-Creature Relationship: Utterly Unique
At the formative center of this understanding of providence is the insistence that the universe was "freely created out of nothing, by a creator whose perfection is in no way enhanced by the act of creating, so that [the act of creation] must be thoroughly gratuitous." When God spoke the universe into existence, advocates of this view of providence maintain, he created a universe that is simultaneously both distinct from and yet utterly dependent on him for its existence from one moment to the next. Unlike the gods of the various pagan religions, which are "never conceived as capable of being without the world," the God of Christian theism "could have been all that there is," these believers insist, because the world, quite simply, "does not have to be." "In Christian belief," Robert Sokolowski argues, "we understand the world as that which might not have been, and correlatively we understand God as capable of existing, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world had not been."
Since the God of Christian theism is not like the gods of the pagan religions — in that he is not "established as God" by that which distinguishes him from "other things ... within the horizon of this world"—it follows that the relationship between God and the universe ought not to be construed "as we construe [the relationship between] objects within the universe," for the relation "of the creator-of-all with all that is created" is utterly unique. Indeed, it is the utterly unique nature of this relationship that establishes "the utterly gratuitous character of the act of creation," for since the world does not "have to be," it must be that it now is only because of "a choice. And if the choice was not motivated by the need for 'there' to be more perfection and greatness, then the world is there through an incomparable generosity," a generosity "that has no parallel in what we experience in the world." What this suggests, then, is that the world we live in is radically contingent and ultimately exists from one moment to the next, not for the benefit of human beings or anything else that is found within the horizon of this world, but "simply for the glory of God. The glory of God," Sokolowski argues, "is seen not only in particularly splendid parts of the world but in the very existence of the world and everything in it."
Absolute Dependence and "Continuous Creation"
For those who conceive of the Creator-creature relationship in this fashion, it follows that the created order is utterly dependent on the providential activity of the Creator for its moment-to-moment existence, because it does not have the power of existence in itself. It has, in other words, "no independent existence," for from one moment to the next it exists "only in and through and unto God (Neh. 9:6; Ps. 104:30; Acts 17:28; Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:15ff.; Heb. 1:3; Rev. 4:11)," despite what those with deistic tendencies would have us believe. While those with deistic tendencies presume that God is a more or less passive agent to whom the world is related much like a machine is related to the person who made it, Reformed believers insist that "the relation to the creation sustained by God, and that sustained by man to the work of his hand," are entirely distinct. Indeed, as Archibald Alexander Hodge makes clear in his response to those who represent the Creator "as exterior to his creation in the same manner in which a mechanician is exterior to the machine he has made and set in motion," whereas "a man is necessarily exterior to his work, and even when present capable of directing his attention only to one point [of his handiwork] at a time ... God is omnipresent, not as to his essence only, but as to his infinite knowledge, wisdom, love, righteous ness, and power, with every atom of creation for every instant of duration." What this suggests, then, is that for Reformed believers, the world of secondary causes is never "separated from the primary cause and ... [therefore] independent," but it "is always interpenetrated as well as embraced in the divine thought and will, and ever is what it is and as it is because of God."
Among those who insist that the universe is both radically contingent and utterly dependent are those Reformed thinkers who embrace the doctrine of concurrence, in part because they recognize that, given what the notion of utter dependence entails, the very idea of an "independent creature" is nonsense. Whereas some Reformed thinkers repudiate concurrence because they are persuaded that "the power to originate our own acts" is compatible with the fact of creaturely dependence, others maintain that since "the world has no existence in itself," independence of any kind — including the kind that is presupposed by those who insist that secondary causes have the capacity to act more or less independently of God, the primary cause — "is tantamount to nonexistence." Indeed, as Bavinck insists, "A creature is, by definition, of itself a completely dependent being: that which does not exist of itself cannot for a moment exist by itself either. If God does not do anything," Bavinck contends, "then nothing exists and nothing happens."
Excerpted from Four Views on Divine Providence by William Lane Craig Ron Highfield Gregory A. Boyd Paul Kjoss Helseth Dennis Jowers Stanley N. Gundry Copyright © 2011 by Dennis Jowers, William Lane Craig, Ron Highfield, Gregory Boyd, and Paul K. Helseth. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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