This exploration of the historical-Scriptural model of the doctrine of God and His relationship with us also presents a careful refutation of the open theism stance.
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About the Author
Bruce A. Ware (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written numerous journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, and has authored God's Lesser Glory, God's Greater Glory, and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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Considering the Enduring Questions and Necessary Features of Divine Providence
THE CONTROL OF GOD AND THE COMFORT OF THE BELIEVER
What comfort, joy, and strength believers receive from the truths of divine providence. Nowhere else are we given such assurance that the One who perfectly knows the past, present, and future, the One whose wisdom can never be challenged or excelled, the One whose power reigns and accomplishes all that he wills, governs all the affairs of creation, fulfilling in all respects what he alone knows is good, wise, and best. What may seem to us as "accidents" are no such things in the universe governed by the providence of the true and living God. Prayers may be directed to this mighty and reigning King knowing that while he tenderly and compassionately hears the cries of his people, he "sits" in the unique position of knowing perfectly what is best and possessing unthwarted power to bring to pass what he wills. The world is not spinning out of control; in fact, not one atom or despot or demon acts in any respect to hinder the fulfillment of what God has eternally ordained. To know this God, and better to be known by him (Gal. 4: 9a), is to enter into the security and confidence of a lifetime of trust in his never-failing arms.
I am writing at 35,000 feet, on a flight that I wondered seriously whether I would make. Oh, how I longed to get aboard this plane, since it would take me home after a week away. But when my previous flight left nearly an hour late, and since the airline's representative told me that this, my connecting flight for home, was on time and wouldn't wait for our plane's late arrival, I began dreading a Saturday night in some unknown hotel instead of returning to the arms of my wife. And not only did I long to be home, but I also was scheduled to teach the first lesson in our church's high school and middle school combined classes the next morning. Now, I thought, I'll have to find a last-minute substitute and miss the opportunity to lay out the vision of the brief series on "relating to God" that I so wanted to share with our youth.
But knowing that God reigns over all, I prayed! "No matter what any airline's agent says, Lord, the fact is: you and you alone have ultimate control over what happens. If you choose, you can do something to ensure that I get on that flight home. I know you can! But if you choose for me to spend this night waiting, I'll accept this also from your good and wise hand. Bless Jodi tonight, if this happens, and please prepare the best person to teach in the morning," I prayed.
Jodi and Rachel (my wife and daughter at home) were also praying, and my how God did graciously answer. When my delayed flight arrived, I learned that my connecting flight-which, as I was told just one hour earlier, had been scheduled to leave on time-now also had been delayed just long enough for me to board. What had happened? In that hour, between when I was told it would leave on time and now when I boarded this delayed flight home, a "computer malfunction" occurred in Atlanta delaying several Delta flights nationwide by about a half hour, the gate attendant informed me. I smiled, looked heavenward, and gave praise to the God who reigns. Imagine that. Bringing about a computer glitch in order to answer the prayer of one of his tired and earnest children. What a God! And what providence is this!
Obviously, God does not always choose to answer such prayers in such a remarkable manner. But he does always reign over all that occurs, with just as much specific and meticulous detailed attention as is obvious in this case. The providence of God assures us that the universe is not spinning out of control, that human history is not unfolding contrary to God's purposes, and that God, ultimately, sustains and regulates all that he has made, to the glory of his great name, and in fulfillment of his perfect will. Yes, our God-the true and living God-reigns over all!
DEFINING DIVINE PROVIDENCE
While this book deals generally with the nature of God and the relationship between God and his creation, broadly understood, the focus clearly is on the nature of God's providential dealings with his human creation. Divine providence is at once a gloriously wondrous doctrine, and one full of puzzles and questions. Christians have struggled long and hard over the nature of God's providential dealings with his creation. So as we begin this investigation, it is important that the reader know just what I mean by the term "providence" as it applies to God's relational dealings with the created order. I suggest, then, the following definition of divine providence:
God continually oversees and directs all things pertaining to the created order in such a way that 1) he preserves in existence and provides for the creation he has brought into being, and 2) he governs and reigns supremely over the entirety of the whole of creation in order to fulfill all of his intended purposes in it and through it.
Stating the definition of divine providence in this way shows its two fundamental parts, as conceived by most in the Reformed and Lutheran heritage: providence as preservation and providence as governance. Given these two complementary elements of divine providence, it may be helpful to see more clearly the understandings I will be utilizing of these aspects of this doctrine. Providence as preservation, first, may be defined as follows:
God preserves in existence and provides for the needs of each aspect of the created order for as long as he purposes it to exist, and he protects all of his creation from any harm or destruction that stands outside his purposes for it (see Neh. 9: 6; Matt. 6: 25-34; Acts 2: 25; Col. 1: 16-17; and Heb. 1: 2-3; James 1: 17).
Providence as governance, second, may be defined as follows:
God governs and reigns supremely over 1) all of the activities and forces of nature and natural law, and 2) all of the affairs of his moral creatures, in all cases accomplishing in them and through them (at times by divine concurrence) his eternal purposes-yet in neither realm does he govern in such a manner that it violates the integrity of creaturely moral responsibility and volitional freedom to choose and act according to the moral agent's strongest inclinations, nor does God's exhaustive governance justly implicate the impeccable and infinitely holy moral character of God by making him either the author or the approver of evil (see Deut. 32: 39; Ps. 5: 4; 135: 5-7; Prov. 21: 1; Isa. 45: 5-7; Dan. 2: 21; 4: 34-37; Eph. 1: 11; James 1: 13; 1 John 1: 5).
Much in these definitions will be explicated more fully in subsequent chapters of this book as we unfold God's providential dealings with his moral creatures. Throughout this discussion, I will often speak merely of "providence" or "divine providence" as shorthand for God's providence as governance; and whenever the meaning is otherwise, this will be specified. The reason for this is simple: most of the enduring questions and deepest concerns that relate to God's relationship with humanity have to do, in particular, with his governance of human beings and their affairs from his position as Creator and Sovereign Ruler of the universe. Our concern with providence, then, is largely focused on his providence as governance, and how we, his human creatures, live out our lives in the light of this divine governance.
ENDURING QUESTIONS OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE
Given these definitions relating to the doctrine of divine providence, we should consider next some of the deepest questions and puzzles that thoughtful Christians have endeavored to explore when considering the nature of God and his exalted rulership over the world in relation, in particular, to the outworking of human life. I do not intend to answer these questions at this point; much of the remainder of this book endeavors to address most of the issues here raised. But it may prove helpful to have in mind some of the enduring issues raised by this doctrine, to begin thinking even now of how Scripture may lead us to treat them. Consider, then, the following broad questions and the issues they raise:
1. What is the relation of divine providence to human freedom? Without doubt, this is the most frequently raised and one of the most persistently difficult questions to come up when one considers divine providence. Of course, behind this question are several others. Is God truly sovereign over the world he has made? And what is the nature of the sovereignty Scripture affirms and asserts that God has? Along with this, what is the nature of the volitional freedom granted by God to his moral creatures (angels and human beings)? What mechanism best >explains just how God may reign sovereign over the affairs of human beings and yet those humans remain free in their choices and decisions? One might consider this question, then, as a sort of mechanical question. It asks how two things (i. e., divine providential governance and human freedom) can fit together, how the two work together so that one does not cancel out or negate the other. What does Scripture instruct us on both realities, and how do these two truths work together, in the outworking of God's relationship with his human creation?
2. What is the relation of divine providence to moral responsibility? While the previous question, more mechanical in nature, is vexing, this question is even more deeply troubling. This moral question arises when one considers God's sovereign control over the created order, and it asks two related questions: How are moral creatures rightly held morally responsible for their actions when God is sovereign over the world? And how is God preserved from being blameworthy for moral wrongdoing that takes place, while also being fully praiseworthy for all the good that occurs under his sovereign governance? In short, why is it that God's moral creatures bear all the blame for all the evil that occurs in the world, while God receives all the praise for all the good done-even good done through the hands of his moral creatures? And how can this be, when God is sovereign over the world? Clearly, "the problem of evil" is an outgrowth of the basic question of the relation of divine providence to moral responsibility, but less often noted, what might be called "the problem of goodness" is also raised by this question. How can moral creatures do good, and receive reward for good done, when God is the source of all good done and God alone is to receive the glory for all good that occurs? Here we have, then, a web of issues, all of which pertain to the basic question of how divine providence and moral responsibility relate.
3. What is the relation of divine providence to good and evil respectively? Is there any meaningful sense in which we might understand the action of God in the world as asymmetrical? That is, must we see divine providence as requiring a singular manner of divine action, such that God's relation to good and evil must be understood as identical (i. e., God's sovereign control of good is executed in exactly the same way as his control over evil)? Or, can we, with most throughout the history of theology (including most in the history of Reformed theology), distinguish some meaningful sense in which God's relation to good is different in kind and manner from God's relation to evil? Can we speak meaningfully and rightly of God permitting certain actions to occur while at the same time understanding God as fully sovereign? If not, and if we must entertain a fully symmetrical notion of God's relation to both good and evil, how can God escape culpability for evil while he retains praiseworthiness for good? But if some sense of the divine permission of evil is accepted, what does this require of our understanding of divine providence? And just how should we understand the nature of the divine permission? Are there different senses of "permission," and how do these correlate with different senses of "sovereignty"?
4. What is the relation of divine providence to natural law? Here, the issues are more remote, since they do not involve persons and their moral choices and actions-except for God and his choices and actions as they relate to forces of nature and his sovereign regulation of natural law; and except for us in the sense that we are deeply affected by what laws of nature are established and what forces of nature do in our world. At one level, one can ask whether natural law is even a meaningful concept, if God is sovereign in a meticulous sense over all that occurs in the universe. Is natural law real? Or, does God regulate all things in a direct manner, giving merely the appearance of laws of nature functioning within the structure of the created order? Or, does God build into the universe what we have come to call "laws of nature," which (laws) he permits to operate essentially according to the properties of these very laws themselves? If so, what regulation does he exert over these laws of nature? What control does he have over the effects these laws of nature have as they bring about both great good and horrible devastation to human life and well-being? Is God "sovereign" over tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, droughts, famines, birth defects, and so forth, which bring untold pain and suffering to sentient life in this world? And yet, is God not also sovereign over the sun and rain that cause crops to grow, the changing seasons of the years, "normal" and healthy childbirths, and bodies that heal themselves from cuts and scrapes and bumps and bruises? What, then, is God's relation to natural law and forces of nature, both beneficial and harmful to human life?
5. What is the relation of divine providence to salvation? Clearly, at the center of biblical revelation is redemptive history, that is, the unfolding of the purpose of God to save a people from sin and condemnation, to the glory of his name (Eph. 1: 3-14). And questions of divine providence's interface with salvation are manifold. No one doubts the fact that God has sovereignly planned to save his people, but when one considers the implementation of the plan, and its application in the lives of all who make up the company of the redeemed, then many questions arise that relate God's providence to human action and responsibility at many different levels. For example, how shall we understand God's election of those whom he will save? Is election unconditional, so that God unilaterally chooses those whom he will save? Is the coming of just some and not others to Christ the outworking of God's prior unconditional electing purpose? Or is God's election conditioned upon the foreseen faith of those who, when hearing the gospel, choose to come? Does God choose those whom he knows, in advance, will choose him? And what about sanctification? What is the relation between God's sovereign dealings with his people and their growth in holiness? Can his people renounce him? Can they resist his working? Can God guarantee that those whom he has chosen to save will be saved in the end? If so, how should we understand our role in our sanctification and ultimate, final salvation? In short, is the outworking and not merely the plan of redemptive history regulated by the providence of God? And if so, to what extent and with what certainty are God's saving purposes accomplished? And how do our choices and actions accord with the outworking of those purposes?
6. What is the relation of divine providence to practical expressions of the Christian faith, such as prayer, evangelism, and Christian service? So many areas of the Christian life call us, God's people, to responsible action. We are commanded to pray, to witness to the gospel of Christ, to use our gifts to build up the body of Christ. The commandments contained in the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament epistles are numerous, and it is clear that God's people are to take them seriously. But how should we understand this commanded obedience in light of God's providence over all? Is prayer meaningful if God is sovereign? Is evangelism necessary if God is sovereign? Is Christian service to believers and unbelievers alike really a work for which we are responsible, if God sovereignly regulates all of his created order? How should we understand the outworking of the Christian faith in light of the providence of God?
7. What is the relation of divine providence to the very nature and character of God? Among some of the most important questions to arise out of recent discussions about process theology, open theism, and versions of classical theism have been questions about God himself. As God relates to the world he has made, how should we think about his relation to space, time, and change? Attributes of God such as omnipresence, eternity, and immutability (and related attributes such as simplicity, impassability, omniscience) have brought about a renewed interest and attention to these complex and difficult areas of study. Should we think of God as eternally timeless and nonspatial and hence removed altogether from any literal temporal, spatial presence and interaction with created persons? If not, do we infringe on the perfection and transcendence of God? How can we best account for biblical teaching both on the transcendence and on the immanence of God? How can God eternally exist apart from all created reality while also dwelling fully and comprehensively among this created realm? What rethinking of God's very nature is required as we consider the reality of the God-world relationship required by the doctrine of divine providence?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "God's Greater Glory"
Copyright © 2004 Bruce A. Ware.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
1 Considering the Enduring Questions and Necessary Features of Divine Providence,
PART ONE Foundational Theological Bases for Divine Providence,
2 Framework for Understanding God and Creation: God's Transcendent Self-Existence and Immanent Self-Relatedness,
3 Ruling Over Creation: Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom (Features 1-3),
4 Ruling Through Creation: Divine-Human Concurrence (Features 4-5),
5 Ruling With Creation: Divine-Human Relationality (Features 6-10),
PART TWO Practical Christian Relevance of Divine Providence,
6 Living Behind GoD: Veiled to the Purpose of God in Suffering,
7 Living Before GoD: Trusting the Character of God in Prayer,
8 Living Under GoD:Seeing the Generosity of God in Our Service to Him,
9 On Narrowing the "Distance from Majesty": Longing to Behold God More as He Is,
10 Defining Evangelicalism's Boundaries Theologically: Is Open Theism Evangelical?,
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