Four Views on Divine Providence

05.13.11 | Denver Journal, Apologetics and Ethics, News, Elijah Hess | by Dennis Jowers

    Elijah Hess reviews the book, Four Views on Divine Providence

    Book Cover-Divine Providence

    Paul Kjoss Helseth, William Lane Craig, Ron Highfield, and Gregory A. Boyd, Four Views on Divine Providence. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 272 pages. $19.99. ISBN: 0310325129.

    Few theological topics today have more practical significance than divine providence.  Indeed, what pastor or Christian counselor, being immersed in the grit of people’s lives, hasn’t had to address this doctrine at one time or another?  Far from being some isolated concern of the ivory tower, virtually anyone who has wrestled with questions concerning God’s governance of the world will have reason to rejoice at the arrival of Four Views on Divine Providence, the latest volume in Zondervan’s popular Counterpoints Series.   

    As its title suggests, this book falls within the “multiple-view” genre.  The current volume has four authors who present and respond to each other’s understanding of how God works in history.  Of primary concern is the nature of God’s causality in relation to human action.  On the determinist end are Paul Kjoss Helseth of Northwestern College and Pepperdine’s Ron Highfield, each representing slightly different Calvinistic perspectives.  William Lane Craig, who is research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and Woodland Hills Church senior pastor Gregory Boyd, are advocates of indeterminism. Craig, however, promotes Molinism while Boyd gives an open theist account.         

    Leading off with a clearly written exposition of Reformed theology is Paul Kjoss Helseth.  Unlike others in the Calvinist camp who would wish to cushion God’s proximity to evil, Helseth is forthright in his appraisal of world events— God does not merely permit occurrences, in some sense he causes them (pp. 30-31).  Despite making the customary distinctions between “primary” and “secondary” causes, Helseth ultimately maintains that a proper view of God’s governance requires a strong view of concurrence; no power, activity or idea exists except that which is totally upheld by God. 

    Understandably, Helseth’s vision of universal, causal determinism leads him into some very deep water when it comes to the problem of evil.  One can almost feel the pressure Helseth apparently senses from other theological models around him when he snaps,

    …many Reformed believers insist that although there is a viable candidate for a truly contemptible deity within the orbit of evangelicalism, it is not the God who ‘works all things’— including evil things— ‘according to the counsel of his will’ (Eph. 1:11 ESV).  Rather, it is the God of open theism, for that God… is a capricious being who cannot be trusted to work in every situation in a way that maximizes good and minimizes evil for his creatures (p. 45).

    Here it is Boyd’s suggestion (made in a different book) that an omnicausal God would be virtually indistinguishable from Satan that Helseth is chastising for a “lack of nuance that is appalling” (p. 44). 

    Helseth would have a legitimate complaint here if indeed the “nuance” that Boyd supposedly overlooks actually served to clarify his position.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the question of why God is not to be blamed for evil, Helseth predictably appeals to “mystery” (pp. 36, 44) and “inscrutability” (pp. 28-29, 38, 44, 51, 52), further suggesting that any light that might serve to clarify how it is that God is not morally culpable for vast amounts of evil simply cannot penetrate to the depths Helseth’s system has taken him.  That and the fact that his tu quoque tirade continued for nearly three pages— space that Helseth could have used to further develop his own position on this issue— was, in this reviewer’s opinion, a major weakness in an otherwise historically informed and erudite essay.

    Following Helseth is renowned apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig.  As a vigorous defender of Molinism, Craig argues that God governs the world through what is supposedly a unique feature of his omniscience called “middle-knowledge”— the knowledge God has of what creatures would freely do if placed in certain situations.  For Craig, the Molinist scheme makes the most biblical, theological, and philosophical sense of divine sovereignty and human freedom/responsibility.  By knowing, prior to creation, what any given creature would freely do in any possible world, God sovereignly selected the world that, in view of these free choices, best served his creational objectives.

    The fact that Craig sought to ground his view biblically, as well as both theologically and philosophically, was a substantial strength of his overall essay.  Nevertheless, like Helseth, Craig simply wastes too much space (in what is supposed to be his own essay) critiquing other views in the book.  Proportionally, it is the open view that draws the majority of his fire.  Given Craig’s usual command of his opponent’s views, I was surprised to find a number of misconceptions in his assessment.  In particular, when Craig argues that “openness thinkers… claim that it is logically impossible to know propositions about future contingents” (p. 96), he fails to recognize that this view isn’t shared by all (or even most) openness proponents.  Boyd, for instance, holds that all propositions about future contingents, including “might” propositions, have a truth-value that God knows (p. 124).  Given that the bulk of Craig’s critique stems from this conflation, I submit the following counterfactual statement to be true: “If Craig had taken more care in differentiating between the views of his openness opponents, this essay would have been significantly improved.”   

    With an essay entitled “God Controls by Liberating,” Ron Highfield’s contribution comes next, but it is by far the weakest of the bunch.  While not employing the language of divine omnicausality, Highfield nevertheless argues that God comprehensively controls everything (pp. 144-146).  The peculiar feature of Highfield’s analysis, however, is that this control is supposedly accomplished through liberation; by empowering and directing all things, including human freedom, to their God-appointed end, God frees human freedom from its own futility and enables it to achieve its end.  Strangely, Highfield thinks God can “cause” human freedom to do his will freely (p. 150). 

    Of course, one might wonder why, if God is controlling everything, he would need to liberate/free anything.  Highfield rightly identifies the problem when he acknowledges “I am sure some are asking themselves, ‘What kind of freedom can be created from nothing, infallibly directed to God’s ends, and reoriented toward righteousness, without being denatured?  Can it really be genuine freedom?’” (pp.150-151).  The fact that Highfield gives no positive account of how this could be so becomes more understandable when one considers his deep affinity for paradox.  Concerning God’s revelation in Scripture, he writes in a footnote, “I believe it very important to affirm every biblical truth even if one cannot explain fully how they all fit together, and I do not want to sacrifice even one biblical truth to make a theological system more internally consistent” (p. 143). 

    Despite the obvious sincerity behind this claim, it should be acknowledged that one of the necessary conditions of any viable worldview is internal consistency.  Hence, if Highfield’s or anyone else’s  theological system becomes inconsistent with itself, it cannot be true.  Logical analysis need not be the enemy of good theology; in fact, reading through Highfield’s highly teleological but often convoluted proposal reminded me of what can happen when the Queen (theology) hastily dismisses her handmaid (philosophy).

    Gregory Boyd finishes out the book with his own openness account of divine providence.  Anyone who has followed this debate in recent years will know the heat Boyd and company have taken for their theological convictions.  While this essay sets the record straight on a number of issues, perhaps most noteworthy is Boyd’s absolute affirmation of God’s perfect knowledge of the future.  He writes,

    …the most distinctive aspect of open theism is simply its willingness to question why the reality God created and perfectly knows must, by metaphysical necessity, be exhaustively and eternally settled.  Why must there be a determinate fact of the matter about which causally possible future is ‘the’ actual future?  By what metaphysical necessity does the perfect nature of God’s knowledge dictate the content of the reality that God creates and perfectly knows (p. 196)?

    According to Boyd’s understanding of divine providence, the future is no mere blank slate.  Rather, he acknowledges Scripture’s depiction of many aspects of the future as settled either in God’s mind (foreknowledge) or by God’s will (predestination).  However, it is Boyd’s (and every open theist’s) contention that no Scripture forces the conclusion that the future is exhaustively settled, let alone necessarily settled from all eternity (p. 198).  Where free agency is in play, it is composed partly of ontological possibilities— that is, genuine alternations whose final resolution, while yet unknown, can nonetheless be planned for by an infinitely intelligent and wise God.  

    One of the more interesting aspects of Boyd’s view is his claim that propositions asserting what “will” and “will-not” occur in the future ought to be understood not as contradictories, but as contraries.  If this analysis is correct, then the frequent claim made by Boyd’s critics— that he denies the bivalence of future contingent propositions— is a non sequitur.  In light of pervasive and ongoing misunderstandings over this issue, the exchange between Craig and Boyd concerning the truth-value and ontological status of future contingents is, for this very reason, easily worth the price of this book.

    All in all this is a fine collection of papers.  Standout features of this particular volume are the introductory and concluding essays penned by editor Dennis Jowers which, taken together, fruitfully frame the discussion.  Though it would have been nice to see a classical Arminian (simple-foreknowledge) or, perhaps, a non-evangelical perspective on the issue, the contributions here give one plenty to consider when pondering God’s relationship to and involvement with what is, at times, a very perplexing world.

    Elijah C. Hess
    Denver Seminary
    May 2011                             

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