Chapter Eighteen – Orthodoxy and Dangers………357
Chapter Nineteen – The Biblical Narratives………..383
Chapter Twenty – God’s Sovereign Rule…………..400
Chapter Twenty-one – God’s Co-Rulers…………….425
Orthodoxy and Dangers
This is what Yahweh says—
your Redeemer who formed you in the womb:
I am Yahweh
who has made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself.
Who foils the signs of false prophets
and makes fools of diviners,
Who overthrows the learning of the wise
and turns it into nonsense,
Who carries out the words of his servants
and fulfills the predictions of his messengers.
Who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited,”
of the towns of Judah, “They shall be built.”
and of their ruins, “I will restore them.”….
Who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd”
and will accomplish all that I please;
he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,”
and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”
C. Dangerous Directions………….368
1. Cosmic Evolution………….368
2. Chance and Creatures……371
3. Fate and Sovereignty…….377
D. Our Response…………………..381
1. Why is this doctrine so antagonistic
to all contemporary worldviews?
2. How is Providence different from
chance and Sanders?
3. How is the doctrine of Providence
different from fate and Seneca?
4. How is the doctrine of Providence
different from ultra-Calvinism?
5. How ought we respond in each of
the doctrines of Systematics?
The three chapters of this section comprise an “Introduction” to the biblical teaching on providence. This is a doctrine that was of great significance before the modern age. But the technology of Western Culture conquered the world of nature and people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result the doctrine of Providence went into a deep recession. Liberals rejected it, Fundamentalists ignored it, and the world adopted cosmic evolution as its alternative.
Langdon Gilkey summarized the place of the doctrine of providence in middle of the twentieth century:
Our subject has been chosen because of the curious fact that today this concept of providence is notable mainly in its absence from theological discussion. This absence is in turn the more striking because, first, the two past traditions that have greatly influenced contemporary theology—the Reformation and Liberalism—both had carefully elaborated and significant conceptions of providence; and second, because the question most frequently asked in contemporary theological discussion—what is the meaning, if any, of history—might seem to call for an equally strong view of God’s providential rule over historical events. Our problem, therefore, is: Why has providence in our generation been like a rootless, disembodied ghost, flitting from footnote to footnote, but rarely finding secure lodgment in sustained theological discourse?1
Julian Hartt reminds us that the doctrine of providence is contrary to all of the major threads of contemporary thought.
Traditional beliefs about the divine origin, governance and final disposition of the world were for many centuries foundational components of the dominant worldview in Western culture. Residues of these beliefs can be found today in various places, in arguments advanced by the pro-life camp in the abortion controversy, for instance, and in such quasi-religious sentiments as “Life is a Gift” and “Things tend to work out for good in the long run.” But the powerful convictions once expressed in traditional formulations of the doctrines of creation and providence do not now have a vivid and compelling life in the churches. In secular thought the convictions have been in deep recession for several centuries. So the conviction that God the Creator has oriented human beings toward a perfectly fulfilling good beyond nature and history, and makes all things conspire to this end, has fallen into a deep and persistent recession, but not simply because the facts, none of which is more appalling than the Holocaust, ruinously assault the Christian view. It is also because hardly any large and potent intellectual current in the modern world seems to support the Christian teaching about providence. Thus many Christian theologians have made systematic rather than marginal adjustments in the traditional doctrines of creation and providence.2
Berkouwer has introduced the problems of doing the doctrine of Providence in the twentieth century for us:
One cannot give thought to the Church’s confession of faith in Providence without very soon being impressed by the distance between this confession and modern thought…. Contemporary scientific and philosophical thought—as well as that of the ordinary man—is engrossed in the question of the meaning and purpose of the world and its history, of human life. A long series of revolutionary and catastrophic events has made an almost undeniable empirical fact of the meaninglessness of human life…. Can life, then, still make sense? Dare one call life meaningful? This is now a pre-eminently existential question whose persistence we cannot avoid…. The real crisis lies in the meaning of the reality of God to this shattered world.
This total and universal aspect of the Church’s confession renders it unacceptable to many as too simple an answer to the urgency of our times. Can all this that fills men’s hearts, fall within the circle of a Divine Providence? Can man with honesty and clear conscience still believe it? It is as though this confession—God’s rule over all things, more than other confessions—were thrown into the crucible of the times….
These are times in which the Church of Christ must ask herself whether she still has the courage, in profound and unshakable faith, in boundless confidence, to proclaim the Providence of God. Or is she possessed of secret doubts fed by daily events? Can she still speak of God’s rule over all things, of his holy presence in this world? …. Dare she still, with eyes open to the facts
of life—no less than those who from the facts conclude an imperative atheism—still confess her old confession.3
However, the doctrine is branded on our inner lives by our creation in God’s image and likeness. We can pretend to do away with the doctrine of providence, but we cannot live with that rejection. We can get rid of the doctrine in our classrooms and in our books, but we cannot live that rejection consistently.
However much modern man conquered, there is still suffering and death. The boundaries of our control have been greatly enlarged, but they are still there. How does the modern man respond when we reach and go beyond the boundaries of our control? Do we cry out to some god in those circumstances? Or do we still rest in our pride? Some have prayed and some have bragged. Henley summarized this latter attitude toward providence in his Invictus:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit form pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgenings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade.
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.4
Walt Whitman wrote the Song of Myself, expressing this same self-confidence and self-worship of a culture that needed no god other than self.
I celebrate myself and sing myself….
I accept reality and dare not question it,
Materialism first and last imbuing
Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration….
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch….
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer.
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds….
And nothing, not God, is greater than one’s self is….
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in he least
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.5
When these men are the literary heroes of an age, it is no wonder that the doctrine of providence virtually disappears. The sad thing is that those who were believers did not present a powerful biblical doctrine of providence to counter-act these blasphemies.
James Carroll writes about Providence in a different way, but with the same antagonism toward the biblical teaching. He recognizes that no matter how heroic Henley and Whitman may sound, that everyone has some substitute for the providence they despise. They cannot live a real life without it. They only pretend when people are watching and listening. Carroll writes:
In common parlance, the word “providence” is full of happy connotation. It refers to the use of foresight, or luck, or even to the loving care of an attentive Supreme Being. Providence is the word theologians apply to God’s relationship to His creation. Secular people get at the same cozy ideal by affirming the inevitablity of progress, or the dialectical movement of history toward some utopia. But the idea of providence, whether the biblical version, or the Enlightenment’s, or Marx’s, is, at bottom, a tragic notion, for it implies that individual human choices count for nothing against the weight of an inexorable, overwhelming force, whether benign or cruel, whether known as God, history, destiny, progress or DNA.
Humor is the attitude that rescues us from the predicament implied in the word “providence”. We know something out there, whether God or history, a city in Rhode Island, or only death, is arranging things, even now, with no reference whatever to what we feel or want or choose. Yet all of us insist innately that our choices and feelings do matter, finally, as much as anyone’s, even God’s. That insistence is what makes us comic, but also noble.6
In this world of the denial of providence, we have the responsibility to state the doctrine powerfully in sermons and in print in a way that reflects all of the Bible and that honors God and values his creatures in the same way that he honors and loves them. Believing and teaching it, we also are commissioned to model that conviction in our daily life and conversation.
In this chapter I intend to describe the orthodox doctrine of providence and the dangerous directions and heresies that are popular today.
The early church did not include the doctrine of providence in their creeds. They believed it intensely. But creeds were opportunities to confess the central dogmas of the triune God and the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Orthodoxy is finally confessed in the documents of the Reformation, especially in the Reformed tradition. The Heidelberg Catechism stated it well:
Question # 1 – What is your only comfort in life and death?
Answer – That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own but belong unto my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ; who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil, and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head, yes, that all things must be subservient to my salvation; wherefore by His Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
Question # 26 – What do you believe when you say: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth?”
Answer – That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that is in them, who likewise upholds and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ His Son my God and my Father; in whom I so trust as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil he sends upon me in this vale of tears, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.
Question # 27 – What do you mean by the providence of God?
Answer – The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth, and all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yes all things, come not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
This catechism is characteristically “existential” in its approach. This is partly
because of the influence of Martin Luther. We come to a much more “theological” and less existential approach in the Westminster Confession and the II London Confession.
Here, the influence is Calvin and the Scholastic Calvinism that was developed after his death.
1. God who, in infinite power and wisdom, has created all things, upholds, directs, controls and governs them, both animate and inanimate, great and small, by a providence supremely wise and holy, and in accordance with his infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable decisions of his will. He fulfills the purposes for which he created them so that His wisdom, power and justice, together with his infinite goodness and mercy, might be praised and glorified….
2. Nothing happens by chance or outside the sphere of God’s providence. As God is the First Cause of all events, they happen immutably and infallibly according to his foreknowledge and decree to which they stand related. Yet by his providence God so controls them that second causes, operating either as fixed laws or freely, or in dependence upon other causes, play their part in bringing them about….
3. Ordinarily, in his providence, God makes use of means; yet He is
free to work without them, to give them efficacy above what they normally possess, and even to work contrary to them, at his pleasure….
4. God’s almighty power, unsearchable wisdom and infinite goodness
are so far-reaching and all-pervading, that both the fall of the first man into sin, and all other sinful actions of angels and men proceed according to his sovereign purposes. It is not that he gives bare permission, for in a variety of ways he wisely and powerfully limits, orders, and governs sinful actions, so that they effect his holy designs. Yet the sinfulness involved in the actions proceeds ony from angels and men, and not from God who, being most holy and righteous, neither s nor can be the author or approver of sin….
5. God, who is most wise, righteous and gracious, frequently allows
his own people to fall for a time into a variety of temptations, and to experience the sinfulness of their own hearts. This he does in order to chastise them for sins which they have committed, or to teach them humility by revealing to them the hidden strength of evil and deceitfulness remaining in their hearts. His purpose is also to cause them to realize their need to depend fully and at all times upon himself, and to help them to guard against sin in the future. In these and other ways his just and holy purposes are worked out so that in all that happens to his elect ones is by his appointment, for his glory and for their good….
6. God, as a righteous judge, deals otherwise with wicked and
ungodly men. He awards them blindness and hardness of heart for their sins. He withholds from them the grace which might have enlightened their eyes and exercised their hearts, and in some cases recalls the gifts he had bestowed upon them. Also he sets them in situations which their evil hearts seize upon as opportunities for sin. In other words, he abandons them to their own innate corruptions, to the temptations of the world and to the power of Satan, with the consequence that they harden themselves by the use of the very means which God employs for the softening the hearts of others….
7. God’s general providence reaches out to all creatures, but in a very
special way to the care of his church. All things are controlled providentially for the good of the church…. (II London Confession, chapter five).
Karl Barth gives us another Reformed (though Neo-Orthodox) description of the doctrine of providence:
The simple meaning of the doctrine of providence may thus be summed up in the statement that in the act of creation, God the Creator as such has associated himself with His creature as such as the Lord of history, and is faithful to it…. Hence whatever may take place in the history of the creature and however this may appear from the standpoint of our own law and freedom, it never can nor will escape the lordship of its Creator…. His lordship is never absent, passive, non-responsible, or impotent, but always present, active, responsible and omnipotent. He is never dead, but always living, never sleeping but always awake, never uninterested but always concerned, never merely waiting in any respect, but always, even where He seems to wait, even where he permits, always holding the initiative…. He co-exists with it [the creature] actively in an action which never ceases and does not leave any loopholes. And so the creature co-exists with Him as the reality distinct from Him, and in its own appropriate law and freedom, as He precedes it at every turn in His freedom of action…. He, its Creator, who as such must no less necessarily precede it than it must follow Him as His creature, and be directly upheld by Him in its own existence and stand under His direct and superior co-ordination and be directly ruled by Him. Again, it is the majestic freedom of the Creator in face of His creature which is…the guarantee of the faithfulness and constancy with which He is over it and with it.7
Benjamin Farley gives us a contemporary definition of God’s work of providence
that is quite complete:
The Reformed doctrine of the Providence of God emphasizes that the triune God in his goodness and power, preserves, accompanies and directs the universe. This work of preservation, accompaniment, and direction pertains to the entire universe—physical and human—and excludes no facet from God’s
work. The doctrine of providence constitutes a central tenet of Reformed theology and belongs to the essence of the biblical message.8
But the above statements are only one part of the orthodox doctrine of providence. Reformed theology, going back through Calvin and Augustine, has developed this strong doctrine of God’s sovereign providence which has seemed to many, who were also orthodox, to be one-sided. The Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Church, other than those who followed Augustine, The Lutheran Church, and the evangelical Arminians have presented another view of this doctrine.
It is not easy to find good statements of providence from this other and larger tradition. Part of the reason for this difficulty is their failure to define this doctrine in their creeds. Wesley did not include a statement on providence in his Twenty-five Articles. It is also missing from many of their best textbooks. The ones that treat the doctrine do not give nice definitions for our use. I have searched (1) Ralston, Elements of Divinity, (2) Carter, A Contemporary Wesleyan Theology, 2 volumes; (3) Pope, A Compendium of Christian Theology, 3 volumes; (4) Miley, Systematic Theology, 2 volumes; (5) Wiley, Christian Theology, 3 volumes; Williams, Renewal Theology; (6)
Oden, Systematic Theology, 3 volumes plus many of the ancient and medieval theologians and the major Lutheran theologians.
Wiley, an evangelical Arminian, wrote:
Providence may be defined as that activity of the triune God by which He conserves, cares for and governs the world which He has made…..
When we pass to the realm of responsible voluntary action, there is a new relation which subsists between the purposes of God and the manner in which this purpose is realized. Here God’s relation is not properly causative as in Conservation and Preservation, but moral, that is, it must be exerted in the form of a motive, and not in the sense of compulsion. The finite will is interposed between the will of God and the consequences of that will in free activity, so that the resulting action is not properly the work of God, but that of the creature to whom the act belongs. Hence while God has given the power of freedom to the creature and permitted its exercise, a sinful action on the part of the creature cannot be said to be God’s act. The older theologians distinguished four different modes of the divine government: (1) Permissio or Permissive,…. (2) Impeditio or Preventive,…. (3) Directio, or Directive,…. and (4) Determinatio or Determinative…. The root idea of the Christian doctrine of Providence in this sphere is, that God rules over all in love.9
Thomas Oden gives a summary of this non-Reformed doctrine of Providence as taught in the first six centuries of the church.
Providence is the expression of the divine will, power, and goodness through which the Creator preserves creatures, cooperates with what is coming to pass through their actions, and guides creatures in their long-range purposes…. Hence classical Christian exegetes have thought of providence in three inter-related dimensions:
* The Unceasing activity of the Creator by which, in overflowing bounty and
good will…God upholds creatures in time and space in an ordered existence….
* God cooperates with natural and secondary causes to employ fit means to
good ends through orderly and intelligible processes of natural causes….
* God guides and governs all events and circumstances, even free, self- determining agents, overruling the regrettable consequences of freedom and directing everything toward its appropriate end for the glory of God….
Does Providence exclude free choice? No, for providence enables free choice. When it is said that God cooperates with the human will so as to enable the will to move, that does not deny that the human will also moves itself, for moving itself is precisely what the divine economy provides. The divine enabling of free will is not opposed to choice, just as God’s activity in natural things is not contrary to their nature…. Similarly, while God knows things beforehand, yet He does not predetermine all things. For He knew beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there should be wickedness nor does He choose to compel virtue….10
This Arminian wing of the orthodox doctrine of Providence has some major concerns with the Calvinistic position. First, they recognize the dangers of fatalism into which some enthusiastic Calvinists have fallen. Second, they are concerned for the holiness of God who is too closely identified with all of the sinful acts and the evils of history. Third, they are concerned with the loss of choice which seems to be essential to our existence in God’s image and likeness. Last, they claim to read the narratives of the Bible and take them more seriously than do the Calvinists.
This last concern is of particular significance today because of the recognition of the nature of biblical narrative and metanarrative. When reading these stories one is struck again and again with God’s self-limitation in coming down to act and interact with humans in all of the facets of history. Most narrative theologians are Arminian in theology just because of the nature of the biblical narratives.
There are a great number of dangerous directions and heresies concerning the doctrine of providence. Some are no longer of vital concern, such as Deism’s mechanistic and fatalistic doctrine. But three directions have a great hold on the post-modern mind and heart: cosmic evolution, fate and chance.
Evolution is the major competitor for the biblical doctrine of providence. It has its own metanarrative with a (almost) beginning in the “Big Bang” through the development from exploding gasses through the formation of stars and planets, to the development of life and finally its end in some future cooling of our sun or the reversal of the “Big Bang.”
This story is filled with emotive words and evolution is personalized with words like “selection”, “purpose”, etc. When we hear the story told by an expert, we respond with religious feeling in our awe at the wonderful forces which have brought us into our present life. The sin and the evil are still there, but they are often ignored to delight us with the wonder of this great story.
C. S. Lewis wrote about this great evolutionary story in The Funeral of A Great Myth:
I call it a Myth because it is, as I have said, the imaginative and not the logical result of what is vaguely called “modern science”. Strictly speaking, there is, I confess, no such thing as “modern science”. There are only particular sciences, all in a stage of rapid change and sometimes inconsistent with one another. What the Myth uses is a selection from the scientific theories—a selection made at first and modified afterwards, in obedience to imaginative and emotional needs. It is the work of folk imagination, moved by its natural appetite for an impressive unity. It therefore treats its data with great freedom—selecting, slurring, expurgating, and adding at will….
But we must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth…. To the biologist Evolution is a hypothesis…. In the Myth, however, there is nothing hypothetical about it: its is basic fact: or, to speak more strictly, such distinctions do not exist on the mythical level at all.
In the science, Evolution is a theory about changes; in the Myth, it is a fact about improvements…. In the popular mind the word “Evolution” conjures up a picture of things moving “onwards and upwards”, and of nothing else whatsoever…..
For in the Myth, Evolution…is the formula for all existence. To exist means to be moving from the status of “almost zero” to the status of “almost infinity”. To those brought up on the Myth nothing seems more normal, more natural, more plausible, than that chaos should turn into order, death into life, ignorance into knowledge. And with this we reach the full-blown Myth. It is one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined.
The drama proper is preceded…by the most austere of all preludes; the infinite void….. Then by some millionth, millionth chance, the conditions at one point in space and time bubble up into that tiny fermentation which we call organic life. At first everything seems to be against the infant hero of our drama…but life somehow wins through. With incalculable sufferings…against all obstacles, it spreads, it breeds, it complicates itself…. There comes forth a little, naked, shivering, cowering biped, not yet fully erect, promising nothing; the product of another millionth, millionth chance. His name in the Myth is Man….a brute, yet somehow able to invent art, pottery, language, weapons, cookery and nearly everything else.
In the next act he has become true Man. He learns to master Nature. Science arises and dissipates the superstitions of his infancy. More and more he becomes the controller of his own fate.
In the last act…a race of demi-gods now rule the planet (galaxy). Eugenics have made certain that only demi-gods will now be born. Psycho-analysis that none of them shall lose or smirch his divinity; economics that they shall have a hand in all that demi-gods require. Man has ascended his throne. Man has become God.
And now, mark well the final stroke of mythopoeic genius…the last scene reverses all…. All this time Nature, the old enemy, who only seemed to be defeated, has been gnawing away, silently, unceasingly, out of the reach of human power…. The sun will cool….. Life…will be banished without hope of return from every cubic inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness. Universal darkness covers all. I grew up believing in this Myth and I have felt—I still feel—its almost perfect grandeur. I could almost wish that it was not mythical but true. And yet, how could it be?
What makes it impossible that it should be true is not so much the lack of evidence for this or that scene in the drama or the fatal self-contradiction which runs right through it. [It is rather that] unless you start by believing that reality in the remotest space and the remotest time rigidly obeys the laws of logic, you can have no ground for believing in any astronomy, any biology, any palaeontology, and archaeology. To reach the positions held by real scientists—which are then taken over by the Myth—you must—in fact, treat reason as an absolute. But at the same time the Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true.
But that is not the note on which I would wish to end. The Myth has all of these discreditable allies: but we should be far astray if we thought that it had no others…. It gives us almost everything that the imagination craves—irony, heroism, vastness, unity in multiplicity, and a tragic close. It appeals to every part of me except my reason. That is why those of us who feel that the Myth is already dead for us must not make the mistake of trying to debunk it in the wrong way. We must not fancy that we are securing the modern world from something grim and dry, something that starves the soul. The contrary is the truth. It is our painful duty to wake the world from an enchantment….. That is why in the meantime we must treat the Myth with respect. It was all (on a certain level) nonsense: but a man would be a dull dog if he could not feel the thrill and charm of it.11
The sciences have changed immensely since Lewis wrote this monograph. The ability of the astronomers and the students of the atom have made tremendous strides and have been able to make predictions and demonstrate the truth of those predictions; certainly a very impressive accomplishment. Science has grown. But the Story of Evolution is still the same great Myth. It changes some details at times, but the wonderful religious and optimistic core of the story remains the same. Nature is turned into Mother Nature and we rest secure in a metanarrative that gives us all the comfort we need in the contemporary world—if it had any truth in it at all.
But what is too often forgotten is that this Myth has no hope for the individual. The few decades given to us are all that there is for us. There is no future life in heaven, on earth or in hell. It is no wonder that, along with the religious commitment to this Myth we have become a society of hurting people, needing help form all types
of counselors. A satisfying life is built upon hope and eternal life. When that is taken away, we lose all reason to live morally and confidently.
With out snobbery of “the state of the arts” and our certainty that we are better
than any past age, we buy into the great Myth more than we realize. It is part of the
air we breathe and dominates even our reading of the Bible. More on this later.
CHANCE AND GOD’S RISK
There are two other dangerous directions, both of which begin within orthodox theologies and move toward full paganism. The first is “chance” or “fortune” and grows our of a careless Arminianism. The second is “fate” and it grows out of a careless Calvinism. In each case, I will discuss the pagan form first and follow it with a dangerous direction from within Christianity. These options are in the opposite directions from biblical orthodoxy.
Chance describes reality as uncaused, chaotic, and unpredictable, a meaningless series of unrelated events. The human choices are included in this chaos. Heisenberg developed his “Uncertainty Principle” which can be described as follows:
UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE or indeterminacy principle in quantum mechanics, the principle that it is meaningless to speak of a particle’s position, momentum, or other parameters, except as results of measurements; measuring however, involves an interaction (such as a photon of light bouncing off the particle under scrutiny), which must disturb the particle, though the disturbance is noticeable only at an atomic scale. The principle implies that one cannot, even in theory, predict the moment-to-moment behavior of such a system.12
Recently, cosmologists have begun to speculate that Heisenberg’s principle should be expanded to understand the entire cosmos. In significant areas chaos or indeterminacy seem to be the only way to describe reality. Ferris describes this in a chapter entitled: Quantum Weirdness.” 13
On the basis of this uncertainty in the basic building blocks of all reality, some have gone on to develop a “Chaos Theory” in which the scientist can predict certain tendencies, but can never predict what will happen to any individual sub-atomic particle or any galaxy of stars. And even the general tendencies or patterns are not absolute, but may become quite different in different contexts. The “laws of nature” are then temporary patterns which give us no ability to predict the future of anything or anyone, but permit us to predict averages as long as nothing interferes with the present situation. All that we know and all of the “laws of nature” may be reversed tomorrow. There are no certainties.
Complete chaos is thinkable only in a laboratory or a classroom. It is impossible to live with the conviction that everything is chaos and without meaning or purpose. Solomon struggled with this possibility in his book of Ecclesiastes and had to flee to the Creator to give meaning and purpose to his life.
Though chaos is nearly unthinkable, it always exists as a terrifying possibility. It has been viewed as a monster to be defeated in the old myths. Bel-Marduk went out to slay the grandmother of all of the gods because she was the essence of chaos. An ordered heaven and earth demanded her destruction.14 This is a theme in many of the old myths.
The Greek philosophers feared the word “infinite” because is was the opposite of all that was ordered and had boundaries. The infinite was beyond the boundaries and the reach of reason. It was thus a threat to all right thinking and good living. No theologian in the first eleven centuries would describe God as “infinite” for this very same reason. They tried to find some certain order to counter their fear that there is nothing out there giving some order to reality. Hecuba sings that despair:
O vain is man,
Who glorieth in his joy and hath no fears:
While to and fro the chances of the year
Dance like an idiot in the wind! And none
By any strength hath his own fortune won….
Lo, I have seen the open hand of God;
And in it nothing, save the rod
Of mine affliction….15
Karl Barth has a chapter entitled “God and Nothingness” in his Church Dogmatics.16 It is a terrible chapter in which he attempts to turn “nothingness” into some negative and chaotic reality against which God does battle from creation to his final and future victory.
There are serious difficulties with these concepts of chance. Cahn lists the most significant of them:
There seem to be three main reasons for he unpopularity of the idea of pure chance. First…to give up determinism, it would be…to give up the scientific enterprise itself. Second, the positing of chance events does not really help to solve the problem of free will…. If a man’s actions have no rhyme or reason then it makes no sense to hold him responsible for what he does. Third, the entire notion of an absolutely unqualified disorder of events seems self-contradictory.17
It has been impossible to live with a conviction that everything is chaos and chance. It is acceptable only for a laboratory or a classroom where one has only to propose and not to make a commitment.
There is a popular position between the Calvinistic orthodoxy described in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the total chaos and chance described above. It wants a general guidance of all things by God, but demands that God takes risks and does not get things his way in many of the details of history or our individual lives.
John Sanders book, The God Who Risks gives us a well-written account and apologetic for this position.18 He gives us a summary of his position as follows:
H. H. Farmer was on track when he defined providence as “the adequacy of God’s wisdom and power to the task with which he has charged himself.” Farmer’s definition of providence focuses on God’s wisdom and power to accomplish the divine project. God’s project involved the creation of significant others who are ontologically distinct from himself and upon whom he showers his caring love in the expectation that they will respond in love. God grants humans genuine freedom to participate in this project, as he does not force them to comply. Love is given freely and is received freely. Prior to creation, even if God had no warrant to believe anything would go amiss, there existed the “implausible possibility” that resistence to the divine purpose might arise. Despite this possibility God decided to enter into real give-and-take relationships with his creatures. God not only gives, he receives. God freely chooses to be affected by his creatures—there is contingency in God’s relation with creation. Moreover, God is the sovereign determiner of the sort of sovereignty he will exercise. God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything that happens in history. He does not have to because God is supremely wise, endlessly resourceful, amazingly creative and omnicompetent in seeking to fulfill his project. In the God-human relationship God sometimes decides alone what will happen; at other times God modifies his plans in order to accommodate the choices, actions and desires of his creatures.
In grace God created and embarked on this program and in grace God invites us to participate as significant partners with him in bringing about the eschatological glory he intends for his creation. By his free sovereign will God enables us to become his lovers (Hosea) and friends (John 15:15) toward the establishment of his kingdom. It is God’s desire that we worship and enjoy him forever in a relationship of love. In the words of Hendrikus Berkhof, “The God who is free uses his freedom to establish communion. The sovereign one gives himself away…. Apparently he wants to be able to do nothing else than be our covenant partner” (The Christian Faith Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979, pp. 106, 222).
The goal of the divine project is to produce people who reflect the trinitarian love in all their relationships with God, other humans and the entire creation. God’s intention is that all of us come to the fulness of Jesus. Because of God’s faithfulness, the goal of the project has never changed, but the means and specific paths God takes toward the achievement of the project can and do change, depending on what the divine wisdom deems best at the time. The particular path God takes to obtain his goal depends on the
interaction between God and humanity in the course of the historical outworking of the project….
God does not risk for risk’s sake. Divine risk taking must not be divorced from the creation project, which desires a relationship of love. Furthermore, God was under no compulsion to take any risks whatsoever. God did not have to create a world at all and could have created a very different world from the one we have. God is sovereign over his sovereignty and so did not have to create a world in which humans have the freedom to enter into a personal relationship of love with himself. God sovereignly created the conditions of all creaturely working: God alone establishes the rules of the game. According to Karl Barth, one of the rules God freely makes is that God himself will be affected and conditioned by these creatures. God freely grants a degree of separateness from God so that the creature is no tool or puppet: “The activity of the creature over against that of God remains the creature’s own” (Church Dogmatics 3/3, 149).19
David Bassinger summarizes the basic characteristics of the God of the open model:
1. God not only created the world ex nihilo but can (and at times does) intervene unilaterally in earthly affairs.
2. God chose to create us with incompatibilistic (libertarian) freedom— freedom over which he cannot exercise total control.
3. God so values freedom—the moral integrity of free creatures and a world in which such integrity is possible—that he does not normally over-ride such freedom, even if he sees that it is producing undesirable results.
4. God always desires our highest good, both individually and corporately, and thus is affected by what happens in our lives.
5. God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of exactly how we will utilize our freedom, although he may well at times be able to predict with great accuracy the choices we will freely make.20
Bassinger goes on to describe the nature of God’s knowledge and his own concept of God’s guidance:
However, proponents of the open view do not believe that God possesses middle knowledge—that God knows beforehand what would happen given each option open to us…. In fact, we do not even believe that God always knows beforehand exactly how things will turn out in the future—that God possesses simple foreknowledge.21
This position that views God as taking risks and permitting actions outside of his will that are only evil with no resulting good is a step away from the orthodox Arminian doctrine of providence. The attending doctrine that God does not know the future nor possess middle knowledge is also a step away from evangelical Arminianism.
There seems to be some significant differences between these authors on the nature of God. Sanders is careful to say that God’s risks and limited knowledge are his free and sovereign choices in relating himself to this present creation. Pinnock and Bassinger are not so concerned to proclaim the full sovereignty of God and his choice to limit himself in his relationships with people in his image.
Rabbi Kushner goes a step further. He presents a god who is doing his best, but that is often not enough:
Let me suggest that the author of the Book of Job takes the position which neither Job nor his friends take. He believes in God’s goodness and in Job’s goodness, and is prepared to give up his belief in proposition (A) that God is all-powerful. Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God who wills it. God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful or a powerful god who is not totally good, the author of the Book of Job chooses to believe in God’s goodness
The most important lines in the entire book may be the ones spoken by God in the second half of the speech form the whirlwind, chapter 40, verses 9-14:
Have you an arm like God?
Can you thunder with a voice like his?
Your tread down the wicked where they stand,
Bury them in the dust together…
Then I will acknowledge that your own right hand
Can give you victory.
I take these lines to mean “if you think that it is so easy to keep the world straight and true, to keep unfair things from happening to people, you try it.” God wants the righteous to lives peaceful, happy lives, but sometimes evern he cannot bring that about….22
Process Theology is much like Rabbi Kushner, but takes us one step further in the completeness with which it makes its god grow along with and besides all other reality. Thus he is growing in knowledge, but knows only the past and the present, never the future, other than guesses. He is a growing and developing god who depends on us nearly as much as we depend upon him. It is a “Panentheism.
Sometimes the distance between Process theology on the one hand and Pinnock and Bassinger on the other does not seem to be very great. Both have been accused of being process theologians. But that comes from a careless reading that sees similar statements being made and do not realize the immense difference of their starting points. Pinnock, Bassinger, Sanders and their friends are our brothers in Christ. The process theologians have left the Bible behind and worship an idol.
These men who propose “The Openness of God” are committed to the integrity of the personhood and choices of people created in the image and likeness of God. They take the narrative portions of Scripture seriously and thus the reality of human acts and choice and the reality of God’s self-limitation in his relationships with us.
On the other hand, they forget that God’s inter-relationships with us are far more complex than a surface reading of the narratives would suggest. They also sidestep many interpretations of those same narratives that suggest that God has a more complex relationship with people than they are willing to accept.
FATE AND THE LOSS OF HUMANITY
In the good and easy times most people accept human choice and some kind of chance. When things fall apart, then people greatly limit human choice and turn to some kind of fate.
When the Roman empire was falling apart politically, militarily, economically, culturally and religiously, various kinds of fatalism ruled. The young intellectuals, like Augustine, followed the fatalism of the Manichees. The common people read their horoscopes. Philosophies of freedom languished and fatalistic philosophies flourished.
But classical culture had long been committed to some king of fate: Even the gods were subject to fate; Farley quotes Homer as follows:[Zeus and the gods watch helplessly while Achilles bears down on Hector] Zeus asks: “What do you think gods? Just consider, shall we save him from death, or shall we let Achilles beat him now? He is a brave man. But Athena objects, “O Father Flashingbolt….you must never say that. A mortal man, long doomed by fate, and you will save him from death?” To which Zeus replies, “Never mind, Tritogeneia, my love, I did not really mean it…. Then Homer explains, “See now the Father laid out his golden scales and placed in them two fates of death, one for Achilles and one for Hector. He grasped the balance and lifted it: Hector’s doom sank down to Hades, and Apollo left him.”23
Seneca, the tutor of Nero, wrote a letter on providence in the first century A.D. which is well worth reading. Let me make some quotes from him.
For our present purpose it is superfluous to point out that so mighty a structure does not persist without some caretaker; that the concourse and dispersal of the heavenly bodies is not an effect of fortuitous impulse; that whereas what chance sets in motion is without direction and is likely to run into collisions, the course which is guided by the rules of eternal law moves speedily and without running foul….
But such questions as these must be reserved for their proper occasion, especially since you are merely complaining of providence, not questioning its existence. I shall reconcile you with the gods, who prove best to men who are best. Nature never suffers the good to be harmed by the good; between good men and the gods there subsists a friendship, with virtue as its bond….24
I am not under duress, I do not submit against my will, I am not god’s slave but his follower and more willingly because I know that all things proceed according to a law that is fixed and eternally valid. Fate directs us, and the first hour of our birth determines each man’s span. Cause is linked to cause, and a long chain of events governs all matters public and private. Everything must therefore be borne with fortitude because events do not, as we suppose, happen but arrive by appointment. What would make you rejoice and what would make you weep was determined long ago, and though individual lives seem to differ in a wide range, the sum amounts to the same thing: what we receive is perishable and we shall ourselves perish. Why then are we indignant? Why do we complain? It is this for which we were born…. What is the duty of the good man? To offer himself to Fate.25
Imagine that the god speaks as follows: “What grounds do you have to complain of me, you who have opted for righteousness? Other men I have surrounded with spurious goods, I have beguiled their empty minds, as it were, with a long and deceptive dream. I have adorned them with gold and silver and ivory, but there is nothing good inside. The men you look upon as happy, if you could see not their outward appearance but their inward nature, as wretched squalid, mean…. But to you I have given goods that are sure and abiding, good which are better and greater the more on turns them about and scrutinizes them from every side. To you I have granted scorn of terrors and disdain of passions. You do not shine outwardly because all your goods are turned inward…. Your good fortune is not to need good fortune.
But, you object, “many things which are sad and dreadful and hard to bear do happen.” Because I could not make you evade their assault, I have given your minds armor to withstand them; bear them with fortitude. In this respect you can surpass god: he is exempt from enduring evil, you can rise superior to it. Scorn poverty: no one is as poor as he was at birth. Scorn pain: either it will go away or you will. Scorn death: either it finishes you or it transforms you. Scorn Fortune: I have given her no weapon with which to strike your soul. Above all, I have taken pains that nothing should detain you against your will: the way lies open. If you do not wish to fight you may escape. Of all the things which I deemed necessary for you, therefore, I have made none easier than dying.26
This is a mixture of positions: fate, heroism, weak gods and strong men. But it is likely that this letter by Seneca has influenced much of the Christian doctrine of providence more than we would like to admit. It is a popular combination of the “stiff upper lip” and “Whatever will be will be”.
There is a good description of fate and fatalism in Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:
Fate, personified by the Greeks under the name of Moira, signified in the ancient world the unseen power that rules over human destiny. In classical thought fate was believed to be superior to the gods, since event hey were unable to defy its all-encompassing power. Fate is not chance, which may be defined as the absence of laws, but instead a cosmic determinism that has no ultimate meaning or purpose. In classical thought as well as oriental religion fate is a dark and sinister power related to the tragic vision of life. It connotes not the absence of freedom but the subjection of freedom. It is the transcendent necessity in which freedom is entangled (Tillich). Fate is blind, inscrutable and inescapable.27
In between Calvinistic orthodoxy and Fate stands a continuum of dangerous positions that move from orthodoxy in the direction of heresy. A first step is an over-emphasis on the decrees of God combined with an under-emphasis on the biblical narratives and metanarrative. Another step is double predestination, including both election to life and reprobation to eternal death.
There are hundreds of biblical passages that describe history as the carrying out of the plan of God. Even where plan and execution are not specifically mentioned, they are constantly assumed from Genesis to Revelation. Orthodox Calvinistic theology has been correct to reflect this biblical teaching.
However, it has been all too easy to move from the conviction that God has planned all that comes to pass to a study of that plan by implication from the biblical narratives. It is possible to place too much emphasis upon the plan and even worse to speculate upon that plan beyond the clear biblical evidence. The various “lapsarian
positions that have been so emphasized in some Reformed theology (not Calvin) have tended to placed the whole center of Theology before creation and minimized the whole story of salvation revealed in the Scriptures.
I am not saying that all study of the decrees of God and their order are heresy. I am saying that it is very easy at this point to go beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy.
The test of a biblical treatment of the plan of God is the treatment of the biblical narratives and metanarrative. When we spend much more time with the latter, we are still orthodox. When we have a triple center for our theology in creation, the first
coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the last days, then we are still within the boundaries of orthodoxy. When that is missing we are treading on dangerous ground.
Double predestination: the election of some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation is on the borderland between orthodoxy and danger. It is still orthodoxy when we are stressing the sovereignty of God over all things and the extent of his sovereign plan. It is orthodoxy when we emphasize the truth that election is necessary for the salvation of depraved sinners running away from God and toward hell. It is moving in a dangerous direction when we forget that no decree is necessary to send people to hell. They are already on their way and are not going to change that direction.
God has a whole different relationship between good and evil. He creates all that is good. He permits all that is evil. By grace alone, he chooses some for eternal life with Him, provides salvation for them by his Son, and calls, converts, regenerates, justifies, sanctifies and glorifies by his Holy Spirit. He freely chooses to permit the rest of the human race to go their way of rebellion and death. To posit a decree of reprobation is perilously close to a dualism of good and evil, and takes away much of the beauty of God’s sovereign election.
In the context of his description of our sinfulness, God’s justification and the wonders of the new life in Christ by the Spirit of God, Paul writes about our response to this great salvation:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28-29)
In the next chapter, Paul describes the sovereign choice of God in all of our choices and in the context of our salvation.
One of you will say to me, “Then why does god still blame us? For who resists his will.” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:19-21)
After completing a description of God’s work with Israel and the church, Paul sings a doxology to the One who sovereignly rules all history:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out.
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God ,
that God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things
To him be the glory forever? Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
And this provision and application of our salvation is the very center and core of God’s great work of providence. Praise the Lord!