Restorationist and Open Theist responses to a determinist model of providence

I have described and interacted with W. L. Craig’s Molinist response to Paul Helseth’s omnicausal (determinist) model, and now we’ll consider the other two responses presented in Four Views on Divine Providence.

Ron Highfield’s response

Ron Highfield, representing what Dennis Jowers calls a “Restorationist” position, notes that his view and Helseth’s view are closer to one another than to either of the other two positions. But Highfield attributes his “fundamental agreement with Helseth’s view,” not to mutual loyalty to Calvin, but to Highfield’s conviction that “the tradition of thinking about God’s providence that stretches back from Barth and Bavinck through Johann Heidegger, Calvin, Aquinas, and Bernard of Clairvaux to Augustine best preserves the biblical teaching about the greatness and goodness of God as manifested in Jesus Christ” (64). So Highfield agrees with Helseth that “nothing escapes the will of God or defeats his power,” and that God need not “choose from the range of feasible worlds determined by what free creatures would do in every situation.” God “simply does what he wills: no constraints, no trade-offs, and no defeats” (64). Highfield even agrees with Helseth’s assessment that libertarian freedom entails agents who are unmoved movers or “self-originating god[s],” a position he deems Semipelagian (65).

Where Highfield disagrees with the traditional Reformed doctrine of providence is in its use of terms like “decree,” “determination,” and “cause,” which “can give the impression of fatalism to those who do not understand what fatalism really is” (65). God’s decree, by contrast with human decrees, is neither authoritarian nor coercive, but is “the gracious act of the loving God in creation, providence, and salvation” (65). And we should not say that God “causes” us to act, because “his presence in us gives us life, and his free activity in us activates our freedom” (66). Highfield posits that “the creature’s dignity and freedom come to light in the divine and human self-giving of the Son to the Father in utter trust,” which leads him to propose that “Christian theology should think from a center in Christ back to creation and the decree and forward to the eschaton” (68).

Gregory Boyd’s response

Gregory Boyd expresses appreciation to Helseth for his clear presentation of the classic Reformed doctrine of providence, with its forthright affirmation of divine omnicausality, including the causing of sin and evil, in some mysterious sense. Boyd is grateful for this candor. But he judges Helseth’s beliefs “about as antithetical” to his own as he “can imagine any views being” (69). In regard to Helseth’s criticism of open theism, however, Boyd complains about serious misrepresentation. Helseth’s “portrait of a capricious God has nothing in common with the actual view that open theists espouse” (70). Boyd does not understand why Helseth claims that Boyd and other open theists “believe that God is ‘clearly able’ to intervene to prevent evil whenever he wants to” (70). On the contrary, “to the extent that God gives humans and angels say-so, he by definition limits his own unilateral say-so” (70). Boyd quotes his published assertion that “when God fails to intervene, it is precisely because ‘the self-determining freedom of wicked moral agents is irrevocable’” (70).

Boyd also objects to Helseth’s statement that the God of open theism does not have “an overarching purpose or plan,” from which belief Helseth concludes that “suffering is entirely pointless” for open theists (70-71). On the contrary, Boyd insists that God has an overarching plan, and that God “will weave every one of our possible free decisions” into it, even though he does not foreknow with certainty the future free decisions of agents. “God is lovingly at work, moment by moment, to maximize good and minimize evil as much as possible given that he must work around the irrevocable free will of humans and angels” (71).

God does not have to control everything in order to maintain overall control of the world, in Boyd’s opinion, so that he thinks Helseth has made a “remarkable leap in logic,” when he concludes that God must meticulously control all events, having foreordained them all. To Boyd, it is particularly surprising that Christians would define God’s greatness in terms of his level of control, given what the NT tells us about God’s having revealed himself most clearly in the foolishness and weakness of the cross (1 Cor 1:18-25).

In this interaction, we are looking at the difference between a strong monergist or no-risk perspective and the evangelical synergistic option that ascribes to God’s plan and providence the largest possible risk. So, it is very natural that Boyd puts compatibilism on the table for examination. He describes how regularly he is frustrated by the inscrutability or mysteriousness acknowledged by Calvinists like Helseth, in regard to the manner in which human moral responsibility is maintained when God ordains everything exactly as it occurs, including all evil acts. In particular, Boyd is concerned that no divine determinist of whom he is aware “has provided an analogy that renders meaningful the kind of God-creation relationship divine determinists want to defend” (74). “If God is already exhaustively controlling all ‘created things,’” Boyd wonders what is “left for God to work ‘concurrently with’ in order to ‘cause them to act as they do’” (75). In the situation described by determinists, Boyd sees “no ‘concurrence’; there is simply an ‘occurrence,’ and it is all God’s” (75). Boyd cannot understand what it can possibly mean “to claim that secondary causes ‘remain distinct’ from the primary cause when we are also told that the primary cause that ‘confers reality’ on the secondary cause ‘exhaustively determines’ it” (75). The distinction between God and the world thus looks to Boyd to be merely verbal. The meaning of the phrase “in such a way,” which Reformed confessions and theologians use to describe the manner in which God controls everything in detail, while leaving creatures genuine agency, is completely obscure to Boyd.

As usual, the problem of evil arises as the critical issue, and Boyd confesses that he is profoundly disturbed by Helseth’s position. It seems to Boyd that “the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have lost all meaning, so that he is left wondering: “If this is what an all-good God ordains, what would an evil god ordain?” (77).

My reflections

Re: Highfield’s response

I concur with Highfield regarding the causal terminology that Helseth used. I too found it misleading and thought that it made it more difficult for us to explain why God is not the author of the evil actions of moral creatures, but I do not yet know how Highfield himself addresses this critical matter. I am sorry that he agreed with Helseth’s criticism of libertarian freedom, for reasons that I stated in reflecting on Craig’s critique. (I don’t affirm that creaturely freedom is, or must be, libertarian, but I disliked the particular criticisms Helseth offered.) I agree with Highfield’s assertion that a Christian doctrine of providence should be thoroughly trinitarian, but I take this to be a strength of Calvinist formulations, so I am eager to read Highfield’s own constructive proposal to discover just where and how he offers a model of meticulous providence that is significantly different from Calvinism. His brief outline, in this response to Helseth, leaves me intrigued but ignorant of the shape of Highfield’s own direction.

Re: Boyd’s response

If I were Helseth, I would be very troubled by Boyd’s complaint that he had been seriously misrepresented. I do think that Helseth overstated the extent to which God can intervene, if he has given creatures as much freedom to determine the events of history as open theists say he has. On the other hand, I am also a bit surprised at the strength of Boyd’s criticism, since some of his fellow open theists do believe that God can predict the future of events which he has determined will happen, even though the number of such events is severely limited to what is necessary for the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes. On the other hand, I have often expressed my own doubt that open theism’s theodicy has as big an advantage over Calvinism’s as they propose, because they stop short of Deism. In particular, I doubt that open theists have given sufficient attention to the many ways in which God could have acted to prevent the most obvious horrors of human history, without any detraction from the freedom of human or demonic wills, through physical means. So, I sense  overstatement from both sides at this point, but I can see why Boyd feels that his open theism has been misrepresented in Helseth’s charge that the God of open theism 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” (71).

As often happens when I  read the work of synergist theologians, I feel the force of Boyd’s puzzlement about the coherence of compatibilism, and the gravity of his concerns about God’s goodness in the face of evil, when God is so completely on control. In my series of interactions with Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism I dealt with this repeatedly. I think that my own model of providence addresses synergist concerns better than Helseth’s omnicausal construction does, but I have no illusions that I have put forward a position which would satisfy Boyd much because, at the bottom line, God remains the one who achieves the will of his eternal purpose in all the occurrences of history, and I admit that it is difficult to explain how creaturely agency maintains the genuineness necessary for moral responsibility. That such is taught in Scripture is clear to me, and I keep working at how best to speak of it, but the challenge is great. On the one hand, I use different (and perhaps softer) language than Helseth does, but the features of determinism which present so huge a stumbling block to synergists remain. As Jowers pointed out in his introduction, there is sufficient complexity in the biblical text to make resolution of this long-standing difference of belief within the Christian church a daunting task. Nevertheless, I am thankful for a book like this because the issue is so important that we cannot give up the quest. Our faith must continue to seek understanding.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2

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3 Responses to Restorationist and Open Theist responses to a determinist model of providence

  1. Ron Highfield says:

    Terrance:

    I really appreciate your reflection on my contribution to the Four Views On Divine Providence book. I have found your book, Providence and Prayer very useful and have use it in my God and Providence class at Pepperdine University. I recognize that my peice in the book was not fully developed. I resonate largely in harmony with Karl Barth’s view of providence, and find Thomas Aquinas’s treatises on providence very helpful. I am currently working on a book that encompasses Creation and Providence. I hope to answer some of the questions you surfaced. But at the end of the day, I am not sure that I can resolve–even in my own mind–a debate that has raged since the subject was first articulated. What matters to me is to find a way rest my mind in a view of providence that allows me to place all my faith for a meaningful life and a safe homecomig in God. All the best. Ron Highfield

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Thank you Ron. My comment about not knowing your position yet comes from the fact that I blog about books in “real time.” So I haven’t gotten to your exposition yet, just your comments on Helseth’s model. I look forward to your chapter when I get there.

      • Ron Highfield says:

        Okay. Well, I will be interested in your assessment. Boyd and Craig did not think very highly of it. You can decide whether they understood it or were fair to it. I was a bit dubious about the “Restorationist” label. I do come from the Stone-Campbell tradition, which tends toward biblicism; so I can’t quite declare loyalty to any theological system but the Bible. But I am deeply impressed by the thread of traditional theology that runs from Irenaeus to the Cappadocians to Anselm and Aquinas to Calvin to the Reformers to Post Reformation Reformed Orthodox to Barth. And this is where my mind has found a resting place. Peace. Ron

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