Providence Theology Proper

A Calvinist’s ruminations on an Arminian view of God’s providence

Roger OlsonI did not identify any of the models that I presented in Providence and Prayer as an/the “Arminian model.” Arminianism developed within the Reformed tradition as a distinctive position derived from a synergistic understanding of salvation. As a theological framework, it is therefore fundamentally synergistic, affirming that God has limited his ability to ensure that the history of the world turns out according to the will of his eternal purpose, in all its particulars. Within that general Arminian framework, Open Theism, the Church Dominion model, the Redemptive Intervention model, and even Molinism can be found. But I have a natural interest in formulations of a doctrine of providence which identify themselves as “Arminian.” Hence, my delight at a recent post by Roger Olson on the topic of “Arminianism and Providence.”

Given the great importance of this doctrine, I was not surprised that Olson says: “One of the questions I’m asked most often is about God’s providence in Arminian theology.”

Most people know that Arminians do not believe that God micromanages history or human lives–especially not in terms of evil. That is, Arminians do not believe that God designs, foreordains or renders certain sinful acts. Sin and evil are included in God’s consequent will, not God’s antecedent will. God governs them but does not design, foreordain or render them certain. I have expressed my own overall view of God’s providence this way: “God is in charge but not in control.” However, some Arminians objected to that. I’m not going to repeat my explanation or defense of that here.

I like Olson’s way of describing the overall view of Arminianism, that “God is in charge but not in control.” That is precisely what I hear being said by people whose theology I recognize to be Arminian, an orientation that comes out primarily in their soteriology, even though they may not have unpacked it as clearly as Olson has done. I also appreciate Olson’s statement that, in this post, his  “one concern here, right now, is to explain THAT being Arminian does not require one to believe that God NEVER interferes with free will.” I think that this too is also characteristic of the view of Arminians. People move outside the framework of Arminianism if they deny that God ever “interferes with free will.” To deny that, would put them within the framework I identified as “Semi-Deism.” Olson expands on his thoughts in this way”:

The only category of creaturely decisions and actions where God NEVER interferes with free will IN THE SENSE OF rendering them certain is sin and evil. God permits them but does not design, foreordain or render them certain. One qualification is necessary even here. In relation to creaturely decisions and actions that are sinful, God never designs, foreordains or renders certain individuals’ evil decisions and actions that would cause their condemnation.

Here, I am led to pause for reflection on what it means for an Arminian to say that “God permits but does not design” sinful and evil acts. In my view, the guts are taken out of the term “permission” when Arminians use it. They refer to a very general permission, to the concept that when God determined to create moral beings who would be libertarianly free whenever they are morally responsible, he did not make that determination with particular acts in mind. It was a general permission to allow the history of the world to develop as determined by the wills of moral creatures, with only rare “interventions” or “interferences” by God when something needed to occur in order for God’s overall or final purpose for creation to be realized. In such instances, God could constrain creatures so that they did not act with the power of contrary choice, but there would be no instance in which God determinedly directed a person’s will toward evil.

By contrast, Calvinism asserts that each and every particular act in the history of creation was part of the detailed and comprehensive plan that is often referred to as God’s decree, the will of his eternal purpose. So, when Calvinists speaks of God “permitting” evil, they mean that God never needs to direct the will of a creature towards an evil act. In all instances of evil, God allows creatures who are sinful by nature and choice to do exactly what they want to do, and he does nothing more than keep them alive as they do it. God may even have acted by his Spirit to awaken the conscience of an individual who was contemplating an evil act, and may have prompted doubts of the wisdom of the action, but not to a degree that was efficacious in turning the creature from the evil act. Since God could have done that, we can say of that specific act that God permitted it. His permission was deliberate, and it was specific (unlike the general permission of Arminianism), but it did not entail positive action on God’s part. The critical thing is that God could easily have prevented each and every evil act from occurring, but he deliberately restrained from doing so.

On many occasions, God protects his people, by thwarting the evil will of others, but there are also many instances where God allows that evil will to be carried through, although, when God does this, he always purposes to bring good out of it. Much of the time, God’s providential action is hidden from us, so we have little idea of how often God may have protected us from evil which would have happened to us, but for God’s restraint and guidance. Most of the angelic activity on our behalf, for instance, is unknown to us, but this is also true of God’s work in the minds and wills of human beings whose actions could harm us, intentionally or otherwise.

As a Calvinist, however, I affirm the dignity of creaturely agency, and I believe that much of the time God allows compatibilistically free creatures to do what they want to do, without supernatural intervention by God. I assert that God knows naturally the principles of agent causation and that this enables him to know counterfactuals of creaturely action. God was thereby able to choose a world in which history develops, through the combination of creaturely and divine action, in precisely the way God willed in his decree, which was the choice of the world he would create and govern. God chose a world in which particular evils occur, though they always occur in ways in which the moral responsibility is the creature’s. God is never guilty of evil doing, even when he chooses to allow evil to be done.

Olson continues:

But my main concern here, now, is to say that God DOES interfere in free will in guiding and directing our lives as his people. He is not the author of our sins or failures, but he does direct our lives in terms of opening and closing doors.

With this last sentence, I think that Olson treads on perilous territory for an Arminian. To speak of God “opening and closing doors” is to suggest the possibility that God acts within the world in ways that imperil the principle of even-handedness that is essential to Arminian theodicy. In a framework where God has left up to the will of individuals, the decision to believe savingly in God as he has revealed himself to them, God has necessarily prevented himself from giving anyone an “unfair advantage” over anyone else. His prevening grace, which enables saving faith, is universal and indiscriminate, and in order to avoid the scandal of divine election of the saved, God must be committed to doing nothing for one individual that he does not do (equivalently) for everyone, which would affect their decision to accept or reject God’s grace. But if God were to go around opening or closing doors for some people but not others (at least equivalently), he would be affecting the critical decisions that people make with regard to salvation, and that is anathema to Arminianism.

Roger Olson’s

point is that for the Arminian God is not a “deist God”–uninvolved and only observing. God is intimately involved in the details of our lives–to the extent that we allow him to be. If we shut him out of our lives and tell him to leave us alone he will, saying, reluctantly, “Okay, thy will, not mine be done.” This, too, of course, is within his will–consequently but not antecedently.

This is how I understand God’s providence in my life when I sing, for example, hymns that talk about God “appointing my pathway, knowing just what is needful and best.” I never think such lyrics mean God designs , foreordains or renders certain my sins or failures. I take them to mean that God has a plan for my life and, insofar as I surrender to his will, whatever happens to me is “needful and best.”

Notice the critical proviso there: “insofar as I surrender to his will.” The God of the Arminian model must be extremely careful, therefore, about uneven distributions of grace, as in the opening and closing of doors in people’s lives, lest he influence the critical decision people make to submit to God or to rebel against him.

Of course, God does not design, foreordain or render certain OTHERS’ sins that impact my life. In that case he permits me to be impacted by their sins and brings good for me out of them. But I have no problem believing that he foresees their sinful intentions and allows me to be in the path of their consequences insofar as that is “needful and best” for me.

Here, of course, it is important to note that whatever God may do to bring good out of the evil that occurred to a person, within God’s general permission, must be after the fact and in response to it. Within an Arminian/ synergist model, God may not have determined ahead of time to allow this particular evil to happen to a person because he had designed a specific good to be produced by it.

I’m grateful to Olson, for this statement of his Arminian understanding of God’s providence. I think that there is a tension within it, however, and that he risks subverting the indiscriminateness  which must characterize God’s action in the world if creaturely decisions are to determine the outcomes in their own lives and in history generally, as all synergistic models believe. But I am happy that he is aware of the risk of wandering into semi-deism.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “A Calvinist’s ruminations on an Arminian view of God’s providence”

“By contrast, Calvinism asserts that each and every particular act in the history of creation was part of the detailed and comprehensive plan that is often referred to as God’s decree, the will of his eternal purpose. So, when Calvinists speaks of God “permitting” evil, they mean that God never needs to direct the will of a creature towards an evil act. In all instances of evil, God allows creatures who are sinful by nature and choice to do exactly what they want to do, and he does nothing more than keep them alive as they do it.”

That is contrary to the position of John Calvin who said within the Institutes of Christian Religion in his chapter on providence “I concede more—that thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of Divine Providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the Judgments which he has resolved to inflict. ”

You actually agree more with Jacob Arminus who said in Disputation 18 On the providence of God.
“The power of God serves universally, and at all times, to execute these acts, with the exception of permission; specially, and sometimes, these acts are executed by the creatures themselves. Hence, an act of providence is called either immediate or mediate. When it employs [the agency of] the creatures, then it permits them to conduct their motions agreeably to their own nature,”

In my understanding of classical arminianism God is intricately involved and ordains all actions accept those that lead to sin and evil.

When discussing this topic it is always helpful to go back to John Calvin and Jacob Arminus.

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