A Divine self-limitation model of providence – 2

Reflections on Roger’s model of providence

In my last post I began to examine the way Roger Olson understands God’s foreknowledge to contribute to his providential activity in the world, in the fourth chapter of his book, Against Calvinism,. I will continue on that theme in this post and then make some final concluding assessments of Roger’s model of providence.

The nature and role of God’s knowledge in Roger’s model (continued)

 I first wondered, when I read the passage previously cited from page 84, if Roger might think of God’s foreknowledge incrementally rather than simply, as per the tradition. In that model, God knows the entirety of creation’s history by the time it begins, but he foresees it incrementally. It is as though he played the film for a brief moment and then stopped it, decided what he would do, put his action into the event and then rolled the film again to see how it developed when it included the action he had introduced. This sets up a situation rather like the one proposed by Open Theism, except that God went through the process before history began rather than being an actor in the history as that is still open to decisions, for him as well for the creatures.

Roger had talked about how God foreknew and permitted particular actions. He then went on: “Someone might ask how God could be sure they would happen. God knows the hearts of people and can foresee that, given certain foreseen circumstances, they will do sinful things” (84). This added to the intrigue I felt. Now he has thrown into the mix an account of God’s knowledge of the future actions of people that sounds rather like the compatibilist approach which many Calvinists take. Do we hear the voice of Jonathan Edwards? Horrors! The “hearts of people,” about which Roger speaks, sound remarkably like the “affections” of Edwards’ philosophy.

Once Roger gets to summing up his alternative to divine determinism, the picture finally becomes clear. Roger has taken a Molinist turn, as many other Arminians have, but he maintains a stricter limit on the range of God’s use of his knowledge of counterfactuals, in his ongoing concern for theodicy. Roger wrote: “God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled” (99). So, God knows the counterfactuals of libertarianly free creaturely actions. He knows what particular people would do in particular circumstances, and he can therefore place them in circumstances where they will do what will move history forward in the direction God wishes it to go.

On the synergistic side of the great watershed, Molinism is the model that gives God the most control. So I am happy to see Roger appropriate from it, but his concerns for theodicy do not allow him to go all the way. What Roger says God “may and no doubt sometimes does,” Molinists believe he always does. In the Molinist perspective, the whole of world history, including all of its details, is the world that God chose to actualize, from among all the possible worlds.

Concluding assessment

As I wrap up my analysis of Roger’s model of providence, I offer a few final comments. The first has to do with its coherence. He has asserted that God is not unable to act in history in order to bring about his plan, but within the Arminian tradition this needs to be limited so that the freedom given to moral creatures is not unduly constrained. When God does need to act, Roger suggests that he is able to do so in the Molinist way, through his knowledge of counterfactuals of libertarian freedom. I find Molinism very attractive except for one major problem, upon which Calvinists and Open Theists are agreed. It is called the grounding objection. If creatures have the power of contrary choice and their choices are determined by the will of those creatures, and not determined by their hearts or affections etc., then it is impossible to predict them. Counterfactuals of such freedom are unpredictable because they have no truth value; nothing would ground the truth of propositions about such decisions. As counterfactuals, most of them will never occur. The ones that do become factual, by the choices of humans, were  unpredictable prior to those choices. So the appropriation of a Molinist account of God’s intervention won’t work.

If, however, Roger were to answer that he agrees with Molinists that the grounding objection is not valid, a much larger problem emerges for his theodicy, I think. Hitherto, he has absolved God from responsibility for the gross evils that occur in human history by appealing to God’s desire to be freely loved or not, by creatures who could do otherwise than they do. God does not prevent  horrors like the holocaust, or the brutal rape of children, or countless other gross human evils, even though he could do so by the Molinist mechanism that he occasionally uses, because his intervention is reserved for events which are essential “for his plan to be fulfilled,” which I take to mean his redemptive program. Is this really going to give any greater comfort to the parents of a brutalized child than the Calvinist doctrine of God’s wise, loving and meticulous providence? If God could “manipulate historical circumstances” to bring about the crucifixion of Jesus without infringing upon libertarian freedom, why is prevention of the many great evils of history, including the brutal death of these parents’ child not included in that plan of God? In short, I doubt that Roger has made much progress in regard to his concerns to justify God in the face of sin and evil.

My largest sticking point in regard to a divine self-limitation model is that it does not fit the biblical narrative as I read it. This is how I recommend that people arrive at a model of providence. Calvinists and Arminians can trade proof texts until the cows come home, but we all read individual texts in light of the context of the metanarrative of Scripture. Since becoming a Calvinist, 54 years ago, my reading of Scripture has only strengthened my sense that God, as he has revealed himself supremely in Jesus, has always been completely in control.

Being convinced that meticulous divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility are not compatible, Roger has had to give up one or the other. Apparently, he has found the biblical evidence for human moral responsibility the most compelling. I certainly agree that Scripture persistently testifies to that truth. On that point, we are agreed. But I hear God’s detailed control as regularly attested in Scripture, and so I must be a compatibilist, even if the demonstration of that compatibility is difficult. I hope to outline the shape of my compatibilist understanding in a future post, but I can say now that, even if I were unable to explain the coherence of these two so clearly attested truths, I would have to believe them both and believe that they are compatible because they are both true. Roger has rejected appeals to mystery at this point, because he sees only contradiction. I prefer J. I. Packer’s suggestion of “antinomy.” Whatever contradiction appears to our limited minds is not in fact contradictory. Our finitude is to blame, not our misreading of Scripture.

From Scripture, I have arrived at the understanding that we live in a world in which no dice is thrown, no sparrow falls, and no hair leaves a person’s head outside of God’s control; nor does Christ fail to keep any of those whom the Father has given to him. In every instance where evil and sin are occurring, God is able to have prevented it if he had chosen, and I do not understand his purposes in many of the details of life. But I know God to be good and wise and loving, and so I trust him, even though I often join creation in groaning as I wait for the glorious day of God’s consummation of redemption, when all that is now so wrong will be put right.

 Earlier posts in the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

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