Books Providence Theology Proper

Helseth’s determinist model of providence

 An introduction to the book as a whole

This is my first post dealing with  Four Views on Divine Providence edited by Dennis W. Jowers. I am fond of multiple view books because of the conversations that they facilitate between people who have different perspectives on subjects of interest. Few theological subjects interest me more than divine providence, for two reasons. First, it forces us to deal with the great theological watershed issue between the various forms of monergism and synergism. Secondly, this is a doctrine of immense practical importance in our daily lives. Our model of providence informs particularly how we pray (both in request and thanksgiving), and how we respond to evil. We confront both of these issues on a daily basis.

Dennis Jowers introduces this book. First he provides a helpful survey of key biblical texts concerning God’s providence, concerning which he notes particularly the way in which these are understood by different interpreters to lead us to irreconcilable models of providence. Then he concisely traces the history of the doctrine within Christian theology. Briefly, he introduces the four participants in this conversation: Paul Kjoss Helseth represents the Reformed tradition which affirms that God “causes every creaturely act in such a way as to determine completely its nature and outcome;” William Lane Craig represents Molinism, arguing that God’s middle knowledge enables him to control the course of worldly affairs “without predetermining any of his creatures’ free decisions;” Ronald Highfield speaks for the Restorationist tradition and attempts to state a perspective which “differs from the others in context and emphases;” and Gregory Boyd presents an open theist understanding.

I have not previously read anything written by Helseth or Highfield, but I am very familiar with the work of Craig and Boyd. Highfield’s contribution, as Jowers describes it, sounds particularly mysterious. I assume that all of these evangelical authors hold to what they believe is the perspective most consistently taught by Scripture, so I will be interested to see what makes Highfield’s proposal distinctive, and how it relates to the 11 models of providence that I have described in Providence and Prayer.

In that regard, I should reveal that my book review posts appear in “real time,” in the sense that I write them as I am proceeding through books. This is obviously different from the way I write single reviews of a book, some of which I may yet do for the blog too. I like the opportunity to get my thoughts on paper fairly soon after I have finished a section of reading material. But I’m aware that, as a result, later posts may end up revising assessments I made in earlier ones, as my own perspective or understanding evolves. Reader beware!

Paul Helseth’s description of the God who “causes all things”

Helseth draws on the Reformed Confessions, and on the work of authors highly regarded within the Reformed tradition. These include particularly Francis Turretin, B. B. Warfield, Herman Bavinck, A. A. Hodge, and Richard Muller. So the doctrine of providence that we meet in Helseth’s presentation sums up what might be called Reformed orthodoxy. Helseth distinguishes this position from both deistic and pantheistic conceptions, which he deems to be portraits of God as a “mere Godling,” (a term he appropriates from B. B. Warfield). God is, instead, the irrisistible Ruler, “who is the Creator of ‘all that is and, as well, the upholder and powerful governor of all that he has made, [and] according to whose will, therefore, all that comes to pass must be ordered’ [Warfield, “Predestination”]” (27). God is thus “the free determiner of all that comes to pass in the world,” but he “determines all things in such a way that ‘the real activity of second causes’ is both affirmed and maintained” (28). Thus God is neither the sole cause of everything that happens in the universe, nor the author of evil (28).

Helseth notes an important difference between the position of the Jesuits, Socinians and Remonstrants on one hand, and the Reformed on the other. The former believe that God simply gives to second causes the power of acting and permits them to act. But the Reformed believe that God’s concursive action is “particular and specific (by which it flows immediately into both cause and effect)” (cited from Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:502). Turretin suggests two reasons why the former group posit that God’s work as first cause is “indifferent to this action or the contrary”: (1) they wish to vindicate God from the causality of sin, and (2), they want to establish the indifference of the human will in all acts (especially in conversion), and yet to reconcile it with divine providence (30, n. 24). But, in the Reformed perspective, God works simultaneously or concurrently with created things, causing them to act as they do and thereby fulfill God’s all-determining will (31), without being morally responsible for the evil done by created beings.

Bavinck thus specifies that God, as primary cause, works through the secondary cause, so that “the effect that proceeds from the two is one and the product is one.” There is no division of labor between God and his creatures, “but the same effect is totally the effect of the primary cause as well as totally the effect of the proximate cause. . . . Because the primary cause and the secondary cause are not identical and differ essentially, the effect and product are in reality totally the effect and product of the two causes, to be sure, but formally, they are only the effect and product of the secondary cause” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:614-15, cited p. 31 n. 25). Although a conceptual distinction can be made between God’s providential operations of preservation, concurrence and government, the three are always integrally connected (31).

Helseth describes God’s act of creation as “thoroughly gratuitous.” The world does not have to be, and its continued existence is radically contingent, being from moment to moment simply for the glory of God (32-33). This contingency persists in God’s providential work, so that the world of secondary causes is never separate from the primary cause, nor ever independent (34). Helseth acknowledges that there is not complete consensus about this among Reformed theologians. Charles Hodge, for instance, posited that created beings have the ability to originate action, but he did not see this as inconsistent with being “moved and induced to exert our ability to act by considerations addressed to our reason or inclinations, or by the grace of God” (Systematic Theology, 1:604, cited p. 34 n. 47). Helseth thinks that Hodge’s reasoning was unduly influenced by Scottish realism at this point, but he doubts that there is really substantive difference between Hodge’s position and that of Bavinck (34 n. 47).

In God’s providential act of preserving his creatures, God does not nullify “but rather establishes the real existence of secondary causes” (36). Helseth agrees with Bavinck’s admission that this a mystery beyond our capacity to understand, so that “our minds are ‘always inclined to do less than justice’ either to the fact of our absolute dependence on God or to the reality of our unique creaturely existence” (36, with reference to Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:608). It is at this point that Reformed theology corrects the errors of both Deism and pantheism. “It affirms not just that secondary causes are and remain distinct from God, the primary cause, but also that the primary cause ‘confers reality’ on secondary causes and that these causes continue to exist ‘solely as a result of the first” (37, citing Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:614). Thus the “self-activity of the secondary causes” is “sustained from beginning to end by God power,” and they “work with a strength and power that is natural to them” (37).

Helseth next responds to what indeterminists perceive as points of weakness in the concept of divine omnicausality.

  • The primary difficulty arises from “the increasingly pagan milieu that makes the doctrine sound almost completely implausible to contemporary listeners” (38). “We think increasingly little of God and progressively more of ourselves and of our capacities,” and “we resent belonging, especially belonging absolutely, to anybody else, even if that anybody else be God” (39, citing Warfield, “Predestination,” 103).
  • For those who reject determinism on biblical grounds, the major objection is that it destroys moral responsibility through undermining human freedom and, in the process, “commends a vision of God that they find revolting” (39). These people posit that God’s concurrence does not flow into the activity of the will, but “into its effect, leaving the will entirely free while at the same time providentially supporting its result” (40, citing Richard Muller, “Grace, Election, and Contingent Choice . . .,” 265).

Helseth identifies two lines of response commonly taken by Reformed theologians:

(1) Compatibilism is difficult, or even impossible, to explain but the question is principally theological rather than philosophical. Scripture is “clear that in this world, God ‘concurs with all second causes and especially with the human will’ while simultaneously leaving the ‘contingency and liberty of the will . . . unimpaired’” (40-41, citing Turretin 1:511). So, compatibilism is biblical, and we most hold God’s overall determining in tension with free and contingent creaturely action, without allowing one to cancel out the other (41).

(2) Libertarian freedom is impossible to reconcile with many explicit Scriptural teachings (cf. Col 1:17; Acts 17:28), but it is also “extremely problematic, for it presumes that ‘some things existed prior to and apart from the creative work of God and continue to exist outside of God’s providence’” (41, citing Muller, 266-67). This is seen in Molinism and Arminianism, where “the finite agent acts independently in bringing about the action or effect” (42, citing Muller, 267). These theologies presume “that finite agents have the capacity to bring themselves and other things ‘from potency to actuality without the divine concurrence’” (43, citing Muller, 267).

  • Determinism is charged by some detractors with presenting a vision of God that is revolting, and in which it would be easy to confuse God with Satan. But Helseth argues that “Reformed believers are persuaded that particular evils happen” because God “ordained that they would, and he did so for reasons that, while ultimately inscrutable, nevertheless serve to conform believers more and more to the image of Christ (Rom 8:28-30)” (44). [Lest you are wondering, Helseth does not speak about God’s reasons with regard to the non-elect.]  Helseth counter-charges that “there is a viable candidate for a truly contemptible deity,” but it is “the God of open theism, . . . a capricious being who cannot be trusted to work in every situation in a way that maximizes good and minimizes evil for his creatures” (45). This judgment is made on account of “the arbitrary role that ‘select determinism’ plays in the open view of providence” (45, and spelled out at length on pp. 46-48), which is a perspective in which “suffering is entirely pointless” (48).

Finally, Helseth offers some reasons why “the doctrine of divine omnicausality merits a fresh appraisal.”

  • It gives us understanding of the real meaning of the world, by encouraging us to think about its meaning in theocentric, rather than covertly anthropocentric, terms (48-49).
  • It encourages us to view the world in a sacramental rather than a secular sense, giving “fresh momentum to the efforts of Christian scholars to integrate faith and learning,” seeing the world in both a scientific and a religious way, complementarily. (50)
  • It fosters fruitful reconsideration of the free-will defense and the problem of evil. It does this through a compatibilistic understanding of human freedom (50-51), and an understanding of evil as “something that advances rather than frustrates [God’s] good purposes and plans (51). Although we are unable to comprehend how God’s omnicausility coheres with genuine human agency, we are “called to place our confidence in the character and promises of our Father,” even when we do not understand precisely what he is doing (52).

That is plenty to chew on for a blog post, so we will take up the responses of the other three authors in a later post. In the meantime, however, you are welcome to offer your own responses, which may turn out to be similar to those in the book, or may take completely different directions. Or you can wait until you hear from the others and me, before putting your own ideas on the table.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

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