John Marshall wrote an interesting comment on my post “What makes a theological statement newsworthy?” I will answer it in this post rather than in the comment thread, to allow for broader interchange. John wrote:
“I am an undergrad in the UK and working on a dissertation on providence and I am wondering if we should make some kind of distinction between God’s will/providence in natural events or lots being cast and his divine agency of grace? Has anyone done that before? I am wondering if I can still affirm an ‘all things’ control on the one hand (natural events) and move to a less than monergistic view on divine grace. Finding it hard as calling and chosen passages loom large to me too. However I see a stronger claim in tradition to Olsen and the Eastern Orthodox in their synergism.”
You raise an intriguing possibility John and, as I indicated when I discussed the appeal of Calminianism, it is an idea that I have met quite often – a combination of monergistic providence with synergistic salvation. I hear you observing that your inclination in this direction is more emotionally than exegetically grounded, and that is where you will have to sort things out eventually. If you conclude that Scripture actually does teach meticulous divine providence and a synergistic process of salvation, that is what you can confess.
What I want to put on the table right now, however, is not the exegetical data in one direction or the other but some thoughts about how God would bring such a situation about. This is something you’ll want to consider as you construct your doctrine of providence. I’m having a hard time conceiving how God could maintain meticulous control at the providential level if he gave creatures indeterministic freedom in regard to salvation. Let me think out loud about this and then you and others can throw your/their own thoughts into the mix.
Consider how synergistic salvation works, as formulated by Arminians. God graciously enables everyone to be saved, but he is scrupulous about not doing more for any one person than for another because, if he did, he would fall into the scandal of unconditional election. So, God has left to human beings the decision about who among them gets saved, depending upon their use of his evenly distributed grace.
Now think about the way meticulous providence works in a soft compatibilist Calvinism. There, God accomplishes the will of his eternal purpose in all the events of history, usually without taking away the responsible agency of the humans involved. Sometimes God brings about events, in a way that contributes to his overall plan, through his control of non-moral creation – droughts, storms, illnesses etc. This Arminians can also affirm, because the freedom of moral creatures is not involved. But much of the time, God governs human history through the free agency of moral creatures, both regenerate and unregenerate. “The heart of the king is in his hand.”
Given the depravity of humans since the fall, we are now naturally inclined to evil. Frequently God brings about his purposes by permitting sinful creatures to do what they want, without his gracious restraint. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt and Nebuchadnezzar takes much of Judah into captivity in Babylon. God does not incite these people to their sinful action, but he does not restrain them either, because he has good intentions which are accomplished through their evil deeds.
On many other occasions, however, God moves history on the course of his design by interventions of his grace, both special and common. Without regenerating Cyrus (so far as we know), he graciously enables him to benevolence resulting in the return of the Israelites to their land, when the time for their exile has come to an end. On many other occasions, God moves history along through regenerative and sanctifying grace in the lives of those in whom he creates a desire to serve God willingly, for his glory.
In the case of both regenerate and unregenerate actors, however, it is the sovereign action of God’s grace in human lives (whether given or withheld) that is critical in their doing the things which serve God’s purposes and implement his detailed governance of human history. It is difficult for me to see, therefore, how God can bring this about if he commits himself to a completely even-handed distribution of his grace, such as is fundamental in the synergistic soteriology of Arminianism. Considered abstractly, we may speculate that God could maintain meticulous control of common human history while allowing humans to decide their eternal destinies. But in concrete terms, could this really work? How would or could God maintain meticulous control of the general events of human history, if he was committed to giving no more grace to one person than he does to all of them?