Books Providence

Responses to Highfield’s model of providence

I wonder if his reluctance to address the “how” of God’s providential relationship to the world that he has made fosters a measure of confusion that, in the end, is largely unnecessary.” (P. K. Helseth, 167)

It is hard not to detect here a certain distrust of logical analysis and philosophical reflection, which is both unfortunate and naïve: unfortunate because it would deprive us of the insights such reflection might bring and naïve because such methods are already from the start quietly at work when one does biblical exegesis and theology.” (W. L. Craig, 175)

Highfield should have titled his essay “God Controls By Oppressing in Order to Liberate,” though, so far as I can see, even this modified thesis would be acceptable only if Highfield embraced universalism.” (G. A. Boyd, 179)

The other three contributors to Four Views on Divine Providence offer their responses to Ron Highfield’s model, the central thesis of which is that “God controls by liberating and liberates by controlling” (141).

Response by Paul Helseth

Paul Helseth is naturally happy to have a fellow monergist in the discussion. He appreciates about Highfield’s proposal:

  • the air of worship that pervades his work
  • his “self-conscious devotion to the analogy of faith” (165)
  • his recognition that our culture’s attraction to the notion of creaturely autonomy makes “no-risk” models of providence difficult to promote
  • his acknowledgment that the compatibility of God’s meticulous control with responsible human freedom is difficult to explain because of God’s inscrutability
  • his caution regarding speculative methods to address the above difficulty
  • his insistence that Scripture does not allow us to assert that “complete sovereignty” and human freedom are incompatible
  • his acknowledgment that full freedom will only be realized in the new heavens and earth

Despite his appreciation for Highfield’s caution about speculation, Helseth believes that Highfield has been unnecessarily reluctant to address the “how” of God’s relationship to the world. Highfield would do better, Helseth proposes, to affirm common Reformed ideas such as the distinction between primary and secondary causation, and descriptions of the concurrence between the agency of God and his creatures, such as are offered in traditional Reformed models of compatibilism (167-68). The lack of such an explanation becomes particularly problematic in Highfield’s discussion of the problem of evil. “Even if we grant that evil is best understood as a ‘deficit or perversion’ in a created reality that is inherently good, it seems that the answer to this question begs for a fuller discussion of ‘the will of God’” (168-69). The common Reformed distinction between the “hidden” and the “revealed” will of God, would serve Highfield well, because it flows naturally from the biblical account and does not lead us into undue speculation.

Response by William Lane Craig

 Since W. L. Craig considers Highfield’s proposal to be essentially the same as Helseth’s, he notes that much of his response to Helseth also applies in this case.

With regard to points of Highfield’s essay that include criticism of Molinism, Craig denies that Molinism limits God’s essential attributes in any way, though he agrees that open theism does (171)

Craig’s main criticisms of Highfield’s model are:

  • that it “limits God’s essence by impugning his essential goodness and wisdom,” because it entails that “God makes people sin and then punishes them for it” (171)
  • that it “cannot really take seriously Scripture’s testimony to God’s universal salvific will” (171)
  • that Highfield’s contention that libertarian freedom is inconsistent with responsibility is “simply astonishing,” in that “Highfield argues that God’s forgiving our sins is dependent on our not being fully responsible for those sins” (172). Furthermore, this proposal is ineffective as part of an objection to libertarian   freedom, because it “only reinforces the claim that one is morally responsible for an act only to the extent that the act is up to that person” (173)
  • that the emphasis on full freedom as the state in which we love God perfectly, and will to do God’s will invariably, is irrelevant to a case against freedom now being libertarian (173)
  • that Highfield’s proposal that God’s will is comprehensive, and that it is invariably done, amounts to a denial that there is any moral evil, “an unscriptural and evidently false conclusion” (173).
  • that divine determinism inescapably makes God responsible for evil done by creatures. Even if God succeeds in bringing good out of the evil, the creature’s evil intent and decision are not rendered morally neutral. So Highfield is stuck on the horns of a dilemma: he must conclude “either that moral evil and sin are illusory or that God is the source of evil” (174).
  • that there is an “incipent irrationalism in Highfield’s approach to theology,” because he “offers almost no account of how God sovereignly controls the universe, much less how such control is compatible with human freedom” (175).

Response by Gregory Boyd

Gregory Boyd appreciates Highfield’s “attempt to sustain a christocentric methodology as well as his obvious, earnest desire to articulate a view of providence that honors God and reflects his Word” (176). But he finds serious problems in Highfield’s model, and he articulates his main concerns in three points. He thinks that Highfield 1) has “inadequate and confusing views on freedom,” 2) propounds a central thesis that is incoherent, and 3) handles the problem of evil inadequately.

1. Issues related to freedom

Boyd affirms Highfield’s argument regarding the final end of our freedom, and concurs that this fullness can not be achieved without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. But he can not understand how that highest form of freedom “could be characterized as a freedom for genuine love of God if the process that led up to it was itself exhaustively controlled by God” (176-77). Scripture’s frequent encouragements to yield to the Spirit, rather than to resist him, depict the liberating power of the Spirit as not all-controlling. Boyd considers unhelpful Highfield’s ad hominem argument against those who affirm freedom to be libertarian, and he contends that it is actually the predominant understanding within the church prior to Augustine.

2. Foundational incoherence

Highfield has argued for a compatibilistic model in which God’s will is always accomplished, but that God “controls by liberating.” Boyd finds these two theses incoherent. Left unanswered are questions such as why not everything is liberated, and  why anyone needs liberating in the first place. There is an unresolved tension between God’s having complete control, including control over whatever holds us in bondage, and the contention that God controls by liberating. To speak of God “overruling” or “defeating” whatever holds us in bondage is incoherent if God controlled it all.

3. The nature of evil

Highfield states that “whatever God does not will is evil and ought not to be, precisely because he does not will it.” But Boyd “cannot conceive of how anything can exist that God does not  will if everything that exists does so only because God wills it, as Highfield argues” (179). The only logical conclusion open to Highfield is that evil does not exist, but it not his intention to say this, even when he denies that evil has “genuine” or “real” being. Boyd finds himself unable to “form a clear conception in [his] mind of what would constitute ‘disingenuous’ and ‘unreal’ being” (179). But the largest problem is that he struggles “to see how evil can exist at all if the all-good God controls everything” (180). Boyd “wonders how the damage done to the soul or body can be evil when God controls both, and nothing controlled by God can be evil,” since everything that God controls is supposed to be liberating (180). In the final analysis, Boyd has to count himself among the majority whom Highfield acknowledges will find his construction regarding evil “manifestly absurd” (180). Boyd is honestly unable to “get a clear idea of what Highfield means” (181).

My concluding reflections

I think that Craig is correct in his assessment that Highfield and Helseth both advocate the same view (170), as regards their general model of meticulous divine sovereignty. Where they differ, however, is not in their conclusion but in their method, and this difference is not insignificant.

My initial response at the end of my exposition of Highfield’s model was fundamentally consonant with Helseth’s proposal that Highfield would do much better if he worked within the framework of a compatibilistic model of the interplay of divine and human agency, such as is traditionally articulated by Reformed theologians and philosophers. Of course, this would not satisfy the two synergists in this conversation, who are by definition committed to incompatibilism and indeterminism. But I think it would alleviate the frustration expressed by both Craig and Boyd at Highfield’s apophatic appeal to God’s hiddenness, and his fear of spelling out how God and moral creatures both have genuine moral agency, though the will of God’s eternal purpose is always achieved. I have expressed before my appreciation of Highfield’s warning that we not venture to speak where God’s revelation leaves us ignorant. But, like Helseth, I think that reasonable inferences can be drawn from God’s explicit revelation and that these require people to make less of a leap of faith, affirming things that seem patently contradictory.

I am very much aware of the revival of interest in Karl Barth’s work among evangelical theologians, particularly those with post-conservative methodological inclinations. I have very high regard for Barth’s historical and exegetical work, much of which goes on in the fine print, but I have never found his dialectical approach helpful. I suggest that where Highfield’s work has been found least satisfactory, by all three of his conversation partners in this book, is where he has been most influenced by Karl Barth. Among evangelicals who see Barth’s theological method as the most helpful way for us to speak of God, Highfield’s model would probably receive greater welcome than it has in this book, and I confess that I am more in tune with these respondents than with evangelical Barthians.

As synergists, Craig and Boyd both protest strongly against Highfield’s compatibilist conclusions, despite his unwillingness to explain the compatibility between God and human moral agency within meticulous divine providence. Having rightly recognized the fundamental agreement between Helseth and Highfield’s model, Craig raises the most basic synergistic objection to all forms of monergism: “according to universal divine determinism, God makes people sin and then punishes them for it, and the world becomes a farcical charade” (171).

This is where the rubber meets the road in the watershed difference between monergism and synergism, and I doubt that the scandal which both sides discern in the other is easily resolved. If it were, we would not have been debating the matter so vigorously for so many centuries, without having achieved consensus within the church. So long as we are going to sincerely pursue such consensus, however, it is important that we describe accurately the position of those with whom we disagree. As a monergist, I think that both Helseth and Highfield should protest the term “makes” in Craig’s statement. What distinguishes compatibilism from incompatibilist fatalism is the conviction that God does not make people sin. I grant that the way we monergists ascribe human responsibility for sin to humans and not to God is deeply unsatisfying to synergists. But I remain convinced that, however difficult it is for us to unpack, there is a critical difference between God’s direct action to bring about events, which are always good, and his deliberate permission of creaturely evil.

It is the way in which God allows moral creatures to violate his moral will, without causing them to do so, that constitutes the compatibility between God’s good action and the creatures evil action, in the same event. This point has to be applied to Craig’s assertion that “Calvinism cannot really take seriously Scripture’s testimony to God’s universal salvific will” (171). Unpersuasive as it has been, Calvinists necessarily insist that there is more than one sense to “will,” and that God wills (hiddenly) in his eternal purpose to allow people to disobey his moral (revealed) will. As I said above, I think that Highfield could have escaped some of the frustration expressed by Craig and Boyd if he had been less apophatic or dialectical, but I grant that Helseth’s traditional Reformed approach (and mine) is not ultimately more satisfactory to convinced synergists.

Despite the many years (about 45) that I have been a Calvinist, I still feel like I am on a journey in regard to the monergist/synergist watershed. The general framework of Scripture continues to portray to me God’s meticulous sovereignty in the world that he has created. But how this is compatible with human moral responsibility is something I continue to probe. It is a theme that has frequently come up in this blog, and that is not likely to change quickly. Reading books like this, in which monergists and synergists butt heads theologically is helpful to me. In various ways, details of my own theological position have changed in the last 20 years or so, and I expect that this will continue as I seek more clear and more truthful articulation of what I believe. Now that I am no longer in the classroom, conversing with students, blogging has become an important part of my quest.

Previous posts in this 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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