The God who controls by liberating

“I think it is defensible, even if frustrating, for advocates of complete divine sovereignty to admit they do not know a way to bring belief  in God’s perfect lordship in complete harmony with human freedom” (Highfield, 142-43).






In Chapter 3 of  Four Views on Divine Providence, Ron Highfield presents a model whose central thesis is that “God controls by liberating and liberates by controlling” (141)

A restatement of Ron Highfield’s model of divine providence

Ron Highfield places himself firmly on the no-risk side of the debate concerning the relationship of divine and human action in bringing about the history of humankind. In this regard, he has previously expressed his agreement with the bottom line of Paul Helseth’s model in this book. Like me, therefore, I expect that most readers of the book (or of this blog series) will approach Highfield’s chapter with an eagerness to discover how Highfield’s model differs from Helseth’s. I suggest that the difference lies primarily in their theological method, rather than in their theological conclusions. Although the term “apophaticism” never arises in this chapter, it strikes me as the factor that most distinguishes Highfield’s presentation from Helseth’s. We hear it in the quotation that I put at the very beginning of this post. Helseth devoted significant attention to demonstration of the plausibility of his compatibilism, drawing on the scholastic tradition in that process. By contrast, Highfield prefers to affirm unapologetically aspects of truth that he finds taught in Scripture, while urging us not to speculate about how these are compatible.

God’s comprehensive control

Highfield asserts that “Scripture contains many confessional and doxological texts that generalize ideas of God’s sovereign control or almighty power or unlimited knowledge”, and he cites as typical of these Job 42:2, Isaiah 46:10-11, Ephesians 1:11, Philippians 3:20-21, and 1 John 3:20 (144). In praise, biblical authors stretch “to find words worthy of God’s greatness” (Ps 106:2; 145:1-3, 21; Rom 11:33-36; Rev 4:8, 11). Admittedly, “some narrative texts seem to imply limitations in God’s control or power or knowledge,” and these are emphasized by Open theists. But Highfield finds “no texts that generalize divine risk and limits,” whereas “scores of texts in Scripture heighten God’s transcendence” (145). Only affirmation of God’s comprehensive control coheres “with a Scripture-based, God-honoring doctrine of God.” So the very essence of God is at stake here (146).

How does God work in providence?

It is in answer to this question of “how?” that Highfield’s model distinguishes itself among monergist proposals. He proposes that “many discussions of divine providence get off track at this point by adopting a careless analogy between human and divine ways of acting” (146). Scripture teaches that “the one God acts through the Word and the Spirit to create, guide, govern, reconcile, and redeem the world—without diluting his Godhead or displacing creation” (147). In attempts to explain God’s relationship to the world in philosophical, logical or psychological terms,” Highfield discerns a transformation of “revealed mystery into a speculative obscurity,” and a revival of the fundamental mistake of second-century Gnosticism, namely, the quest for “mediators to span the gap between the transcendent God and the material universe” (147).

The way forward, Highfield believes, is to let the analogy of faith form our perspective. In the case of creation, human freedom depends absolutely on God’s power, but divine sovereignty and human freedom do not conflict. Similarly, in the incarnation, Jesus triumphed over sin, “not because his human freedom was empowered by divine grace, but because divine grace empowered him for genuine freedom” (148). Similarly, in salvation, “our freedom to live for God is always a Spirit-empowered response to his grace freely bestowed on us. God’s grace creates and empowers human freedom for God, for faith, love, and good works” (149). In none of these three instances is creaturely freedom threatened by God’s sovereignty. By analogy, in providence, “God works before, through, with, inside, around, and after human working to accomplish his will. . . . God frees human freedom from the futility of its blind groping and enables it to achieve its end” (150). What Highfield is explicitly not doing, in all of this, is “proposing a theory of ‘how’ God does this” (150n23).

Highfield is aware that a key concern for Christian theologies of providence is demonstration of the grounds of human responsibility. This looms large in synergistic theologies which assert that human freedom must be libertarian, a freedom of choice that includes the principle of alternative possibilities. By contrast, Highfield insists that “the power of radical self-determination is not ascribed to human beings in Scripture,” which describes our condition as deception, ignorance, slavery, blindness, misery, corruption and death (153). In his view, the possibility of repentance, and therefore of forgiveness, is rooted in our deficiency in these regards (154). In biblical teaching, freedom is seen as “the perfect realization of human nature and destiny,” as the goal rather than the beginning of human life, and this is achieved only by divine grace (155-56). “Even if we cannot explain how God works in providence to accomplish his will perfectly,” there is no biblical warrant for asserting that comprehensive divine control contradicts human freedom and responsibility (156)

What about evil?

Highfield draws on Karl Barth in his approach to evil. Barth defined evil as a manifestation of what “God has not willed and does not will and will not will,” and Highfield asserts that, if this is true, “then evil can have no genuine and lasting being” (159). This does not mean that evil is not real. “Even though evil is nothing in itself, it is a deadly enemy of creation and therefore an enemy of the Creator” (160). Now Highfield is aware that monergism is often charged with making God the doer of evil, since evil exists and God’s will is done in and through it (160), but he appeals to the complex nature of an act, to address this complaint. Acts involve at least five aspects: intention, deliberation, decision, exertion using means, and results. Of these, he finds the final one must important, because it underlines that “the final meaning of an act must be left open as long as history lasts,” since it is only then that the results will be apparent (161). Our intention in doing evil is gravely wrong, yet God empowers our action throughout its duration, through his concurrence or cooperation. But God does not “merely sustain and empower human acts while leaving the direction to the human actor in the name of freedom. God leaves the defects of a person’s will behind and achieves his will in and through the human agent’s actions” (162). So “God does not do evil when he works in and through our stupid, ignorant, and evil human acts. God overcomes the stupidity, ignorance, and evil to accomplish his good will perfectly” (162). This is best seen in the light of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, because it is there that “the end of history has been revealed” (163).

My initial reflections on Highfield’s proposal

After I have summed up the responses of the other three authors in this book, I will have more to say, but I will make a few early observations concerning my own response to this proposal from a fellow monergist. I read Highfield’s work with particular interest because I was unfamiliar with his previously published work in this area, and I’m always eager to get help from other monergists as I refine my own position.

Highfield’s reluctance to dissolve the mystery by rational speculation

I mentioned earlier that I consider Highfield’s distinctive contribution to this discussion to be his aversion to speculative attempts to demonstrate how God’s comprehensive control is compatible with human morally responsible freedom. Since I feel very keenly the concerns of incompatibilists in this regard, I am naturally disappointed that Highfield did not add something constructive to my own efforts to understand and explain compatibilism. I have mentioned on this blog that I have a low tolerance level for mystery because I fear the risk of confusing mystery with nonsense. On the other hand, I grant that Highfield may be taking the only course open to us. We must do our best to believe all that God has revealed, and we dare not suppress or distort any clearly revealed truth because we are unable to explain how it coheres with other clearly revealed truth.

I think that Highfield is correct to rely upon the big picture in Scripture, when he seeks to discern the extent of God’s control. All of us, whether monergist or synergist, find texts in Scripture that seem contrary to our general paradigm or “system,” but we are wise to look for the dominant direction of Scripture’s teaching on a subject and to stay with it until further study convinces us that we had misconstrued some things in constructing our earlier formulation. I came to believe a monergist soteriology, kicking and struggling, but it made sense of the thrust of Scripture as a whole. In the many years since that time, as I have reread and listened to Scripture, my sense that the Bible portrays God as meticulously in control in his world has grown stronger rather than weaker. Equally clearly, however, I hear Scripture’s teaching about human moral responsibility. Since both of these are taught, I affirm them both, even though no explanation of their coherence has gained the consensus of the church, despite the many centuries in which the issue has been discussed. At this point, however, I am not prepared to stop where Highfield stops. I think that more can be said to demonstrate that compatibilism is not nonsense. Nevertheless, I commend him for refusing to silence Scripture’s teaching on one or other of these points because of his inability to unpack what looks mysterious, to  satisfy other people.

A few questions

In regard to salvation, has Highfield done justice to the crucial role ascribed to God’s grace by all Christians except Pelagians, whose numbers are very small? All the evangelical synergists I know emphasize the absolute necessity of God’s prevening and accompanying grace to faith or obedience on the part of any sinful human being. I suspect that many Arminian evangelicals will feel badly misrepresented in this regard. What evangelical Arminian would deny that “sin is not something you can stop doing through your own effort and choice, apart from divine help”? And who of them would assert that “we possess self-determining freedom as a natural power or can achieve it on our own”? (154).

Is it fair to assert that the libertarian view of freedom is “profoundly misguided and overflowing with hubris and self-flattery”? (152). None of the evangelical synergist theologians I know fit that description. If they are wrong about the nature of freedom, I can hardly charge them with being “profoundly misguided,” because their conclusion that responsibility entails one’s having been able to do otherwise sounds very reasonable, and I am not entirely satisfied with my own inability to show synergists otherwise. My proposal of “universal sufficient grace” has been in the interests of giving a coherent account of moral responsibility, and I still find it helpful, but other Calvinists have not rushed to appropriate the idea. I can think of no evangelical synergist theologian, who affirms responsible freedom to be libertarian, who has arrived at that conclusion from “hubris and self-flattery.”

Is Barth’s proposal that evil is a manifestation of what God does not will helpful, unless we add to the discussion the common Calvinist distinction between God’s revealed will and the will of his eternal purpose? I suspect that such explanation may fall into the category of rational speculation, to which Highfield is adverse, but it looks to me to be much more helpful than Barth’s way of speaking.

Is an appeal to the final good that God achieves, a good which will not be apparent until the end of this age, the most helpful way to absolve God from the charge that he does evil when humans act sinfully and do so according to the will of God? I think that more should be made of the importance of the moral quality of intention, rather than leaving resolution to the final outcome of deeds. Here Joseph’s description of the difference between the intention of God and the intention of his brothers, in the wrong that was done to him, is helpful. Perhaps Highfield wishes to assert that God’s intentions are always good even though we do not yet see the good toward which God is directing history, or the way in which these particular evil events fit into the big picture. If that is his point, I missed it, unless that is the meaning of the statement that “we cannot expect to see the end of things with our eyes any more than the Good Friday disciples could anticipate Resurrection Sunday” (164). Even so, I am reluctant to speak in a manner that may leave some people concluding that the end justifies the means. I think that something more constructive needs to be said about the good of God’s actions at the moment of the means.

My questions notwithstanding, and despite my hope that more can be said to illuminate the “how” of God’s working in the world which does not destroy the responsibility of our own deeds, I am happy to have had the opportunity to ponder these issues again through Highfield’s work. If nothing else, he serves to warn me that, when my faith seeks understanding, I must be ready to accept my limitations in the face of God’s greatness. Heresy arises when we draw the line between Creator and creature in the wrong place, and I welcome the work of fellow believers in seeking where the proper place is for that line.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5


By Terrance Tiessen

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

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