Providence Theology Proper

When you make a decision, what do you actually change?

A former student’s question

Recently, a former student of mine raised a question. Here it is:

You asked a question in Sys Theo once that was something like “when you make a decision what do you actually change?” I have pondered this question for years now. Was your point that the decision of the will is insufficient to actually bring what you will into reality? I have argued many times that will and the ability to instantiate the desires of the will are two separate abilities. Is that something close to what you were addressing?

My reply

I replied:

I wish had a recording of what I said, which you recall as “something like ‘when you make a decision what do you actually change?’”

I don’t think my point would have been “that the decision of the will is insufficient to actually bring what you will into reality.”

You “have argued many times that will and the ability to instantiate the desires of the will are two separate abilities.” I’d agree with you on that. Like the apostle Paul, I am often frustrated that I don’t seem able to bring to realization what I will to do. But I doubt that I was making that point either, when you heard me ask the question above.

As a hypothetical knowledge compatibilist, here is how I’d answer your question now. When I make a decision, I am powerless to change the future, which is the future God predetermined when he chose to actualize this particular world history, out of all the possible worlds he could have chosen. In the world in which I make my decision, however, that decision has significant instrumental power. Although God governs the world with meticulous providence, within his providence and, indeed, bringing about a great deal of the future God chose for the world, our decisions and actions as morally responsible agents have real effect.

Whether or not we succeed in attaining what we set out to attain was determined before God created anything, by his choice of this particular world history. He knows that future exhaustively, because it is the future he chose. But we do not know it, and so, from our perspective that future is still open, and we endeavor to discern what would be best, and we make decisions to effectively pursue that good. When our purpose aligns with God’s purpose, we achieve what we aim for. On other occasions, he thwarts our intentions, or he allows us to do evil things because he weaves them into a big picture which is good in the Romans 10:28 sense.

I think that Joseph’s statement to his brothers (Gen 50:20) was paradigmatic of all events in human history within God’s providence, not something peculiar to major redemptive moments, as Open Theists propose. Joseph’s brothers willed to harm Joseph, and their original intention was that he die. When that was modified to selling him to the caravan passing by, they still intended to permanently remove him from their lives and their father’s life. But they were unable to realize their intention, because God had remarkably beneficial intentions for permitting them to do what they did to Joseph.

In short, God chose the world in which Joseph’s brothers were upset with him and sold him as a slave. What they did was evil, because their intention was evil. But God chose to permit that evil because of a much greater good which could come out of it. The world in which Joseph was sold into Egypt was the world in which all that followed took place, resulting in the physical salvation of Jacob’s family and the moving forward of God’s great program for blessing all the nations of the world through Abraham’s descendants.

Joseph’s brothers “changed” the future, in the sense that the future that eventuated was different than it would have been without their action. But they did not change it in the way they intended, because God had different and much more comprehensive intentions.

I think that is something of what I would have had in mind when I said what I said in the class you remember. Does this illumine your recollection at all?


By Terrance Tiessen

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

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