Providence Theology Proper

Who wrote/writes the script for the drama, ”The History of the World”?

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about the nature of the freedom God gave to moral creatures, both angelic and human, and how this correlates with the degree of control which God has reserved to himself, within the history of the world. I thought it might be helpful to think of that history as a script, and to describe some of the key models of God’s providence in terms of different theories about how the script gets written.

Differences of opinion on this issue fall on one of the two sides of a great theological watershed.  I picture the situation like this:

Each of the theological models gives us a somewhat different framework for understanding how the script for the drama, “The History of the World,” gets written. Let’s look at this from the perspective of five models of providence, which I’ll take in this order:

(1) Classic Calvinism,

(2)Hypothetical Knowledge Calvinism,

(3) Molinism,

(4) Classic Arminianism, and

(5) Open Theism.

I welcome your critique of the validity of my attempt to picture these 5 models, and I’d be happy to hear:

(1) which of the models you think best represents what we are told in the Bible, and

(2)  how you would tweak the best one to present your own understanding.

The two sides of the watershed

You’ll notice at the top of the diagram 4 different pairs of terms which are commonly used by people talking about this issue:




risk/no risk.

Of these pairs, the first one perhaps captures best the key decision we need to make: whether the script was written by just one author, God, or whether it was written by God and all the other actors, angelic and human, working together.

One author: God, but many morally responsible actors

1. Classic Calvinism

At a logical moment in timeless eternity, God formed the script (his decree or eternal purpose). This included decisions: (1) to create a stage, (2) to create morally responsible actors whose actions and interactions would be the primary direct agents of the unfolding drama, and (3) to (s)elect which of the actors would form the groups (the church and the elect angels), through which God would primarily work to move the drama toward its grand finale on a glorious stage (the new heaven and earth). 

As author of the script, God writes a part for himself into the play, as the most important, but by no means the sole, actor. He is always on stage, but not always visibly active. The script God writes is, in all of its fine detail, the script that is realized precisely throughout the drama, but the actors do not have the script, and so, from their perspective, the future is mostly undetermined. They are continually choosing what they will do or say next, and they are morally praiseworthy or culpable for the choices they make voluntarily. This is because God has given them a freedom sufficient to ground moral responsibility. Provided they act as they wanted to act, without their wants having been constrained by anything outside of themselves, they are responsible for those actions.  Yet, God never loses control.

In accordance with God’s essential role in the script, he frequently gives direction, during the drama, through messengers whom he sends out with messages, and ultimately through a book (The Bible) which reveals to actors how they should think and feel and act. God’s Spirit is also continually at work in the lives of all the human actors, and those who are responsive to it have a sense of his approval (a clear conscience), while those who choose not to do what they believe to be the Director’s order have a sense of having done wrong. None of their disobediences to the Director’s orders or promptings (external or internal), however, disrupt the drama, because those disobediences were themselves part of the script (i.e. of the secret counsel or decree) formulated by God.

So, God is the Almighty One, whose secret will (the script) is always implemented, but he has chosen to have most of the events put into effect directly by created actors who act voluntarily and responsibly. Thus, Calvinists are “compatibilists,” holding together detailed divine determinism and human moral responsibility.

2. Hypothetical knowledge Calvinism

All of the process described above applies in this situation as well, but this model suggests in more detail how God formulated his decree. It draws significantly on work done by proponents of the Molinist model (# 4), but this model is monergistic, compatibilist, and divine determinist.

When God decided that he would create something other than himself, a physical world with moral and amoral creatures, he developed the detailed script for the entire history of that world (as per the classic Calvinist model), but he did so by pondering all of the possible worlds, any one of which he could bring into being, consistently with his own nature. He could do this because, within his natural or necessary knowledge, he knows what any conceivable creature would do in any hypothetical situation. This is possible for him because of the nature of the freedom which he gives to moral creatures, and because of his natural knowledge of the principles of agent causation. He knows that agent X would do Y if situation Z pertained, even if neither that particular type of agent nor that particular set of circumstances ever occurs together. In other words, God knew “counterfactuals.” God then chose to actualize this particular world, from among that immense array of possible worlds. In our current metaphor, he chose one of the huge number of scripts which he could have chosen for the drama, and that is the script within which we now live as voluntary, morally responsible actors who contribute to its realization.

Viewing God’s choice as the choice of an entire script (world history), rather than as a myriad of individual choices, is deemed helpful by proponents of this model. Because of his nature God had to choose a script which was morally good, and which would produce a drama which, in its entirety and final conclusion, glorified God himself, and included no acts of evil or disobedience done culpably by moral creatures, which did not ultimately contribute to a good drama (world/history). (With regard to evil and suffering in world history, this is referred to as “the greater good defense” of God’s own goodness). There were scripts in which the holocaust did not occur, for instance, but God had reasons for deciding that the world in which it did occur, as a whole world history, better served his own good purposes. When believers are glorified in the new earth, we may come to understand why.

Many authors, with all the moral actors contributing to the script   

3.  Classic Arminianism

God has a clear view of how he would like the world to develop, but he has limited his own freedom to bring that about, by creating moral creatures (angelic and human). To these creatures God gives libertarian freedom, the power of alternative possibilities. To be morally responsible for their actions, creatures must have been able to choose to act differently than they did, even though everything else (that is, other than their choice) in their context was exactly the same. Consequently, a great deal of what happens in the story of the world is decided by the created actors (angelic and human). This includes the decision regarding which humans will be members of God’s people, and which of those will be most obedient and responsive to God’s revelation and inner prompting.

The created actors are not writing the script all by themselves though, because there is a final outcome which God has decided will be in the script. God reserves to himself the right to intervene in a situation, if his special providential purposes are going to be foiled otherwise. So, God causes some things directly, and there may be instances in which God even works so strongly in the life of created actors that the actors could not do otherwise than they do, though they are likely not aware of this fact, and this would rarely be necessary. Thus, the writing of the script is a collaborative effort, but God retains ultimate control, ensuring that his essential purposes of redemption are worked out in history. In this scenario, however, the list of things which God has predetermined must be in the script is a great deal shorter than it is in the first two (monergistic) models. So, God alone knows the entire script of the story of the world, before it begins to be enacted, but most of what he foreknows are the actions which creatures libertarianly freely choose to do in the course of history.

4.  Molinism

Again, the script for the story of the world is written collaboratively, because God gives moral creatures the sort of freedom (libertarian) described in the Arminian model. But, he does not simply foreknow the whole script, intuitively, simply because he is God. Rather, there are three (logical) moments in God’s knowledge, and the middle one is the key to what makes this model distinctive. This is the moment in which God knows all possible worlds, because he knows counterfactuals. He knows what a particular kind of creature would do in any possible hypothetical situation, and so he knows a multitude of ways in which history could turn out, with moral creatures acting libertarianly freely, and God continually present and active on the stage. From among these possible histories of the world, God chose the one which will be actualized. As in all the three models we have already described, God knows, before the play begins, exactly how it will all come out. But, most of the decisions and direct actions which bring it about are made by created actors, in the particular world history which God decided would be the one which would be the story of the world.

(You’ll notice the strong points of similarity between this and Hypothetical knowledge Calvinism, but they differ significantly in regard to the sort of freedom which created moral actors have been given. Consequently, this is a synergistic, incompatibilist, indeterminist model, whereas Hypothetical knowledge Calvinism is a monergistic, compatibilist, determinist model.)     

5.  Open Theism

This is the only one of our models in which God, the Director, does not have the entire script of the story before the play begins. So, this model takes the form of improv theater. For all the actors, both the Creator and the created ones, the future is open. Nonetheless, God has decided how it will all come to be in the course of the history of this age. That is the goal that he will be working towards in the course of the play, but exactly how things will get to that final point and when it will be, is not yet established.

Through messengers and, eventually, through an infallible written revelation, God has made known his final goal, and he has even predicted a few things which will definitely happen, in order to ensure that the final goal is achieved. But most of the action in the play will be done by libertarianly free creatures, the most useful of whom, to God, as Director, will be those who love him and want to be useful to him in moving history in the direction God desires. Sadly, there will be some actors, both angelic and human who hate God and will work to foil his efforts, and sometimes they will win significant battles. (Here the “free will defense of God” in regard to evil is very effective.) Nonetheless, at each moment, God determines how he will act, in ways which he hopes will move the play along in the desired direction.

Because of the nature of human freedom, God only knows the probability of how a creature would act in a particular situation, so he will sometimes be taken by surprise, but he will respond to the reality that exists at each moment of time, with great creativity. He will ultimately be victorious.

What do you think?     


By Terrance Tiessen

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

6 replies on “Who wrote/writes the script for the drama, ”The History of the World”?”

If God is the one who choreographs every choice humans make then how is it coherent to affirm that humans have genuine moral agency. I understand Calvinists need to affirm that this is the case but it seems utterly incoherent…as is the related claim that God is good. The only difference I can see between classical Calvinism and ‘fatalism’ is semantics.

There is obviously nothing new here…you’ve heard this objection thousands of times. Best, Glen

I feel the force of that common objection, Glen. In our culture, authentic freedom is assumed to be libertarian and anything less than that does not seem adequate. I have pondered simply affirming agnosticism about the nature of our freedom and taking the position I dub “mysterian compatibilism,” where we can’t explain how God’s meticulous sovereignty is compatible with libertarian freedom, but it must be so, since Scripture teaches clearly that God’s decree is comprehensive and that creatures are morally responsible for voluntary actions.

I am not ready to go to that point yet, though, because I have a low tolerance level for “mystery,” because it is frequently used to cover nonsense. On the other hand, I don’t believe that Scripture defines the nature of human freedom, I simply doubt that it is libertarian because I am still seeking greater understanding of compatibilism, and libertarian freedom makes that more rather than less difficult.

I do believe, however, that my “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism” improves considerably on the usual Calvinist account. You write: “If God choreographs every choice humans make . . .” I can understand why you speak that way, given the impression left by much Calvinist writing concerning the omni-comprehensive decree of God. But here I propose that Molinism has made a very helpful contribution. Its own construct is incoherent because it includes libertarian creaturely freedom and this makes it fatally vulnerable to the grounding objection. But the “possible worlds” framework is very helpful. The usual Calvinist account of compatibilist freedom grounds God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of free creaturely action. This gives us a picture, however, in which God did not choreograph, human choice by human choice, the whole of history. Rather, God chose an entire world history.

With his knowledge of counterfactuals, God could know what every possible creature would do in every possible situation, including how they would respond to actions by God’s Spirit. It is true that every event in world history is as it is because of God’s having chosen this particular world out of all the possible worlds. But this world could be one in which God’s direct action was much less frequently necessary for God to achieve his purposes in the world, in large measure, through authentically free choices by his moral creatures. The more I look at things this way, the more I appreciate its benefits.

I am a Molinist and a leaning Congruist. What you described as Hypothetical Knowledge Calvinism is still within the Molinistic Model, perhaps, a Protestant (Reformed) version of Jesuit’s (Counter-Reformist) Congruism. Molinism says that God has an eternal foreknowledge (media scientia) of would CF choices of all possible free agents if they were actualised in certain hypothetical situations. He knows with 100% certainty that Peter would drink beer if he was in a pub in London on Christmas eve (certain date). That is, He knew what Peter would always do in every situation possible. God actualised this world not because moral agents helped Him decide how it would be but because God has an optimisation plan and we are actualised based from our integral role to the plan given our middleknown choices. So, before the actualisation, God “inquired” on His NK and MK what boundary conditions will there be and who will pass the audition based on their feasible integral roles in the optimisation.

Thank you for introducing yourself, Maki. I have learned a great deal from Molinists but I don’t quite fit in that category, because I find the grounding objection to Molinism convincing. I do not believe that even God can know counterfactuals of libertarianly free creaturely action. For this reason, I identify my model as “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism.”

I’d be interested to know how you handle the grounding objection to middle knowledge, as a Molinist. What do you believe makes it possible for God to know what any hypothetical creature in any hypothetical circumstance would certainly do?

Hi, my name is Barrett Warren. I have a compatabilist theory of Divine Providence and human free will. It is a little complicated and I guess you would say very metaphysical. Right now I call it Meinongian Compatiblism. A mouth full I know. I’m open to suggestions if you have other ideas on what to call it. I’ll try to be brief. Basically I think that YHWH transcends our existence. And that existence is not a binary on/off switch, but that existence is measured in degrees. YHWH is literally more real than we are. If existence is binary, that is you either exist or not, then if YHWH transcends our existence then He is the only true existent and we don’t actually exist at all. This is why I lean towards existence being measured in degrees. Now we get trippy. For the sake of simplicity let’s assume just three degrees of existence. High, middle and low. YHWH is the only one who has high existence. We have middle existence and ficta like Sherlock Holmes and Luke Skywalker have low existence. I realize that ficta might not exist to any degree but for the sake of analogy let’s assume that they do have low existence.
I propose that our relationship to YHWH is analogous to Sherlock Holmes relationship to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Many theists throughout history have made this comparison so I don’t think it is totally out of the question. I’m suggesting that there is a similar ontological gap between YHWH and us as there is between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle transcends Sherlock Holmes existence and is literally more real than Sherlock Holmes. Now here is where Meinongianism comes in. Many philosophers think that ficta are Meinongian objects. And that they have two different kinds of properties. Nuclear and extranuclear. Nuclear properties are true of Sherlock Holmes in relation to his level of existence, but extranuclear properties are true of Sherlock Holmes in relation to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s level of existence. So for example Sherlock Holmes has the nuclear properties of being the greatest detective in the world, being addicted to cocaine and having free will. But Sherlock Holmes also has the extranuclear properties of being created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, only existing in the Sherlock Holmes stories and being completely determined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You probably see where I’m going with this. I’m suggesting that we are Meinongian objects and that we also have nuclear and extranuclear properties. We have the nuclear property of free will, and the extranuclear property of being determined by YHWH. In other words our free will is as real as we are, but not as real as YHWH is. And if we need free will to be morally culpable then because our free will is as real as we are then so is our moral culpability. On this view YHWH would be the only purely nuclear being, because there are no higher levels of existence for Him to relate to. While we would be composite beings of nuclear and extranuclear properties. I hope this makes sense, I’m not the best writer. Of course all this could be completely out in left field.

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