Restoring God’s Reputation?

olsonI’ve been reading through Zondervan’s two recent books by Michael Horton (For Calvinism) and Roger Olson (Against Calvinism), apt spokesmen for their respective views on the doctrines of grace.  Both authors eschew attempts to find that (illusory) middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism and provide very helpful introductions to the issues at hand.

Olson ardently presses the question of how the God of Calvinism can be the one whom John characterizes as ‘love’ in his first epistle (1 Jn 4:8, 16).  Under the doctrine of predestination, the real question for Olson is not so much whether God could be just in unconditionally electing some and reprobating others but whether God could be said to act in love in so doing: if God could just as easily have unconditionally elected more, or indeed all, fallen persons and effectually called them to salvation, how is he love in choosing not to do so?  An Arminian account, Olson writes, with its doctrine of conditional election, is better-positioned to uphold God’s ‘reputation’ at this point.

This is certainly a pointed question for Reformed soteriology – and theology proper – but one that might be put to the Arminian view as well.  In explicating the Arminian approach to divine sovereignty, Olson writes,

[L]et it be clearly understood that those who appeal to divine self-limitation and passive permission as the explanation for sin and evil in the omnipotent, creator God’s world, do not say that God never manipulates historical circumstances to bring about his will. What God never does is cause evil. God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled.  Such seemed to be the case with Jesus’ crucifixion. Even then, however, it was not that God tempted or manipulated individuals to sin. Rather, he knew what events, such as the triumphal entry, would result in the crucifixion (Against Calvinism, p. 99).

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Calvinism, Drivel, and the Best Possible World

Herman Bavinck’s section on the divine counsel in Reformed Dogmatics is, in my rather biased mind at least, teeming with shrewd theological judgments.  However, it also bears the mark of a deep, pastoral awareness of the tragic and the disturbing realities of the world.  In the midst of underscoring the active posture of the will  of God and the dependence of all creaturely happenings thereon, he acknowledges,

Present in this world there is so much that is irrational, so much undeserved suffering, so many inexplicable disasters, such unequal and incomprehensible apportionment of good and bad fortune, such a heartbreaking contrast between joy and sorrow, that any thinking person has to choose between interpreting it – as pessimism does – in terms of the blind will of some misbegotten deity, or on the basis of Scripture believingly trusting in the absolute, sovereign, and yet – however incomprehensible – wise and holy will of him who will some day cause the full light of heaven to shine on those riddles of our existence….Pelagianism scatters flowers over graves, turns death into an angel, regards sin as mere weakness, lectures on the uses of adversity, and considers this the best possible world.  Calvinism has no use for such drivel.  It refuses to be hoodwinked.  It tolerates no delusion, takes full account of the seriousness of life, champions the rights of the Lord of lords, and humbly bows in adoration before the inexplicable sovereign will of God Almighty.  As a result, it proves to be fundamentally more merciful than Pelagianism (RD, 1:394).

For Bavinck, the tradition has always taught ‘not that God could have done “more” and “better” than he did, for he always acts in a divine and perfect manner, but that he could have made things “greater in number, greater, and better” than he did’ (RD: 1:234).  Along with this recognition of the fact that God’s abilities are not exhausted on created things, Bavinck is of course steeped in the biblical hope of new creation.  It’s from this vantage point that he can bluntly characterize as ‘drivel’ talk of this world as ‘the best possible world’.

How does this stack up against contemporary Calvinistic expositions and impressions of the divine decree or divine providence?  What do you  make of it?

Was the crucifixion merely the result of evil plotting?

Describing the crucifixion, “God on the Cross”, Nietzsche reminds us of its perennial ability to disturb: “Till now there was never and nowhere such an audacity in reversal, something so fearful, questioning and questionable as this formula.” And in our day we continue questioning, probing, reformulating, and grappling with the possible – and impossible – implications of it. A live example is the current discussion on the link between violence and the atonement. Is the cross an instance of divine and human violence, or is it an instance only of human violence – of evil plotting alone?

Having recently reviewed a book on nonviolent atonement theory, Stricken by God?, I was left with a question to which I only hinted in the review and would like to explore further here. Why is the doctrine of providence and its relationship to atonement rarely, if ever, discussed? Related to this, why do I think this is noteworthy or even just curious?

Atonement and Providence

To invoke the doctrine of providence is to bring two issues to the fore – both of which have direct significance for doctrines of atonement: (1) the character of the actors in the drama of redemption (God and creatures) and (2) the relationship between divine and human action.

With that in mind, I have two suggestions. First, if it does concern itself with those realities then the doctrine of providence, though not mentioned in the present discussions about the relationship between atonement and violence, has determinative significance for one’s doctrine of atonement. Second, by allowing the doctrine of providence to function more “transparently” we gain a sense for how doctrines of the atonement assume certain models of providence and, just so, become more informed to judge whether they can be sustained, given their implications for providence.

Part of my concern is pastoral and the other doctrinal. Continue reading

Providence & Prayer (2) » Molinism

If Molinism was a TV show I think it would be Quantum Leap. Ok, a few adjustments would have to be made here and there (and ‘by a few’, I mean a lot and by ‘here and there’, I mean everywhere).

According to Molinism, people act with complete freedom, yet God has knowledge of the future and this future only comes into being through divine and human actions. In fact, Molinism proposes that before time God had perfect knowledge of every possible world and the outcomes included within that existence and chose our world based on the decisions and actions we would make. Still following?

Molinism is the attempt to reconcile the absolute autonomy of the creature, on the one hand, and God’s sovereignty, on the other. While Luis de Molina was a sixteenth century Spanish Jesuit, his ideas are alive and well and can be found in the work of contemporary thinkers like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, so we cannot simply shed this belief as something expired.

The question remains: How exactly is this reconciliation between human autonomy and divine sovereignty accomplished for the Molinist? Continue reading

Providence and Prayer (1) » The Semi-Deist Model

We begin our discussion on Providence and its implications for Christian prayer with the “semi-deist” model.

On this model, God created an orderly universe, placed people in it, and allows them to exercise their God-given libertarian freedom in morally responsible ways. He gives people the intelligence needed to gain an understanding of both the physical and moral order he established and he expects them to act wisely and harmoniously with those “laws” of nature. In this well-ordered system, God doesn’t intervene to protect some people from harm because he would responsible for allowing others to suffer if he did.

God is certainly not inactive; rather, the history and progress of the universe is one big act of God and within that act (history as a whole) creatures operate and bear complete responsibility for their actions.

God can’t be responsible for Evil. Can he?

On a fundamental level the semi-deist view is driven by moral concerns. On this model, if we assume God’s involvement in the details of our everyday lives then we must also assume his direct involvement in evil: “One person’s providence is another person’s downfall” (Maurice Wiles, “Divine Action: Some Moral Considerations”, 1994).

If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz and Hiroshima is morally repugnant. Continue reading

Up Next: Providence and Prayer

This upcoming series will take a look at how a doctrine of Providence indicates the practices of faith in the life of the believer.

If we believe that the Triune God has not only earth.jpgcreated but also continues to govern our lives for fellowship with him, a doctrine of providence functions to help make sense of who we are and who God is, and, as a corollary, it also functions to make sense of the seeming madness and horrors that surround us. When something goes wrong, pointing the finger at God is too simple a move to make.

What a doctrine of providence should do, is draw our attention back to the scriptural testimony of God’s character and actions. As the Spirit funds our faith, we turn in prayer to God and, though we can’t make sense of the madness, we submit our lives in trust, believing God’s loving care and governance is for our good and his glory.

When evil shows up and it always does, we are reminded by John Webster that ‘What makes evil problematic for providence is not its existence but the fact that we resist applying belief in providence to cases of it, especially those in which we are concerned’.

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Providence and Suffering

I spent the last several days attending a conference here at King’s College on Providence in Modern Theology. It was an outstanding conference with a world-class lineup of theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, some from the UK and others from the United States (David Ferguson, Sarah Coakley, David Bentley Hart, Nicholas Healy, Alister McGrath, Philip Ziegler, and John Webster to name a few).

The purpose of the gathering was to explore and examine the character and interrelation of divine and human agency related to the classical doctrine of providence. Continue reading