Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
This is the 13th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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I. The Fundamental Idea of Providence
The fundamental idea of providence is that God is guiding history to his appointed end. There is no debate about that. God is working on his good plan in the upholding of creation and the direction of all things toward his ultimate goal. God is active and guiding and limiting evil and that his plan includes people who are acting according to their own decisions. This is not deism where the idea of God is far away from us and doesn’t show up. It is not pantheism and not determinism, but God is active and involved in this world. Within evangelicalism I find a number of people who are what we call semi-deist. They believe that God is up there, in heaven and can do miracles and sometimes does. The idea of the crucifixion may be questionable with these people. Jesus went back to heaven and isn’t very active in this world. They know that God can do miracles but they don’t expect miracles in their own lives. This is a form of semi-deism and I think a lot of Christians are at this place. God is sovereign and powerful, Father and Savior but not really involved in this world. This is really unfortunate because Jesus told us that he will be with us always. Without doubt, we have a relationship with a God that is present among us.
II. Three Views of Providence
A. Meticulous Providence
So how close does God control this world? Views differ greatly within the Christian community. Let’s look at three different views: There is ‘meticulous providence’ where God is in meticulous control; nothing happens that is outside of God’s meticulous providence. So God meticulously controls all events, nothing happens except for what he has decreed. In this situation, people act according to their desires as usually but there can only be one outcome and that is what God decreed. Everything that happens is according to God’s will; nothing goes against God’s will. There is a paradox called compatibilism where God is in sovereign control of everything, this includes every detail and humans are responsible for evil. This is contradictive because if God is in control then how can humans be responsible for evil? There is a metaphor that people use to help understand this. It is a script which represents an analogy of where God is to the universe, where Shakespeare is to Hamlet. So we look at Hamlet, the character of the theatrical play by Shakespeare where Hamlet’s father gets killed by his uncle and that makes Hamlet the next target and Hamlet has to decide what to do. There a scene later where Hamlet is at a grave and he holds up a human skull and he is thinking about what to do. Will he run into the forest or will he kill himself and fall into the grave or will he return to the castle and face his murderous uncle. So he ends up going into the castle and of course since this is a written play, the play says that he does it every time. So changing this story to this meticulous control by God; it is Hamlet’s desire to go into the castle but it is also God’s decree. So even though it seems like it is Hamlet’s decision, it is actually written into the play that he goes into the castle. This represents the idea of compatibilism; it appears that Hamlet has a choice but in actuality, he doesn’t. So, everything that happens, including all the evil in this world, is a result of God’s decree and it is the most glorifying task for God to do, including all the evil and so God is most glorified by everything that happens in this world as it happens. So evil is a chance for him to display his redemptive glory. We don’t know the reason for these things but we know that everything that happens has a divine purpose and plan behind it. Lots of people hold this view, even well-known teachers and preachers. So, again, everything that happens is a result of God’s working.
B. Active Providence
Another view is called active providence. This is the idea that the sovereignty of God means that he is not accountable to anybody and he does what he wants, but within the limits of his will and within the limits of restraint there is choice for people to make and people can make such choices that are against his will but not out of his control. There is a contrary choice within some limits and people can make decisions that are against his will. So God limits freedom and evil but there are things that happen that are genuinely against his will and he gets angry about it. Another analogy by A.W. Tozer was a ship, but Francis Shafer used a train as an analogy for the same basic view. So, this ship is bound for a particular port. On the deck of the ship there is room for choice. The first night out, you have a choice of going to the game room or the buffet; you can go to the stage show or sit on the deck or go to your room and sleep. You can do whatever you want to do. Which one is the will of God? Any of those choices are the will of God. It is just like with Adam in Genesis having the freedom to eat of any tree he wanted to eat from. On the ship there are many approved actions also many disapproved actions. For example, you can’t steal from someone; you can do this but the captain will put you in the ship’s jail. Another example, if a person wants to take over the ship and go to some other port of call, those who are faithful to the Captain stop this and the ship continues to it assigned destination where that person will be punished for his or her actions to take over the ship. So there are things that actually happen against God’s will but not out of control. So this is called active providence.
C. Free Will Providence
There is a third view called the free will providence. God has given the gift of free will and he doesn’t interfere with this free will nor does he restrain this free will. People get to make their own choices and God allows that kind of free will because he wants to have a genuine love relationship. So again, God is not accountable to anybody but he isn’t controlling everything. In fact, in this sense, he is not controlling much of anything. There is genuine libertarian free will, genuine contrary choice and God governs his will as a king covers his subjects. He protects, he influences but he doesn’t control. People have freedom to make their own decisions and God does this because he wants to honor our choice. He doesn’t force anybody to do his will except in rare occurrences. Again, there are highly respected theologians who subscribe to this view, even C.S. Lewis and Philip Yanez and many others. And when something happens, it is all to do with free will. So the paradox is how can God have free will and still know that we are going to come out okay at the end.
There is another view which is sometimes called open theology where God doesn’t know the outcome of our choice and God is surprised as we are with how things develop. This view was popular a few years ago but not so popular now.
III. Scriptural References to These Views:
A. The Crucifixion, the Ephesians and the Chaldeans
So the question still remains on how close does God control the world? People from each of these views argue with one another with regard to which is right. We have a verse in Acts 4:27 where Peter is speaking and praying about being bold in sharing Jesus with others. Here it says that they decided what your will was before it should happened. So we see that the greatest evil in the world was decided by God beforehand. So the crucifixion of Christ was predetermined by God and they did what God wanted them to do. In Ephesians 1:11, ‘in him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of glory.’ Here, see that God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. So what do we say about suffering and evil? Look at Habakkuk 1:2 where he says, ‘O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘violence’? God responds by saying that he is raising up the Chaldeans, a ruthless people and they will come judge and destroy Jerusalem. So there is a play where God uses evil. All of these are used to support the meticulous providence of God. In Isaiah 1, God calls the people saying to them, come, let us reason together.
So God’s call is to repent and if you repent, you will eat from the best land but if not, you will be put to the sword. The choice is the person’s, not God’s choice. And God is responding to their choice if they say yes, they’re okay, if they say no, they will suffer and God knows the outcome. In free will providence, people will say that it isn’t God’s choice; it is the people’s choice. For my view, I take active providence; I think there are times where God controls the smallest detail; the crucifixion being an example of this. I think there are times when God backs off and lets people make choices where all are approved actions on the part of people.
One more passage from Exodus 4 where God calls Moses to go back to Egypt and confront Pharaoh; in 4:21 ‘the Lord said to Moses, when you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.’ Who is going to harden Pharaoh’s heart? God is going to do that.
Then in chapter 5 Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh and told him that the God of Israel has said to let his people go. Pharaoh said, who is the LORD that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?’ They tried to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go and warned him of the plagues that God would bring to Egypt. So what has God done in this story in chapter 5? He sent Moses and Aaron to command Pharaoh and so what is God’s command to Pharaoh? It is a command to righteousness, to obey Yahweh and Pharaoh says no and according to the narrative, Pharaoh makes his own choice. Further on in chapter 7, ‘the LORD said to Moses, see, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go.’ But in 7:3, God says, ‘but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.’ This is the same as 4:21; the hardening is still future, even though we have chapter 5 where Pharaoh refuses God’s command. Then we have the snake story where the magicians also create snakes. Now in 7:13 we see that different translations have different meanings. The NIV says that Pharaoh’s heart become hard. The ESV says that still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. In the NAS it says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, not a big difference between, a passive participle, was hardened and became hard, a statement. Became hard, doesn’t say who did it. The text says that his heart was hard, a simply statement of fact. In verse 14, the LORD said to Moses, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go.’ Another translation says ‘stubborn’ and he doesn’t say I hardened it.
In chapter 8 where you have the frogs everywhere and it becomes really bad. In verse 8 Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron ask them to plead with the Lord to take away the frogs from him and his people. I will let your people go. So the Lord did what Moses asked but again Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not listen to them. So here, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. In 7:13, people interpret that as the Lord hardening his heart but in 8:15 Pharaoh hardened his own heart just as the Lord had said. This goes on with the gnats and the flies where Pharaoh’s heart is again hardened and this goes back and forward and in chapter 10, it says that I have hardened his heart.
So in summary, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but it isn’t just God’s will at work here; Pharaoh’s will is also at work and you have Moses and Aaron, and in this working God is calling Pharaoh to righteousness. If Pharaoh would have obeyed God, it would have been all good. And he does such strong miracles that the magicians were even impressed. So I think that God is offering his grace to Pharaoh and so this hardening has to do with trying to give Pharaoh a chance to repent of his sins and come to righteousness before God. But Pharaoh says no to all of it. So I don’t think that it is only God’s will that counts here but the sinful decision comes out of Pharaoh’s heart. So my picture of providence: God is guiding, God is active and he sometimes provokes righteousness; he judges evil but within that he allows people to make their own decisions and they can actually go against Gods will. I think God allows people to make choices and he becomes actively at work within them. God is loving enough and good enough to have good in any context.
One more verse in Romans; Romans 8:20, it says that God causes all things to work together. This comes under the meticulous providence view. So what is the relationship between God and all things? We know that in all things God works for those who love him. So in all things, God is at work. So all things are the context which God works; so God doesn’t cause all things; in all things God works. In Romans 8:28, ‘we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’ God is the object of love, not the subject of all things. We see that different translations actually theologically support different views which show up as an ambiguity within the original text to understanding this. For example, the ESV is more inclined toward the free will view. The NIV leans more toward the first one.