Methodists aren’t allergic to God’s sovereignty (or shouldn’t be)

February 12, 2014
I'm on the right track if Lewis agrees with me, or vice versa.

I’m on the right track if Lewis agrees with me, or vice versa.

In my previous post, I took issue with a fellow Wesleyan Christian’s low view of God’s providence. My friend disagreed “wholeheartedly” with William Lane Craig’s statement that providence “rules all of life, even down to the smallest details,” and “nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event.” If this is true, he said, God is “nothing more than a puppeteer… trampling over any conception of free will.”

I hope I offered good reasons why this isn’t true: that human free will is compatible with a high view of providence. I think my friend confused Craig’s saying that God “ruled all of life, even down to the smallest details” with saying that God determined all of life, including every detail. If that were true, as I implied in my post, then God has a strange way of “determining”: since he usually does so by letting the laws of physics run their course—”letting the universe be the universe.”

No: to me, there’s an incredibly important difference between saying that God rules over the universe (the very definition of God’s sovereignty) and God determines everything.

Notice my friend wasn’t saying that providence doesn’t exist, only that there are some things that happen outside of providence—like the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl or an occasional boulder falling and flattening someone. As I tried to show in my post, however, it seems unlikely that God could afford to be so “hands-off” about certain things while at the same time fulfilling, for example, Paul’s words about providence in Romans 8:28. There are way too many consequences associated with events such as these for God not to enfold them within his providential care of the universe.

Pastorally and personally, I find it far more reassuring, when some tragic or evil event occurs, to believe that God allowed it for a reason—even, indeed, that he willed it—than to throw up my hands and say, along with so many mainline Protestants, “It’s a mystery.”

Well, I agree it’s a mystery that we don’t usually know why God allowed something to happen. But we can be confident that God has his reasons, and God allowed it to serve his good purposes.

What’s the alternative? As Christians, we already believe that God transformed the world’s greatest evil, the cross of his Son Jesus, into the world’s greatest good. Does God not also have the power to transform lesser evils in our lives and world into something good? That seems like a strange limit to place on God’s power!

Even as I write these words, some younger version of myself is objecting: “How can this [Tragic Event X] be God’s will?”

Here’s my answer: It can be God’s will because God wants more than one thing. As my friend and frequent commenter Tom Harkins often reminds me, it’s the Law of Competing Principles: God doesn’t necessarily want some tragic or evil event to happen, all things being equal. Nevertheless, given that these are the circumstances in which the world finds itself at this moment (based in part on the free choices of human beings and God’s desire, most of the time, to “let the universe be the universe”), God clearly wants this tragic event to happen more than God wants something else to happen. If not, he would have either created a different world or intervened with a miracle.

We finite human beings may certainly desire some other alternative, but what do we know? Unlike God, we’re not omniscient. We can’t begin to imagine how much more harmful our favored alternative would be than the one that God allowed to happen. So, yes… God willed Tragic Event X to happen because letting it happen beat any other alternative. So let’s trust God: he knows what he’s doing!

Does holding this high view of providence make me a Calvinist? (I suspect that this was the unspoken fear of my fellow Methodist friend.)

Why would it? Wesley himself held a high view of providence. Please remember: We’re not Wesleyans because we don’t believe in God’s sovereignty, only that this sovereignty doesn’t preclude a human being’s free choice—enabled as it is by the Holy Spirit—to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation. There’s only a very narrow kind of freedom at stake in the question, and if it weren’t for God’s prevenient grace, even that freedom wouldn’t exist. We Wesleyan-Arminians would all be nodding in agreement with our Calvinist brethren when they talk about the “T” of TULIP and five-point Calvinism. Apart from prevenient grace, Wesleyans agree that human beings are all “totally depraved,” unable to do anything to save ourselves.

My thinking on this topic, reflected in these two posts, has been greatly informed by C.S. Lewis’s appendix “On Special Providence” in his book Miracles. Like me, Lewis rejects the idea that some events are providential while others aren’t (which my friend Geoff was seemingly saying). Among other things, Lewis writes:

Many pious people… speak of certain events as being ‘providential’ or ‘special providences’ without meaning that they are miraculous. This generally implies a belief that, quite apart from miracles, some events are providential in a sense in which some others are not. Thus some people thought that the weather which enabled us to bring off so much of our army at Dunkirk was ‘providential’ in some way in which weather as a whole is not providential. The Christian doctrine that some events, though not miracles, are yet answers to prayer, would seem at first to imply this.

I find it very difficult to conceive an intermediate class of events which are neither miraculous nor merely ‘ordinary’. Either the weather at Dunkirk was or was not that which the previous history of the universe, by its own character, would inevitably produce. If it was, then how is it ‘specially’ providential? If it was not, then it was a miracle.[1]

So, Lewis says, we face a choice: abandon providence altogether, and with it a belief that God answers prayer, or figure out how all events are providential. So, Lewis writes,

it follows that all events are equally providential. If God directs the course of events at all then he directs the movement of every atom at every moment; ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground’ without that direction. The ‘naturalness’ of natural events does not consist in being somehow outside God’s providence. It consists in their being interlocked with one another inside a common space-time in accordance with the fixed pattern of the ‘laws.’[2]

It’s then Lewis’s burden to show, in greater detail than I’ve gone into, how God can direct without determining, and without ever abrogating human free will or the efficacy of prayer.

In a nutshell, Lewis argues, since God stands outside of time and knows all the prayers that human beings would offer under given circumstances—in what Lewis calls the “eternal Now”—God is creating a world that has built into it as many of these answers to prayer as will serve God’s good purposes.

I especially like this:

When the event you prayed for occurs your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. (For example, because it is better for you and for everyone else in the long run that other people, including wicked ones, should exercise free will than that you should be protected from cruelty or treachery by turning the human race into automata.)[3]

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 283-4.

2. Ibid., 284

3. Ibid., 294.

7 Responses to “Methodists aren’t allergic to God’s sovereignty (or shouldn’t be)”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I like this very much (especially your reference to my Doctrine of Competing Principles! 😉 ). If I have a caveat, it is with respect to “special providences.” I think there are likely three “classes” of God’s “interactions” with man (and the universe): (a) “natural,” in which things happen according to the laws God set in place, knowing what laws were ultimately best for the accomplishment of his purposes consistent with free will; (b) “miracles,” in which God intervenes to “override” natural laws; and (c) “special providences,” in which God intervenes to “guide” the natural processes in a direction they would not necessarily go without the intervention, but within the confines of natural laws.

    I don’t like to extend the term “miracle” to every act of God’s “intervention”; I would restrict that term to a natural law being temporarily “set aside” to accomplish some end–water turned to wine, Jesus walking on water, sight given to a man born blind, etc. Whereas, I think God also “acts,” as the “actor on the stage,” at other times, including in answers to prayers, to guide events where they would not have gone absent the prayers. I realize that God “knew” all this for all eternity, but that does not negate the fact that what he “foreknew” included when he would “step in” to affect affairs at various junctures.

    So, while in general I agree with Lewis (and you), I would just differentiate between those times where God “acts” (on the stage) in “miraculous” fashions versus others of “merely” intervening. Thus, I think that “miracles” are at least “rare” in our own day, but “interventions” less so. A cancer may spread or not spread “naturally,” and God may “intervene” to make it not spread, without any violation of natural laws. By analogy, I can decide to take one car to work versus another–it is up to me which one I choose. And I could choose one over the other because my daughter prefers to drive one and she is going out. So I acted as I did based on what I knew she wanted, but certainly not in a “miraculous” fashion; whereas, I would have taken the other car had I not taken into account my daughter’s wishes (better stereo!).

    (A “miraculous” intervention with the cancer would be if the doctor had opened things up and the cancer was widespread and “visible,” and “suddenly” it “disappeared” for all to see and marvel at. That is what I would contend happens, if at all, extremely rarely in our day–as opposed to when God was validating his messengers in biblical times.)

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Lewis and I would say that (a) and (c) are really the same. This “guiding role” is ever present. It’s not clear to me that you see much difference, either, since you say that (a) is something “consistent with God’s purposes” and (c) doesn’t violate natural laws. As for your next to last paragraph (“So, while in general…”) I agree completely. That’s what Lewis was saying.

    So how would you respond to my friend, with his illustration of the boulder falling on the guy? Even “letting the universe be the universe” shouldn’t imply that it isn’t also part of God’s providence, should it? Neither a sparrow nor a boulder falls to the ground…

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I think the boulder situation may be like this. A boulder can blunder down a hill in a variety of ways within the general confines of nature. It could bounce off a root or slightly miss the root without overriding natural law. God could “guide” the rock to hit or miss the root, and guide the rock DIFFERENTLY in that respect based on someone’s prayer, or no prayer. If he guides the rock in one direction over the other based on prayer, then he is “intervening” in the natural order of things. A MIRACULOUS intervention in the same scenario would be if the rock suddenly stopped its descent and rolled back up to the top of the hill. I don’t think the rock has only one possible path, determined solely by nature without intervention, based on the inexorable march of physics and geography, without God being able to “vary” the result. I think God can “act” within those “general confines” to make a difference in result without doing so in what I would consider to be a “miraculous” fashion. That is all I am saying. I think with no prayer (for example), the mere physics and geography would control the result, and it would be different than with the “intervention.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        I can go along with that. If God did intervene to stop the boulder, he could do so in a way that would be non-miraculous. If he doesn’t, do you agree that what results can be said to reflect God’s will?

      • Tom Harkins Says:


      • brentwhite Says:

        That’s where many of my clergy colleagues (along with the entire liberal theological establishment) are unwilling to go. But if they don’t go there then what kind of God are we left with?

        One premise behind their fear to say, “This is God’s will,” is that suffering and natural death are the worst things in the world. This is obviously untrue. The worst thing, as Revelation says, is the “second death,” hell. For believers, however, all suffering in this world will be redeemed in heaven.

        If that sounds glib or easy, so be it. It’s true. Plus, it’s very comforting to me.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Exactly right. It is Judgment Day and the hereafter where “all things will be made right”; and, as Paul said, “I reckon the light and momentary sufferings (or even severe) of this present time to be nothing in light of the glory which shall be revealed in me.”

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