Another reflection on providence

This covers some ground I’ve covered many times before (even in last Sunday’s sermon), but it bears repeating. This is my comment in response to a post on God’s providence by Reformed thinker Derek Rishmawy. As I tell him, I mostly agree with his post.

If you think I’m wrong about any of this, please feel free to tell me why.

Conservative evangelical United Methodist pastor here. (Sorry to modify the kind of Methodist I am, but they come in a wide variety these days, unfortunately.) Even as a Wesleyan, I really like this post. Thanks.

You write the following of our Arminian emphasis on free will and how love must be freely chosen: “More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.”

I would only add that we Arminians wonder why God must eternally decree that these things come to pass. Why can’t God foresee that they will come to pass when free human beings (however corrupted by sin their freedom may be) exert their will in this way—and then plan accordingly? We believe strongly that God redeems and transforms evil for good.

Regardless, like you, I’m sure, I don’t see nearly so great a difference between God’s “causing” and God’s “allowing” as many Christians see—especially my more progressive clergy colleagues. If you want to start a fight with them, tell them that “everything happens for a reason” (even if, as you indicate, the reason will likely will be unknowable to us). From my perspective, this is obviously true.

If we believe that God answers prayer and grants our petitions at least sometimes (even most progressives in my denomination say they believe this), then what happens when God doesn’t grant our petition? Do we say that God doesn’t have the power to do so? Do we say “that’s just the breaks, kid” because whether God does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary? Or do we say, “God heard our petition, considered it, and chose not to give us what we asked for”—and here’s the inevitable conclusion—”for a good reason”?

But as you say, if we knew what God knows, and we were as good as God is, we would understand the reason and praise him for it.

What’s the alternative to this? My progressive colleagues end up implicitly saying (as far as I can tell) that God doesn’t really do much of anything—except, you know, be with us (whatever that means) and suffer alongside us (whatever that means). Providence isn’t real. God’s hands are tied.

Thanks again. I like your blog and the Mere Fidelity podcast. I listen to it whenever it comes out.

2 thoughts on “Another reflection on providence”

  1. I basically agree with what you say. From my perspective, God “foreknew” what type of persons we would be and accordingly “predestined” the events which would “bring that out” of us (likely assisted to be even “better than that” for his children). So, if you will, everything that happens is pursuant to God’s “foreordained” plan, but how that plan unfolds is in keeping with what God “foreknew” we would “be like,” not what he “forced us” to be like.

    The thing is, WE don’t “foreknow,” and, in fact, that “lack of knowledge” is part of what God uses to permit the very “free choices” which “consummate” God’s “plan.” The role of prayer is another aspect of that “consummation”–we are “freely acting” and God is “freely answering”–just as God foreknew we would both do. Practically speaking, if we choose not to pray, then, foreseeing that, God “previously” elected what to do in light of foreknowing our choice not to pray, and conversely elected to do otherwise in light of our foreknown choice to pray when we met whatever circumstances God knew we would run into.

    The mere fact of “preordination” does not keep the actual events from being “real” or “important,” any more than Christ being “slain before the foundation of the world” meant he did not actually have to come and die. Again, the main purpose of the “plan” is to bring out of us what we are, and God did not, and does not, “tinker” with that.

    I guess that is a little complicated and I am repeating myself, but I think “foreordination” and “free choice” are ultimately compatible, based on, and precisely CONTINGENT upon, what God “foreordained” being based on what we “would be like,” would “choose to be.” He did NOT foreordain what type of persons we would be like. That is the key, and what distinguishes my view of foreordination from that of the Calvinist. “For whom he FOREKNEW, he did predestine.”

    1. Well said. I agree that foreordination and free choice are compatible. What you say here makes perfect sense.

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