Four Views on Divine Providence
Dennis W. Jowers, ed.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011
272 pp. | $19.99
After an extended season of neglect and derision, it seems as if the doctrine of divine providence is once again becoming an object of interest and attention. In recent years, a number of informed and engaging treatments of providence – and the corresponding doctrine of creation – have emerged, with significant offerings by Ian McFarland, Charles Wood, John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, Katherine Sonderegger, Terry J. Wright, John Sanders, and Philip Clayton, among others. Representing a variety of viewpoints, the constructive work on providence being done by theologians such as these has served to refresh awareness of the doctrine, as well as to advance its study.
Somewhat of a different sort of volume on providence, though no less in need, is that supplied in the work under review here, namely, Zondervan’s handling of the topic in its Counterpoints: Bible & Theology series. The goal is to provide an accessible, conversational, and critical yet charitable summation of the prevailing contemporary evangelical positions on providence. While such an endeavor indeed has merit, the question here concerns this book’s execution of its task. However, prior to analysis, let’s begin with a synopsis.
Edited by Dennis W. Jowers (Associate Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Faith Evangelical Seminary), Four Views on Divine Providence includes contributions by four Christian scholars, in a point-counterpoint format. The two key questions to be addressed by each author regard the extent of the atonement and predestination.
The chapter by Paul Kjoss Helseth (Professor of Christian Thought at Northwestern College) is titled, “God Causes All Things.” Helseth represents a Reformed view of divine providence (leaning heavily on Bavinck and the old Princeton theologians). In sum, Helseth contends that, “all events owe both their occurrence and the precise mode of that occurrence to God, who causes every creaturely act in such a way as to determine completely its nature and outcome.” (22)
The entry by William Lane Craig (Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology) is titled, “God Directs All Things.” Craig advocates a Molinist position on providence, arguing that, “God knows what creatures will do by virtue of his middle knowledge and that he controls the course of worldly affairs by means of this awareness without predetermining any of his creatures’ free decisions.” (22)
The offering by Ron Highfield (Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University) is titled, “God Controls By Liberating.” Highfield advances a so-called “Restorationist” tradition, involving what is branded a “biblical perspective,” in purported distinction from the other views provided herein. (22)
The contribution by Gregory A. Boyd (Former Professor of Theology at Bethel University) is titled, “God Limits His Control.” Boyd exemplifies and defends the Open Theist view, insisting that, “human decisions, in most circumstances, can be free only if God neither determines nor even knows what they will be.” (22)
In Jowers’ recapitulation of the four views detailed herein, he praises the areas of agreement that he perceives are present among them. These include a repudiation of pantheism, support of divine intervention in the affairs of the world, and a commitment to the truth of Scripture. On the other hand, there is evidence of significant diversity between the contributors concerning “opinions on free will, divine omniscience, and the problem of evil.” (246)
By way of evaluation, Helseth, Craig, and Boyd deliver adequate performances, championing, respectively, a Reformed position, Molinism, and Open Theism. However, as Highfield’s “biblical” outlook is fairly close to that advanced in Helseth’s submission, one wonders why a true fourth perspective was not included. The book includes no classic Arminian approach to providence, so it seems as if this would have been a good fit for a distinct fourth view.
On the whole, for an overview of three (not four) views on providence (Reformed, Molinist, Open Theist), Zondervan’s Four Views on Divine Providence is a resource worth considering. However, it must also be recognized that this is but an entry point into a broader conversation, and not a thoroughgoing one at that.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.