A Primer On Divine Providence

By Paul Gould

Traditional theism claims that God is sovereign over all action and events in the world. Traditional theism also maintains that humans are meaningfully free—that our actions mean something, they are genuinely ours, so that we can rightfully be praiseworthy or blameworthy because of them. But, the claim that God is sovereign over all actions and events seems to be at odds with the claim that humans are significantly free. Hence, the age old debate: How should we make sense of the reality of divine sovereignty and human freedom?

I offer a few thoughts on the framework of the debate. According to the philosopher Thomas Flint, there are three components to a strong and adequate notion of divine providence:[1]

God has exhaustive knowledge of everything that is and will be. A fully provident God is fully aware of everything that occurs in the history of the universe.
God is in control of all that is and will be. A fully provident God is one who in some sense actively controls what is and will happen.
God acts according to a wise and good plan to fulfill His purposes. Providence presupposes that God employs his sovereignty wisely and morally.

Two accounts of divine providence that satisfy these three components to various degrees are the Augustinian/Calvinistic/Thomistic (ACT) model and the Molinist model. Where these two positions differ fundamentally is their account of human freedom. The ACT model endorses a compatibilist view of human freedom: freedom is compatible with being determined (by God). As long as I do what I want, my act is genuinely free, even if my desires are determined by God. The Molinist account endorses a libertarian view of freedom: freedom is incompatible with being determined by any outside force or cause.

According to ACT, God exercises his providential care of the world via his divine will: everything that comes to pass does so because God is the direct and primary cause. The common objection to ACT is that it is not clear how God’s plan is a wise and moral one, for God seems to be responsible for the suffering in the world and for human sin, thus blameworthy.

According to Molinism, God exercises his providential care of the world via his intellect and will: because God has “middle knowledge” (knowledge of contingent free acts of humans), prior to creation, he survey’s (via the divine intellect) all feasible possible worlds (where humans have libertarian freedom) and selects one possible world (via the divine will) that accomplishes his good plan and purposes and brings it into being. The common objection to Molinism is that it is not clear how God is absolutely in control, since God’s choice of which world to create is limited by the free acts of contingent creatures.

How should the theist decide which view of divine providence is correct? As Flint points out, the issue isn’t with Scripture or tradition. Both positions affirm the clear teachings of Scripture and tradition. Rather, the issue is a philosophical issue about the nature of human freedom. If compatibilism is true, then the ACT model is to be preferred, if libertarianism is true, then Molinism is to be preferred. Flint offers two reasons why we should prefer the Molinist position, reasons I share some sympathy with:[2]

(1) The libertarian assumption clearly seems right: a free action simply cannot be determined by anything or anyone other that its agent.

(2) The compatibilist position that undergirds ACT leads to a disanalogy between divine and human freedom. God is libertarianly free, that is, he acts without external influence, but then, why can’t human freedom be understood in this (libertarian way)? If it is good enough for God, and it is clearly possible, then the reasons for favoring compatibilism seem to be rendered otiose, at least for the Christian.

There is, of course, much more that can be said. Hugh McCann has recently offered a version of the ACT model that allows for a kind of libertarian freedom. And there are other “free-will” theisms on offer: Arminianism, Open Theism, maybe even Process Theism that have all been recently and ably defended. Still, I think the ACT and Molinist models offer us the best hope of preserving the core components, delineated above, in a theory of divine providence.

For further study, check out some these books:

General survey books:

James Beilby & Paul Eddy (eds), Divine Foreknoweldge: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).
Bruce Ware (ed) Perspectives on the Doctrine of God (Nashville,TN: B & H Academic, 2008).

On Calvinism/Augustinianism/Thomism Model:

Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

On Molinism:

Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereingty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville,TN: B & H Academic, 2010).
William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999)
Thomas Flint, Divine Providence (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

On Open Theism:

MIT Robson, Ontology and Providence in Creation (New York, NY: Continuum, 2008).
Clark Pinnock et. al., The Openness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

On Arminianism:

Jonathan Kvanvig, Destiny and Deliberation: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[1]Thomas Flint, “Two Accounts of Providence,” in Michael Rea (ed) Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 19.

[2] Ibid., 42-43.


To view more posts from Paul Gould, click here!

0 comments…

Leave a Comment