[This post is part of the Philosophy 101 series]
A very helpful book, although written a few years back before the Open Theists really came into their own, is The Providence of God by Paul Helm. He deals with many helpful subjects related to God’s providence in a mainly philosophical way. There’s very little Biblical exposition, but as we saw in the last post, that’s because the Bible is rather blunt about God controlling all things and we are left to determine just what exactly that means. The cliff notes of where we are going is that, well, all things means just that; all things. But where we would be if we stopped here with only a paltry 117 words under our belt? I know, I know, it would probably be ok, but let’s just unpack it a little…please?
In Helm’s book, he starts off with an orientation chapter and so we will need to do a bit of that before moving forward. Helm sums up the appropriator rationale for where we are at this point:
Having derived the data from Scripture in as consistent a form as possible, it is also the place of reason to deduce from those data whatever is judged to follow from them, and to draw out the implications of the resultant doctrine for other Christian doctrines. (Providence of God, 28)
He then later summarizes our objective as “encapsulating Scriptural data in summary form, and in a such a form as to block off unwarranted inferences” (Providence, 33). Later on (the next page) he gets to the quote we had from him in the earlier section. This provides a good summary goal and leads to the issue at hand, namely, explaining providence adequately enough and drawing out the implications for other doctrines as well.
The Nature of Providence
We will argue that the nature of God’s providence is that it is not risky. That’s the distinction Helm introduces and is really the main distinction going on between Open Theists and their more traditional counterparts. In short, we are arguing for God’s providence extending throughout the created realm by virtue of His nature as Creator in an unmitigated fashion such that it is the final determination of whatsoever comes to pass. We will further discuss how it extends through both time and space. But for now our main point is that there is no risk on God’s part, nor could there be without wiping out some rather essential attributes of God.
The fact that we are using a 200+ book to guide us clues you in to the fact that there is much that can be said and a blog post of this nature is unfortunately not able to articulate everything thoroughly. From here on, we are simply doing two things:
- Laying out providence as God’s means of accomplishing His plan
- Laying out the plan of God as the only means of anything having meaning
Let’s split these heads then and see where that gets us.
Providence and the purpose of God
Providence is God’s means of accomplishing His purpose in the universe. What is true in regard to the origin of the universe that we saw in Genesis 1:1 is also true in regard to its meaning. In other words, God is responsible for both creating the universe and endowing it with meaning (Van Til, Intro to Systematic Theology, 58). It would make little sense for God to create the universe but leave it meaningless, or leave its meaning up to the creatures to create for themselves (if you’re thinking, “hey that sounds like existentialism!” hold that thought).
That being the case, the only alternative to the purpose of God endowing meaning to the facts in the universe is to posit that chance on some level is (Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 295). We can say further with Van Til that “every fact in the universe is what it is by virtue of the place that it has in the plan of God” (Defense, 261). This is merely echoing what we saw in Ephesians 1:11 in the last section. God working all things according to the counsel of His will is another way of saying God controls the meaning and purpose of everything in the universe.
“He has planned all the relationships between all the aspects of created being. He has planned the end from the beginning. All created reality therefore actually displays this plan. It is in consequence, inherently rational.” (Van Til, The Infallible Word, 269)
The last point about rationality will show up later on once we get to epistemology. In order for any of this to be true though, God cannot be taking risks with respect to His plan. In looking at God endowing meaning to all facts in the universe, what it usually overlooked is that this applies to actions as well. Usually the principle objection to God’s plan controlling everything, is that man’s actions lose meaning (or that man becomes a puppet). In fact, it is precisely the opposite case.
History and the plan of God
Let’s start with a few general statements about the universe itself. Order, when viewed from the point of view of the passage of time is purpose (Intro to SysTheo, 184). Van Til goes further to assert that “there is no intelligibility in any phenomena of the universe without the presupposition of God’s all-encompassing plan” (188). The universe itself, as a whole, is merely the rational expression of the plan of God. What is true of the whole then is also true of the particulars, of which you and are a part.
Kierkegaard was not a fan of this particular idea, and while we quoted him favorably in the last post, this time around he won’t be so lucky. For all his perceptiveness, Kierkegaard had a rather flawed metaphysic. His starting blunder was a violent denial of temporal creation, which leads to not holding a Creator-creature distinction as the basis of his metaphysic. From there, while not our immediate concern, it is worth noting he spent the better part of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript arguing against the possibility of there even being such a thing as absolute truth identifiable anywhere in history (see short synopsis in Defense, 209).
In short, Kierkegaard has spilled much ink elaborating his “concept of the Moment,” but it is according to this concept of his that there is no plan of God back of history and no will of God directly and plainly expressed in history (Defense, 212). Kierkegaard then flatly stands opposed to Ephesians 1:11 (as well as he does against Romans 1 in asserting there is no revelation of God in history), and his writings gave him the title “father or existentialism” (remember that thought you were holding?). This is the alternative to seeing the plan of God as determining meaning of all things. And if our exegesis of Ephesians 1 stands, then existentialism falls flat to the ground on this account.
So this brings us back to where we were a moment ago (it’s a slight pun). As particulars in the universe created by God, our actions only have meaning if they fit into the comprehensive plan of God for the universe. Otherwise, they are performed in a void. We sinfully want to be able to create meaning for ourselves in our actions, but we fail to realize that to do so empties our actions of meaning. If we will not accept the meaning God has for our actions, our only alternative is denial, not the creation of our own meaning.
Because our actions take place within the comprehensive plan of God who works all things according to the counsel of His will, they are then endowed with meaning. Meaning is not something we make for ourselves as creatures. To suppose that we do is to blur the distinction between Creator and creature.
History then has a definitive purpose according to the counsel of God and our individual actions play against the backdrop of God’s plan, not against a bare backdrop of possibility or chance. This is what gives them meaning and gives our lives as a whole meaning. Knowing what we know of God, it is good to assume (or better yet, believe) that everything that happens has a rationale behind it.
Dr. Blount here at DTS brought that out rather memorably in a chapel service last Friday. In speaking about the conclusion of Job, he pointed out that essentially God is asking Job, “If you can’t understand how I created the world and why I did so, how are you going to understand the reason behind your suffering?” In other words, our suffering is never meaningless, but we may not always be able to comprehend the meaning and should instead rest in faith that God, given His character, is to be trusted to hold us safely in his hands.
There is more to say about providence, but this is probably a good stopping point, and will keep this entry well under 2000 words. We will pick back up and round out our discussion of providence by drawing some implications from Paul Helm’s book as well as probably quoting Van Til further.