Providence and Predestination

By John Drury

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

I have noticed a pattern regarding the combination of two complex doctrines: providence and predestination. The two are of course related, providence being the secret divine willing of all events and predestination the eternal election of who will be saved. It is precisely their close proximity that makes the pattern of popular belief so striking. So here's my desciption of how I have observed church folk approach these problems.

Neither Providence nor Predestination - A lot of folks either practically or theoretically reject the two doctrines. Certainly God is not behind everything. Certainly our free will is sufficiently powerful in both mundane and salvific matters. Certainly God's hands are tied by our decisions.

Both Providence and Predestination - Of course, you have the other extreme in what I call "street" calvinists, who piously affirm both the election to salvation and the ordination of all events. Thus you have the legend of the puritan woman who fell down the stars only to say "I'm glad I got that out of the way." There are surely more sophisticated ways of contruing the relationship between these two doctrines. But I am trying to describe common belief and practice here.

Providence without Predestination - Here's where it gets peculiar. The potential extremity of the above views is at least commended for its consistency. But the fact of the matter is a large segment of church folk affirm providence without predestination. So you have folks who firmly believe that God has a particular will for their life and they need to find it. They piously approach suffering and death as "God's will." Yet when it comes to salvation, they are extreme Arminians, proudly claiming free will and a full capacity to accept or reject salvation. They have somehow found a way to separate the pair in their minds, or at least in their lives.

Predestination without Providence - But it gets weirder. You have the opposite combination as well. There are many among us who will go the wall defending God's utter predestination of souls unto salvation, yet affirm complete autonomy in all other matters. These folks might even quote the famous line of Luther's from The Bondage of the Will, wherein he exclaims (in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner) that yes, humans have free will ... to hammer a nail, to go to the market, to get up from bed ... but in matters of salvation we are utterly dependent on God. This can be a very "respectable" position, because one affirms divine sovereignty where it counts for the traditional battle, but can take a world-affirming, humanist viewpoint on all other matters.

The funny thing about this pattern is that it displays our ability to sustain "happy inconsistencies." We have found a way to have our theological cake and eat it too. And maybe I shouldn't spoil the fun, because consistency isn't the only theological virtue. However, one wonders if we have any coherent sense of who God is if we think he works in two completely different ways depending on whether it is a matter of salvation or not. Is this really the God we serve?

Am I on to something here?
Is this pattern descriptively adequate?
Could you think of examples that fit nicely into this pattern?
What am I missing?
Which is the best approach?
Are we doomed to some 'happy inconsistencies' to avoid extremes?
Or is there a way to affirm both without becoming deterministic? If so, how?


At 2:15 PM, October 13, 2005, Andrea said...

Are you on to something here? Yes! You described the people who "piously approach suffering and death as God's will", but then claim free will in matters of salvation. These people might say, "Katrina was God's will." These same people might also say that, "the victims of Katrina are in heaven or hell based largely upon their capacity to accept or reject salvation." However, I think there's another category of "Providence without Predestinationers". These folks might use the terminology "God's will" for suffering - but mean something very different (or is it really that different?). They would say that God uses suffering to work out His will. So back to the Katrina example; this category of people would say that "the victims of Katrina are in heaven or hell based largely upon their capacity to accept or reject salvation." And they might also say, "God did not effect hurricane Kristina, but He will use it to bring about the good that is His will." Now mind you - this is still a subscription to providence because it still believes that God has a will that He is powerful to work out in the first place. This second category of "Providence without Predestinationers" doesn't want to blame God's will for the mass suffering and destruction of Katrina. But they certainly want to give God's will credit for the good that comes out of it.

I think the main reason for all these inconsistencies you cited boil down to the problem of evil. Those who are uncomfortable with a God who would create a world with evil cry free will. Those who are uncomfortable with a God who doesn't have the power to effect salvation on His own cry predestination.

Foolish is the parent who establishes a uniform system of child rearing and uses it for each of her children. Parenting is a collaborative, creative, innovative process with an ultimate goal that never changes but with unlimited methods depending upon the child. Perhaps God approaches people groups, faith communities or even individuals with a similar flexibility in the amount of collaboration he allows. And perhaps what we see as inconsistencies in predestination and providence are really evidence of the innovation and creativity of God.


At 3:54 PM, October 13, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


Thanks for your subtle exploration of "providence w/o predestination". It is likely that those who hold to providence have some sort of "middle" view of providence, not a strongly deterministic form (certainly an advisable move, despite the crude platitudes about "God's will"). Pointing to the problem of evil is of course the crux of the matter. What do you do with that whopper?????!!!!!!

Your final suggestion that God's operation varies is very intruiging. I must ponder such a thing in my heart and get back to you on that one. Certainly we should not lock God into a uniform mode of action, although some consistency of character seems prudent. If only we could know if which kind of operation God is using with us ... Hmmmmmm ... very interesting!


At 8:42 AM, October 14, 2005, Ken Schenck said...

To add my own quite unsystematic thoughts on this issue, I would suggest three bits of "affirmation" that I have not fit into an overall scheme:

1. God can and does intervene in history, but most of the time He lets cause and effect take their merry (and often not so merry) course. Katrina for me was a matter of high and low pressure systems, ocean temperatures, etc... Sometimes God adds an "extra-systemal" cause into the frey, but more often than not He doesn't. Without some allowance of this sort, Christianity becomes incoherent and undesirable as a religion to me--it makes God an evil God unworthy of worship, a Devil to be defied. The "godly" thing becomes to spend eternity in hell with the Father of our Lord in eternal defiance of this Demiurge. I could of course be overstating the case :)

2. The New Testament is not a good place to look for solutions, as its author's gleefully combined a sense of election (albeit more collective in nature, but nonethless with individual implications) with a functional operation in terms of free will. The NT does not connect these two philosophically paradoxical patterns (not even in a soft deterministic way).

3. If there is free will at all of any meaningful sort, it is an ex nihilo creation of God's grace. The more we ponder physical determinism, the less any sense of individual free will really seems to make sense.

Where I'm at today...


At 9:50 AM, October 14, 2005, Ken Schenck said...

By the way, your questions remind me of Nietzsche's reminiscences in Beyond Good and Evil, I think. He says something like, I learned early on that if we are to give God credit for the good in the world, then we must give him credit for the bad as well...


At 4:57 PM, October 16, 2005, Keith.Drury said...

My dad used to tell a story to illustrate how sometimes a view of pre-destiny can work out at street-level: One of our nation's Pilgrim fathers met a Methodist friend out in the woods.

"Say," said the Methodist, "you Pilgrims believe in predestination don't you?—when your time has come your time has come, right?"

The Pilgrim agreed, "Yes, we do." "If that's so," said the Methodist, "than why do you carry a musket when you go out in the woods?"

The Pilgrim replied, "You never know when you might meet an Indian whose time has come."

Ignoring for the moment the repugnant approach to Native Americans, the answer may be instructive for how these things often play out.


At 7:54 AM, October 19, 2005, David Drury said...

Actually, I think that "Indian whose time has come" approach is very genuinely tied to many current evangelicalized providence ideas that continue to be repugnant to me.

I won't go in to them all, but invoking God's will into one's corporate decisions continues to lead us into all kinds of repugnant acts.

David Drury
United States of America
"Spreading God's Democracy Across the World"