Ways to Think about Providence
Christians have many ways to think about how God acts in creation (providence). Each way has implications for making sense of life in light of God’s love, power, and other attributes. But some ways are better than others.
One chapter of my book explores the powerful proposals on providence from John Sanders, The God Who Risks. Although I find much in Sanders’s proposal that I appreciate, I also offer some criticisms and counterproposals.
When offering his open and relational model of providence, Sanders seems to think Christians choose among three options when thinking about how God creates and acts providentially.
The first option is a form of process theology. Sanders is wary of process theologies that say, as he puts it, God is “pervasively conditioned by creatures.” He wants to avoid saying God, by necessity or by nature, depends on the world. Sanders believes God can unilaterally act on the world, and he doubts process theologians can affirm this (p. 162).
Let’s call the first option, “The world conditions God.”
The second option Sanders wants to avoid is a form of Calvinism. He is wary of Calvinist theologies that say, as he puts it, “the divine nature necessarily must create a world in which God is omnidetermining.” This view says God’s ongoing providential control is “a manifestation of the divine nature” (p. 231). Creatures are not really free, and randomness and chance are illusions.
Let’s call this second option, “God constantly controls the world.”
The option Sanders prefers says God sovereignly gives freedom but allows evil. Sovereign activity lays the framework of the creation project. “The divine nature is free to create a project that involves loving relations with creatures,” says Sanders (p. 231). But God could have created a world without free creatures. And God could (and perhaps occasionally does) control creatures or situations to bring about some outcome.
Let’s call Sanders’s third option, “God sovereignly, not of necessity, decided to create a world with free creatures.”
Questioning God’s Love and Power
In general, open and relational theology says a relational God of love collaborates with creatures. God’s love takes risks in relationship, as Sanders puts it. Because love does not control others, the risk model of providence does not offer the guarantees divine determinism does.
God’s relationship with creatures, says Sanders, “is not one of control and domination but rather one of love and vulnerability” (p. 71). God “does not force [creatures] to comply” (p. 174). In sum, Sanders believes “love does not force its own way on the beloved” (193).
I agree with the statements in the above paragraph. Most open and relational theologians would also agree.
But these statements invite important questions. After all, if God’s preeminent attribute is love and love invites cooperation without forcing its own way, it makes little sense to say sovereign freedom allows God to create in an unloving way.
It makes little sense, for instance, to say God voluntarily decided against exercising meticulous providence. If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say, as Sanders does, that “God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.” If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.
Why should we think a loving God who “does not force the beloved” is truly free “to tightly control every event that happens?”
Why should we think a loving God is free to control others entirely, even if God never exercised that freedom?
If love doesn’t force the beloved and God is love, God can’t force the beloved.If love doesn’t force the beloved and God is love, God can’t force the beloved. Click To Tweet
A Fourth Way
I prefer a fourth option. We might call my view, “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control.”
My option is part of the essential kenosis model I describe in my forthcoming book. At the heart is the idea that love logically precedes power in God’s nature. To put it differently, God’s love always preconditions God’s creating and providential activity.
In my view, it was out of love that God decided to create a world. And because love is God’s primary attribute, it is necessary that God creates.
Because God’s essential nature is self-giving, others-empowering love, I argue, God cannot control creatures. God cannot, to use Sanders’s language, “sovereignly decide not to determine everything.” God cannot “force the beloved.” God cannot “tightly control every event that happens.”
This limitation on God’s part does not come from something imposed upon God from the outside. Like Arminius and Wesley, I say God’s limitations come from God’s love. And in God, love comes first.God’s limitations come from God’s love. And in God, love comes first. Click To Tweet
There is obviously more that must be said. And I offer further explanation in The Uncontrolling Love of God. I hope you look for it this fall.