General Rather Than Meticulous Providence

In this post I’ll consider the third point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts in contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad attention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharoah rather than God and killed the baby boys, God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does–God does not fake the story of human history.

What I’ll do in the rest of this post is to define and comment briefly on meticulous and general providence, guided by “Specific Versus General Sovereignty” in John Sanders’ The God Who Risks. For those readers of this post with access to that book, I’d recommend your reading the complete section (pages 211-217).

Meticulous Providence

According to meticulous providence, God ordains everything that happens. Even acts that we view as evil happen because God wants them to happen and serve a good purpose in God’s plan. Thus there are no such things as accidents or tragedies.

Sanders quotes the following passage by Alexander Pope to illustrate this:

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.
(Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, I, 289-294)

Such divine control seems to rule out human responsibility. However proponents of meticulous providence claim that it doesn’t, arguing that meticulous providence and human responsibility are only apparently contradictory, redefining freedom so that it is compatible with being ordained, or asserting that God ordains on the basis of His foreknowledge of all that is going to happen including the free acts of humans. Sanders doesn’t discuss these three tactics in “Specific Versus General Sovereignty” but instead refers to his consideration of them at other places in The God Who Risks.

Sanders considers the argument that meticulous providence and human responsibility are only apparently contradictory in “The Appeal to Antinomies” (pages 34-37). An antinomy is a contradiction between two statements, both apparently obtained by correct reasoning. Proponents of meticulous providence claim that although it and human responsibility may be contradictory to us, they are not contradictory for God. Sanders responds that theology should be intelligible, intelligibility includes consistency, and thus antimonies such as the co-existence of meticulous providence and human responsibility should not be included in theology.

Sanders considers compatibilism, which maintains that freedom and determinism (the doctrine that all human actions are determined by antecedent causes) are compatible, in “Human Freedom” (pages 220-24). According to compatibilism, God can guarantee all actions that humans perform by determining what their remote causes will be and yet hold humans responsible for the actions because they choose to do them. However those who aren’t compatibilists object that God’s guaranteeing actions by determining their remote causes would make Him responsible for those actions and thus, if the actions are sinful, the author of sin. Moreover Saunders claims that compatibilism’s being true would nullify what the Bible says about God’s grieving over sin, changing His mind, and responding to what humans do.

Sanders considers the assertion that God ordains on the basis of His foreknowledge of all that is going to happen in “Excursus on Omniscience” (pages 194-206). Everyone agrees that God is omniscient, but there are different views on the nature of His knowledge of the future. One view, associated with Calvin, claims that God foreknows everything because He foreordains everything. Another view, associated with Arminius, claims that God foreknows everything because prior to creation He foresaw everything that would happen. Sanders advocates a view, which he calls “presentism,” that holds that God’s knowledge of the future is limited to what can be known and thus doesn’t include the actions of free creatures. He describes this view in the fifth point of his summary of openness theology, which I’ll consider in my November 19 post.

Thus Sanders concludes that all three tactics employed by proponents of meticulous providence in support of their claim that divine control doesn’t rule out human responsibility are unsuccessful. He also observes that meticulous providence rules out certain experiences that the Bible attributes to God, such as His being sorry that He had made man (Genesis 6:6).

General Providence

According to general providence, God sets up general structures and within them allows things to happen, both good and bad, not specifically intended by Him.

God may act to bring about a specific event, but even when He wants humans to do some particular thing He persuades rather than forces them to do it. For example, He chose Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt but persuaded rather than forced him to do it (Exodus 3:1-4:20). Sanders suggests that if Moses had continued to make objections God would have had to find some other way of achieving his goal.

Sanders observes that although the meticulous and general views of providence are clearly different, many Christians switch back and forth between them, depending on the situation. He gives the example of Susan. Many would thank God for her having a good job, but would condemn the rapist/murderer if she were raped and murdered. Their thanking God would imply that God has complete control over what happens (meticulous providence), but their condemning the rapist/murderer would imply that things happen not intended by God (general providence). This is inconsistent.

God’s allowing things to happen not specifically intended by Him may suggest that He is not in control. However although God does not control everything, He is in control in the sense that He initiated the divine project, set the rules under which it operates, and is guiding it towards fruition.


2 thoughts on “General Rather Than Meticulous Providence

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      “What things should Christians thank God for?” I’ll just answer for myself. I thank God for the spiritual and material blessings He’s given to me and to others.

      “Are there bad things which God does allow?” Since I view God as sovereign over the world and recognize that there is evil in the world, I have to answer, “Yes.”


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