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On divine providence, or What is God responsible for?

Every week, as part of my Overview of Christian Teaching course at Luther Seminary, we students are asked to engage the week’s assigned reading by posting on our class’s online forum a response to a hypothetical case study.

We are working our way through Roger E. Olson’s The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity, and last week’s chapter covered the theological idea of providence, which seeks to detail the precise nature of God’s intervention in the world. We were also assigned John Polkinghorne’s essay God in Relation to Nature as additional reading. The case study for this chapter was as follows:

The local newspaper every Saturday publishes a special section of the paper devoted to religion, ethics and spirituality entitled Faith & Values. The editor of Faith & Values has called asking you to write a short article to be published this coming Saturday that addresses the following question: Is God responsible for natural disasters like the hurricane that devastated New Orleans a few years ago (by causing them or permitting them to happen)? The editor requires that you are to write from your own convictions and conclusions on this issue, and not simply report possible solutions that have been posed with respect to the problem of evil throughout history or your own denomination’s point of view (although they may be cited in support of, or as a way of explaining, your own view). You have, for better or worse, accepted this assignment. Post the article you intend to submit to the paper as your Leading Statement.

Because I particularly enjoyed both the assigned readings and the nature of this case study, I have decided to post my response here as well, as a means of giving the response some exposure beyond my small group of seminary classmates. Posted below the break, in full, is the text of what I posted to my class’s forum. I have, however, added some footnotes for clarity, additional information, etc. Finally, a quick disclaimer: Because these posts directly engage our readings and come with a length requirement, what follows does not necessarily equal my fully realized and articulated theology of providence.

Editorial: Is God responsible?

by Jake Bouma

The question of whether or not God is to blame for natural disasters and human-wrought tragedies like the Holocaust is one that generally gets a lot of play in the media.1 While one is rarely exposed to intelligent discussions of rather important theological doctrines such as the Trinity on radio, television or in print, it is however quite common for Christian talking heads to score significant airtime by discussing God’s culpability (or lack thereof) in regards to the latest national tragedy. Recent examples include hurricane Katrina’s devastating destruction of New Orleans in 2005 and even more recently, the tragic deaths of twenty children and six adults in Sandy Hook. Shortly after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145 more, prominent Christian pastor and leader John Piper uploaded a (now infamous) post to his blog titled Putting My Daughter to Bed Two Hours After the Bridge Collapsed, in which he claimed (among other things) that “God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”

Finding prominent Christians who are both confident in their assertion that God is responsible for every particular thing that happens on earth — a theological position known as meticulous providence — as well as willing to declare this confidence on the national stage is relatively easy; it is a view held by many Christians both today and throughout history. It is the position of this author, however, that there is a better way to interpret such events, a way that is both intellectually defensible and true to Christian scripture.2

Those unfamiliar with the contours of theology and its history may be surprised to discover that while some theological assertions have remained relatively unchanged for hundreds (if not thousands!) of years, many such assertions are still squabbled over to this day, their particularities being revisited, scrutinized, and sometimes even revised. This particular question — “Is God responsible?” — is simply an entry point into the ongoing discussion about God’s providence; that is, how exactly does God interact with and intervene in nature and history, and what does this interaction (or lack thereof) say about this God?

As mentioned earlier, the belief in God’s “meticulous providence” has a lot of clout, both historically and contemporarily. The essence of this belief — defended by such theological heavyweights as St. Augustine and John Calvin, among others — is, as professor of theology Roger Olson writes, “absolute, meticulous planning, willing and controlling by God such that there is in nature no ‘maverick molecule’… and in history no ‘divine risk'” (Olson, 190-191). In other words, everything that happens is willed by God because it is “somehow necessary for the greatest good” (Olson, 191), regardless of how difficult such tragic pills may be for us humans to swallow. Some committed Christians and enterprising theologians have sought to “update” this theology so as to allow more space for human agency or will in a position known as limited providence, which essentially asserts that while God does not will such evils, God unmistakably permits them, in order to “preserve the freedom and moral responsibility of the world” (Olson, 194).

Within the last quarter-century, however, a new school of thought about God’s providence has received some traction, and while its particularities are still being ironed out by theologians of many different stripes, I contend that it provides the best framework for making sense of God and God’s interaction with the world. This theological position, known popularly as open theism, reinterprets the idea of providence as “God’s resourceful and powerful response to humanity within the frameworks of nature and history” (Olson, 195). As one proponent of open theism, John Sanders, has written, “In grace God grants humans a role in collaborating with him on the course that human history takes” (Olson, 195).3 That is, God is not the direct cause of everything that happens on earth, but rather God has chosen to limit or empty himself (in an act known to theologians as kenosis) in order that God might participate with humanity in the great and unfolding cosmic play.

Now, this does not mean that humanity is somehow equal with God and able to bring about God’s ultimate will for the cosmos — that would be heresy, indeed! Rather, Christians claim the truth that God has a perfect and benevolent will for the universe that will ultimately come to fruition. As noted theologian and physicist (yes, both!) John Polkinghorne has said, “the God who is the ground of a true and everlasting hope will work ceaselessly to bring salvation to creation.” And yet I submit that this very same God, contrary to what proponents of meticulous providence would have us believe, “interacts within creaturely history but does not overrule the acts of creatures,” as Polkinghorne claims. Ultimately, the narrative of God and humanity is heading toward the good and perfect realization of what Jesus referred to as the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven.” In the meantime, however, we Christians are called to cooperate with God — utilizing our own free will — in the pursuit at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So let us not needlessly blame God for the evils and tragedies that befall us. Let us instead recognize God’s desire for ultimate, cosmic restoration and pledge our allegiance to working with this compassionate God in the spreading of light and hope.

  1. I use the idea of talking heads to make a point in this essay, but the issue of divine providence is firmly embedded in our cultural zeitgeist, as attested to by this tweet from @TheTweetOfGod, a satirical and often times hilariously profane Twitter account.  

  2. Only after I had posted my “editorial” did I realize that I had never really defended the “true to Christian scripture” claim. One prominent example that would support my argument can be found in Exodus 32, in which Moses pleads with God to not “bring disaster on your people.” Ultimately, God relents. Exodus 32:14: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” 

  3. Now, meticulous providence, limited providence, and open theism are not the only three possible renderings of divine providence in Christian theology, but they are the three that Olson permits as acceptable. I must admit that although I am still relatively uninformed about it, process theology seems to me to be a reasonable (if not satisfactory) theological framework in which to interpret things such as providence. Alas, Olson is open in his disgust for process theology, claiming it has “infiltrated and corrupted” mainstream Protestantism (188). 

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  • Jayna Baczwaski

    Interesting perspective(s). As a trauma therapist, I work hard to challenge what you reference as ‘meticulous providence’ when treating PTSD, as it manifests into what we call the distorted ‘just world belief,’ i.e. “God only allows good things to happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. A bad thing happened to me, therefore I must be bad.” I usually challenge this entrenched belief with the concept of free will. I am going to read more on the theories you posted, including process theology. Clients’ underlying spiritual beliefs play into their healing process in such a huge way, these various perspectives could be very eye-opening to them, thanks :)

    • Jayna: Thanks for your comment. I had the same sort of “a-ha” moment when reading about meticulous providence; seeing how it plays out in peoples’ minds both in real life and in movies/books, etc. I’m thrilled that you’re able to see some practical use from this stuff… Sometimes that can be the hardest part of reading through some theological texts — thinking to yourself, “Okay, but what does this actually mean in the real world?” We’ll have to catch up the next time we’re in the same town and talk about this stuff! :)