God’s Meticulous Providence: A Theodicy of Divine Sovereignty

My investigation into the issue of divine providence and the issue of theodicy began, like many others, with personal tragedy. My parents were going through a divorce, and I felt like I was stuck in the middle. I was raised in a free will Southern Baptist Church (or FWT [Free Will Theist] Church as I will later label the position of such churches). I thought that surely it was I who was at fault, or maybe it was my mother or father. I didn’t know. All I knew was that God was good and loving and surely He wouldn’t have declared such a terrible thing to happen. At this point in time I began to flirt with what I would later learn was called Open Theism, the position that God has exhaustive knowledge of the present and past but not of the future contingencies of human actions. However, such a God seemed less like a true theistic God, in the classical sense, and more like a concession to the process theologians and finite godist theology of Mormonism. I couldn’t reconcile God’s exhaustive foreknowledge with libertarian free will and the problem of evil; however, I believe, due to God’s divine revelation, that there is a direct answer to the issue of the existence of natural and moral evils in the world. This answer has found its fullest expression in Reformed theology’s doctrine of Meticulous Providence through the varying decrees of God.

  • Defining Meticulous Providence: Answering the How Question

It seems that our first task before engaging in any Biblical exegesis or before engaging the variety of versions of the problem of evil, one has to offer a plausible definition of Meticulous Providence (henceforth known as MP); however, we immediately run into the issue of disputation. By this I mean that we have no clear standard for understanding the providence of God in creation as creatures. Without direct revelation from God it seems that we are left to our own reason; however, if we presuppose that God has indeed spoken through the Bible then we have an absolute standard for understanding MP as our standard is the Absolute Himself. Many things are said of the Scriptures. Let us examine these texts in closer detail.

And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:8)

He [YHWH] has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. (Psalm 147:19)

But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, (Matthew 22:31)

Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God. (Romans 3:2)

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, there is a consistent insistence on the inspiration of the Scriptures. They are described as being the very words of God Himself, infallibly transmitted to the people to whom God has chosen to speak. Therefore, if we seek to have some form of standard by which to create a foundation for MP, we must rely on the authority on the Word of God.

  • Defining Meticulous Providence: Biblical Examples

 

Now that we have an absolute standard, the Scriptures, by which to define MP, it will be profitable to examine various Scriptural accounts of three important theological elements.

  1. God’s Freedom
  2. God’s Sovereignty
  3. God’s Purpose

We shall examine, in detail, passages that deal directly with each of the aforementioned elements.

  • Defining Meticulous Providence: God’s Freedom, Sovereignty and Purpose

 

One of the foundational pieces of the doctrine of God is God’s kingly freedom. He is free in:

  1. Creation – God is free to create as He wills
  2. Direction of History – God is free to direct history and determine its outcome
  3. Election – God is free to elect to salvation those whom He wills

 

God’s kingly freedom is intimately tied to the three main elements of MP. Let us exegete some passages of Scripture that will aid us in understanding. The first text that we will be examining is Isaiah 46:10.

 I make known the end from the beginning,

 from ancient times, what is still to come.

I say, ‘My purpose will stand,

 and I will do all that I please.’

 

Before we begin, it will be important to understand the immediate context of this verse. Its broad context is in Isaiah 40-8 which is called the “trial of the false gods.” Its narrow context is Isaiah 46:1-9. Here the Lord challenges the gods of Babylon. Verses 1-8 say:

Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low;
their idols are borne by beasts of burden,                                                                           The images that are carried about are burdensome,
a burden for the weary. They stoop and bow down together;
unable to rescue the burden,
they themselves go off into captivity.

 “Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob,
all the remnant of the people of Israel,
you whom I have upheld since your birth,
and have carried since you were born.
 Even to your old age and gray hairs
I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

 “With whom will you compare me or count me equal?
To whom will you liken me that we may be compared?
 Some pour out gold from their bags
and weigh out silver on the scales;
they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god,
and they bow down and worship it.
They lift it to their shoulders and carry it;
they set it up in its place, and there it stands.
From that spot it cannot move.
Even though someone cries out to it, it cannot answer;
it cannot save them from their troubles.

 “Remember this, keep it in mind,
take it to heart, you rebels.

Here God defines Himself in opposition to the pagan gods of Babylon. God is rescuer, yet when someone cries out to the idol it cannot save the person. God is sustainer, yet the idol cannot even move from the place in which it is seated. Therefore, in verse 9, God says:

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.

God asserts here the foundational truth inherent to both Judaism and Christianity: there is no God besides YHWH. He is the only healer. He is the only sustainer. He is the only rescuer. In vs. 10 YHWH describes His kingly freedom in all three elements of freedom. God “makes known the end from the beginning,” or, to use theological language, God has exhaustive foreknowledge of future events based on His creative decree. The reason God knows what is to come, those events which are still yet to pass, is because, as Genesis 1:1 states:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

 

God goes onto state that “my purpose shall stand” and “I will do all that I please.” Based on God’s omnipotence, or the doctrine that all things are possible for God, it is impossible for Him to fail. He shall accomplish all that He sets out to do and will succeed in fulfilling His purpose. Let us go further and list a number of similar verses that carry a similar message or possess similar content. These passages deal with the sovereignty of God and his kingly freedom in creation and the guidance of history.

The LORD Almighty has sworn, “Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will happen. – Isaiah 14:24

All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” – Daniel 4:35

“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. – Job 42:2

Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. – Psalm 115:3

The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. – Psalm 135:6

God even goes so far as to elect some unto salvation. Let us exegete Romans 8:28-9:24. To begin with, we have the golden chain of redemption in Romans 8:28-30.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

The important things to notice are that:

  1. All the verbs are active
  2. The subject is God
  3. The direct object is individuals

 

First we have, “God works for the good of those who love Him,” but who are those who love him? They are “those who have been called according to His purpose.” God’s calling precedes the loving of God. The purpose of that calling is so that those who love Him might “be conformed to the image of His Son.” Elsewhere Paul writes, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)” It is the function of the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of the Son, and such a conforming can only come from God Himself. We then read, “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Each step in the process of salvation (predestination, calling, justification, and glorification) is a sovereign, or freely willed, act of God. Who is the direct object of these active verbs? As we read further, Paul tells us.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

The direct object of Romans 8:28-30 is the we, or us, and the identity of the pronouns is “those whom God has chosen.” Now that we are finished with Romans 8, let us move directly into chapter 9. Vs 1-5 state:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Paul begins Romans 9 with a lamentation. He is lamenting the fact that many of the Hebrews have not accepted Jesus Christ or His gospel. He says that to the Israelites belonged all of the promises and benefits of the old covenant. We also have a reference to the deity of Christ; however, it is not in the scope of this paper to go into that subject. It is in vs. 6 that Paul raises the first of many objections that He puts to Himself.

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.

Paul goes on to elaborate on what this means.

Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

Paul uses Genesis 21:12 and Genesis 18:10 and 14 to make a point about why it is that the word of God has not failed. It is not that all who have descended from Israel are recipients of the Old Covenant promises and benefits. Rather, it is only those of whom are in the remnant, of which God chooses the members of according to Romans 8:33. Paul continues:

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Again we have a strong statement on the sovereign choice of God on the part of Paul. “Before the twins were born” and before they “had done anything good or bad”, it was accord to “God’s purpose in election” that Jacob would be loved and Esau hated. This decision, as Paul belabors, is “not by works but by him who calls.” After this, Paul raises the second objection.

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!

What is his response? It is:

For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,and I will have

compassion on whom I have compassion.”

It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Paul’s answer is direct and straightforward.

  1. God’s mercy is a free act that cannot be demanded
  2. God’s justice is against sinners
  3. God’s justice is purposeful and rooted in His holy character

Paul goes on to the final retort from the potential objector:

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?”

Paul’s response is:

But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’?” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—  even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

Paul’s answer is thus. Who is a human being to talk back to the sovereign creator of all things? Paul employs sarcasm in his answer as he speaks to the absurdity of pottery talking back to the pottery former. Is it not God’s kingly and sovereign right, says Paul, for God to make from the same group of sinners some to wrath and some to glory so that His divine attributes, namely His justice and His mercy, may be displayed before all of creation? In all of this, we see Paul’s defense of the right of God to exercise sovereign and free choice in the direction of human affairs, election to salvation, and in creation. We also see what God’s purpose is. Ephesians 1 makes the same point in slightly different language. There, in vs 5-6, Paul states:

He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

It is all to the praise of “His glorious grace”!

  • Defining Meticulous Providence: An Authoritative Definition

What is MP then? From the texts of Scripture, we may define MP as such:

MP: a being x exercises MP iff that being freely and sovereignly chooses to ordain and primarily cause all events in time through a creative decree

This then is our functional and scripturally based definition of MP.

  1. The Argument from Evil: A Statement of the Argument

There are two main statements of the argument from evil; however, both have the same, basic plan of attack. The idea is that if evil exists in the world then it is hard to see how an all good, all loving, all powerful, and all knowing being could exist in light of such evils. The logical problem of evil focuses on evil existing in general and the inductive argument from evil focuses on specific instances of gratuitous evil, or evil that has no morally justifiable explanation. The arguments generally go something like:

Logical Argument from Evil

P1. God is maximally great

P2. Evil exists

C1. God is either not omnipotent, not omnibenevolent, or not omniscient

P3. Classical theism entails maximal greatness

C2. Classical theism is false

 

Inductive Argument from Evil

P1. God is maximally great

P2. There exist events x that are such that failure to prevent them is characteristic of a wrong-making property

P3. For x, the amount of wrong-making properties outweigh the amount of right-making properties

P4. Any action whose wrongmaking properties outweigh its rightmaking properties is morally wrong.

P5. God allows some x events to occur

P6. A being that allows x events to occur is not morally good

C1. God is not morally good

P7. Maximal greatness entails that God is good

C2. God does not exist

Too many non-theists, both of these arguments may seem persuasive; however, I believe that the Christian theist has a response to both with the utilization of MP.

2.1 The Argument from Evil: The Meticulous Sovereignty Theodicy

In this section, we will seek to state the argument.

P1. Evil exists (inductively true)

P2. God exercises MP (scripturally true)

P3. MP requires that God has a purpose for all decreed events (definitionally true)

P4. Gratuitous evil is unpurposed or lacks a morally justifiable reason to exist

P5. All evil is purposed (P2, P3)

C. There is no gratuitous evil

Therefore, we see how an MP Theodicy is able to undercut the motivation for the inductive argument for evil. As for the logical version, I would make an appeal to the skeptical theist hypothesis and ask the objector for a reason why God could not possibly have a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil.

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