Divine determinism and divine sovereignty

Marvin argues that a doctrine of divine determinism–that everything that happens, even apparently horrible things like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, is an expression of God’s will–is actually a more comforting doctrine than people sometimes give it credit for:

If this sounds harsh, and as I said last week, I am against harshness as a test of orthodoxy, then assuring people that God had nothing to do with the tsunami may be equally harsh. For then we live in a world where evils befall us from outside God’s will. And that raises a disturbing question: Is God’s arm, in fact, too short to save? Are we in fact in a s**t happens world where God wishes us well but can’t be counted on to do anything about it?

My problem with this view (and I don’t know that Marvin is whole-heartedly endorsing it) is that it provokes an equally disturbing question: if nothing happens “outside” God’s will, then why does God visit us with so much (apparently) undeserved evil?

It’s not just death, or premature death that poses the problem. Acute, prolonged pain and suffering are just as much of a problem, if not more so. And the suffering that happens, in many cases, goes well beyond any reasonable reformatory or punitive purposes that theologians may offer as explanations. As Clark Williamson argues, one criteria for doing contemporary theology is that you shouldn’t say anything you couldn’t say “in the presence of the burning children” of the Nazi death camps. Could we tell them that their suffering was part of God’s will for them?

This isn’t to say that God’s arm is too short to save, but to offer a different understanding of divine sovereignty. Whatever else we know, we know that God doesn’t in fact save people from undeserved suffering or death (that is, unless you have such an intense doctrine of original sin that no amount of suffering would be undeserved). Instead, I’d propose that divine sovereignty is an eschatological concept: it means that God’s purposes will ultimately triumph, despite the best efforts of fragile and foolish human beings. That’s different from saying that God controls the outcome of every event. It means affirming with Paul that our present sufferings aren’t worth being compared with the future glory, or with the seer of Revelation that God will wipe away every tear. It means that, in God’s time and by God’s power, “all things will be well.”


Doing a Google search, I came across this passage from evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz’s systematic theology:

Strictly speaking God’s sovereignty is an eschatological concept. It refers to the bringing to pass of the final goal God has for the world. This situation will emerge at the end of the historical process. When viewed from the vantage point of the eschatological end, therefore, God is fully and obviously sovereign.

When viewed from the perspective of present experience, however, it is not so obvious that God is sovereign. In fact, whether or not God is reigning over the world is presently an open question. In a sense, the present open-endedness of the divine sovereignty is implicit in the act of creation itself. The very existence of creation as a reality different from God raises the question of ultimate sovereignty: Is God sovereign over creation or is creation autonomous? (Theology for the Community of God, p. 106-7)

Citing Wolfhart Pannenberg, Grenz goes on to argue that, during the present age, God’s sovereignty is contested by the forces that work against God’s purpose. But God acts in history to establish his Kingdom. The eschaton is the point at which God’s sovereignty will be fully manifested. “In the strict sense, then, God is sovereign from the vantage point of the eschatological future” (p. 108).

I don’t know much about the context of Grenz’s overall theology (though I’m intrigued by this passage), but this sounds very similar to what I was trying to get at in this post.


Marvin has a follow-up post here. Like him, I’m attracted both to classical theism and to more contemporary process- or narrative-oriented approaches. And I agree that the classical view has much more sophisticated and able exponents than the pop-Calvinists who dominate much of the theological debate among American Christians. (To Marvin’s list, I might add a more contemporary figure like Tillich, though I understand Marvin finds Tillich boring. :))

I also agree with Marvin that there are no problem-free positions out there. There are theologies (such as some forms of process theology) that do seem to qualify God’s sovereignty to the point of impotence, or that make a fetish out of divine suffering. That’s part of the reason I’m attracted to a “neo-process” perspective like Clark Williamson’s, which incorporates some of the key insights of process theology without abandoning its commitment to tenets of traditional theology like creation ex nihilo and a strong view of God’s eschatological triumph. (Others who might fall into this broad middle ground: Keith Ward, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke.) Of course, such a position is open to criticisms from both the “left” and the “right” for being an unstable hybrid.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for classical theism of the Augustinian variety, especially in its emphasis on the mystery and transcendence of God. The deity of some process and other contemporary theologies can seem a bit too personal and chummy. Theology needs to preserve a space for holy awe and that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom.

Maybe what tips the scales for me is that I just find it impossible, on a gut, existential level, to affirm that God directly wills some of the terrible events that happen in the world. But it could be that it’s possible to square the circle and affirm traditional notions of divine sovereignty without being forced to that conclusion.

11 thoughts on “Divine determinism and divine sovereignty

  1. As Clark Williamson argues, one criteria for doing contemporary theology is that you shouldn’t say anything you couldn’t say “in the presence of the burning children” of the Nazi death camps. Could we tell them that their suffering was part of God’s will for them?

    I confess, I don’t understand this argument at all; it’s barely possible to say anything at all in the presence of burning children in Nazi death camps, much less say anything theological. And Williamson’s point is self-defeating: what person who was not entirely insane would go around saying “In theology you shouldn’t say anything you couldn’t say in the presence of the burning children,” in the presence of the burning children? It’s difficulty to see Williamson’s claim as simply a cynical attempt to rule out from the beginning views he doesn’t like; when in fact if we really took it seriously we wouldn’t do much theology (or much of anything) at all, because “in the presence of burning children” only a madman would sit around talking theology.

  2. Well, I don’t think it’s supposed to be taken quite that literally. Williamson actually gets the idea from Rabbi Irving Greenberg. Here’s a longer quote for more context:

    “Greenberg’s working principle has at least two meanings. It is a moral criterion that any theological statement that contributed to creating the adversus Judaeos tradition that made the Shoah possible may not be repeated. The ‘teaching of contempt’ for Jews and Judaism was a necessary but not sufficient cause of the Holocaust. Now that we see the complicity of that teaching in making possible the Holocaust, we may not morally repeat it. It is a standard for credibility in that it disallows statements that cannot stand as plausible in the presence of the burning children. Certain ways of talking about the power of God, for example, that imply either that God committed the Holocaust or allowed it to happen but could have prevented it are ruled out by one’s inability so to speak of God’s love and justice in the presence of the burning children. The living God of the Bible is the Lord who ‘loves justice’ (Ps. 37:28) and of whom we must speak justly.” (Guest in the House of Israel, p. 13)

    Clearly it’s the issue of credibility that’s relevant here, and I think the meaning is pretty clear. Of course, people are free to reject such a criterion, but at the very least I think it presents a serious challenge for theology, particularly how it talks about divine providence.

  3. I don’t find the quoted argument particularly helpful; it loses its force entirely if we aren’t talking about literal burning children, and indeed becomes somewhat distasteful, because they are being thrown in there merely as a tool for rhetorical effect. This is a problem, if I recall, that’s been raised by more conservative Orthodox rabbis against Greenberg.

    It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that Greenberg seems much more consistent in how he carries it out: his position is that at Auschwitz God completely broke His covenant with Israel, and withdrew the divine presence completely from the world except for what remains in ordinary human beings; that, because the Messiah did not come at Auschwitz, he will never come; that a God who permitted the Holocaust does not have a claim on our obedience, and that this is why God did permit it despite his close relationship to the Jewish people, so that they and everyone else would be free; and that therefore human beings have to voluntarily find their own way to make the world sacred, because God will not, and if such evil as Auschwitz can be committed by human beings, then human beings can also create extraordinary good. It isn’t a selective argument to rule out a few doctrines: it’s a sort of complete anti-theology, in which theology itself is allowed only insofar as it is also removed by tzimtzum.

  4. Lee

    I can agree that the “burning children” language is unhelpful and should be shelved. I’m more interested in the underlying principle/question: should theology speak as though God is responsible (either directly or indirectly) for severe, undeserved suffering?

    And in semi-defense of Williamson, I don’t think he’s using this principle to selectively rule out certain doctrines. He thinks we need a more thorough reconceptualization of divine action along neo-classical (or process) lines. I’m not sure he’s right about that, but I do think it’s something theology should grapple with. There’s far too much flippant Christian discourse that attributes horrible tragedies and suffering to “God’s will” in my view.

  5. Since Christian theology already speaks as though God is responsible, at least indirectly, for severe, undeserved suffering (impossible to make sense of the story of Job or of the Passion without reading them this way), it seems to me that the real question is how this should be understood if God isn’t.

    In the passage you quote, it seems to me that Williamson very definitely is using it selectively to rule out doctrines; he may think that once you’ve ruled them out then that requires a radical revision of things, but that’s not the same thing. The only thing that would really save Williamson here is if at some point he subjects his own doctrine to exactly the same test, or if he seriously considers on their own merits (independently of this credibility criterion), say, the views of conservative Orthodox rabbis who do actually hold these views and would strenuously deny that Williamson’s diagnosis is correct. If he never completes the circle in something like these ways, it’s a straightforward use of a rhetorical double standard. I’ve met enough neo-classical theists to know that they usually think they can easily meet the tests they hold classical theists to, and that they are often wrong: if they take a very strong process view they often end up paganizing our ideas of suffering and evil, and if they take a mixed process view (in which a process approach to providence is chosen by God even though He need not have chosen it) they often end up reducing God’s responsibility for suffering in particular cases only by massively increasing His responsibility for not stopping it in particular cases (by reducing the reasons He could have for not stopping it to very general purpose-of-the-world reasons, thus meaning that God is deliberately not making exceptions). Do you think he manages to avoid this sort of pitfall?

    I suppose to some extent part of what disturbs me is that I can entirely see the point of flippant Christian discourse about God’s will; shallow as it is, it’s usually well-meaning, and really does console people of a certain temperament (the list of people who have held such views despite having known severe, undeserved suffering themselves is quite long, and the history of strict Calvinism has not always been church socials and suburban living), and where it doesn’t people usually hold it because they honestly see no alternative given certain Scriptural claims. But I can’t see any point to flippant use of Holocaust theology as an argumentative maneuver against opposing positions, and everything you’ve said about Williamson sets every alarm bell ringing on that front in ways that, for instance, Greenberg doesn’t.

  6. Lee

    Williamson is consistent in holding that God can’t coercively intervene (i.e., God doesn’t “self-limit” as in some other contemporary theologies). Not sure what you mean by “paganizing suffering and evil” though–can you elaborate? I do think he punts a bit on creation ex nihilo, a weakness I find common to a lot of process theologies.

    And I agree that the doctrine of an all-controlling providence can be meaningful and comforting to some; just as it can seem to paint a picture of a morally horrific God to others. I also don’t think I’ve done justice to Williamson’s project here: he’s explicitly trying to do post-Holocaust theology. He may not be wholly successful, but I don’t get the impression he’s just using the Holocaust as a rhetorical prop to support a pre-existing theological agenda.

  7. Lee

    Also, in retrospect, using that line from Williamson as an illustration for this blog post probably obscured more than it clarfied.

  8. Hi, Lee,

    Pagan views of suffering and evil, except for a narrow band of philosophical views emphasizing virtue, make human life and history tragic in character: goodness is fragile, death and suffering cannot be transcended, in suffering the gods provide if anything mostly moral support and example, and so forth. This changes with the advent of Christianity: covenant, grace, and the redemptive work of Christ are all direct major interventions of exactly the sort that process theists call ‘coercive’, the witness of martyrs shows that even death and suffering can be transcended so that they are now tragic in only a secondary way, divine power guarantees divine victory and a triumphant eschatology. (All this on the classical interpretation, rather than on neo-classical reinterpretations, of course.) Process views tend to Neoplatonize, so to speak, history, due to the influence of Whitehead’s reading of the Timaeus; in doing so many (although not necessarily all) reinstate death and suffering as tragic elements and strip Christ’s passion of the significance it would have for our perspective on evil and suffering on the classical view. That was what I was getting at.

    Given that I personally know quite a long list of people who regard the Crucifixion itself as painting a picture of a morally horrific God, I suppose I am reluctant to put much emphasis on such negative feelings: there are clearly many things that can be contributing to them. I find views of God as ‘fellow sufferer’, common among process theists, morally horrifying, and the mindset that would considers it comforting to think of God suffering too to be very repulsive, but precisely because of this I think I need to be more careful and work harder to see the point of view of process theists on this point than if I didn’t have such a reaction. My feeling may well be right, so that the position really does have something morally depraved about it, but justice requires trying to see any potential attractions it might have to decent people. There also seems to me a definite asymmetry between the negative and positive reactions in most cases on subjects like these: in the one case people take deterministic, meticulous providence to be (at least probably) false because it engenders the negative feelings, but in the other people seem typically to find it consoling because it seems to them to be true. I know of many strict Calvinists who are comforted because of their view; I know of no strict Calvinists who came to their view because it was comforting. Conceivably this is just an accident of my own experience that it has fallen this way.

  9. Lee

    Hi Brandon,
    Thanks for clarifying–I get the distinction you’re drawing and agree that it’s an important one which gets short shrift from a lot of process theology. Although I think there are some neo-process thinkers who do affirm that death and suffering will be transcended. (Marjorie Suchocki has developed a “process eschatology” along these lines; I’d put Williamson in a similar category.)

    I’m also uneasy with the over-emphasis on the suffering of God as a response to the problem of evil (I wrote about that here: https://thinkingreed.wordpress.com/2006/03/13/the-pathetic-god/.). I do think, however, that the popularity of the “suffering God” stems from a legitimate religious impuse. Surely one reason that meditating on Christ’s sufferings is so common in Christian spirituality has to do with the appeal of having a God who empathizes with our suffering. (Hebrews 4:15 seems to provide something of a warrant for this.) I think we need to be cautious of what metaphysical claims we make about that, but keeping the limits of religious language in mind, it doesn’t necessarily seem more wrong to me to say that God empathizes with human suffering than to say that he doesn’t.

    That said, I think your point dovetails with what I was trying to say in this post: that God’s sovereignty consists in overcoming evil, but that this has yet to happen. I guess one of the problems I have with the Calvinist view–or at least its popular manifestations–is that it looks like an over-realized eschatology. It seems to me to downplay or ignore the extent to which creation is still in travail and to which forces that oppose God’s reign still hold sway. The consummation is still in the future, which to my mind makes it problematic to say that events like earthquakes, etc. are the direct result of God’s will. On the other hand, maybe I have an under-realized eschatology.

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