The sovereign activity of God can be seen in many instances in Scripture. In fact, the truth is found throughout the entire biblical record. This is part of what led to my own embrace of this powerful truth almost forty years ago. Christians disagree about the particulars, at least in terms of how they define man's will and God's sovereignty, but they should not disagree about the basic fact of divine providence.
Providence is the doctrine of God's care for the creation, involving his preservation of it and his guiding it to his intended ends. The famous Heidelberg Catechism, personally my favorite catechism, says that providence is: "The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven, earth, and all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things, comes not by chance but by His Fatherly hand."
Note the primary emphasis seems to call on this point: All things come about by the Father's purpose not by chance!
The following question (No. 28) in Heidelberg, says that this truth profits us so that we "may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future may have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move."
My life bears witness to this truth. I have found again and again that I do not need to figure out what is happening to me, or get a direct answer to all the "why" questions. I can rest with deep patience in the midst of dark adversity and I can give thanks in prosperity. I do not know how else to live well.
I believe the only logical alternative to a deeply Christian confession, at least for real Christians, is to believe that God responds to events, as they transpire, with love and mercy. But in this view His mercy is not rooted in perfect knowledge or the divine control of what actually happens. This is the primary reason why I believe the "openness of God" view is the only real alternative to this classical view of providence. Most Christian views link divine foreknowledge with providence. But these alternative views, to that stated by Heidelberg, tend to fall flat under the sheer weight of biblical evidence. I believe this is the reason the "openness" view has found acceptance among some young evangelical Christians who reject the classical doctrine because they sincerely see "fatalism" in it. (Understand, there is mystery in every Christian view and the classical view, which I firmly believe, embraces this mystery with profound wonder!) Those who embrace the openness view cannot accept the traditional alternatives to a strong (Augustinian) view of divine providence, believing that these alternative views (Arminian) do not fit the biblical evidence and/or their philosophical presuppositions. For this reason the "openness" view has gained some acceptance among thoughtful Christians, some of whom I count as my personal friends.
The openness debate has sparked some pretty acrimonious hostility among evangelicals. At its core the openness view teaches that God can and does change his mind. It is argued that freedom is an illusion if someone, even God, cannot change his mind. And if God knows, with absolute certainty, what will happen then it will happen whether you embrace this fact as an Arminian (foreknowledge) or a Calvinist (foreordination). This is why those who embrace openness see no freedom in either the Arminian or the Calvinist approach. They reason that in order to be free one must be able to decide and act otherwise. This means that God cannot know what will come to pass, except perhaps in the ultimate sense of the intended goal, or He would not be truly free. Clark Pinnock, a first-rate theologian and a fine Christian man I know and love, pictures God's relationship with free human beings as a dance. God leads, but human beings play their parts too. God's will and ways are flexible, thus He truly responds to human beings without possessing complete knowledge of the future. Pinnock believes that God is both omniresourceful and omnipotent. And Pinnock further believes that He can be surprised, but not thwarted! As much as I reject openness theology (and I do seriously reject it) I think Pinnock's point should be respected for what he is actually saying, not what his critics infer that he is saying. As with all theological controversy among serious confessing Christians, and Pinnock is one such Christian, we should be careful about how we reject what they teach, not just the content of what they teach. I visited this debate online while I was writing this post and was again appalled at the hostility and hype I saw in the writing of many who agree with my view. They have concluded that theologians like Clark Pinnock are, ipso facto, not real Christians! They attack not only his ideas but his person and his character. The acrimonious nature of this debate profoundly troubles me, which will make more than a few on my side of the debate despise me and question my motives. Is this type of theological polemic truly fruitful? Does it make us any more like Christ? Does it solve all the problems that honest Christians have when they seek to understand the Scriptures and the historic theological differences that exist among earnest Christians?
I thought about this whole debate, and thus the doctrine of providence, while reading the daily paper last Monday, Memorial Day. Thirty years ago (May 25) American Airlines flight 191, bound for Los Angeles, crashed at O'Hare Airport on takeoff. All 271 people on board died and two more people perished on the ground. It was the worst disaster in the history of O'Hare. I still remember seeing the terrible fire and smoke more than 15 miles away. I knew immediately that something tragic had happened. I quickly turned on the radio in my car and heard the first reports. It is one of those days you simply never forget.
Our paper featured a number of stories about various people who lost loved ones that awful day. (A move is underway to erect a memo
rial on the site.) Some peop
le who were not on that flight, and had been scheduled to travel on flight 191, also noted how the last thirty years had unfolded for them. One such person is the novelist John Powers, who had just hit it big with his best-selling book, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? Powers was scheduled to fly to LA on flight 191 but because of a cold he chose to rest and fly the next day. The paper included a piece about his life since 1979. In looking back, now at the age of 63, Powers said, "I think we all get those kind of situations that aren't nearly as dramatic. You catch a yellow light or whatever. We all live by luck."
It is that last phrase that struck me so profoundly. I think this is the clear difference between Christians and non-Christians on these matters. Even the most ardent proponent of openness theology does not believe that we live by luck! However you understand divine providence you cannot take God completely out of the equation and still have real hope, the kind of hope that springs from complete confidence in God's loving purpose. Classical theists, and openness evangelicals, differ strongly about how they understand the nature and character of God at this point, but I am quite sure that they all disagree with John Powers' statement: "We all live by luck." I know Clark Pinnock and he does not believe that at all. To suggest that he does is scandalous misrepresentation.