OHPT: Thoughts on Divine Providence (Chapter 12)

This chapter gave me major déjà vu. It touched on new topics, but I felt like it was a little bit of a rehash or mash-up of the chapters on divine omniscience and divine power. Maybe this was a good thing?! It certainly illustrates part of what I’m starting to think about when reviewing this book (and the field of philosophical theology) as a whole. So I may not have a lot to say, because I probably have already said most of what I think… but let’s dive in.

This chapter, “Divine Providence,” was written by Dr. Thomas P. Flint, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His foci of research are all within philosophical theology, with special attention to foreknowledge and metaphysics.

The question in this chapter is how to define or characterize God’s particular and protective care for the universe and creatures in it — how does she bring about good ends? Why and how does she allow evil? How does God intervene in or interact with the world? Christianity assumes God as Creator of the universe whose divine qualities include omnipotence and omniscience. Considering her perfect knowledge and power, Christians have to grapple with the genesis and continual occurrences of evil in the world. If God knows everything and can bring about anything she wants, why is there evil in the world? Does the existence of evil undermine the “perfection” of her knowledge and/or her power? Or is this world the best God (any optimally divine creature) can do? (Leibniz, you wacky bastard.)

Flint divides the main theories on God’s providence into three: Thomism, Open Theism (the new kid on the theological block!), and Molinism. Thomism looks at the problem of evil and finds an answer in arguing that human freedom is perfectly compatible with God’s foreknowledge and control over the universe. Freedom for libertarians is the absence of external factors forcing our decisions in any direction. I perform a free act when the act is chosen by me and done under my control. I’m not forced into it through any kind of strong external control. Thomists argue that God is fully in control, but that he is somehow different from other “external” causes. She is, indeed, in control and responsible for everything (“for the typical Thomist, no event is not part of his overall plan”). Further, God’s knowledge is perfect in a broad sense — she knows what we freely did, what we will freely do, and what we would have freely done in different circumstances. God knew all and knows all and still brought about this world with this set of freely-acting creatures, some of whom bring about evil.

I just cannot get my mind around this if we also want to retain God’s omnibenevolence and the existence of hell (which most Christians are wont to do). If God is truly the cause of every act, on some level, then what justifies sending people to hell for eternity? If God could have brought about circumstances in which person X does not perform evil acts and go to hell, then isn’t a God who didn’t worse than a God who did? If there’s a bit of a trolley problem here (“in THIS world, circumstances are such that X does evil things and goes to hell and Y doesn’t, but in THAT world circumstances are such that Y does evil things and goes to hell but X doesn’t”), then does it makes sense to sacrifice anyone to an eternity of absolute horrific suffering to save anyone? I just can’t make sense of this as a loving, just, providential (protective) God.

This doesn’t even touch on the horrific evil in the world that we then need to attribute to God’s doing. A God who puts into being or is in control of the circumstances leading to slavery, the Holocaust, child rape, etc. is … not a God I think worthy of worship.

Open Theism responds to the difficulties raised by Thomism by preserving human freedom but modifying the definition or understanding of God’s providence. God has perfect knowledge of all true propositions, but that does not include the set of propositions whose realization is in the future. In other words, God does not have foreknowledge of what individuals will do in the future; therefore, she cannot prevent all evils because she does not know what will result in evils and what will not. She only has probablistic knowledge. God does not know that I will eat a cupcake if it’s put in front of me, only that it’s highly likely that I will eat a cupcake if it’s put in front of me. So God can still act in the world in a way that is meaningful, it’s just… probabalistically meaningful.

The Wikipedia article on Open Theism (don’t judge — it’s a great introductory resource!) was helpful, describing God’s knowledge as seeing possibilities, like branches on a tree, but not knowing which one will come true, so she responds in the moment to humans as humans freely act and freely make one world of the many possible worlds the actual world.

Now, I’m a bit of a determinist. I think it’s theoretically possible (though perhaps not, for humans, practically so) to be able to predict with perfect certainty what anyone will do given his state of affairs (including his past and his brain states) and the laws of nature. I’m not terribly convinced that human freedom is all that… free. I think it’s free in that our actions are a product of us, but I don’t think they’re products from totally undetermined, random forces. We can, in theory, trace causes and effects back through our brain to explain all our free choices. Because of this, probabilistic providence seems to me not a matter of what information is available, but a real deficit in God’s actual knowledge. If foreknowledge is theoretically possible (aka, if determinism is true), then God, a divine being with perfect attributes, should be able to know the truth value of all propositions about the future.

In a sense, it’s odd that probabilistic providence doesn’t sit well with me, because I appreciate uncertainty in humans, as an acknowledgement of our limited knowledge. So why can’t I appreciate uncertainty (a quality of probabilistic knowledge, yes?) as having a divine correlate? Perhaps because I think perfect foreknowledge is, or would be, available to a divine being. Perhaps it’s just part of how I am conceiving of the world and imagining what kind of God would be truly “divine” in response to this world and what “divine qualities” would look like given what we already know about the world. Funnily enough, I don’t think Thomists, Openists, or Molinist are terribly concerned with facts about the world interfering with their theology… happy to be proven wrong, though!

Finally, to complete the holy providential triumvirate, we have Molinism. Molinism says we can keep both human freedom and God’s knowledge/power as traditional theists do because the conflict is actually a conflict in appearance only. Humans are as free as the libertarians say, and God is as in control of events as traditional theists say — God works through the free actions of individuals! PROBLEM SOLVED. God has middle knowledge, the knowledge of what someone would freely do in a situation (counterfactuals, yay!!), and this, combined with the fact that God created everything (provided the physical inputs and initial arrangement and chose the laws according to which everything operates/unfolds) means that God has perfect foreknowledge of what every individual will do no matter what the circumstance.

Flint goes into great detail here about what constitutes grounding of truths, and it’s so worth a read. What makes a proposition about the world true? How are propositions grounded — what are their truth-makers? I won’t go into any more of the discussion here, because I have rambled on long enough (and I think there are better sources that address this question), and I’ve decided that my biggest takeaway is the necessity of addressing the nature of human freedom (more on this below). All that to say, I think it’s a very worthwhile question for Christians, and especially relevant and interesting considering questions of divine providence.

In general, I think after writing all this out, what I really find lacking in all this is a deeper explanation or exploration of human freedom. What does it mean to be free? Not just how does freedom coexist (or not) with God’s providence, but what is the nature of freedom itself? That would go a long way, for me, towards trying to analyze which of the three divine providence theories is most internally consistent and most likely to be true (assuming all the other bits about God that we have assumed up to this point). I am sure arguments about the nature and operation of human freedom exist in academic treatments of Thomism, Open Theism, and Molinism, and most likely Flint just didn’t have space for them. But it seems a really important question, one we cannot elide if we take human freedom so seriously and argue about how it agrees or doesn’t with an aspect of the divine.

My favorite quote:

… the God of Open Theism is a genuine risk-taker.

Flint 271

Post photo from pinnaclewealth.com.

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