This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2011 vol. 168 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four ViewsB&H Academic, Nashville May 15, 2008
According to the introduction “the design of this book is to offer two pairs of viewpoints on how God and his relations to the world should be understood, one pair of chapters coming largely from the Reformed camp, and the other pair from the movement of free will theism, more commonly thought of as the broad Arminian camp” (p. 2). Each chapter is then followed by a response from each of the other authors. The goal is that the reader “will be instructed and encouraged to think more carefully and to consider factors he may have otherwise overlooked by a careful probing of these four perspectives on God and his relations to our world” (p. 4).
Although Paul Helm’s chapter has the title “Classical Calvinist Doctrine of God,” he asserts that “there is no such thing” (p. 5). Rather, he believes that his view is “the mainstream Christian doctrine of God” (ibid.). However, his chapter gives little content to the doctrine of God, except for a defense of predestination. Most readers will find this chapter disappointing, not because the content is not good but because it does not seem to fit the purpose of the book. As Roger Olson observes in his response, Helm’s chapter “deviates from the original plan of the book” (p. 54). Thus readers will wonder why it was included.
Bruce Ware defends a “Modified Calvinist Doctrine of God.” These modifications, Ware argues, are necessary because of “contemporary rethinking on God’s nature and actions” (p. 77). He begins with the revelation of God as immanent and transcendent and then discusses divine attributes in light of God’s relationship with the world He created. Ware’s treatment of immutability defends “the ‘relational mutability’ of God, a change not of his essential nature, nor of his word or promise, but of his attitude and disposition toward his moral creatures in ways that are commensurate to changes that happen in them” (p. 91). A major component of this view of God, and the heart of Ware’s perceived necessary modification to Calvinism, is his adoption of “a modified notion of middle knowledge” (p. 109). In short, Ware’s view of God appears to be a modified Molinism, which in turn is used to modify Calvinism. In response Helm considers this approach to be “a mistake on a matter of historical fact and theologically confusing as a result” (p. 128).
Roger E. Olson defends “The Classical Free Will Theist Model of God.” He defines free-will theism as “the affirmation that God gifts human beings (and possibly other creatures) with a degree of free will such that God and they may enter into genuinely loving relationships. According to Christian free-will theists, God cares so much about personal loving relationships that he does not control or dominate everything creatures do. Instead, God limits his power and control in order to allow humans (and perhaps some other creatures) limited, situated freedom of decision and action” (p. 148). Unlike the other authors Olson does not provide biblical support for his view. Rather, he writes, “The argument is simple. The rock of free will theism does not need to be a Scripture passage or a string of Scripture passages; it is the revealed goodness of God throughout Scripture and especially in Jesus Christ” (p. 161). A similar argument is given for prevenient grace: “Critics, including many Calvinists, want to know where prevenient grace is found in the Bible” (p. 168). He argues that it, like the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, is implied in the biblical text, “found ‘between the lines,’ so to speak” (ibid.). Helm takes Olson to task for this approach, when he writes, “The pity is that Olson makes no attempt to root such Arminian ideas in Scripture” (p. 179). Although Helm’s criticism is a bit overstated, since Olson does provide some biblical texts that imply support for his views, Helm’s criticism is valid.
John Sanders discusses “Divine Providence and the Openness of God.” This chapter, like Helm’s, seems too narrow for the purpose of this book, which purports to offer “perspectives on the doctrine of God,” not four views of divine providence. Sanders defines openness theology in this way: “The triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have eternal love for one another; love has always been an aspect of reality. Love has always been internal to God and in deciding to create others, the divine love flowed externally. In freedom God decided to create beings capable of experiencing his love, and it was God’s desire for us to enter into reciprocal relations of love with God as well as with our fellow creatures” (p. 197, italics his). Further, although “God is almighty . . . God restrains the full use of his power. . . . God has decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions” (ibid.). God exercises “general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us” (p. 198). Finally, “the omniscient God knows all that is logically possible to know. . . . God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of what God has decided to bring about unilaterally (that which is definite), knowledge of possibilities (that which is indefinite) and those events that are determined to occur (e.g., an asteroid hitting a planet). Hence, the future is partly open and partly closed or definite)” (p. 199, italics his). Sanders addresses a number of common misunderstandings of open theism, including the confusion of openness and process theology. Ware’s conclusion in his criticism of Sanders’s position seems warranted: “The diminished deity of open theism is not the God who is worthy of all praise, glory, honor, and worship” (p. 256).
Although this book lacks a central focus and the essays do not address the same topics, it is worth reading. The essays by Helm and Ware illustrate a degree of diversity within the broader category of Calvinism. And the similarities between the Arminian view of Olson and the openness view of Sanders in the midst of strong disagreements are also instructive. Having each author respond to the views of the others provides a conversational tone to the whole.
—Glenn R. Kreider