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Disclaimer: This question is not intended to suggest that God is not sovereign under Arminianism. It is simply a question for clarification, as I haven't really found a detailed description. Also, I have read this question but it's not quite what I'm asking.

When I ask "What is the Arminian view of God's providence", I am not referring to soteriology (specifically, at least - it would be included) but to how God brings about His plan, or any given part thereof. Say God decides he wants to bring X about - how does he 'arrange' things to achieve the desired outcome?

For example, a Reformed Christian might say that God determines things and need not take into account free will so can easily bring about X, while a Molinist would say God arranges the circumstances so humans will freely act in a way that brings about X. Is this within the scope of Arminianism? What level of detail do Arminians say God's plan has? Does it include individual human actions? I realize that's several questions but they all fit within this one/are details that I would hope to be included in the answer to the main question.

  • Great question! – zippy2006 Jan 30 at 2:20
  • Perhaps providence is a better word than sovereignty in this case – Isaac Middlemiss Mar 15 at 23:00
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General backround

I am going to quote from one prominent Arminian theology advocate, Roger E. Olson, a well-published professor of theology and ethics. One of his books is the 2006 Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. He maintains a blog called My Evangelical Arminian Theological Musings. In this March 2014 blog article Arminianism and Providence I think he addressed all your subquestions while omitting the soteriological aspect (as you requested) because he helpfully contrasts many elements you mentioned that are connected to providence: free will, God's will, sin/evil, foreknowledge, foreordaining, etc. although the blog article may not be to the level of details you are looking for.

Some quotes from that article:

  • I have expressed my own overall view of God’s providence this way: “God is in charge but not in control.” However, some Arminians objected to that.

  • Sin and evil are included in God's consequent will, not God's antecedent will. God governs them but does not design, foreordain or render them certain. ... The only category of creaturely decisions and actions where God NEVER interferes with free will IN THE SENSE OF rendering them certain is sin and evil. God permits them but does not design, foreordain or render them certain. ... In relation to creaturely decisions and actions that are sinful, God never designs, foreordains or renders certain individuals’ evil decisions and actions that would cause their condemnation.

  • God DOES interferes with free will in guiding and directing our lives as his people. He is not the author of our sins or failures, but he does direct our lives in terms of opening and closing doors.

  • If we shut him out of our lives and tell him to leave us alone he will, saying, reluctantly, "Okay thy will, not mine be done." This, too, of course, is within his will -- consequently but not antecedently.

  • ... he foresees their sinful intentions and allows me to be in the path of their consequences insofar as that “needful and best” for me. ... Much of what I suffer may very well be his will. I do not expect God to be “fair” to me or keep me from harm (although I believe praying for him to preserve my life and help me in times of trial is always good).

I think more details would be forthcoming from his two books, both highly rated in Amazon:

  1. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (2006)
  2. Against Calvinism (2011)

Details on how God "arrange" things

Say God decides he wants to bring X about - how does he 'arrange' things to achieve the desired outcome?

Answer: by

  1. "placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled."
  2. divine self-limitation so as not to be the cause of evil

God truly respects human freedom even to the point of reluctantly allowing evil to happen, which thwarted His perfect will, but then He work around them to orchestrate His plan because He foreknew the outcome of those evil actions. "He has chosen to make himself partially dependent on his human covenant partners while remaining the “superior covenant power of holy love.”". Thus He chose not to force miracle to happen in Nazareth but making it dependent on people's faith. Thus He allowed Jesus to be crucified although He didn't tempt the people who made the decisions to sin but working around them to achieve the final result.

Basis for the answer

The answer above was based on Chapter 4 ("Yes to God's Sovereignty; No to Divine Determinism") of his book "Against Calvinism" referred to above.

Plan for Chapter 4. After starting with 2 heart-wrenching examples to illustrate the insufficiency of Calvinistic divine determinism, he wrote a long historical summary of Calvinist teaching by discussing in individual sections the treatment by Zwingli & Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Loraine Boettner, R.C. Sproul, Paul Helm, and John Piper. Then he discussed in a section titled "The Problem of God's Reputation" quoting evangelical philosopher Jerry Walls who says "The Calvinist must sacrifice a clear notion of God's goodness for the sake of maintaining his view of God's sovereign decrees." In the next section "The Freedom of God and Human Responsibility" he discussed the view of the various Calvinists focusing on this topic. Finally he closes with the section "Alternatives to Divine Determinism" from which I constructed the short answer above.

Quotes from the final section of chapter 4 (emphasis mine):

... The main alternative to this strong doctrine of God’s sovereignty [i.e. Calvinist doctrine of divine determinism] is divine self-limitation.

First, let it be clearly understood that those who appeal to divine self-limitation and passive permission as the explanation for sin and evil in the omnipotent, creator God’s world do not say God never manipulates historical circumstances to bring about his will. What God never does is cause evil. God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled. Such seemed to be the case with Jesus’ crucifixion. Even then, however, it was not that God tempted or manipulated individuals to sin. Rather, he knew what events, such as the triumphal entry, would result in the crucifixion.

But what we must not say is that the fall of Adam, which set off the whole history of sin and evil, was willed, planned, and rendered certain by God. God neither foreordained it nor rendered it certain, and it was not a part of his will except to reluctantly allow it. How do we know this? We know it because we know God’s character through Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the incarnation proves that God’s character is fully revealed in Jesus such that “no interpretation of any passage [in the Bible] that undercuts the revelations of the divine mind inculcated by Jesus can be accepted as valid. What he says and does is what God says and does. He had no hidden decrees to conceal, no dark side of his Father to protect from disclosure, no reason to be defensive about the [ways of] God.”¹⁰⁵

The high Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty including evil as part of God’s plan, purpose, and determining power blatantly contradicts Scripture passages that reveal “God is love” (1 John 4:8), takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:32), wants everyone to be saved (Ezek. 18:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), and never tempts anyone (James 1:13). To be sure, Calvinists have clever but unconvincing explanations of these and numerous other passages of Scripture. For example, John Piper argues that God has “complex feelings and motives,”¹⁰⁶ such that he genuinely regrets that sin and evil have to be part of his world, genuinely wishes that all people could be saved, and is grieved when those he predestined to die and even suffer in hell for eternity for his glory experience that fate. But these are not convincing explanations of these important passages that reveal the heart of God. They make God double-minded.

So how might one deal with the reality of sin and evil in God’s world without placing undue limits on God’s power and sovereignty? The only way is to posit what Scripture everywhere assumes — a divine self-limitation in relation to the world of moral freedom, including especially libertarian freedom. That freedom is a wonderful and terrible gift of God to human persons created in his image and likeness. In other words, God allows his perfect will to be thwarted by his human creatures whom he loves and respects enough not to control them.

Thus, God does have two wills, but they are not ones posited by Calvinism. As a result of Adam’s free choice to fall into sin (with free choice here meaning he could have done otherwise), God has a perfect will— also known as his antecedent will. (“Perfect” here means “what God truly wishes would happen.”) God’s perfect will is that none perish; this is God’s antecedent will (antecedent to the fall and to its resulting corruption in the world). God also has a consequent will— consequent to creaturely rebellion. It is that he allows some freely to choose to perish. But his allowing is genuinely reluctant and not manipulative.

Evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz (1950 – 2005) offered a helpful distinction in God’s providence that corresponds to the two wills — perfect/antecedent and consequent — mentioned above. It is the distinction between “sovereignty de facto” and “sovereignty de jure.”¹⁰⁷ According to Grenz, with whom I agree, due to God’s voluntary self-limitation he is now sovereign de jure (by right) but not yet sovereign de facto (in actuality). His sovereignty de facto is future. This reflects the biblical narrative in which Satan is the “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4) (where “world” clearly means “this present evil age”), and God will defeat him in the coming age to become “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). The entirety of 1 Corinthians 15 can be interpreted in no other way; it assumes the distinction between God’s sovereign rule de jure now and de facto in the future. This is not to say, of course, that God is not actually sovereign now at all; it only says that God is allowing his sovereignty to be challenged and his will to be partially thwarted until then.

Doesn’t this limit God’s power and sovereignty? No, because God remains omnipotent; he could control everything and everyone if he chose to. For the sake of having real, personal creatures who can freely choose to love him or not, God limits his control. Still, God is sovereign in the sense that nothing at all can ever happen that God does not allow. Nothing falls totally outside of God’s supervening oversight and governance. But not everything that happens is what God wants to happen or determines to happen. There is no exhaustive divine determinism.

Of course, Jesus, being God, could have healed everyone in Nazareth when he visited there (Mark 6:5), but he “couldn’t” do miracles there because of their lack of faith. As God, he had the sheer power to do miracles. But he had limited his power ordinarily to do miracles in the presence of faith. He did not want to go around unilaterally healing people without some measure of cooperating or receptive faith on their part. So it is with God’s sovereignty. He could exercise deterministic control, but he has chosen not to do so. As theologian E. Frank Tupper says, God is not a “do anything, anytime, anywhere kind of God” because he has chosen not to be that kind of God.¹⁰⁸ He has chosen to make himself partially dependent on his human covenant partners while remaining the “superior covenant power of holy love.”¹⁰⁹

Footnotes:

¹⁰⁵. William G. MacDonald, “The Biblical Doctrine of Election,” in The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism, ed., Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 213.

¹⁰⁶. Piper, The Pleasures of God, 146.

¹⁰⁷. Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 140.

¹⁰⁸. E. Frank Tupper, A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God (Macon, GA: Mercer Univ. Press, 1995), 334 – 35.

¹⁰⁹. Hendrikus Berkhof, The Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 146.

Recommendations for further reading

  • Del Rey Church Theology class material on Providence, Decrees, Creation. Del Rey Church is an EFCA church which accepts both Calvinism and Arminianism. The class material seems to be non-polemic and really tries to let each side states the position well. I think this is an excellent way to survey various positions regarding Providence. It's very long and detailed, but I think it's worth studying.

  • Thomas Oden's book Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology which is his attempt to present ecumenical Christianity before the fall of Rome (thus before the schism) so not specifically Wesleyan / Arminian. He limits himself to patristic interpretation of the Bible, which I think is very valuable to learn how the patristic fathers didn't spell out too much specifics on God's providence, leaving it open for later theologians to fill out the detail (which on the negative side can lead to unhealthy disputes that distract us from what's common to Christianity). He himself is a Methodist, and in his earlier book The Living God: Systemic Theology: Volume One he has more details on the Arminian view of providence and the book was quoted by the class material above.

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  • While a good reference, it is indeed not quite as specific/thorough as I'm looking for - it doesn't really answer 'How does God bring about X' in any clearer terms than 'interferes with free will' for non-sinful actions only, which I feel may not be widely accepted. – Isaac Middlemiss Mar 18 at 21:34
  • @IsaacMiddlemiss In my understanding God works through 1) Nature 2) Human, 3) Supernatural beings. That's it. Are you looking for more specifics on "arranging circumstances" which Roger Olson phrased as "direct our lives in terms of opening and closing doors"? If not, can you provide a concrete example of God's plan that we need to describe theologically? I can try to update the answer accordingly. – GratefulDisciple Mar 18 at 21:54
  • yes, specifics on that would be good; 'arranging circumstances' sounds like the answer a Molinist would give, but every Arminian I've spoken to has been reluctant to affirm it. – Isaac Middlemiss Mar 19 at 0:05
  • A bountied answer doesn't have to be well-quoted/referenced, just well explained by someone who knows the position well. – Isaac Middlemiss Mar 19 at 19:14
  • @IsaacMiddlemiss I bet Roger E. Olson knows the position well, so rather than relying on myself, I digested the relevant passage from his book and presented his answer to you. Hope it has enough details now. – GratefulDisciple Mar 20 at 19:14

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