Jim Stump
 on November 24, 2015

Creation and Sovereignty: What does it mean that God’s in charge?

We want God to control and determine things enough to guarantee that the good guys win in the end; but not so much that God is on the hook for everything bad that happens along the way.


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I’m back from blog hiatus and picking up where I left off with David Fergusson’s 2014 book Creation.  I’ve reflected some on his chapters on Scripture, Creation ex nihilo, and the Fall.  Chapter four is called “The Providence of God.”  I’ll admit that I’m the least satisfied so far with this chapter.  That probably has less to do with Fergusson’s ideas on the topic than the format of the short introductory book he has written.  In this twelve page-chapter we get a few pages on the early church fathers, a few on Aquinas and Calvin, and a couple on Barth and some contemporary ideas.  Of course in doing theology today we want to enter into conversation with the important voices of the past; but in my mind, this topic has hit some conceptual cul-de-sacs in its historical discussion and needs some rethinking today.

The doctrine of God’s providence is typically understood as describing how God orders and preserves the world he has created.  We saw in the chapter on ex nihilo (and again briefly in the chapter on the Fall) that a proper understanding of creation ex nihilo is not limited to a one-time act from which God now rests.  Instead, ex nihilo defines the on-going dependence of all created things on the Creator.  So to separate out providence from creation is artificial at best (and misleading at worst).  But we can’t talk about everything at once, so I’ll confine this post on providence to God’s ordering and guidance of the things that happen in the world.  

In this sense, there is an essential tension in any doctrine of providence between God’s willing specific ends for created things, and the freedom or autonomy God has granted to those things.  More pointedly, we want God to control and determine things enough to guarantee that the good guys win in the end; but not so much that God is on the hook for everything bad that happens along the way.  In resolving this tension, some people try to fudge on one of those: saying that God isn’t really in control, or that God is responsible even for the bad stuff.  On the typical framing of the problem, there don’t seem to be many other options.

Consider human action: Does God determine what we do, or are we the authors of our actions?  It seems to many people that if we genuinely have free will, then we could thwart God’s purposes.  If we don’t have free will, though, it seems that we should not be held morally accountable, and instead the blame or praise for our actions belongs to the one determining the actions, namely God.

There is some promise for resolving this conundrum In Aquinas.  He speaks of primary and secondary causes, writing in some places that God is the primary cause of all things and created things are secondary causes.  So when a carpenter hits a nail with a hammer, it is correct to say that the hammer is the cause of the nail being driven into the wood in a secondary sense (or perhaps as the efficient cause), and to say that the will of the carpenter is the primary cause (or perhaps the final cause).  But this example doesn’t work so well for cases of human actions because the hammer doesn’t have any moral responsibility for what it causes; it’s just a tool.  I don’t think we’re just tools.  When a man kills another human, we don’t say the weapon was morally wrong, but the man who willed the action.  If it is really God determining human actions, though, the killer would just be the “weapon” God uses to accomplish his will.

Fergusson notes that Aquinas writes more helpfully in other places about the relation of God and human freedom, “God does not so much act upon human persons and cause them to act in the ways they do, but instead God makes them to be what they are, thus enabling them to be free.  In the exercise of human agency, divine and creaturely causes again belong to different orders.  These are complementary and noncompetitive” (p. 55).

I think this line of thinking about providence has some promise.  Unfortunately, though, Ulrich Zwingli perpetuated the “humans as hammers” view of God’s providential control of human beings.  He said,

“What God brings about through man’s agency is imputed a crime to man, but not also to God.  For the one is under the law, the other is the free spirit and mind of the law.  And when we say that Divine Providence did this or that wrong which one man or another has perpetrated, we speak improperly.  For in so far as God does it, it is not sin, because it is not against the law. . . One and the same deed, therefore, adultery, namely, or murder, as far as it concerns God as author, mover and instigator, is an act, not a crime, as far as it concerns man is a crime and wickedness.”  (On the Providence of God)

I recognize that many within the BioLogos readership are affiliated with various Reformed traditions.  I have come to appreciate very much this perspective—especially its understanding of the life of the mind as act of worship.  But I come from different theological stock.  My heritage is Anabaptist, and my theological intuitions were forged in Wesleyan holiness churches.  I hope I’m able to step back and evaluate my own tradition (and not just see through it), but I’m still squarely in the camp that finds Zwingli’s view of God’s sovereignty utterly perplexing (and that’s using the nicest word I can conjure!).  When sovereignty is understood to mean, “every event is ultimately determined by God” I find the consequences to be troubling.  Some people are satisfied that this perspective resolves the tension between human free will and God’s providence, but at what cost?  I’m not speaking for all of BioLogos here, nor attempting to characterize all Calvinists, but for me, if this solution pins the responsibility for evil on God, it feels like we’ve created a bigger problem regarding the character of God.

Fergusson (himself from the Church of Scotland, which is part of the Reformed tradition) notes the other side of this coin, “A related practical upshot of the Calvinist doctrine is the sense of confidence and trust that derives from the knowledge that the future is secured by God” (p. 57).  He goes on to quote from the Heidelberg Catechism which asserts that everything (both good and bad) comes to us “not by chance but his fatherly hand” (p. 57).  To be fair, Fergusson ends this section by noting, “The dynamic interaction of Creator and creation became less easy to express in a theology wedded above all else to the sovereignty of God and dominated by concepts of causality” (p. 59).

Of course the opposite tendency (more prevalent in contemporary Wesleyan circles) is to emphasize human freedom (and even the “freedom” of nature) in such a way that God can’t even guarantee the ultimate outcome of the created order.  These are various “open” or “process” theologies, which some of my Reformed friends think are heretical.  Without endorsing these in toto, I will say that some openness theology gives us a way of thinking about our relationship with God that comports well with Christian life and practice.  We act as though we have genuinely free choices and are responsible for our actions; and we pray to God with the expectation that God responds to us and even changes his mind.  We cannot live as though we are merely acting out a predetermined script.  But yet again, adopting this perspective solves some problems, while seeming to leave the future up for grabs.

Perhaps, then, a dose of humility is required here.  If we recognize and admit that our theological systems are models—human constructions—we might create some space to be more content with our ignorance.  We have ways of thinking about things for certain specific purposes, and theology may be analogous to science in this case.  The wave-particle duality of light is the marquee example in which we can conceive of some aspect of nature in two very different ways, and even design experiments to explore those different understandings.  And yet we don’t have a model that ultimately reconciles these into one coherent explanation.  Neither can we take either perspective and claim that it tells the whole story.

So too with God’s providence over the created order.  We can confidently affirm God’s ultimate victory and develop theological models of his sovereignty.  And we can also work to understand our own freedom and responsibility (and sin).  Neither of these can be the whole story, and we don’t have a model that integrates them with total consistency.  It is tempting to just label this a mystery and move on.  I’ve not studied Barth on this topic, but Fergusson’s brief treatment sounds like he moves in this direction.  For Barth, “divine providence is something to be glimpsed and trusted in faith, but we are not given a clear vision of its workings” (p. 60).

Too often, though, we slap the mystery label onto something to cover over confused thinking.  In this case, I think Aquinas had the beginnings of a better way of thinking when he assigned divine and creaturely causes to different orders.  Then, instead of trying to develop one coherent description, we might recognize what we say God does and what we say humans do as belonging to different discourses that are not reducible one to the other.  In a similar way, we can examine the human being from the perspective of neuroscience or from the perspective of moral psychology.  Science treats the human body as a machine; morality cannot do so.  That doesn’t force us to conclude that humans are made of two different things (the option of Descartes).  But it does force us to admit that neither perspective tells the whole story.

Let’s talk about this in the comments section.  Fergusson’s next chapter is on Deism and Natural Theology.

About the author

Jim Stump

Jim Stump

Jim Stump is Vice President of Programs at BioLogos. He oversees the editorial team, participates in strategic planning, and hosts the podcast, Language of God. Jim also writes and speaks on behalf of BioLogos. He has a PhD in philosophy and was formerly a professor and academic administrator. His books include, Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design; Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues; How I Changed My Mind about Evolution; and The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. You can email Jim Stump at or follow him on Twitter.

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