Providence Debate Research Paper

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Providence Debate

According to J.P. De Caussade, God speaks "today as he spoke in former times to our fathers when there were no directors as at present, nor any regular method of direction."

In other words, Fr. De Caussade asserts that God maintains and has always maintained a personal relationship, or a providential relationship, with mankind. However, the exact way in which God exercises control over the world and the lives of humans in the world has been debated for many centuries. Indeed, in the realm of God's providence, there are numerous variables and nuanced positions, which have been argued by Christians since the time of the Apostles through to the Protestant Reformation right up to today. This paper will consider the two broader views of recent centuries -- the Arminian and the Calvinist -- and evaluate whether there might be alternative views that incorporate both perspectives of how Providence affects us in our daily lives.

The Debate

In Calvinist doctrine, Providence is related to the notion of predestination, the total depravity of man and man's utter dependence upon God's will. Providence steers all events with a seemingly unyielding force. Calvin objects to the notion that there is more to the notion of Providence than whether the doctrine of "irresistible grace" is true; in fact, he denies that the very concept of God's Providence, as it appears all throughout Scripture, from the Old Testament to the New, suggests that God hears the supplications of those who call to Him. Moreover, Calvin has no explanation for why, in Scripture, one finds numerous examples of Providence acting as a Benign Will, which steers all things and asks only that man accept it with his own free will and allow It to steer him too.

Indeed, the lack of a seemingly benevolent Spirit in the idea of the Calvinist God has been the cause for numerous reexaminations of the Calvinist creed, from Arminius to Melville, whose Moby-Dick has been considered an attack on Calvinism and its seemingly fatalistic sense of Providence.

Because Arminius rejected Calvin's sense of God's Providence and the idea of "irresistible grace," he formed from a Scripture a more benevolent vision of God's Providence -- a Providence that provided for all the creatures of the Earth, that helped man persevere, that protected, led and determined the events of human life, ordering them to a good end, even when allowing evil to happen. While the debate about Providence is often considered from the point-of-view of the effects of evil, i.e., man's sin in the world, it is better to consider the debate from the point-of-view of first principles, i.e., causes rather than effects. This is essentially Arminius' tactic in defining Providence. The essential first principle in the debate may be understood as the Will of God.

The Will of God, according to Scripture, is "that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life" (John 6:40); it consists of God's desire to see men do right (1 Peter 2:15). Furthermore, it appears to desire that all men submit to him: "So it is the will of my Father who is in heaven that not one of these little ones should perish" (Matthew 18:14). The idea that no man who is "saved" can resist God's grace is what limits the Calvinist view of Providence to a narrow and illogical derivation of Providence as revealed in Scripture. Arminius at least acknowledges the notion that just because Providence sets out a path it does not mean all men will follow it: "A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps" (Proverbs 16:9).

Calvin and Arminius

The Dutch theologian Arminius wrote of Providence in response to the Calvinistic doctrine of his teacher Theodore Beza in the late 16th, early 17th century. By rejecting the Calvinist ideas, Arminius moved toward a more traditional understanding of God's Providence by asserting the doctrine of Universal Atonement. His followers called themselves Remonstrants. The Calvinist Council of Dort in 1618 published Calvin's Five Points of Calvinism as an answer to the five articles of the Remonstrants.

Without dwelling for too long on the soteriological issues of the debate, the five articles of the Remonstrance can be summed up thus: first, election depends upon faith, and God saves those who have faith, and those who will have faith are known beforehand to him -- thus accounting for the concept of predestination; second, Christ did in fact die for all sinners, thus establishing Universal Atonement; third, original sin exists in human nature; human nature is thus totally depraved and dependent upon grace; fourth, man has the free will to reject grace and to persist in a state of depravity; fifth, those who believe in Christ and follow in his way have the power to resist Satan and fight against sin; however, whether such believers are capable of turning away from Christ and returning to depravity is a point that needs further consideration.

These articles essentially established the mindset of the followers of Arminius and set them against the doctrine of Calvin, which replied to the Remonstrance by asserting its own five points; insisting upon total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints (otherwise known as the doctrine of "once saved, always saved").

The Arminian doctrine professed a worldview that expressed uncertainty about the notion of "once saved, always saved," and offered the perspective that God's Providence could be seen in the lives of all men. Of course, he Calvinist doctrine could easily be turned in such a manner as to make it appear that man had no free will whatsoever, that Providence only affected the elect, that suffering was deserved by those who suffered, and that Samaritans who succored them were obviously guided by Providence, while others who passed by were not. Essentially, Calvinism removed the human element from the Christian experience by removing the dramatic portion of the experience: free will.

David Scaer writes of the conflict between Arminian and Calvinistic interpretation as a kind debate over the inscrutable ways of God: "This tension between [Providence] and the reality that there are many who are eternally lost has been called the crux theologorum, a cross which the theologian must carry."

This cross is part of the mystery of God and His works; as Fulton Sheen suggests, any study of the life of Christ cannot be accomplished without sufficient emphasis and contemplation upon the cross: "If we leave the Cross out of the Life of Christ, we have nothing left, and certainly not Christianity."

Likewise, Richard Weaver has suggested that the desire for immediate understanding is contrary to the ways of God: as St. Paul says, we see as though through a glass and darkly. Weaver adds that "it is characteristic of the barbarian…to insist upon seeing a thing 'as it is.' The desire testifies that he has nothing in himself with which to spiritualize it…Impatient of the veiling with which the man of higher type gives the world imaginative meaning, the barbarian and the Philistine, who is the barbarian living amid culture, demands the access of immediacy."

The immediacy with which Calvinism attempts to deal with the mystery of Providence is apparent in the formula of Calvinistic doctrine, which limits itself to an inconsistent reading of Scripture in effort to afford itself immediate satisfaction. The viewpoint of Arminius, on the other hand, asks for more time -- a sufficiently spiritual response to a mysterious part of the Christian religion. Calvin attempts to remove the veil and throw off the crux theologorum; Arminius stops short and gives way to contemplation -- just as Ignatius and the Society of Jesus did before entering into the service of the Lord.

Aquinas in line with Anselm of Canterbury, Augustine, and Isaiah asserts that all things are the Will of God and the effects of God's Providence, and that we ourselves can submit to the Will of God, despite our sinfulness, by uniting our sufferings to Christ's, offering up our penance to God in imitation of the sufficient atonement effected by Christ's passion and death.

Thus, without distorting the sense of man's fallen human nature, the Church Doctors, Fathers, and prophets (of the Old Testament) support the notion of Arminius and suggest that Calvin's doctrine on Providence is really only a doctrine of despair, covered over by a legalistic intellectualizing of religion:

It is undeniable that there are passages in the New Testament which describe the beneficiaries of the atonement in something less than universal terms. Reformed exegetes rely heavily on these passages in order to maintain a particularized view of the intent of the atonement. Boettner, for example, states that 'those for whom [Christ] died are referred to as 'His people,' 'my people,' 'the sheep,' 'the church,' 'many,' or other terms which mean less than the entire human race.'

Still, Boettner is interpreting Scripture according to his own fashion: as the Arminians would point out, there is ample evidence of God's benevolence, i.e.,…

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