A Dip into the Depths of the Doctrine of God: Discussion of the Non-Competitive View of Divine and Human Agencies

A Dip into the Depths of the Doctrine of God: Discussion of the Non-Competitive View of Divine and Human Agencies August 19, 2013

A Dip into the Depths of the Doctrine of God: Discussion of the Non-Competitive View of Divine and Human Agencies

Recently I posted here an imaginary conversation between a Calvinist and an Arminian—about God’s sovereignty. At one point I inserted a common comment made by especially intellectually minded Calvinists about the non-competitive nature of divine and human agency. But it’s not only Calvinists who bring this up in discussions of God’s agency and creatures’. Some of the Christian thinkers I most admire in terms of their intellectual prowess and insight insist to me that I am risking idolatry when, as an Arminian, I insist that God’s agency and creatures’ are competitive.

Now it’s time to explain.

The issue can be stated many different ways; this is just one way. When a creature such as a human person makes a decision to act and then acts according to his or her desire and decision, what is God doing? A deist, even one who doesn’t call herself that, says God is observing. At the opposite end of the theistic theological spectrum a process thinker says God is observing. On that one point deists and process panentheists agree. God does not act in and through a creatures’ actions in such a way as to be directly involved. To put it another way, both deists and process thinkers agree that human creatures (and perhaps other creatures as well) have such a degree of autonomy from divine power as to be capable of acting on their own without requiring God’s corresponding action in them.

Sidebar: I realize some who call themselves process thinkers may disagree; I am talking about the major process philosophers and theologians such as Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, et al. There are many theologians now who attempt to modify classical process theology to correct what they see as some of its excesses—especially its tendency to make God finite. However, classical process thought and theology was not embarrassed to talk of God as finite except insofar as God is immediately present to every actual occasion giving it its initial aim and luring it toward that. The same can be said of so-called “Boston Personalism” (Brightman, Bowne, et al.).

The vast majority of Christian thinkers of all tribes have always insisted that human beings, creatures in general, have no autonomy over against God such that they can decide and act without God’s “concurrence.” The classical, orthodox Christian doctrine of God, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant (including Arminianism) has always included “divine concurrence” as part of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, providence, and agency. (I discussed this in some detail in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.)

Stepping farther back for a moment: Classical Christian doctrines of God’s sovereignty, usually in the doctrine of divine providence, have traditionally held to three modes of God’s sovereignty in providence (history and individual lives): sustaining, concurring, and governing. Orthodox Christians, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant (of all traditional types up until Boston Personalism’s and process theology’s appearances) have held that God 1) sustains everything that is and without God’s immediate sustaining power the creature and creation as a whole would fall into nothingness, 2) God concurs with creatures’ decisions and actions or else they would be powerless to decide and act, and 3) God oversees, governs, even directs the course of history and human lives such that nothing can happen without God’s permission or causation (or both).

The gist is that God is infinite and self-sufficient while creatures are finite and dependent. Put another way, God is autonomous in being, deciding and acting while creatures are not.

This is classical Christian theology. Yes, to be sure, there are variations of it. The devil is in the details, so to speak, of how theologians work out God’s sovereignty. But that God is sovereign in the ways I just described is basic Christian orthodoxy. Otherwise, God would not be infinite and could be regarded as just another creature, even if one without beginning. Creature in the sense of dependent on things outside himself or at least limited by them.

So what do theologians (and here I use the term broadly to include all who attempt to think Christianly about God) mean when they say that God’s agency and creatures’ agencies are “non-competitive?” That puzzles me. If they only mean what the doctrine of divine concurrence means—that creatures are not so autonomous as to be capable of deciding or acting completely apart from God’s permission and power—then I am in complete agreement. All orthodox Christians are.

However, in many discussions with Christian theologians I have detected they are accusing me of something more when they say I am pitting God’s agency and humans’ agencies against one another and thereby violating a principle of non-competitiveness between God’s agency and ours. This usually occurs when I insist, as I always do, that, when it comes to evil, God is not involved except in terms of permission and agreement. And by “agreement” I mean “concurs”—reluctantly permits and gives power to act. All creaturely power is “on loan,” as it were, from God.

I agree with those who insist on a non-competitive view of God’s agency and creatures insofar as we are talking about the good. According to Philippians 2:12-13 every good thing we do must be attributed to God being at work in us. In other words, when we are most active doing good, God is most active. And when God is most active in us we are most active. But that’s only true when we’re talking about the good. God’s agency and ours is strictly non-competitive in the realm of the truly good. Otherwise we could boast of the good that we do.

However, my problem with a “non-competitive view” of God’s agency and ours arises when we are talking about evil. Nothing in Scripture points to that! When we (or any creature) do what is truly evil, then God is still involved (sustaining, concurring, governing) but there is also competition—between God’s agency and ours. In other words, there can be no parallel principle along the lines of Philippians 2:12-13 when it comes to doing evil. Paul could not have written truly, under divine inspiration, and we should not believe or say “Work out your own evil inclinations and plans, your corruption and damnation, for God is at work in you to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

When theologians, Calvinist or non-Calvinist, tell me I must avoid a competitive view of God’s agency and ours, my mind goes immediately to the problem of evil. Of course, I want to say, that’s true when we are talking about good or neutral decisions and actions (if there are neutral ones) but not when we are talking about evil decisions and actions.

But some theologians I have talked with about these matters want to take the non-competitive view all the way—to saying that God’s agency and human agency are never in competition. They are on distinct planes altogether with God’s completely surrounding and underlying, so to speak, creatures’.  (These are spatial metaphors that cannot do justice to what is meant by “noncompetitive agencies” when divine and human agencies are under consideration.)

My objection to that is that, while it may protect theology from idolatry and God’s being from finitude, it falters in making theodicy impossible.

Unless all is meant is divine concurrence. But that does not seem to be the case in many cases. Both Calvinist and non-Calvinist theologians often insist to me that any talk of creatures acting against God’s will, doing what God does not want done, thwarting God’s perfect, antecedent will introduces an element of creaturely autonomy that ultimately finitizes God.

While I do not wish to do that, of course, neither do I wish to imply that evil dispositions, decisions and actions fit within divine agency except concurrence.

With the proviso of divine concurrence I must admit that I view divine and creaturely agencies as somewhat competitive—commensurable in the sense that they can conflict.

I do not think that requires me to adopt a deistic or processive view of God as a finite being limited by creatures (a lá William James or Alfred North Whitehead or any of their faithful followers).  Why not? Because I hold to the doctrine of divine concurrence. I can do nothing, not even evil, without God’s agreement and aid. However, an element of competition of agencies enters in the moment I suggest that God only agrees and aids (concurs) in the evil that I do reluctantly and that the evil I do cannot be attributed to God’s agency as its primary, efficient cause. Whatever good I do I attribute to God’s primary, efficient causation (Philippians 2:12-13). Therefore I cannot boast and can only confess “What do I have that I was not given?” However, when I do evil I attribute it to my own causation as efficient and instrumental and to God’s causation only in terms of Aristotle’s (and Aquinas’s) final cause (making it possible and directing it to its ultimate “place” in God’s overall plan).

The problems I have with any consistently noncompetitive view of God’s agency and ours is that it problematizes theodicy and, while seeming to pay God metaphysical compliments, conflicts with the biblical narrative in which God is portrayed as horrified by evil as that which he does not intend or cause—even indirectly (through secondary causes).

I would describe my view, as briefly outlined here, as “biblical personalism”—a term I borrow from Emil Brunner. God is a person (or three persons in perfect community of will), not an object or force. While I am reluctant to identify God, or talk about God, in objectifying ways (i.e., as “thingy”), following the biblical narrative and avoiding speculation, as much as possible, I have to talk about God as a “Thou” who encounters me in a genuine, personal “I-Thou” encounter and not as an energy or force or principle or whatever who is impersonal or suprapersonal (whatever that means) or even infinite in the speculative, philosophical sense of “the Absolute” (a lá Hegel or Tillich and, I fear, much negative theology).

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  • James M. Henderson

    Dr. Olson, a fine and useful distinction. Thanks for parsing
    this for us. It seems to me that our God is limited or restrained by two
    things, his nature and his covenants (not merely his nature alone: God keeps
    his agreements). If the Lord created us with the ability to “have dominion”
    then this is part of the imago Dei. Such dominion is also a delegation of
    sovereignty; in my mind this is covanental, reflecting how God wishes to rule
    in and through us. All of this means that, while God sustains and consents, he
    requires from us a choice to cooperate or to contend with his will. This fits
    the God of Creation and the creation that I see revealed in the Scripture, and
    so is a better way of conceiving sovereignty than that of Reformed Orthodoxy.
    What would you think of this?

    • Roger Olson

      It sounds completely compatible with classical Arminian theology to me–and perfectly orthodox.

    • Dr. Olson

      Excellent! Your fine insight emphasizes the integrative whole of theology. Every aspect of theology must mesh just right or we finite humans devise a compromised system. Please keep posting! You always seem to have the ability to add substance upon substance. I’m a wanna-be theologian and there are just so many wonderful aspects of theology upon which we can ponder the majesty of our God and the depths of grace freely bestowed upon us.

  • Dave

    A friend of mine and I are reading (at his behest) Brightman’s A Philosophy of Religion. Keep these musings coming!

    • Roger Olson

      Interesting. I haven’t heard of anyone studying Brightman for a long time. He seems to have been forgotten. Boston Personalism strongly influenced Methodist theology especially. Then it seems to have been replaced by process theology.

  • Rob

    I think this is a great angle from which to examine the disagreement between arminians and calvinists and it of course points toward some thorny issues with sustaining and concurrence. I think once we accept concurrence, it is difficult to resist the temptation to say that God wills everything that happens. I have not read it yet, but Christian philosopher Hugh McCann has just published a book that delves into God’s sustaining relationship with creation.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, God wills everything that happens–but not in the same way. Arminius made a distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills. I agree. This is an essential distinction to avoid making God the author of sin and evil. Whatever happens is willed by God at least consequently (to his decision to permit free creatures to disobey him).

  • Dan Salter

    This question would have fit better under your conversation article, but I wonder if you could either give a quick answer here, consider writing a post on this subject, or direct me to one of your works in which you have discussed this. Here is my question: I understand arminian thought leaving open the possibility of turning away from faith even for a person previously embracing it, but when and why do the terms governing that situation ever end? In other words, can I lose my salvation after death or after the eternal state has begun? If not, why not? What holds me then? One of my anti-Calvinist arguments has been that a coerced love relationship is not true or pure love, and that pretty much makes sense to me. But what I struggle with is how then would this not be an argument against a God-coerced hold on love in the eternal state? I’d appreciate any help you could give on this. Thanks.

    • Roger Olson

      I have written about that here (on my blog) before. I believe the only answer to this is theosis–deification.

  • Ryan

    Hi Roger,

    This is a great article. One way which is a possible analogy is the levels of explanation in science.

    Imagine making tea. At the level of physics it is atoms bouncing around in because of the heat applied. At the same time it is biological because of the action undertaken by the human to boil tea and at the same time it is social because it is a common social practice that is understood by the individual.

    What do you think? None of these are competitive unless they are reduced to one level to the exclusion of others?


    • Roger Olson

      I agree and I thought I made that clear in my post. I agree with the non-competitive view of God’s agency and ours IF it only means God can be active in and through my activity–when I am doing good. But when I am doing evil, there has to be some level of competition between my agency and God’s or else God is the author of sin and evil.

  • Dr. Olson

    Excellent post. It is a carefully thought out, well-written defense of your position. I am always amazed at how little I see and understand in these finer points of theology. Theologians must handle many dimensions in discussions of The Trinity. I now have 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age in mind, in which the departures from God’s immanence and transcendence show up in different and unique expressions (Kant Barth, Tillich, . . . .).

    Which dimension(s) of God’s divinity are out of balance with the competitive view of God’s agency?

    • Roger Olson

      I’m not sure there is a single “competitive view” of God’s agency. But any view that pits God’s agency against man’s as wholly separate will lead to pathologies in the doctrine of God.

  • labreuer

    One accusation I’ve seen levied against Christianity is that God gets to take all the credit for everything good, while his created beings are 100% culpable for everything that is not good. We think very badly of people who adopt this pattern of taking credit/placing blame. What do you think of this critique? I have yet to come up with a good rebuttal.

    • Roger Olson

      A rebuttal is– When do we ever applaud a person for taking all the credit for doing something good? When do we ever blame a person for taking all the blame for doing something bad? What can possibly be wrong with giving God credit for the good we do and taking blame for the evil we do?

      • labreuer

        We tend to think poorly of people who take all of the credit. We often reject the idea that 100% of the blame falls on a person, because others in his/her life failed to do things that could have mitigated or even prevented the bad outcome. In other words, there is no analogy of any being other than God being praised/exonerated like you are. It reminds me of you critiquing Calvinists for ending up with a concept of God’s love which has no human analogy.

  • I found this article deeply reflective of the need for classic orthodoxy to be fundamentally updated in a postmodernistic sense. For myself, process theology has been enlightening even as I have had misgivings with it… as such, I have attempted to synthesize both systems. Part of the solution has been to emphasize relational (process) theism utilizing a kind of anthropologic hermeneutic that is still developing. I used today’s topic between divine and human agencies as a retrospective between these differing views while stepping around the Calvinistic/Arminian debates altogether. Forgive me!
    Here’s the link which you may delete – http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2013/08/a-topical-discussion-between-classic.html

  • gingoro


    I have been thinking about your post for a while before I wanted to comment and am now in my nth rereading of your thoughts. In many ways I agree with you as far as I understand rightly what you are saying.

    ” 2) God concurs with creatures’ decisions and actions or else they would be powerless to decide and act, and 3) God oversees, governs, even directs the course of history and human lives such that nothing can happen without God’s permission or causation (or both).”

    Could you elaborate on points 2 and 3 please as I am finding it hard to understand the difference.

    • Roger Olson

      They are simply two sides of one coin.

  • gingoro

    “Creature in the sense of dependent on things outside himself or at least limited by them.”

    While I would affirm that God is not absolutely dependent on things outside himself yet He seems to be pleased/gratified when mankind follows his way and in that sense He has freely chosen, at least to some extent, to make small some part of Himself dependent upon our actions. We also cause God sorrow/regret when we disobey him.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, because he has chosen to open himself to that. He would not have to have.

  • gingoro

    “While I do not wish to do that, of course, neither do I wish to imply that evil dispositions, decisions and actions fit within divine agency except concurrence.”

    The above and what follows is how I think about this issue and IMO you stated it well. Thanks.

    “nothing can happen without God’s permission or causation (or both)”

    Where you and I would differ here is, my position, that in terms of salvation that God’s grace is the immediate cause of someone accepting Christ. I suspect also that we would differ in that I expect, although I would not be dogmatic, that in some limited situations God exercises meticulous providence. For example in the death and resurrection of Christ.


    • Roger Olson

      What kind of “cause” is God’s grace in someone’s salvation? I certainly agree that God’s grace is THE primary cause, the ultimate, efficient cause. But man’s decision of faith is the instrumental cause.

      • gingoro

        Whereas I probably would say that God’s grace was the instrumental cause. But so we differ here it is not a matter of the essence of salvation.

        • Roger Olson

          We are probably disagreeing about the natures of the different causes of salvation. I would say that God’s grace is the efficient cause (otherwise our decision of faith would be cause for boasting) but our faith is the instrumental cause (which gives no ground for boasting).

  • Wrightus

    Where theodicy is concerned, I feel as though there is a much larger problem than a noncompetitive understanding of divine-human agency. Seeing that as the chief issue reduces evil primarily to something that exists in human-divine interaction. But what if evil is, in fact, the condition of reality throughout the entire known universe?

    First, I should say what I mean when I say “evil.” By evil I mean destructive, hostile and chaotic forces that do damage to creation (and these forces may be human or non-human).

    Second, the argument that this is the condition of reality throughout the universe: Astronomy has demonstrated (at least to my untrained eyes) that the cosmos is in face destructive, hostile and chaotic. Volcanism, stellar collisions, black holes, deadly gases, dangerous extremes in temperature…while some of these phenomena actually could contribute to life on our planet, they also threaten annihilation at every turn. And these and other chaotic occurrences have been detected all throughout the universe.

    The point is that Creation itself is hostile to Creation.

    I see the following options for understanding the situation in light of theodicy:

    1. God created the universe with these “evils” built in–God is complicit in evil.
    2. God created the universe good, but sin allowed this state of being to exist (this seems entirely implausible, but many people have proposed it)–God could not prevent the spread of evil.
    3. The universe exists independent of God’s control; it is circumstantial or accidental–God is impotent to prevent evil.
    4. God does not actually exist, and what we call evil only describes a reality that is unfortunate.

    The problem I see is that the only theologically tenable option, if one were to posit a good and omnipotent God, is the third. Aside from that, the idea of a God that is neither omnipotent nor good is hardly worth discussing.