Does God plan everything that happens? (4 Views)

Does God plan everything that happens? (4 Views) May 15, 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you to my friend Bonnie Kristian. She is the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today.

Her guest post (“What happens to people who never hear about Jesus?”) was so well received that I asked if she’d be up to sharing with us once more. Today, we get another excerpt from her book, which… by the way… just released: THIS WEEK! This is a book that I highly recommend.

As a resourcer, I can’t tell you how excited I am about this particular book that deals with almost every major theological issue that Christians disagree about. And we need to get better at disagreeing with grace. This book helps frame the issues to facilitate intelligent and humanizing conversations. Read it with a friend or small group!

<<<Thanks to all my Patreon supporters. You are making a huge difference! We are up to 49 supporters! My goal is to break 100 in the upcoming months. Will you help make that happen? For $3 or more, you can help enable me to do what I love: resource you through writing and podcasting!>>>

Here’s the excerpt!


Does God plan everything that happens? (written by Bonnie Kristian)

This question is about two separate but closely related topics: Our first concern is with divine providence, which is God’s control over the universe and the course of history. Our second concern is with divine foreknowledge, which is what God knows about future events (and how he knows it).

What we think about these topics is enormously influential for what we believe God is like, what kind of world he created, and how our lives function in that world. In practice, I find that talking about providence and foreknowledge tends to raise the same two issues for many people. The first is about evil: Does God make bad things happen? Is he responsible for the horrors of history? The second is about salvation: Does God choose in advance who gets to be saved? Does he predestine some people to be condemned?

Though we could easily devote an entire chapter (or book!) to each of these questions, I’ve decided to address them together because they’re so interrelated. Christians believe God is omnipotent—that means all-powerful. And omniscient—that means all-knowing. But where we disagree is in how he chooses to exercise his power, how much of the future is a settled thing for him to know, and why he knows the settled parts of the future.

If this all seems obscure and needlessly complicated, don’t worry: It will soon be (at least a little) clearer. We’ll cover four options—Calvinism, Molinism, Arminianism, and the open view of the future—including how each one answers our questions about evil and salvation.


Calvinism

This first option is named for John Calvin, a colossus of the Protestant Reformation, but Calvin doesn’t get all the credit. While unquestionably a theological innovator, Calvin built on the work of earlier thinkers, especially Augustine of Hippo. Because of those other theologians, some church traditions that don’t stem from Calvin himself hold similar perspectives without calling them Calvinism, though that’s the name we’ll use here.

For Calvinists, to say God is in control of everything means he sovereignly determines everything that happens. All of history is God’s unchangeable choice, planned according to his will to display his glory. That’s why God can fully know the future, from big stuff like what happens at the end of the world to little stuff like what letter I’ll hit next on my keyboard: God knows it because he decreed it. We can trust nothing surprises God, and nothing happens to us outside his will. God’s plan can’t be stopped.

When Calvinism says God determines everything, it means literally everything, including things we see as evil. God ordains evil things for his ultimate good purpose, but he is not morally responsible for evil. Responsibility instead rests on those who actually do the evil actions. Nevertheless, because nothing can happen outside God’s will, in this view even great evils like the Holocaust or 9/11 happen at God’s direction and for his ultimate glory. How such events bring God glory may be mysterious to us now, but that doesn’t change the fact that they do.

On an individual level, Calvinism says God chooses in advance who is saved. Whether any person is a Christian doesn’t depend on their choice. As Calvin put it, God “determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.” This is the doctrine of predestination, which says God decides our eternal fate before we are born. In salvation, as in all our choices, however, Calvinism maintains human free will is compatible with God’s unstoppable plan: We freely choose what God has chosen for us. In this way, Calvinists argue, God is solely responsible for our salvation, but we bear the responsibility for the evil we do.


Molinism

This second approach is named for Luis de Molina, a Catholic theologian who, like Calvin, lived in the 1500s. Molina wanted to reconcile real free will with a strong understanding of God’s providence and foreknowledge, and he didn’t believe (like Calvin) that our choices can be truly free if everything happens because God plans it that way.

Molina’s solution was based on the idea that God knows everything that would happen under the right circumstances. Before he created the world, God thought about how every possible scenario would go. He knew what choice each person would make in every hypothetical situation. For example, God knew if you had to choose between a blue and a green shirt, you’d pick green—and if the choice were between green and pink, you’d take pink.

So Molinism says before creation, God knew all the possible ways history could play out, down to tiny details like your shirt. Then, he chose the best one and made it happen. When you pick the pink shirt, you’re choosing of your own free will, and yet your choice was always settled because of the type of world God made. The difference between Molinism and Calvinism is that in Molinism, God knew you’d freely choose the pink shirt if given the chance, and he made a world in which you get that chance. In Calvinism, God decided in advance you will choose pink, so you choose it.

What about more serious stuff than shirts? Well, for Molinists, God is not responsible for evil because evil choices are still free choices. God permitted evil things to happen by making this version of the world, but he never forces anyone to choose evil. The course of history is settled, but God doesn’t determine our decisions. Likewise, in Molinism salvation is settled from the moment of creation—but not because God picks and chooses. Rather, God knows who will be placed in situations where they freely accept his salvation.

Molinism is not the official view of the Catholic Church, though it is one way of understanding Catholic doctrine on these questions. “To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy,” Catholic catechism says, so when “he establishes his eternal plan of ‘predestination,’ he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace,” giving humans “the ability to cooperate freely with his plans.”


Arminianism

Our third option is Arminianism, named for Jacobus Arminius, another sixteenth-century theologian. Like Molinism, this approach rejects the Calvinist claim that free will is compatible with God determining everything in advance—but then it goes in a very different direction.

The central argument here is that God knows everything that will happen, but he limits his control over our world. It’s important to understand this distinction is about what God does, not what he’s able to do. For Arminians, God is all-powerful and all-knowing. This view is not describing a weaker or stupider God than the options we covered above.

Arminianism says God could determine everything if he wanted to—and he does predestine some things, like his final triumph over evil. But there’s a lot more he doesn’t plan so that our free will has room to operate. God opts for influence over coercion, because God values love. He wants us to freely choose whether to love and follow him. God knows everything that will happen in our future, but aside from some big parts of his plan for humanity (like that final victory), he doesn’t make it happen.

On the question of evil, Arminians have an easier time than Calvinists or Molinists. In this view, some things happen that are not in God’s will. That’s because God allows his good will to be thwarted by our free choices—it’s a risk, yes, but a necessary risk. Real love requires real freedom, and real freedom must include the possibility of making the wrong choice. God never wants evil to happen and always seeks to lead us away from bad choices, but he never forces us to choose love.

This freedom applies to salvation, too. Where Calvinism says salvation is only for those God predestines, Arminianism says God wants everyone to be saved. He makes salvation available to all of us, and he doesn’t pick who accepts it. This is not to suggest we save ourselves; on the contrary, only through God’s grace can we respond to God in faith.

Though Arminius was a Protestant, his view is quite similar to the Orthodox Church approach, which emphasizes the unequal cooperation (or synergy) between God’s grace and human free will in salvation, affirming God’s total power and knowledge while rejecting any notion of divine coercion. As the Eastern Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware puts it, “God wanted sons and daughters, not slaves.”


Open Future

The final perspective we’ll cover is often called open theism. I haven’t used that name because it suggests this view has a different idea of what God is like—perhaps that he is less than all-powerful and all-knowing. That is not the case. Though it has much in common with Arminianism, this fourth approach is distinct in what it says about the future, not what it says about God’s power or intelligence.

Where the other three options all hold that the future is settled (while differing on why that’s so), this view says the future is partly settled but also partly open. The settled parts are things God has determined will happen, like his final victory over evil. We don’t have to wonder if that will come true, because God settled it.

But the category of settled things is much smaller than the category of things that are genuinely open to multiple possibilities. In this bigger category, God has perfect knowledge of everything that could happen and is likely to happen, but he doesn’t know what will happen, because that part of the future doesn’t exist to be known.

The crux of the issue is how God relates to time. In the other three views, God is somehow outside of time. All of history is like a big photo, and God can zoom in on different moments. In the open view, God doesn’t experience time the same way we do, of course, and his nature doesn’t change over time—but God does move through time with us. This approach says the future is like “a line that is not yet drawn,” as C. S. Lewis put it. God is with us as human and divine choices together draw the line of history.

The open view’s answers to our questions about evil and salvation are close to the Arminian answers. God never makes evil things happen, and in this perspective, he is actively working, in real time, to prevent evil as much as possible without overriding our free will. In this view, we can trust when evil does occur, God does not want it. He shares our grief. Likewise, God does not determine who is saved and who is condemned, and he is always working in love to draw everyone in the world to a voluntary, saving faith.


Discussion Questions

1. What theory of God’s providence and foreknowledge is most familiar to you? Which one(s) did your Sunday school teachers tell you?

2. Which view do you find most appealing and why? Which do you find most convincing and why?

3. Is the approach you find most appealing the same as the one you find most convincing? If not, what’s the difference?

4. How do the questions about evil and salvation influence your understanding of each view? Are there other questions you want to raise when thinking about these topics? If so, what are they?

5. What does each approach communicate about what God is like? For example, does your picture of God change depending on whether he offers salvation only to people he predestines to be saved (as in Calvinism) or wants to save everyone (as in Arminianism or the open future view)?

Learn More

For a deeper look at these interrelated topics, start here. Across the Spectrum breaks these questions down into three chapters on providence, foreknowledge, and predestination, teasing out each approach’s distinct implications. Boyd and Eddy don’t cover Molinism, however, so for more on that turn to Four Views on Divine Providence. If you’re curious about the open view, which is unfamiliar to many Christians, try Boyd’s God of the Possible and Piper’s Beyond the Bounds for dueling takes—Boyd for and Piper against the approach. Finally, I recommend Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker, especially to fellow writers or anyone with an interest in the creative arts.

  • Jacobus Arminius, A Declaration of the Sentiments
  • Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints
  • David Basinger and Randall Basinger (editors), Predestination and
  • Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom
  • Greg Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open
  • View of God
  • Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues
  • in Evangelical Theology
  • Chad Owen Brand (editor), Perspectives on Election: Five Views
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders, Does God Have a Future?
  • A Debate on Divine Providence
  • Paul Helm, The Providence of God: Contours of Christian Theology
  • John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans
  • Dennis W. Jowers (editor), Four Views on Divine Providence
  • Jessica Kelley, Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role in My
  • Child’s Death
  • John Piper (editor), Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining
  • of Biblical Christianity
  • Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker
  • Nancy M. Tischler, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Pilgrim Soul

This article is adapted from the book, A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today, by Bonnie Kristian. Copyright (c) Bonnie Kristian by Faithwords. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Bonnie Kristian is a writer who lives in the Twin Cities. She is a graduate of Bethel Seminary, weekend editor at The Week, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. Bonnie is the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today, from which portions of this article are adapted. Learn more and pre-order at bonniekristian.com/book.

"The Bible never says he "was born in a barn, accompanied only by his parents, ..."

2 Reasons NOT to ‘Keep Christ ..."
"Okay, didn't realize this was such an old post. Not sure how I ended up ..."

FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks
"Looks like it used to be free but the time period on that has expired. ..."

FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks
"Seems to only be free for members. Is that correct?"

FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • brassyhub

    I thought I was a Calvinist… I’m a lay preacher in a Calvinist church. But I’m clearly in the ‘open future’ camp. God may be ‘all powerful’, but he/she has chosen to entrust this precious creation to us, and we often make a mess of it.

  • Craig

    On the Theological Positions of Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism …

    God brings people into existence that He “Already Knows” will go to an Eternal Hell / Lake of Fire.

    How is God being morally good TO those people ( specifically to those people ) to bring them into existence ?

    Answer: He isn’t !!

    As for Open Theism –

    Genesis 15:13-16 “Falsifies” and “Refutes” Open Theism…

    13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.

    14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.

    15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.

    16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

    ( Genesis 15:13-16 English Standard Version )

    If Open Theism were true, then how could God be certain that anything that He told Abram would come to pass ?

    Answer: He couldn’t !!

    Abram could die in 1 years time from when God spoke to him by a tripping over in front of Camel. The Camel could fall on top of him and crush him.

    Sarah could miscarry and there would be no Isaac.

    Everyone after Abram and around him could all make decisions and choices and that would lead them all off onto a different trajectory and road. And because of that there would be a different destination that everyone would find themselves at than the one God told Abram was for certain.

    If God has to depend upon the unknown free will choices and decisions of people to bring his plans and purposes to pass, then He can never be certain that they will come to pass. People could choose other than what God wants them to choose.

    Open Theists have told me that God could protect Abram from harm. If God could protect Abram from harm, then God could protect every single person who has ever lived and will ever live from harm – But He does’t !!

    Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, and Open Theism are ALL Morally Flawed Doctrines.

    • Dean

      I think you misunderstand Open Theism. God is also an actor in this universe, so if there are specific things he wants to come to pass, he is free to make that happen. Open theism is the only view where God can actually do whatever he wants, those other perspectives of God really come from the Greeks. The “omni” descriptions of God are nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, you have to shoehorn them into the OT where, if you take the texts literally, you have an active God interacting with the world and making decisions on the fly based on how people respond. The strangest thing about some Christian literalists is that when it comes to passages that clearly affirm Open Theism, suddenly, the literal reading at face value of hundreds of versus need to be read in some other, strange fashion, or need some complicated explanation. The question I have never heard an opponent to Open Theism answer is what precisely is the point of an anthropomorphism in the Bible if not to describe what God is actually doing? Meaning, if the author of a passage is trying to make some other point besides literally describing God changing his mind or regretting having done something, what is that point? Usually it’s just a lot of “glory hole” talk and tap dancing but no straight answers. So much for letting the Bible say what it wants to say, I guess it’s just a lot easier to cherry pick verses that affirm ingrained conservative cultural biases.

      • Craig

        If Open Theism is True, then

        Can God know for certain that Abram will not die 1 year in the future from when He spoke to Him ?

        Yes or No ?

        If Yes, then how ?

        • Dean

          Sure he can. He can actively protect him from harm. Hell, he can raise him from the dead. Why is that a problem? Open Theism says that the future is partly open and partly settled. God created a universe where real choices are possible, choices that he also makes himself. This should not surprise you, because it is how you actually live your life, we all live our lives as de facto open theists. It’s just that some of us choose to layer on top of that some strange Plantonic philosophy of “timelessness”. “Timelessness” is a concept, it’s not a real thing and has no basis in the Bible. Explain to me what that is and how believing in this kind of God is of any practical use? The infinite, timeless, immutable, ?omni-___”, divinely simplistic, that God can’t help you, he doesn’t want to help you, he is just a force of nature and what is going to happen to you is going to happen, you have to just accept it (or not, it’s not even up to ). That bears zero resemblance to the God in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s the God that the Greeks invented and Western people adopted because it has a great intellectual appeal. But that God is an idea, not a person.

          • Craig

            You wrote …

            || Sure he can. He can actively protect him from harm. ||

            Then why can’t God protect every single person who has ever lived and will ever live from harm ?

            Why doesn’t God protect all of the little boys and all of the little girls who are sexually abused and raped from being sexually abused and raped ?

          • Dean

            Well, no one has a good answer for that Craig, I certainly don’t, and the Bible doesn’t even try to answer that question. What’s your take?

          • Craig

            My take is…. that Open Theism does not solve a very deep moral problem that it has.

            You told me that God could protect Abram but you cannot say why God could not protect every single person.

            Open Theism is a Morally Flawed Doctrine.

          • Dean

            Craig, that’s just theodicy in general, not something inherent to Open Theism. But what’s the alternative (for the theist of course). I’ve never heard of something better. If you’re not a theist, then the question becomes totally irrelevant and we shouldn’t even be having this discussion.

          • Craig

            Open Theism can’t solve a very deep moral problem that is has.

            On Open Theism, God would have to protect Abram, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and everyone around them and after them to fully bring Genesis 15:13-16 to pass.

            A Camel could fall on Abram and kill him.

            Sarah could trip over and miscarry and there would be no Isaac.

            Isaac could make choices and decisions that God was not certain of, and as a result, there would no Jacob.

            Esau could make a choice to murder Jacob.

            Egypt may not rise to Political Power at the right time to keep Israel in bondage.

            And on and on it goes. Open Theism is packed filled with problems.

            God could not be certain that any of his plans and purposes would come to pass. Namely, because He has to depend upon the unknown free will choices and decisions of people.

            People may choose different than what God wants and those decisions would take everyone off onto a different trajectory, which leads to another whole future and destination that God did not want to happen.

            If God determines anyone to do his will, then you are back to Calvinist determinism again and as a result there is a loss of human free will.

            Open Theism is Flawed. I have been through it with other Open Theists before and they hate it when I show them how it is flawed. They will go into denial !

          • Wesley

            So what is your solution?

          • Dean

            He doesn’t have one, but he doesn’t want to admit it.

          • Dean

            There are certainly valid challenges to Open Theism, but they are mainly philosophical, and what you’ve raised really isn’t one of them, I’m surprised whoever you have been talking to was not able to respond. Think of yourself as 5 year old who just learned to play chess yesterday and you decide to play against Bobby Fischer. It just seems odd that you’re so concerned about how a deity that is infinitely smarter than you, with unlimited resources, could possibly achieve certain specific purposes he has in mind with a universe that he created. I mean, he literally invented all the rules. That’s not a problem with Open Theism, that’s problem with your imagination. The real problem with Open Theism is whether libertarian free will even exists, and if it does, whether that’s an adequate justification for the kind of evil we see in the world. It’s not unique to Open Theism, that’s just a limitation of the free will tradition. Our answer is that the Calvinists have a bigger problem with their monster demon god. I guess if they heard me say that they would warn me that I may get murdered by their god in an earthquake or a tornado or something for that kind of blasphemy! How dare I question their demon god, I need to bow down to him lest I be tortured for all eternity!

          • Craig

            I don’t need a solution. That is not what the subject of discussion is about.

            You have NOT specifically addressed any of the issues I have previously brought up regarding Open Theism.

            All you have told me is …

            // It just seems odd that you’re so concerned about how a deity that is infinitely smarter than you, with unlimited resources, could possibly achieve certain specific purposes he has in mind with a universe that he created. I mean, he literally invented all the rules. That’s not a problem with Open Theism, that’s problem with your imagination. //

            So, according to you the real problem is with my imagination. God can get the job done because He has unlimited resources and is infinitely smarter. I just can’t understand how He could do it.

            That is a general broad brush stroke of an answer but nothing specific or in depth to actually deal with the issues I have brought up.

            Your general broad brush stroke of an answer would not get a pass in any undergrad course in Philosophy from any major University of the Western World.

            You need to be more specific, and more precise, and more meticulous to deal with the problematic issues I have brought up regarding Open Theism than just basically saying…

            ” Oh Well ! … God has unlimited resources and is infinitely smarter than you and He can get the job done even though you can’t understand how He could do it. ”

            As I wrote at the bottom of my last post …

            ” Open Theism is Flawed. I have been through it with other Open Theists before and they hate it when I show them how it is flawed. They will go into denial ! ”

            You are no different. Hand-wave away the issues I brought up and then try and change the discussion to Calvinism.

          • Dean

            When I say the flaw you identify isn’t really a flaw, all I mean is that you can conceive of a way for the Open Theist God to accomplish what you think he should be able to accomplish. That should save the position. The fact that it can be conceived is really enough, what else is there? Dude, all of this is just mental masturbation anyway, what would be the point of coming up with the mechanics? But since we are on the question, there are absolutely failed prophecies in the Bible, Christians just don’t want to talk about them! Talk about hand waving! All we have are ideas that make us feel better at the end of the day, some crave control, some crave freedom. Depending on whether you were breastfed or not, or some traumatizing experience during your formative years, or your genetic disposition, you will gravitate toward one or the other. I ask what you really think not because I think it will elucidate some universal existential mystery for me, I’m just curious where you are coming from. Sorry for being inquisitive!

          • Craig

            You wrote …

            // When I say the flaw you identify isn’t really a flaw, all I mean is that you can conceive of a way for the Open Theist God to accomplish what you think he should be able to accomplish. That should save the position. //

            Nothing can save Open Theism.

            As I have written earlier regarding Open Theism ….

            “ God could not be certain that any of his plans and purposes would come to pass. Namely, because He has to depend upon the unknown free will choices and decisions of people.

            People may choose different than what God wants and those decisions would take everyone off onto a different trajectory, which leads to another whole future and destination that God did not want to happen.

            If God determines anyone to do his will, then you are back to Calvinist determinism again and as a result there is a loss of human free will. ‘

            All Positions are flawed. That includes Open Theism, Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism.

            I can go through every one of those positions and show the adherents what is wrong with their position.

            I just take a General Theistic stance and leave it that. I don’t defend an actual Theological Position.

          • Dean

            That’s fine too, to each his own. It’s basically just whatever makes you feel better in short time that you are alive on this planet, I’m the first to admit that. What’s unfortunate is how excitable people get about it, I can understand it hundreds of years ago when we were less civilized, but these days it seems like not as much has changed in the human condition as we would have thought.

  • Brandon Roberts

    if god exists maybe, however if god exists and is good he can’t imo.