Providence Revisited

It is not surprising that my previous post requires a follow up. Tom Rogstad, whom I have not known long but already consider a mentor and friend (check out his blog here), has provided some feedback and questions regarding my statement of God’s providence. I wanted to continue the discussion here because I think he raises some important questions. Tom said,

When Paul says that God subjected the creation to futility, doesn’t that necessarily imply that there are some events that are futile and, therefore, meaningless? How do you reconcile that with the verse in Ephesians 1 that says that “He works all things according to the counsel of His will?” doesn’t that verse necessarily imply that all events are purposeful? So, events can be meaningless and purposeful at the same time? Do meaningfulness and purpose belong to two different categories, so that we are not affirming A and not-A at the same time? They must. Otherwise we would be violating the logical law of non-contradiction. But I can’t quite see how the two are distinct categories. Maybe you can help me with that.

These are certainly important questions. Paul indeed says in Romans 8:20-21, “He subjected creation to futility, not willingly but because of the one who subjected it, to the hope that the creation itself will be set free  from the slavery of corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  The word translated futility is used twice more in the New Testament. First, in Ephesians 4:17, Paul says, “This then I say and testify in the Lord, to walk no longer as the Gentiles walk in the folly of their thinking…”; And second, in 2Peter 2:18, “for uttering boasts of folly they enticed by sensual lusts of the flesh those who were indeed escaping those living in error…” So, what I think we have here is an emphasis on the folly, or error, of the object. For creation, it was subjected to folly in that that which was once perfect lost that perfect state. Thus, the curse of Genesis 3, “cursed is the ground because of you…thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…” So, the subjection of the earth to futility (or folly) perhaps has something to do with the ground, and creation itself, no longer performing the function for which it was intended, thus it is futile. I think this can be further confirmed in Romans one, where one of the clear effects of the fall is exchanging the truth of God for a lie. This is the ultimate futility. So Paul can also say that the Gentiles walk in the “folly of their thinking” since they refuse to worship the true God. So in Peter, the boasts of folly are made by those who have turned to idolatry (v. 15).

Having said that, I do agree that their are events in time which from our perspective are meaningless. We simply cannot see and do not know enough for this not to be the case. Yet from God’s perspective all things are worked according to his will, even those things which are futile. So we grieve with those who grieve, and long for the day when the curse is removed and even creation’s subjection to folly is removed, along with all “death, mourning, crying and pain…for behold all things are new.”

As to your statement on providence, I think you should add or modify two things. It strikes me that much of your statement relies on God being outside time, atemporal. Is He? He certainly can’t be confined to time because He existed before time existed. But isn’t His relation to time the same as His relation to space? His omnipresence means He is everywhere in space as well as outside space. Couldn’t God be omnitemporal as well? I think that’s Bruce Ware‘s term. I wrote a paper for him on God’s relationship to time and came to a similar conclusion.

I certainly do think that God has entered into time. What I want to highlight is that God’s eternal decrees took place before he brought time into existence, thus his decrees even include his own actions within time. I suspect that since we cannot fully comprehend the relationship between time and eternity, then we will not fully comprehend the relationship between God’s eternal decrees, and thus his purpose for all things, and actions that take place within time, including those which are “futile.” I think omnitemporal is a great term to use! Tom, do you still have that paper you wrote?

I also think you should add something about God’s providence over human decisions. By quoting Joseph’s statement about his brothers’ decisions you obviously believe that providence encompasses acts of human will, but I’d try to add it to your statement of faith itself. (Hint: if you get stuck on these things it’s always helpful to see how the Westminster Confession of Faith handles it. I say that as a confirmed, intransigent Baptist  :)

I do believe that God’s providence extends to the human will. And I think Acts 4 and Genesis 50, and many others, confirm that. I’ll revisit my statement in light of this discussion. Thanks for your comments, Tom.

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