Review of The Providence of God
by Paul Helm
IVP Academic (February 25, 1994)
The Providence of God is an introductory work in theology proper, i.e., the doctrine of God, focusing on his providence over creation in redemptive history. The author, Paul Helm, teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, presents his view of providence. I say that because he does—. Instead of presenting a general view of providence ascribed to a certain theological system (though he is a Calvinist), Helm “puts forward the ‘no-risk’ view of divine providence . . , [which he believes] corresponds both to Scripture and to the historic teaching of the church” (p. 15). Though he puts it forth as his view, it is not foreign; rather, he has tailored a traditional, Augustinian/Reformed view to his method of expression in teaching and application.
Divine providence is God’s acting and governing in the world now. Helm introduces us to God’s providing for the world and all of creation in a personal way. I believe that is how the doctrine of providence should be studied, for Christians enter into a personal relationship with their creator and need to know, personally, how he governs, interacts, uses, and ordains all events that have and will occur in redemptive history. Helm taking the helm in that manner (pun intended) is very pastoral and makes a topic that can seem abstract, giving one a that’s-just-the-way-it-is view and makes it something purposeful, personal, and tangible for the Christian seeking God’s will. This is clear in his introduction, when speaking of special providence, Helm writes, “God cares for the individual Christian now; but he also cares, has cared, and will care for all Christians at all times. . . . the providential purposes have one supreme end, the salvation of the church” (p. 20). Furthermore, he believes what he has put forth does not go beyond what the Scriptures teach and hopes it provides discussion and dialogue for his readers.
The structure of his approach is very systematic. But what is most important, which sets the tone and overarching theme of his approach is in the context he establishes for God’s providence to be studied in: redemption for the church. In his “Orientation,” he puts forth three key elements, three contexts of divine providence (p.21) as he calls them, which serve as his foundation for theological expression of providence from Scripture, and also as he interacts with other providence theories in theology. These three contexts, “the interests of the individual Christian, with the interests of all Christians—the Christian church—and with the interests of the whole of creation animate and inanimate” are bound up in divine providence (p.21). From these three contexts certain questions generate:
(1) personal questions of need, of success or failure, or guidance; (2) the history and destiny of the Christian church, including all events which are constitutive of her existence, primarily the work of Christ and of his Spirit; and (3) the whole of the animate and inanimate creation in which the life of individuals, and of the church exist. God’s providence is equally at work in all these areas; there is no sphere in which he is less in control, or less interested, than in some other sphere, no ‘no-go’ areas (p.23). With this framework of thought and focus, he works through the aspects of providence related to creation, the fall, redemption, guidance, prayer, accountability, evil, and finally, in how were are to understand God’s providence. Again, providence is a very personal doctrine and grasping it as a creature, to the best of our ability according to what God has revealed in his Word, is important if we are to “rest in our wrestling.”
The views he interacts with are the “‘risk-free’ or ‘no-risk’ view of providence and the second family, the ‘risky’ view’” (p.39), which are derived based upon the question, “Does God’s providence, according to Scripture, extend to all that he has created, including the choices of men and women? Or is his providence limited, perhaps limited by God himself, so that he does not infallibly know how the universe is going to unfold?” (p.39). These questions are central to the debate. Again, he adopts is the ‘no-risk’ view. Helm is not advocating that he can provide a settling answer for his readers in this book; however, his goal is to put forth his view, which he believes is the most biblical and logical based on the doctrine of God as found in Scripture. Those advocating a ‘risky’ view, which posits a human freedom under God’s providence is not compatible with Helm’s ‘no-risk’ deterministic view. For under the ‘risky’ view, God’s knowledge of all things, which governs the degree of his providence, is not absolute or exhaustive; and that is why it is ‘risky’; God does not know all possible actions and events of his creatures because of the free will they have to make choices. Man is ultimately in control, not God.
On all of the topics pertaining to providence, Helm ensures to interact with those who espouse the other views of providence, addressing their objections but also pushing the antithesis against them as well. His skill-set is that of a philosopher, so he interacts in that type of framework (not too heavy though), which will surely appeal to those who delight in that type of discussion. I believe the best chapter of this book is chapter 5 on Providence and Guidance. Here he addresses one of the key issues a Christian first encounters, and can still struggle with, in coming to the steep granite wall of providence; that is, how it affects and impacts his life. The thoughts of “why do anything if it is all determined anyway,” can be a challenge to overcome. Realizing that all events, tragedies, actions, blessings, natural disasters, faith, salvation, and every moving molecule are under the guidance and providence of God, can overload the psyche. However, the key take-away is that “Scripture teaches a particular providence, that not only the ends are ordained by God but also the means to those ends” (p.139). All things work for good; “even the Christian’s sins work for together for his or her good; not so much the sins as sins, but what arises out of them; what they may, in the providence of God, lead to; and what a Christian may learn from being aware of them” (p. 127).
He ends his book addressing the problem of evil as well as interacting with some of the other defenses toward the problem (free will defense, soul-building, various greater-good defenses, etc.). He presents his view (only a few pages to end the chapter), which is a “copula” of the strong points of the greater-good defenses, culminating in the resolution to evil: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All things were made through him and for him. Evil is solved in Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement.
I believe Helm’s book did what it set out to do: present a cogent, ‘no-risk’ view of God that falls inline with the historic views of the orthodox Christian faith. With that said, I think his main fault in the work is the little use of Scripture he employs to present the orthodox God of the Bible. I think including more biblical exegesis (or really just more Bible verses!) to support his philosophical and logical arguments would have made his case that much stronger (not that I think it wasn’t; I am thinking of those contra to his view point). However, he stayed true to the Reformed heritage and put out a book that is not stale but rather gets the reader engaged through question-and-answer type discussion. Another solid book for the library.
(By the way, this is my first book review….so take it easy on me!)