CONSIDERING DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES ON THE DOCTRINE OF GOD – A BOOK REVIEW
Perspectives on the Doctrine of God. Edited by Bruce A. Ware. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008. 273 pp. $24.99. ISBN 978-080543060-8.
It is sometimes thought that there is only one evangelical view concerning theology proper (the doctrine of God); however, the deeper that one delves into the important theological treatises of evangelicalism, the more that one realises that this is just not the case. In reality, there are almost as many different views of God as there are good solid theologians. That being said, most of these differing views can be placed under two broad categories: Calvinist-Reformed and Arminian-Reformed. The purpose of a “Perspectives” book is to allow the reader to interact with the most prominent views as presented and defended by the theologians who hold to these views. In this book review we will be considering the book Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, edited by Bruce Ware. We will begin by considering the purpose of the book, and providing a general outline of the contents of the book. I will then give my opinion concerning the relative utility and worth of the book, how it achieved its purpose, as well as some questions and reflections concerning some of the subjects brought up in this book.
The purpose of this book is to introduce the reader to 4 predominant evangelical perspectives on the doctrine of God, in dialogue. The theologians that participate in this book are Paul Helm (representing traditional Calvinism), Bruce Ware (representing a form of modified Calvinism), Roger Olson (representing Arminianism), and John Sanders (representing Open Theism). In the introduction Bruce Ware explains that he sought to provide two different views from within the two predominant evangelical schools of thought (Calvinism and Arminianism). The book seeks to accomplish the purpose by presenting an article from each position, followed by responses to that article from the other authors of the book. The responses from the authors are often, to be totally honest, the most informative parts of this type of book, as we are shown with what and why the authors agree or disagree.
The book is organized as follows: Bruce Ware begins by introducing the purpose of the book, the importance of the theme, and by giving a brief overview of each of the chapters. Paul Helm begins the discussion, in chapter 1, by presenting the traditional Calvinist view of the doctrine of God. Helm states that his purpose is to “undermine the presumption of parity between the tradition and the three other perspectives offered in the book. (p. 7)” Helm then proceeds to explain his position concerning the relation between providence and free-will. This is followed by an attempt to refute the other three views on this subject. Helm concludes with a strange and somewhat bewildering section concerning the role of philosophy in theology. Chapter 2 is composed of the responses of Olson, Ware and Sanders.
In chapter 3 Bruce Ware presents his article concerning what he calls a modified Calvinistic view of God. The purpose of his article is to expose “certain adjustments to our understanding of attributes such as divine eternity and immutability in ways that represent modifications within the Reformed tradition. (p. 77)” Interestingly enough, Ware’s article is the only article in the entire book that truly adheres to the proposed subject of the book. Ware begins by presenting his proposed modifications to Divine transcendence and Immanence. He then presents his proposed modifications to divine eternity and immutability. This is followed by a defense of his view of Divine providence and how this relates to the problem of Evil. He finishes by explaining how he thinks that some form of Molinism is helpful to Calvinism for answering questions related to God’s providence and the problem of evil. Chapter 4 is a response to Ware’s article by Helm, Olson and Sanders.
In chapter 5 Olson presents what he calls the Free Will Theist model of God, which, he claims, is the umbrella under which Arminianism, as well as a number of other views, is found. He says that his purpose is to explain classical free-will theism (p. 149). He begins with an explanation of the Free-will Theist view of Free-will, which is followed by interaction with, and answers to, a number of common misconceptions about this view. He then attempts to provide biblical evidence for the libertarian view of free-will. He finishes with an overview of Classical Arminianism which is quite interesting. Near the end of this section he outlines some of the important aspects of the Arminian view of God. Chapter 6 consists of the responses of Helm, Ware and Sanders, to Olson’s article.
In chapter 7 John Sanders presents the Open Theist view of the doctrine of God. In his conclusion he notes that the purpose of this chapter was “to explain how providence is understood from an openness of God perspective and to provide some biblical and theological support for this view. (p. 239)” He begins by explaining the main tenets, or presuppositions, of Open Theism, followed by an explanation of how Open Theism fits under the umbrella of free-will theism, and interacts with Arminianism. He then explains some of the important aspects and consequences of the Open Theism view of Divine Providence (considering the relationship between prayer and providence, salvation and providence, divine guidance and providence, and evil and providence). This is followed by a section in which he attempts to show that Open Theism actually provides the best explanation of the biblical claims concerning God and his interaction with humanity. He then outlines some of the theological points that he thinks supports Open Theism, and concludes by responding to some popular attacks on Open Theism. Chapter 8 is composed of the responses of Helm, Ware and Olson to Sanders article.
It should be noted, first of all, that this book is extremely interesting, as each of the articles in this book, as well as the responses, provide interesting insights into some of the most important theological movements in evangelical theology (if one can get back the playful banter and rhetorical sarcasm). The major problem with this book is that only one of the articles truly adheres to the proposed theme of the book. This is obvious from the get-go, when Helm states his purpose, which has absolutely nothing to do with the theme of the book. Olson laments the fact that Helm did not write an article on the proposed subject “Helm’s chapter is primarily about predestination, and in that focus it deviates from the original plan of this book. (p. 54)”. The irony of Olson’s lamentation is, of course, brought up by Helm’s response to Olson’s article (which also deviated incredibly from the purpose of the book), “Roger Olson provides the reader with a synoptic view of Arminianism, concentrating his attention so much on the importance of indeterministic human freedom that there is a danger of altogether forgetting the doctrine of God. (p. 173)” Sander’s article comes close to fulfilling the purpose of the book, however, he ends up spending almost all of his time discussing the Open theistic view of providence and free-will. One is, however, able to glean, from what he denies about God, something of a picture of the Open theistic view of God. The only article in the book that actually fulfills the proposed purpose of the book is Ware’s article, and even in this article, at least a third of the article concentrates on the relation of divine providence to creation. I’m unsure how this book, with this title and proposed purpose, even made it to publication. If you are looking for a book on issues related to divine providence, then this book is going to be of great interest. If, however, you are looking for an involved discussion concerning the various doctrines of God, you will have to look somewhere else. Each of these views have different views on the nature of God, but, unfortunately, the reader will not discover them in this book. As such, this book is almost worthless for its proposed purpose. This is not to say, however, that its articles are worthless. On the contrary, the discussion that is presented in this book is quite interesting, and is a great introduction to the evangelical debate between Calvinism and Arminianism (especially concerning divine providence and free-will).
I will conclude with some thoughts on some of the claims in the different chapters. First of all, one gets the impression that Helm puts too much importance, for a reformed author, on tradition (how can tradition be used to show that someone is a heretic when Helm is, as a reformed author, saying that tradition does not bind?), but, that he reads Calvinism into Christian tradition. He also gives the impression that tradition weighs primarily in favor of classical Calvinism (which, as the other authors demonstrate, is far from being true). Helm’s critiques of the other views are interesting, but, unfortunately, most of his critiques come out to “This goes against established tradition, and the reformed interpretation of scripture, therefore this is wrong.” The weakest part of his article was his section on the use of philosophy in theology. He seems to be saying that it is wrong to think about scripture and to try to answer apparent contradictions in scripture. Many of the points that I brought up are also mentioned, in chapter two, by Olson, Ware, and Sanders. All in all, Helm’s article was so polemical that it was difficult to find any positive doctrine of God in his article.
One of the major questions that I would ask for Bruce Ware, is “why think that God is the way that he describes God?” Many of the verses that Ware provides as support for his theological claims are open to interpretation, and simply do not say what Ware wants them to say. Ware proposes that God, using Middle-knowledge (knowledge of what we would do if circumstance x arrived), determines all that happens. In this way, Ware proposes, compatibilism is true, and God is not the author of evil. He seems to rely on Jonathan Edwards explanation of free-will (as found in Edwards The Freedom of the Will). This, of course, leaves the reader with two questions: 1. When we “willfully turned from him (p. 84)”, is that because God caused the circumstances, in which he knew that we would willfully turn from him, to come about, thus guaranteeing that we would turn from him? In other words, God is not the cause of the rape of a woman, but, knowing the character of the rapist, he brought about (knowingly) the circumstances in which (he knew) the rapist would unfailingly rape the woman, and thus, was indirectly the cause of the rape? If this is what Ware is saying, then how is this really any different from saying that God determines all that we do? In other words, is there really a meaningful difference between the two following claims: (1) God causes agent A to do action x in circumstance α, and (2) God, knowing that if Agent A is put into circumstance α, then Agent A will, unfailingly, do action x, puts Agent A is put into circumstance α. Is God in this case responsible for causing Agent A to do action x? Yes and no. The deterministic slant of Ware’s view is seen in the claim on p. 119 where he says, “Therefore, he regulates their choices by presenting them with a situation in which the free choices they make accord with his will for them.” Another major difficulty with Ware’s view is brought out by the following question: Is it possible for God, at the same time and in the same sense, to be both temporal and atemporal, limited by space and not limited by space? Ware seems to think that the answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!” No comment necessary.
Olson’s chapter on Arminian theology is interesting. However his distinction between freedom and free-will (p. 153) seems to be somewhat shallow (at best), and perhaps even inaccurate. He seems to say that freedom is eschatological liberation (the end, or purpose, of free will), and that free-will is liberty of decision and action. A better distinction between freedom and free-will is that freedom is a state of being of a creature that is not hindered by certain limitations (and only with regards to certain limitations); free-will is the faculty of choice of rational creatures. As such, eschatological freedom would be a “type” of freedom. His conception of foreknowledge as future vision, seems problematic, and the difficulties are brought up by those who comment on his chapter.