Roger Olson, “An Excellent Arminian Book on Divine Providence”

, posted by SEA

As an out-of-the-closet evangelical Arminian I am often asked for recommendation of a book about divine providence from an Arminian perspective. When I have reluctantly admitted there aren’t any I can recommend without reservations, some inquirers have urged me to write one. It’s a task I’ve been reluctant to take on. I have often recommended my friend Greg Boyd’s excellent book Is God to Blame? even though it is not a thorough treatment of providence. I have also sometimes recommended Frank Tupper’s A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God even though I have reservations about his non-interventionist interpretation of God’s agency in the world. Then there is Jack Cottrell’s What the Bible Says about God the Ruler, but I have some qualms about some it. Finally there is God’s Strategy in Human History by Paul Marston and Roger Forster—not a bad book but not quite what I have wanted. I have frequently recommended all of those books to people who ask me for an Arminian account of divine providence even though each has some weakness—either lack of thoroughness of treatment of the subject or too much literalism in biblical interpretation or lack of philosophical and theological sophistication in presentation. “Divine providence” is a very broad category and a landscape filled with pits and mines. I have never felt adequate to the task of writing a comprehensive, coherent, truly evangelical and Arminian explanation of it. That has been for me and many others a truly felt need. Now someone has met it.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

This is not intended as a full book review; consider it instead a recommendation. If you are a person who wants a thorough, comprehensive, coherent, sophisticated but readable one volume treatment of divine providence in all its aspects that is also evangelical in ethos and completely consistent with classical Arminianism, here it is: Divine Providence: God’s Love and Human Freedom by Bruce R. Reichenbach (Cascade Books, 2016).

Now, I anticipate that someone will tell me that this is not an entirely new book, that it is a new version of an older book. Be that as it may, it is new to me. Also, I anticipate complaints about the book’s cost, but I will just say that it is worth the price—if you are interested in such a book as I described in the previous paragraph. I know of no other book that covers virtually every aspect of divine providence and answers virtually every conceivable question about it with so much thoughtfulness and faithfulness. This is truly a work of love.

Now, ironically the words “Arminian” and “Arminianism” and the name “Arminius” appears nowhere in the book. I am not claiming that Reichenbach is an Arminian; I am only saying that this book is thoroughly consistent with classical Arminianism—which is not to claim either that every Arminian will agree with it in every detail.

I used to know Bruce somewhat. We lived in the same metropolitan area and taught similar subjects at similar liberal arts colleges—Bethel and Augsburg. (Yes, one is Baptist and the other is Lutheran but they consider each other both peer schools and competitors for students.) If I recall correctly, from meeting him at conferences held at Bethel, Bruce is Baptist. I may be wrong and I am open to correction. Whatever is the case, I am confident he counts as an evangelical Christian—whatever his denominational affiliation may be.

My first knowledge of Bruce was from his chapter in a book I still frequently recommend to students and others: Predestination and Free Will: Four views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom (InterVarsity Press). That book, edited by brothers Randall and David Basinger, remains for me the standard introduction to the subject for beginners. (But I warn people who intend to read it to skip the chapter by Norman Geisler because, in my opinion, it is incoherent.) The book introduces readers to three main approaches to God’s sovereignty and human free will with focus on predestination: classical Calvinism (Paul Feinberg), classical Arminianism (Bruce Reichenbach), and open theism (Clark Pinnock). (I do not know how to label Geisler’s chapter even though he called his view “Augustinian.”) Those were not necessarily the labels used; the editors (I think) carefully avoided labeling the views.

As I said, Bruce came to Bethel when I taught there on several occasions for interactions (conferences, symposia, informal dialogues) with Bethel faculty members and students. I met him briefly and in passing; so far as I can remember we never met outside of those hallowed halls.

Bruce is a philosopher but one very interested in and well-versed in Christian theology. He has written a number of books and articles. He co-authored one of the best books on philosophy of religion with fellow evangelical philosophers William Hasker, Michael Peterson, and David Basinger titled Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford University Press). I have also often recommended that book to students asking for an introduction to philosophy of religion from an evangelical Christian perspective.

Here is a key, programmatic paragraph from Divine Providence: “We can conclude that, on the one hand, God’s plans are malleable. They are conditioned upon the responses of the people with whom God deals, so that in the short run God’s purposes face challenges to which God himself adapts in realizing his ultimate purpose of calling people to himself. On the other hand, the promise remains that God will realize in one way or another his overall purposes and plans. As Paul notes, God’s plans and their realization are mysteries that God gradually reveals to us (Eph 3:2-6).”

But don’t be fooled by that simple paragraph! Look at the TOC (which you can easily find for example on Amazon by locating the book and then clicking on “Look Inside”). And don’t be put off by Reichenbach’s occasional uses of modal logic. However, this book is not for novices or readers easily put off by subtleties and occasional scholastic distinctions. This book is really only for readers almost desperate for a well-thought out and well-argued, thorough treatment of the subject by a trained philosopher of religion who has is both evangelical and Arminian (even if not openly so) and who has spent a lifetime thinking about the issue in all of its extensions. Somewhere in the book Reichenbach answers virtually every conceivable question related to God’s sovereignty. His chapters on the “problem of evil” are simply outstanding. I found very little with which to disagree in the book. I will only say that I am not convinced that his critical (but generous) treatment of open theism really answers the questions it raises about the traditional view of God’s foreknowledge. (But his answers are the best I could come up with, too, without adopting open theism.)

Throughout my reading of Divine Providence I found myself saying (to myself) “I wish I had written this book.” Probably the only difference would be that I would appeal to mystery more than Reichenbach does, but even the most biblically faithful, evangelical philosophers are reluctant to do that and I fully understand why.

If you are someone who has wanted to read an Arminian account of divine providence, this is the book for you. Please get your personal copy and devote the time and attention required to reading it. If nothing else it will grow your brain muscles! It’s well worth the effort. (No, neither the author nor the publisher paid me for this recommendation! The publisher did supply me with a complimentary review copy and for that I thank Wipf & Stock. [Cascade is an imprint of W&S].)

[Link to original post and comments at Roger Olson’s blog]