Review of Benjamin Wirt Farley’s The Providence of God

by John M. Frame

[Originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 51:2 (Fall, 1989), 397-400. Used by permission.]

Benjamin Wirt Farley: The Providence of God. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988. 257. No price listed.


Divine providence is, I think, one of the more neglected doctrines in today’s theologies, and I am pleased to find in this book evidence of some concentrated thought on the subject. There are, however, many weaknesses in it, so many that its chief value may be to stimulate others to develop better treatments of the subject.

The book tries to cover many bases: biblical teaching, Greek philosophical concepts, the history of Christian doctrine, the impact of modern science, modern theological discussions of “acts of God,” the “challenge of process theology.” Obviously, a book of this size cannot deal in depth with so many topics. The book is like a great big theological dictionary article, presenting the basic facts plus some very concise personal observations, usually summarizing “common wisdom” on the various issues. Those who have need for such a summarized treatment should buy the book. However, those who, like me, pick up books with such titles hoping to find some new insights into difficult problems (such as, in this case, evil, freedom and predestination) will be disappointed.

Farley has three degrees from Union Theological Seminary of Richmond, Virginia (including doctoral work under John Leith) and now teaches Bible, Religion, and Philosophy at Erskine College. He identifies his theological position as Reformed, and he is interested in other traditions mainly for the contributions they can make toward a Reformed understanding. In general, Farley’s position within the Reformed camp is conservative; he greatly respects the classical formulations. His own formulations are more in debt to Louis Berkhof than to anyone else. However, Farley has the annoying habit of routinely referring to Barth and Brunner as “modern proponents of a Reformed perspective” (p. 229; cf. pp. 19, 23, 24, 27, 31, etc.), without any awareness of the great gulf between them and Calvin as shown, e.g. by Van Til in Christianity andBarthianism. Similarly, he welcomes Reinhold Niebuhr to the Reformed tradition (p. 107).

Farley’s own views also raise questions here about the meaning for him of “Reformed.” He affirms the reformation sola Scriptura, but his formulation of it is disappointing: He says that it forbids principles which “might actually repudiate, contradict, or compromise the central motifs of the Bible” (p. 17). Only the central motifs? And I shall discuss later the question of Farley’s view of divine sovereignty; that too raises some questions about his actual relation to the Reformed tradition.

The book begins with some basic distinctions. Farley argues first that providence is “a doctrine of faith” rather than “a postulate of reason.” He notes here some interesting biblical connections between providence and faith, but he never quite explains what view he is opposing. Is he simply affirming sola Scriptura as above? Is he saying that providence is not part of general revelation? Then what of Acts 14:17, 17:24-28, etc.? Is he saying that we repress this truth apart from faith? But is that not the case with all of God’s truth? Is he opposing philosophical attempts to prove divine providence? What kind of philosophical attempts? Christian? Non-Christian? All? In any case, much more must be said about Christian epistemology.

Then he argues that providence is importantly related to the doctrine of election. His dependence on Barth and Brunner here is a bit disconcerting, and the precise relationship of the two doctrines somewhat eludes his descriptions. Evidently he doesn’t want “to subsume, as completely as Barth does, the preservation of human life under the rubric of salvation or election” (p. 36). But this question is not a question of degree (“as completely as”), but a question of precisely what relation is in view. Also, Farley seems to feel that this emphasis gives us more of a “christological accent” (p. 25) and makes our formulations “less authoritarian, speculative, and deductive” than the “older Reformed dogmatics” (Ibid.). This point seems to me neither clear nor obvious, especially in view of the fact that it suggests supralapsarianism, a view which is often portrayed as the very source of much “authoritarian, speculative, and deductive” thinking in the post-reformation period.

He then argues in a fairly traditional way, though again in dialogue with Barth, that providence is not “continuous creation” (pp. 27ff) and expounds the basic Reformed view in terms of preservation, cooperation (“concurrence”) and government (pp. 31-46). Nothing new here; as a summary it is fine.

Similarly for the historical survey which occupies the next six chapters and the bulk of the book. Through here he intersperses some analysis with the descriptive material, but one will not find here, e.g., any notable contributions to interpretative controversies about Plato or Aquinas. Farley’s evaluations are very sketchy. He seems to feel that he must say something positive and something negative about everybody; so for example he tells us that Plato’s god has “high moral and rational attributes” (p. 58), but “yet” he is forced to admit that this god is only “a myth which functions in a metaphorical way to attest to the phenomenon of the power and possibility of an ideal Good” (Ibid.). In my view, it would have been less misleading to weight the criticism in a more strongly negative direction. What good are God’s moral and rational attributes if, in the final analysis, he is only a myth? Well, I may be carping here. The real problem is that Farley’s analyses are so sketchy that he is never able todevelop an argument yielding fresh insight. When I read such books I am tempted to carp.

Farley attempts to deal with all major thinkers only through Schleiermacher. His treatment of the impact of science ends with Darwin, though some later developments are mentioned. Among twentieth century thinkers, he deals only with G. Ernest Wright, Rudolf Bultmann, Gordon Kaufman, the process thinkers (mainly the Introduction to Process Theology of Cobb and Griffin, with an exposition of Gilkey’s reply inReaping the Whirlwind), and of course Barth and Brunner. Again, this is good theological dictionary material; but when one considers the enormous impact of twentieth century sciences, philosophies, and theologies upon people’s views of providence, one wishes that Farley had done much more to bring his discussion up to date. Nothing, really, is said about Heisenberg or Einstein (not to mention “chaos theory”), or philosophers of science like Kuhn. We miss also any significant treatment of existentialism, analytic philosophical discussions of determinism, or even significant theological views like those of Pannenberg or the liberation theologians.

We should not, however, exaggerate the importance of the problems I have noted above. Most of these problems derive from the format of the book, in which Farley is forced to deal with many things in a very short space. Since the length of a book is often determined by the publisher rather than the author, the format problem may not be entirely of Farley’s making. And in any case, the over-conciseness does not prevent the book from being a useful survey of basic facts for those who need to have them.

I do have, however, a more serious criticism, a substantive one which goes beyond format problems. That is the author’s confusion on that most basic issue, the sovereignty of God.

Farley is a Calvin scholar and has edited and translated Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments and Treatises Against the Anabaptists and the Libertines. He notes in the preface to The Providence of God that in working through the second Calvin volume, especially chapters 13-16 of the Treatise Against the Libertines, he “was struck by the clarity and simplicity of Calvin’s argument against the Libertines’ pantheistic and deterministic interpretation of nature and history” (p. 11). These chapters “proved Calvin’s theology to be far less deterministic than I had previously thought it to be” ((Ibid.). More specifically, he says, Calvin rejected “the notion that God is the unqualified cause of all causes” (p. 154; cf. 219, 235). Farley then resolved, in writing The Providence of God, to keep in view “Calvin’s own approach as a sort of guiding norm” (Ibid.).

In the present volume, then, Farley seeks to develop a Reformed position which is not “deterministic” in the way that he thinks, e.g., Zwingli’s position was (pp. 143-150). He makes a distinction between “hard” and “soft” determinism. So far as I can tell, he never defines “hard” determinism, though he associates it with fatalism, the idea that “regardless of what we do, the outcome will be the same” (p. 69, quoting Adolf Grunbaum). “Soft” determinism means that “Rules for managing individuals and nations can be based only on causal laws which tell us that if such and such is done, it is likely that the outcome will be thus and so” (Ibid., again quoting Grunbaum). Not having access to Grunbaum’s article I won’t try to explain Grunbaum’s meaning here. Farley, however, takes this principle to mean that “events are rightly the results of antecedent causes, but not necessarily the results of unalterable, predetermined causae” (Ibid.. I confess I don’t understand this very well. He seems to be saying in the first clause that all (?) events are caused; but in the second clause he says that these causes are not unalterable, nor are they themselves predetermined. If they are not predetermined, then evidently they are uncaused. But that would mean that not all events are caused, contrary to the impression left by the first clause.

At any rate, it is fairly clear to me (not entirely) that Farley is here opening a door to “free will” in the sense of philosophical libertarianism and theological Arminianism. See especially pp. 75, 78f, 91, 149, 166. His “soft determinism” seems not to be determinism at all in any conventional philosophical sense. It is, rather, an indeterminism. It is possible that I have misunderstood him here. It certainly would have improved communication if Farley had offered some comparison between his view of freedom and that of Calvin’s opponent Pighius, or between his and that of Arminius who brought grief to later Calvinists. But Farley seems almost intentionally vague in this area.

Another confusing thing is that Farley leaves out a very significant alternative. That is the view that although all events including human decisions are foreordained (by God in the theological context), free human choices are still important because (a) they are not coerced and (b) they are necessary means to the preordained end. That is, incidentally, the view which is usually called “soft determinism” by philosophers. William James had it in mind when he first developed the hard/soft distinction in his “The Dilemma of Determinism.” Paul Edwards, in “Hard and Soft Determinism” associates this view also with Hume, Mill and Schlick. I would say too that this is the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith IX, 1 and of Calvinists generally.

Including Calvin. Farley’s book did stimulate me to study closely Calvin’s Treatise Against the Libertines, 13-16 (in Farley’s edition!), and I certainly did not find what he thinks is there. On Farley’s own account, Calvin is here criticizing a pantheistic determinism. His opponents were maintaining that no distinction can be drawn between God’s acts and ours and that therefore “it is not lawful to condemn anything” (p. 255). Calvin replies by emphasizing that God does no sin and that men are responsible before him. But to support those points he does not resort to any kind of libertarianism. On the contrary, he begins by saying “we do not deny that whatever comes to pass does so by the will of God” (p. 242). Providence is universal, and “what pagans and the illiterate attribute to fortune we must assign to the providence of God” (p. 244). Creatures “who constitute secondary (inferieurs) causes are only means by which (God) fulfils his will…” (pp. 244, 245). But, “when we say that God works in evildoers, that does not prevent them from working also in their own behalf” (p. 245); and “(Scripture) attributes to them the work which they have done by the ordinance of God” (Ibid.). At no time does Calvin here say what Farley attributes to him, namely that God is not “the unqualified cause of all causes.” There is not a hint of libertarianism here. (And even if there were, what would Farley do with all the apparent “determinism” of Calvin’s other writings?? Farley’s reliance upon four chapters of the Treatise is a frail reed indeed.) Calvin is a soft determinist in the sense of my definition, not Farley’s.

So: buy the book to get a concise factual history of the concept of providence, but not to seek new or deep insight. Above all, try to ignore what he says about determinism and freedom, which in my opinion will only produce confusion.


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