Review of Paul Helm’s The Providence of God

by John M. Frame

[This review originally appeared in Westminster Theological Journal 56:2 (Fall, 1994), 438-442. Used with permission.]

Paul Helm: The Providence of God. Leicester, U. K.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993. 241. No price listed.


Over the last twenty years there has been a revival of religious, and especially Christian, influence upon philosophy. When I majored in philosophy at Princeton from 1957 to 1961, a student would have been laughed out of a seminar for even tentatively suggesting a theistic response to a philosophical question. Today, however, a great number of well-respected philosophical thinkers are arguing historic Christian positions. With this movement we may associate names like Plantinga, Wolterstorff, Alston, Mavrodes, Adams, Swinburne, Hasker, Craig, Stump, Zagzebski, Morris, Willard, Kreeft. Paul Helm, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion at King’s College of the University of London, has been very much a part of this, but also more.

While there is much to applaud in this movement, I confess that I have been disappointed that certain views are almost universally shared among these thinkers: especially, (1) weak views of biblical authority, (2) the conviction that divine supratemporality must be jettisoned for philosophical reasons, and (3) the idea that the problem of evil and the nature of human moral responsibility require us to adopt an indeterminist concept of human freedom such as was advocated by Pelagius, Molina, and Arminius.

On all three of these matters, Helm diverges from the consensus. Once an associate editor of The Banner of Truth, he has worked in the history of doctrine as well as philosophy. Helm is a Calvinist, and one who does not hesitate to argue the philosophical cogency of historic Reformed positions. He recognizes the central, indeed sufficient, role of Scripture in doctrinal formulation, and he has argued the timelessness of God in his book Eternal God. In previous books, but especially in the present volume, he has also articulated and defended a historic Reformed view of divine sovereignty. To me, therefore, his writing is enormously refreshing, and all the more so because he does his work so very well. The present volume itself is excellently done on the whole with, of course, a few imperfections.

The Providence of God seeks to set forth the biblical doctrine of providence, discussing both philosophical and practical issues related to it. That may be a bit much to try to include in a volume of this size. You will not find here the kind of in-depth exegesis characteristic of Bavinck or Murray. For the most part, Helm sticks with exegetical points which are fairly obvious, however neglected by our Arminian friends. An exception would be 224-228, where his interesting discussion of the “weakness of God” gets beyond the scope of traditional Reformed exegesis. The philosophical and more broadly theological argumentation is more satisfying than the Scripture exegesis as such, although I wished at a number of points (especially 168ff, 177ff, 189ff and 224ff) that Helm had taken more space (or been permitted more space by his editors) to give more adequate development to his thoughts.

While I’m mentioning formal weaknesses of the volume, I would also observe that on a number of matters (such as prayer, 78ff, 145ff, efficacious grace, 119f, 189f; voluntarism, 165ff, 183f; fatalism, 137ff, 218ff, 232ff; two divine “wills,” 47ff, 131ff) Helm sketches a position, breaks off the discussion, then resumes it later in the book. This creates some repetition as well as some separation between matters that should perhaps have been discussed together. Later discussions sometimes contain material that would have been helpful for a reader to have at the earlier point. For example, the discussion of modeling on 31ff would have been more helpful had it been placed beside the actual description of providential models on 168ff. Some case could be made for this “resumptive” approach, but I find it something of a hindrance to comprehension.

One typo: “importance” should be “important” in line 6 of 131.

On the whole, however, the book is very clearly written and contains cogent arguments on important issues, which I will summarize here, with some evaluation.

Helm identifies his Calvinistic position as a “no-risk” view of providence, as over against various views of Arminian, Socinian and “process” thinkers in which God “takes risks.” For Helm, God takes no risks, because he has foreordained all the events of nature and history. Helm expounds the no-risk view in three interrelated contexts: the course of nature and history, the history of redemption, and the experience of the individual Christian (in my vocabulary: situational, normative, existential, respectively).

Methodologically, he insists that a Christian doctrine of providence must be derived from Scripture (27), but not by way of deduction from some master-concept, nor by development of a quasi-scientific “theory” which could be tested by events. He not only rejects the analogy between theology and scientific explanation, but also with “personal explanation,” on the ground that God’s intentions (as opposed to the intentions of finite agents) are known only as he reveals them. But isn’t that true of finite agents as well, making possible the kind of analogy he himself develops on 36? Here again, I wish he had expounded his argument at greater length.

Positively, he urges the use of “models” by which the scriptural data can be drawn together coherently and false inferences discouraged. His fundamental model is that of biblical divine sovereignty and the resulting “compatibilist” view of human freedom (66ff, 174ff). That is, human liberty does not consist in the capacity to perform uncaused actions, as in “risky” views of providence (otherwise called indeterminism, libertarianism, Arminianism), but in the capacity to act according to one’s own desires, a capacity which is “compatible” with the divine foreordination of those desires and actions.

Helm supplements this basic model with others on 168ff: that of evil as a “privation,” divine “permission” of evil (specific “permission,” not the Arminian nuda permissio), and a distinction between “levels” (divine and creaturely) of causality. All of these, I think, deserve more thorough discussion than he presents. I’m not as convinced as he is of the value of the first two. As to the fourth, he remarks, that on the model of dual “causal levels” “it is hard to see that there can be two separate sets of necessary and sufficient conditions for the same action” (182), and leaves the matter there. But he might have explored further sub-models, like the relation between an author and the characters in a novel, in which that same duality of necessary and sufficient conditions obtains.

But doesn’t Scripture sometimes represent God as “taking risks,” being ignorant, changing his mind, giving people the power to resist his will? Granted that Scripture also includes affirmations of God’s foreordination of all things, should we accommodate the latter expressions to the former, or vice versa? Helm responds to this question by pointing out the theological costs and benefits of the two alternatives. In the final analysis, the risk language must be accommodated to the no-risk teaching; else we would have to deny clear biblical teachings about God’s omniscience, will, efficacious grace. That would be a “theological reductionism in which God is distilled to human proportions” (52). He explains the “risk” language in terms of Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation, but with an insight of his own: God must represent his actions as temporal in order to demand a human response in space and time. This is a rather profound point, correct in my estimation, and one which, again, I wish he had been able to expound at greater length.

Today it is popular among philosophers to use the concept of divine “middle knowledge” (knowledge of what will happen granted any possible set of conditions) in order to reconcile divine sovereignty with indeterminist human freedom. Helm points out quite rightly that if people have such indeterminist freedom, God cannot have “middle knowledge” of what they will do granted previous conditions. For the conditions, on this view, never determine human free actions. Thus indeterminism excludes divine middle knowledge. Helm is absolutely right here, and I can’t understand why so many other sophisticated philosophers have failed to see this point.

Helm recognizes that it is not possible to make these matters perfectly transparent to reason, but he is also (I think wisely) reluctant to state a priori what can and cannot be understood by reason: see the discussion of antinomy on 61-66.

His discussions of pantheism, panentheism, deism, and theism are illuminating, although I am not entirely clear as to a couple matters: (1) Helm argues that pantheism and panentheism exclude any interaction between creator and creature, because “it is impossible for one thing to interact with itself” (73). True; but if the pantheist (unlike Parmenides) permits some degree of complexity within his monistic reality, it is not clear why there could not be some interaction between God and his aspects/parts, as indeed finite persons interact with their own bodies, qualities and thoughts. (2) Helm thinks the idea of creation in time is conducive to deism (79f), but I am not persuaded by his very sketchy argument for this assertion.

Helm’s account of providence in the history of redemption will be familiar ground to students of Reformed theology, but probably not to many customers of Inter-Varsity Press. He discusses creation, fall, covenant, miracle and prophecy, the incarnation, and the important (though sometimes neglected) matter of the attitudes toward providence shown by Old and New Testament saints. He rightly rejects as unbiblical the rather technical, philosophical definitions of miracle in terms of a natural/supernatural distinction or in relation to laws of nature (106). Here he departs from many philosophical accounts and from the typical representations of the Old Princeton theologians.

He presents a solidly biblical doctrine of guidance (121ff) based on the commands, rather than the decretive will of God. He points out that even “risk” views of providence must allow for a distinction between these two “wills” of God (I would prefer: a distinction between two senses of “will” when that term is applied to God). Fatalism is rejected because God foreordains means as well as ends (137ff). Therefore our actions and decisions have significant effects upon the course of history. Petitionary prayer is a special case of this principle (153ff).

Helm points out helpfully that divine foreordination is compatible with the view that some events in the world lack physical causes (142ff).

His discussion of the problem of evil is also both orthodox and insightful. He rejects the nominalist/voluntarist idea that God is above moral predication (ex lex) (163ff, 183ff). As we have seen earlier, he also rejects the traditional free-will defense, while giving some support to “privation” and “permission” models.

His main defensive strategy, however, is a form of the “greater good defense,” that God permits evil in order to bring about important goods not otherwise realizable. His particular emphasis: that the specific blessings of the heavenly glory “cannot be properly understood except in terms that presuppose sin and suffering” (203). Some have regarded evil as remedial (e.g. the Irenaean view that evil produces maturity of character), and others have regarded it as necessary for justice, to display and maintain the moral order in the universe. On Helm’s view, these two principles unite in the cross of Christ, through which is accomplished both God’s vindication of God’s justice and his renewal of the creation.

The final chapter contains some practical suggestions for applying the doctrine of providence to the Christian life. The most interesting suggestion here is that we need to recognize the fact that God’s power in providence is not a “raw power” which immediately accomplishes its every purpose by sheer force. Rather, the nature of God’s power, like his purpose for evil, is best seen at the cross of Christ. God’s power is displayed in weakness and suffering, in patience, often in the delay of judgment and the salvation of sinners. Yet herein is a strength greater than any mere army or weapons of war. Thus it is wrong for us to try to identify God’s providence directly with any human political program.

In sum, the book has a few weaknesses, but it is in general a very good introduction to the doctrine of providence and a reliable guide through many important problem areas.


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