Divine Providence

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Bruce R. Reichenbach
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , September
     2016.
     344 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498292856.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Divine Providence: God’s Love and Human Freedom, philosopher Bruce R. Reichenbach tackles the timeless questions surrounding divine causality and human freedom, albeit in a fresh and unique way. Reichenbach’s general thesis is best summarized by C.S. Lewis, from whom Reichenbach has clearly drawn considerable inspiration. Lewis states, “Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating,” (Mere Christianity, HarperCollins, 1996, 48). While Reichenbach’s work shares some of Lewis’ charm, it is also a serious speculative undertaking, rooted in scripture and the basic tenets of natural theology and classical theism.

Reichenbach rejects a causally compatibilist or meticulous view of divine causality. To state that God causes human actions is to erase the very created freedom which renders human return to God meaningful, says Reichenbach. This does not mean that God is not omnipotent, but that omnipotence must be self-limited by God in order to provide creatures the opportunity to truly exercise freedom of choice and action. As such, human action in general falls under the umbrella of divine providence, insofar as God’s plan for the universe involves this self-limitation. However, particular human acts fall outside of God’s providential ordering of the universe. Simply put, human beings can and do frustrate the divine will.

While Reichenbach argues his incompatibilist position well, he does not attend properly to the most basic or classical objections regarding that position. It is a given for him that divine causality and human freedom are competitive, although there are eminent figures of the Christian tradition who argue otherwise. For example, Thomas Aquinas posits a divine actualization of created freedom in human acts. Since God is the very creator and architect of human freedom, the created will can be moved such that it retains its contingency and liberty. The human will is moved to will. While proponents of such a view (such as Augustine and the aforementioned Aquinas) are indeed mentioned, it is only in passing. Reichenbach seems to miss a chance to further defend his thesis by addressing these views head on, instead glossing over them and presupposing a competitive view of divine causality and human freedom without the requisite work to powerfully establish this premise.

Providence regards not only causality but also foresight. While Reichenbach adopts an incompatibilist approach to divine causality, he argues for a compatibilist approach to divine foreknowledge. Reichenbach wrestles with the consideration as to whether God also self-limits omniscience in order to work providentially within the created order, but he argues well that determinate foreknowledge of future events does not negate their contingency. To claim otherwise is to posit a God that is, at least sometimes, mistaken. Such a view does not seem to square with scripture nor does it provide any real separation between God and the anthropomorphized deities that Christian scripture condemns.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Divine Providence is Reichenbach’s application of his theory of providence to more practical considerations at the heart of the Christian life. In what way does God’s providential ordering of the universe leave room for petitionary prayer? Why does God not always answer this type of prayer? If God cannot directly order the actions of volitional creatures, how is God’s providential plan for creation executed? Moreover, what justifications remain for the modern, scientifically conscious Christian that would allow for the possibility of belief in the miraculous? These examinations culminate in an illumination of the proper disposition for the Christian spiritual life, a disposition rooted in pious humility and the Christian drive to unite the created will with the will of God.

Still, in his attempt to sand down some of the sharper edges of this debate, Reichenbach may concede too much for some Christian theologians and philosophers. He admits in his conclusion that, “for some [this work] may prove a troublesome mis-ordering of the puzzle pieces. It may appear that we placed the pieces in the wrong order, with human freedom being situated first, forcing the piece about divine power to conform to it,” (301). This will certainly ring true with many readers for whom Reichenbach’s analysis concedes divine omnipotence and simplicity itself. If the divine will is constantly being frustrated by evil human action, how exactly is it not contingent upon that human action, ever changing to fit new and unplanned circumstances? There is a risk here of anthropomorphizing the Christian God. Indeed, Reichenbach even states that it must be at least conceivable that God could will evil since, as with humans, it is necessary that one be capable of evil in order to merit by doing good. This may appear quite scandalous to some Christian theologians for whom God’s necessary goodness is precisely what distinguishes the divine from the human, forming the well-spring of omnibenevolence.

None of these things ought to discourage readers from picking up this work, however. No treatment of this issue will appear perfect from all angles. What Reichenbach suceeds at beautifully here is a salient, lucid, and pious presentation of the case for a causally self-limiting but still all-knowing God. Divine Providence is one of the most enlightening contemporary treatments of this general thesis of divine self-limitation. It is at once largely readable for the novice and also of serious importance for all academics studying these issues. Divine Providence is a work which deserves recognition as a major addition to the conversation, one with which all forthcoming treatments of divine providence will surely have to dialogue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Patrick O'Neill is an adjunct professor of Theology at Ave Maria University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce R. Reichenbach is Professor Emeritus at Augsburg College, where he taught philosophy for forty-three years. He has also taught at Luther Seminary and at various universities and seminaries in Lesotho, Kenya, China, Liberia, and Ghana. His books include Epistemic Obligations, The Law of Karma, Evil and a Good God, Is Man the Phoenix?, and Reason and Religious Belief (co-authored).

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