The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence
A review of John Sanders', "The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence," by Dr. Bruce Demarest.
Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1998 367 pp. Hardback, $24. ISBN 0 8308 1501 5.
Sanders’ book, a leading contribution to open theism or freewill theism, presents the case for “relational theism.” The latter asserts that the God who enters into genuine, give-and-take relations with his creatures necessarily assumes risks in the outworking of the divine project. In positing his alternative to classical theism (regarded as beholden to alien Greek philosophy), Sanders argues that the traditional understanding of the divine attributes requires major revision.
Since God honors human freedom and creaturely input into the future (said to be requisite for genuine give-and-take relations), Sanders replaces God’s “exhaustive sovereignty” with the notion of his “general sovereignty.” The latter means that God shares control of the world with his creatures, who in measure condition his plans and operations (cf. here the influence of process theism). In this way God allows for indeterminacy and chance in the world.
The genuine give-and-take between God and humans means, secondly, that God’s foreknowledge of the future is incomplete. God knows the past, the present, and what he purposes do in the future; but God possesses uncertain knowledge of future contingencies. As God progressively moves into the future, he grows in knowledge of what eventuates. Thus, some prophecies in Scripture either do not come to pass at all or do not happen exactly as they were foretold. “In this sense the Bible does attribute mistakes to God” (p. 132). Sanders indicates, for example, that in the beginning of time or human history God did not anticipate the need for the cross. “The path of the cross comes about only through God’s interaction with humans in history. Until this moment in history other routes were, perhaps, open” (p. 110).
Thirdly, God’s providential control of the world is not exhaustive. Sanders’ risk model of providence means that God “chooses not to govern the world without our input. Whether it is wise for God to do so is another matter” (p. 54). In his understanding of God’s limited providence (“God is not behind every event that happens in life,” p. 87), Sanders restricts God’s providential control to his causative actions alone. Omitted from divine governance of the world are sinful human actions permitted by God, which I believe allows for free human participation in the unfolding of history within the limits of divine providential control.
It follows, fourthly, that the future is not established as certain but remains open to human input. According to Sanders’ relational theism, God permits humans, as active partners, to dispute with him in forging plans for the future. “Sometimes,” therefore, “God’s plans do not bring about the desired result and must be judged a failure” (p. 88).
Risks concludes that because God makes mistakes based on his limited knowledge of future contingencies, he needs to repent for unforeseen human blunders. Here Sanders appeals to biblical language of God “repenting” (1 Sam. 15:11,35). Of the many problems that this raises, one remains unaddressed in the book: Before whom or by whose standard must the God of the universe repent?
In order to achieve thoroughgoing relational interaction between God and his creatures, Sanders has posited a permanent kenosis of the first person of the Godhead. The Father is not the fully sovereign and omniscient, providential ruler over his creation. The view set forth in Risks is that God has imposed upon himself a huge self-limitation in order to allow for human participation in an open future.
Sanders dismisses the interrelation between divine sovereignty and human freedom known as compatibilism (or soft determinism) held by many Christian theologians through the centuries (Luther, Packer, Carson, etc.). Compatibilism is defined as “The idea that human freedom is not inconsistent with certainty of what will be done, either in terms of God’s having rendered certain what is to happen or of his foreknowing what the person will choose to do” (Erickson). Many, including this reviewer, believe that Scripture plainly teaches, on one hand, that God is the perfectly sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient and providential ruler who authentically relates to and suffers with his creation. Scripture also affirms, on the other hand, that humans make choices and execute actions psychologically in freedom and with personal responsibility. This is seen, for example, in the history of Joseph (Gen. 45:5-8), in Cyrus’ decree to permit the Jewish captives to return to the homeland (Ezra 1:1-4), and in God’s foreordination of Jesus’ death on the cross (Acts 2:23). In each case human beings act freely with personal responsibility to accomplish God’s predetermined will. These two poles — God’s infallible will and authentic human freedom — converge in the mind of God but remain as antimonies or sub-contraries to our finite human minds.
The book contains several bold and injudicious interpretations, of which but one will be mentioned. Sanders describes Calvinism’s “irresistible grace” (I believe the term “effectual grace” is more accurate of the biblical teaching) as manipulative, indeed, as an instance of “divine rape because it involves a non-consensual control” (240). According to this interpretation of the Spirit’s opening sinners’ hearts, God raped Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-8) and Lydia in Corinth (Acts 16:14), which of course is an intolerable notion.
More broadly, Sanders’ relational theism presents but a partial view of sin and salvation. Sin is defined as a broken relationship with God (p. 243), and salvation is envisaged as the restoration of relations. Missing in the former is the reality of human guilt and depravity, including human inability to respond to God apart from the working of grace in the heart. And missing in the latter is (1) Christ’s provision of salvation through his vicarious, substitutionary atonement on the cross, and (2) the application of redemption through the legal imputation of the Savior’s righteousness to those who believe. The cross, according to Sanders, serves primarily as a demonstration of God’s love, which restores the broken relation between God and sinners (p. 249).
The God who Risks helpfully reminds us of the profoundly relational dimension of our existence before God. Moreover, the book is widely researched and clearly written. Unfortunately, the God described therein is a limited God and not the God of infinite perfections of whom I read in the Bible.
Bruce Demarest, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology & Spiritual Formation.