Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, Four Views Ed. by Bruce A. Ware

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Perspectives follows the pattern of similar books presenting contrasting views on doctrinal issues.  In this case, the all-important doctrine of God is in focus with Paul Helm presenting the Classical Calvinistic position, Bruce Ware a modified Calvinism, Roger Olson the Classical Free-Will stance, and John Sanders Open Theism.  Following each article the other three offer their critiques.  The approach has value in fairly, if briefly, describing a theological position and having qualified scholars challenge those positions, giving a fuller understanding of what is being taught and what is at stake.

Paul Helm leads off but apparently missed the memo concerning the direction this volume was headed.  Instead of explaining Classical Theism as intended, he spent his time discussing the more narrow doctrine of predestination and attacking the other three views.  Helm’s major contribution to the designed subject matter is found in his responses to the other essays.  This is unfortunate because Classical Theism is not given a fair hearing.  Helm does initiate the watershed issue of compatibilism vs. libertarianism.   Compatibilism teaches that God’s divine foreknowledge and man’s human freedom are compatible (p. 27).   Libertarianism claims that “God limits His power and control in order to allow humans limited, situated freedom of decision and action” (p. 148).

Bruce Ware is firmly in the Calvinistic clan (a term often used throughout) but has admittedly taken a modified route, as have numerous other Calvinistic theologians recently.  To standard Reformed theism Ware makes “adjustments to our understanding of attributes such as the divine eternity and immutability” (p. 77), and champions God’s middle knowledge as well (pp. 34, 39-47).   Ware believes that, while God cannot ontologically change, He has nevertheless chosen to change relationally in regards to time and space at the point of creation (pp. 77, 89-91).  Ware also modified compatibilism seeing human choices as “freedom of inclination” (p. 99).  That is, humans freely make choices according to their deepest desires.  Knowing what these inclinations are, God knows and determines in advance what choices we will make (pp. 100-101).  Therefore the Lord sovereignly controls all things and people without violating the choices people make, which will always correspond to their deepest desires.  But what about the Lord’s providence over evil?  We know that God being sovereign is the source of all that is good; He however, is not the direct cause of evil but rather permits it (p. 105).  To support this view Ware turns to middle knowledge.  He modifies the model presented by Free-Will Theist Luis de Molina and offers a compatibilist version (pp. 111-119), which states we are free to do what we want to do (p. 112).  Yet God, knowing all potential circumstances (middle knowledge) so orchestrated those circumstances that we freely choose what by nature we want most to do.  Thus people freely choose sin but God remains in control and is not the direct cause of sin (pp. 117-118).

As might be imagined Ware’s modifications were not well received by the other authors.  Helm, who resists any adjustment to Classical Reformed theism (pp. 123-126), rejects Ware’s view of permissive compatibilism (pp. 127-129) and middle knowledge (pp. 126-127).  Olson is on board with the idea that God can relationally change (pp. 130-131), but does not buy into Ware’s permissive view to explain evil (p. 134).  Sanders too believes God’s affections can change (pp. 137, 140), and His relationship with time changed at creation (p. 139), however Sanders does not believe Ware’s modifications hold up (pp. 146-147).

Roger Olson represents well the Free Will theist model of God and its libertarian theology.  He details Classical Arminianism, clearing up many misconceptions (pp. 152-158), and states that at the heart of this model is concern for the character of God (pp. 154, 158-163).  An overview of Arminianism and its doctrine of prevenient grace is most useful (pp. 163-172).

Helm challenges Olson in three areas: divine foreknowledge, relationships, and the ability of the free-will position to solve the problems of God’s relationship with evil and freedom (p. 177).  Sanders differs only in one area – God’s knowledge of the future which Olson believes He has but Sanders denies (pp. 180-182).  Ware focuses his critique on libertarian freedom and the love of God and also does not believe Olson’s libertarianism lets God off the hook regarding evil.

The last model is Open Theism written by one of its key proponents, John Sanders.  Sanders believes God: has chosen not to override our free will, makes some decisions contingent upon our actions, changes in some respects, especially in relation to time, and does not exhaustively know the future (pp. 196-199, 203).  Since God does not either control (Calvinism) or know (Arminianism) all things, He is not responsible for evil (pp. 210-214).   Helm rejects Open Theism; Olson is almost persuaded to adopt it (pp. 250-251); and Ware says openness is asking us to trust a God who took a huge risk in the past with our present and future (p. 256), which he cannot accept.

The nature of God’s relationship with time appears on several occasions throughout the book.  Is God timeless, both in eternity past (Classical Calvinism), or did He enter into time and space at creation (all other views) (pp. 87-90)?   As Ware states “God chooses to become immanent with the creation He had made, He chose, then, to ‘enter’ fully into both the spiritual and temporal dimensions of creation” (p. 89).  Also, “God did not change in any respect who He eternally is apart from creation. He only adds…the qualities of His being also immanently related to His creation, in all of its points of space and in all of its moments of time in a manner not dissimilar to the doctrine of the incarnation” (p. 89).

Overall a most helpful discussion of predominate models of God in evangelicalism today.

Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, Four Views Ed. by Bruce A. Ware (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2008) 279 pp. + IX, paper, $24.99.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel

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