Avoiding the Dead Ends of Providence: Monocausal Fatalism and Open Theism [Part 2]

J. Todd Billings
As I explored in the previous article in this series, my cancer diagnosis forced me to join the Psalmists in prayer more deeply than I had ever done  before. I prayed the Psalms - especially Psalms of laments - with others and in solitude. And I noticed that as they pray to the good and Almighty God, they are also unafraid to question God, to ask why he does not appear to be fulfilling his promises. 

How are we to approach God's providential care as Christians who pray the Psalms of lament? My constructive response, the "Mysterious Middle," will be in article three. In this article I identify two dead-ends that undercut the Psalmist's lament: two extremes--both of which may appear to be faithful to biblical teaching at first but which fall flat in the end. 

Monocausal Fatalism

The first extreme rightly confesses that God is active in the world and that the psalmist implicates God in the midst of crisis. From this, contemporary Christians conclude that God is the sole actor in history and that every event comes in a direct, unmediated way from God. The technical term for this is "monocasuality," that God is the sole cause for what happens in the world--directly and immediately causing each event. This approach fails to recognize the agency of creatures who have a will that is distinct and often opposed to God. Such a monocausal approach is condemned as an extreme position by a wide range of theologians--patristic, medieval, and Reformation-era, and Arminians and Reformed alike. But in contemporary Western Christianity this extreme is surprisingly common. It dares to speak of God as active and imminent, but it does so in a fatalistic way.

Momentary flashes of this extreme can appear among Christians today when offering prayers for healing. When praying for cancer patients like myself, they scolded those who prayed that God would work through the chemotherapy. Instead, they would ask for immediate healing - for that is the only way that it could be truly shown as the act of God. They rightly assume that God is active; but think that God is active in a way that leaves humans inactive - that God does not use instruments (such as doctors, medicine, etc.) to bring healing. 

But a broader monocausal approach often shows up as a corruption of the key biblical theme that God is sovereign - God is King - even in the midst of suffering. A pastor friend of mine was talking to a couple who had just lost a child by a miscarriage. The husband offered no tears. No emotion. Just the words, "It was what God ordained." In this stoic response, he thought he was holding strongly to a "Reformed" view of providence. But he wasn't. He rightly confessed that God is King but missed the place of lament and protest--that the fullness of God's kingdom is not yet here. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Indeed, as Paul writes, both "the whole creation" and "we ourselves" are ones who "groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies." We yearn and groan for that day - because we're not there yet.  In the words of one Reformed confession, God's permission of sin and evil is not "as something pleasing to God--but as something God hates" [1]. (On this point, I disagree with John Calvin's rejection of the "active/permissive will of God distinction - instead, I side with Reformed confessions such as the Belgic, Westminster,  Dort, and others which affirm that broadly catholic distinction.) God hates for a mother and father to lose a child. God hates the corruption of his good creation. God hates sin. God hates abuse. And so should we. 

In order to avoid  monocasual fatalism, we need to hold these two biblical truths together: the world, even the most difficult circumstances that we face in it, is in the hands of God the King, and things are not yet the way they should be. Hence, rather than responding to tragedy stoically, the Spirit frees us to cry out in grief and protest and hope: "Thy kingdom come," and "Come, Lord Jesus."

Another Extreme: Open Theism

On the other hand, the pendulum can swing to an opposite extreme which (unintentionally) undercuts biblical lament as well: open theism. Key advocates such as John Sanders are responding to genuine tragedy in their own lives or the lives of others. And quite rightly, they seek to say that God hates evil. Indeed, they are right to move against the stoic misinterpretation of classical Christian doctrine in the example above. But rather than living in the midst of the mystery that God is loving and yet also almighty, thus leading to lament when his promises appear to be in peril, they let God off the hook: God's power is such that God could not prevent the tragedy. Thus, figures like Sanders assert that God has a general purpose leading to good in giving humans freedom, but in specific instances of tragedy, "God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences" [2]. Specific tragedies are examples of "pointless evil," Sanders asserts--pointless not just from a human perspective but from God's standpoint as well [3]. Sanders rejects the classical notion that God could "permit" evil because it implies that God intentionally permits a particular tragedy, which he insists is "pointless" [4].

I agree that many tragedies that we encounter look "pointless," and we should not join Job's friends by speculating on God's specific reasons for permitting it. We don't know. It's beyond human wisdom. But unfortunately, by saying that some evils are pointless from God's perspective, Sanders has departed from the message of Job about the limits of human wisdom. He has sought to avoid a biblical paradox by giving a reason for the tragedy (i.e., the limits of God's knowledge and power) precisely where we should leave the problem of evil and suffering an open question. In seeking to be sympathetic to those who are suffering, open theism unintentionally cuts the nerve of lament - which trusts God's goodness and power to the point of holding God responsible in the midst of the calamity, as my last post noted.

Lament and the Open Question of Suffering

It is not easy to leave suffering as an open question, particularly in the midst of crisis. At times, I've sensed that there must be a reason that this cancer has hit me. 

Perhaps God couldn't do anything about it? Perhaps God is "relational" in such a way that some things are truly "pointless" even to God? There might be some reassurance in affirming such an "answer." Yet, this is not an answer that would keep cultivating Christian lament with the Psalmist. The Psalmists keep asking, questioning, and petitioning because they believe God is the almighty Lord. Old Testament scholar Glenn Pemberton describes the Psalmist's perspective well on this point: "Why does an all-powerful king suddenly and inexplicably no longer bless, no longer order life, and no longer hold things together? If a person did not believe that God was sovereign, there would be no cause for lament" [5].

On the other hand, the Psalms of lament also suggest that we should not be triumphalistic when we respond to the suffering of others. It is no reassurance to those in grief or anger to declare, "This is just God's perfect plan!" Yes, the Triune God is King; but Christ's kingdom is not yet uncontested. Until the Kingdom comes in fullness, the Spirit will be groaning with the creation - complaining, grieving, and protesting that this is not the way things are supposed to be. "How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?" (Ps. 13:1a) "Come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20).

The questions still sting: Why did I get this life-threatening cancer? For no reason accessible to me. Why did Job suffer? In spite of the fact that God himself appeared in response to Job's plea, Job was given no reason accessible to him. Why does the psalmist suffer and cry out? Some psalms offer repentance to God. But the vast majority of lament psalms do not assume that God is punishing or disciplining for sin through the suffering. Why does the lamenting psalmist suffer? For no reason accessible to the psalmist. These questions are raw. But it's precisely because the "answers" are beyond human wisdom that we join the Psalmist in lament: grieving and protesting that this suffering is not the way things are supposed to be - and turning our eyes to God's promise. We trust that God is good, almighty, and faithful - that's why we cry out,  again and again bringing our anger and grief before the Lord in lament.

J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. He is the author of several books, including the Christianity Today Book Award Winner Union with Christ and Calvin, Participation and the Gift. Part of this article is adapted - with generous permission from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group - from his book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015). 


[1] The Reformed Bremen Consensus (1595), quoted in Jan Rohls, Reformed Confessions (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), pp. 62-63.

[2] John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), p. 262.

[3] Ibid, p. 262.

[4] Ibid., pp. 255, 262. It is important to note that in this book, Sanders repeatedly presents a false choice between open theism and a monocausal view of providence which sees every event as directly and immediately caused by God. The next article in my series explores a possibility between these two extreme positions.

[5] Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012), p. 93.