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The Metaphysics and Phenomenology of Divine Action

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Over the past few days I have been reading The Benefits of Providence, a newly-published book written by James Spiegel. It is a deeply challenging book that is filled with weighty subject matter. It has given me a lot to think about and meditate upon. I look forward to attempting to summarize this book in a meaningful in an upcoming review. I am sure it will be quite a challenge.

The book is, of course, an examination of divine providence with corresponding application to the life of the believer. It is far more than “mere theology,” but is filled with useful application. Today I would like to discuss one small section of the book. In the second chapter the author compares and contrasts two views of providence, the high and the low. He defines the high view as the Augustinian (which most of us would recognize and apply to our lives) and the low view as the Open Theistic view. At one point, while discussing the hermeneutics of providence, he makes a distinction between two understandings of divine action. The first is the phenomenology of divine action which refers to the way God’s activity appears to human beings. The second is the metaphysics of divine action. This refers to the way God actually works within and behind the world.

These are, of course, both important aspects of what the Bible teaches about God. Even if you have never stopped to consider the difference between these it will become immediately apparent that there must be a difference between the reality of God’s actions and how we perceive them. It is important that we focus some attention on each one of these without allowing a focus on one of them to blind us to the other. Spiegel provides a brief example of what can happen when there is too great a focus on either one of them. It is this I would like to discuss and expand upon today.

Phenomenology at the Expense of Metaphysics

Open Theists provide a clear example of a group of people who have allowed their focus on phenomenology of divine action to blind them to the metaphysics of divine providence. In an earlier article I defined Open Theism in this way. “Open theism is a sub-Christian theological construct which claims that God’s highest goal is to enter into a reciprocal relationship with man. In this scheme, the Bible is interpreted without any anthropomorphisms – that is, all references to God’s feelings, surprise and lack of knowledge are literal and the result of His choice to create a world where He can be affected by man’s choices. God’s exhaustive knowledge does not include future free will choices by mankind because they have not yet occurred.” Here are some characteristics of this teaching:

  1. Man has libertarian free will. Man’s will has not been so affected by the Fall that he is unable to make a choice to follow God. God respects man’s freedom of choice and would not infringe upon it.
  2. God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. Indeed, He cannot know certain future events because the future exists only as possibility. God is unable to see what depends on the choices of free will agents simply because this future does not yet exist, so it unknowable. In this way open theists attempt to reconcile this doctrine with God’s omniscience.
  3. God takes risks. Because God cannot know the future, He takes risks in many ways – creating people, giving them gifts and abilities, and so on. Where possibilities exist, so does risk.
  4. God learns. Because God does not know the future exhaustively, He learns, just as we do.
  5. God is reactive. Because He is learning, God is constantly reacting to the decisions we make.
  6. God makes mistakes. Because He is learning and reacting, always dealing with limited information, God can and does make errors in judgment which later require re-evaluation.
  7. God can change His mind. When God realizes He has made an error in judgment or that things did not unfold as He supposed, He can change His mind.

Open Theists, to their credit, have invested extensive effort in attempting to understand the personal relationship between God and His creatures. They have studied the passages in the Bible about God’s interaction with the world and have formed what they feel are biblical understandings of the freedom God extends to humans. But where Open Theists have gone wrong is in downplaying the way God actually works behind the scenes. Their emphasis on the way things appear to humans has blinded them to the metaphysics of divine providence. When they encounter what believers have historically considered anthropomorphisms, for example, they interpret these literally rather than figuratively. When they see that God extends freedom of choice to human beings, they understand this as being libertarian free will. And so they interpret the metaphysical through the phenomenological rather than alongside it. Spiegel says, “They commit the egregious mistake of using biblical phenomenological data as evidence for metaphysical claims about God. Consequently, their doctrine of providence is fundamentally unbiblical, and their portrait of God is woefully incomplete.”

Metaphysics at the Expense of Phenomenology

At the opposite end of the spectrum to Open Theists we might find hyper-Calvinists. Hyper-Calvinists, who in reality are anti-Calvinists since they deny many of the crucial teachings of historical Calvinism, overemphasize the metaphysics of divine providence and this blinds them to the realities of human freedom and responsibility. Many Christians have struggled to reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility and have often done so with results that are far from satisfying or convincing. But hyper-Calvinists have done the church a great disservice by removing almost all emphasis from the phenomenological.

A popular definition of hyper-Calvinism, adapted from an article written by Phil Johnson, is as follows:

1. [Hyper-Calvinism] is a system of theology framed to exalt the honour and glory of God and does so by acutely minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners … It emphasizes irresistible grace to such an extent that there appears to be no real need to evangelize; furthermore, Christ may be offered only to the elect… .
2. It is that school of supralapsarian ‘five-point’ Calvinism which so stresses the sovereignty of God by over-emphasizing the secret over the revealed will of God and eternity over time, that it minimizes the responsibility of sinners, notably with respect to the denial of the use of the word “offer” in relation to the preaching of the gospel; thus it undermines the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them; and it encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect. [Peter Toon, “Hyper-Calvinism,” New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1988), 324.]

Phil Johnson provides the following five characteristics of this aberrant theology:

  1. Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
  2. Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
  3. Denies that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal), OR
  4. Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace,” OR
  5. Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.

Calvinists, and indeed most evangelicals, affirm that the offer of the gospel is given in sincerity to the non-elect and the elect. Calvinists believe, though, that only the elect are able to respond to this call. Hyper-Calvinists, in stressing the metaphysical, deny either that the offer is truly given or that it is given in sincerity. They stress the secret will of God at the expense of the revealed will, which is to say they stress metaphysics at the expense of phenomenology. Similar to Open Theists, then, they commit an egregious mistake. But in this case the mistake is in using biblical metaphysical data as evidence for phenomenological claims about God. Like Open Theists, their portrait of God is woefully incomplete.


Charles Spurgeon, when asked about the seeming contradiction between human freedom and divine sovereignty replied famously, “I do not try to reconcile friends.” It seems to me that the same is true when we discuss divine action. The way God actually works and the way it appears He works do not stand at odds with each other. We do not need to reconcile these as if they are enemies for which we need to make an uneasy peace. We can affirm both of them while trusting and believing that God has been good to us in revealing only as much as we can know and understand. It is only when we place appropriate emphasis on both the metaphysical claims and the phenomenological that we can be confident we have a biblical portrait of God.

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