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The Benefits of Providence

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I have a bad habit of waiting a week or two after finishing a book before writing a review. I tend to do this with books that are particularly challenging to me as I like to allow what I have learned to resonate in my mind and heart for a little while before committing those thoughts to paper (or pixels, as the case may be). The drawback, of course, is that I tend to forget details as time goes on! The Benefits of Providence by James Spiegel was one of those books that I saw on my desk every day for the past two weeks but have not attempted to review until today. Part of my reluctance in reviewing it was that in some ways I was overwhelmed by the book as it delved into topics which I feel particularly poorly equipped to discuss.

Subtitled A New Look at Divine Sovereignty, this book seeks to examine and explain divine providence from the Bible. The author attempts to answer such difficult questions as: “Does God actively determine every event that comes to pass? Or does he passively allow some events to happen?” Much of the book is set against the claims of those who hold to Open Theism and who would claim that God does not determine every event and that he does passively allow certain events to happen. Spiegel teaches a classical, Augustinian understanding of providence, affirming that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future and that he knows, controls and directs all that comes to pass. Along the way Spiegel discusses art, science, philosophy, emotion and evil. The book concludes with several moral and devotional applications for what has been taught.

The purpose of the book is to “show that the doctrine of providence, properly understood, is not only biblically sound but conceptually enriching and personally edifying.” The author provides both a defense of the biblical, Augustinian view and a refutation of the Open Theistic position. “To see God,” the author concludes, “as utterly sovereign provides numerous benefits to us in diverse domains, ranging from art and science to ethics and philosophical theology…The doctrine of providence must help us make sense of Scripture and human history, as well as our intuitions about beauty, goodness, and our deepest fears, desires and hopes.”

While the book was certainly challenging and while it stretched my understanding of divine providence in many ways, it was not without its faults. There was one moment that I found almost comical as it seemed so far out of place in a book of this type. When discussing the virtues of people we most admire, Spiegel writes, “From the apostle Paul and Justin Martyr to Martin Luther and Mother Teresa, all of our heroes attained that status because of their struggles against and in the midst of evil.” One of those people stands out as not belonging in a group of great theologians! Beyond Spiegel’s seemingly obligatory mention of Mother Teresa, I had a few concerns about his understanding of the value and importance of human suffering, and particularly in his teaching on the beatific vision, wherein human suffering becomes valuable because of the direct knowledge of God it imparts to us. Aspects of the teaching of art and beauty will require some more thought on my part, but initially they made me uncomfortable (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

Looking back on this book two weeks later there is much I remember and much that made me grow. There is also much that requires a second reading for me to fully understand. My grasp of philosophy is tenuous at best and this made some of what Spiegel wrote about a little beyond my expertise. This is a deeply philosophical book and is not always easy to read and understand, even though it is very well written. If a proper understanding of divine providence is as important as Spiegel claims, and I believe he is right to suggest that it provides benefits to almost every area of life, it is a topic that ought to be near and dear to the heart of every Christian. This is particularly true in an age like ours where this doctrine is under attack. Despite a few concerns I really have no trouble recommending this book.

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