The Providence Debate


While driving drunk, a person hits and kills a little girl. A Christian friend of the girl's parents tries to comfort them by reassuring them that “God is in control” and that somehow “all things work together for good.” The mother is comforted by these words, but the father becomes enraged. “If God is behind my little girl's death,” he insists, “he's not all-loving and all-good. Any God who would purposely snuff out our little girl's life and leave us in this nightmare is cruel!” A second friend of the family agrees with the father and insists that God was not behind the tragedy. “The drunk driver alone is to blame for your girl's tragic death,” he tells the father. “God is as saddened by this event as you are. Now he just wants to comfort the two of you.”


“God’s providence” refers to the way God governs the world. Though Christians disagree as to whether God meticulously controls free decisions, they have always agreed that God is in some sense “in control” of the world.

Non-Christian Views

  1. Polytheism: No single, all-powerful god.  The decisions and conflicts of the gods determine the destiny.
  2. Materialism: Things just happen by natural cause and effect.  Destiny is determined by the laws of physics.
  3. Fatalism: Everything that happens has to happen in a certain way.
  4. Deism (自然神論): God created the world but then left it alone to run on its own.
  5. Process Theology: God forever influences (didn’t create) the world and does the best he can (not all-powerful) to bring about good and avoid evil, but he is limited in what he can accomplish.


  1. God created the world.
  2. God is all-powerful and is personally and intimately involved in the world.
  3. All power exercised by humans comes from God.
  4. God’s ultimate objectives for the world and human beings will certainly be achieved.


  1. Is everything that happens in the world precisely what God ordains to happen?
  2. Do we have the free will to do things that God doesn’t intentionally permit us to do?
  3. Was sin part of God’s eternal intention for creation?
  4. Is everything that happens, including evil, part of God’s master blueprint?
  5. Is God ever affected by the choices we make?


  1. The present debate surrounding the providence of God began in the sixteenth century.
  2. The Calvinist view: God is sovereign over all things.
  3. The Arminian view: God limits his control by granting freedom.
  4. Lately, theologians have begun to refer to the first as the “no-risk” view and the second as the “risk” view.


  1. In the first few centuries of church history, theologians reacted strongly against the prevalent opinion that things happen by fate. As a result, they emphasized human freedom and tended to believe that God did not control everything that happened.
  2. Augustine altered this in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.  In reaction against a popular view that lives are determined by either a good god or an evil god who are equal or nearly equal in power (Manichaeism摩尼教), Augustine insisted that things occur in accordance with the will of one God alone: the Creator God of the Bible.
  3. Most continued to affirm human freedom while also insisting that God controls all things. This position is called compatibilism, for it insists that belief in human freedom is compatible with the belief that God controls everything.
  4. The present debate surrounding the providence of God began in the early sixteenth century.


The Calvinist View

A French reformer named John Calvin (1509–1564) strongly emphasized Augustine's view that God controls all things, including who will and will not be saved.


  1. All that has happened or is happening are ordained by God.
  2. God controls everything to ensure everything happens according to His will.
  3. God always gets what He wants.
  4. God’s will never fail.

Biblical Argument

·  Regarding God’s sovereignty

42:2      我知道你萬事都能做,你的旨意不能攔阻。

135:6    耶和華在天上、在地下、在海中、在一切的深處,都隨自己的意旨而行。

4:35      世上所有的居民、都算為虛無。在天上的萬軍和世上的居民中,他都憑自己的意旨行事。無人能攔住他手,或問他說:「你做甚麼呢?」

14:24    萬軍之耶和華起誓說:「我怎樣思想,必照樣成就;我怎樣定意,必照樣成立。」

139:16  我未成形的體質,你的眼早已看見了。你所定的日子,我尚未度一日,你都寫在你的冊上了。

1:11      我們也在他裡面得了基業,這原是那位隨己意行做萬事的,照著他旨意所預定的,

9:18      如此看來, 神要憐憫誰,就憐憫誰;要叫誰剛硬,就叫誰剛硬。

11:36    因為萬有都是本於他,倚靠他,歸於他。願榮耀歸給他,直到永遠。阿們!

·  Regarding human’s will

16:33    籤放在懷裡,定事由耶和華。

19:21    人心多有計謀,惟有耶和華的籌算,才能立定。

20:24    人的腳步為耶和華所定,人豈能明白自己的路呢?

21:1      王的心在耶和華手中,好像隴溝的水隨意流轉。

4:21      耶和華對摩西說:「你回到埃及的時候要留意,將我指示你的一切奇事,行在法老面前,但我要使他的心剛硬,他必不容百姓去。」

10:1      耶和華對摩西說:「你進去見法老;我使他和他臣僕的心剛硬,為要在他們中間顯我這些神蹟。」

2:30      但希實本王西宏不容我們從他那裡經過,因為耶和華你的 神使他心中剛硬,性情頑梗,為要將他交在你手中,像今日一樣。

·  Regarding salvation

6:44      若不是差我來的父吸引人,就沒有能到我這裡來的;到我這裡來的,在末日我要叫他復活。

15:16    不是你們揀選了我,是我揀選了你們。

13:48    外邦人聽見這話,就歡喜了,讚美 神的道;凡預定得永生的人都信了。

16:14    有一個賣紫色布疋的婦人,名叫呂底亞,是推雅推喇城的人,素來敬拜 神。她聽見了,主就開導她的心,叫她留心聽保羅所講的話。

林前 12:3   所以我告訴你們:被 神的靈感動的,沒有說耶穌是可咒詛的;若不是被聖靈感動的,也沒有能說耶穌是主的。

1:4-5     就如 神從創立世界以前,在基督裡揀選了我們,使我們在他面前成為聖潔,無有瑕疵;又因愛我們,就按著自己意旨所喜悅的,預定我們藉著耶穌基督得兒子的名分,

2:8        你們得救是本乎恩,也因著信。這並不是出於自己,乃是 神所賜的

提後 1:9     神救了我們,以聖召召我們,不是按我們的行為,乃是按他的旨意和恩典;這恩典是萬古之先在基督耶穌裡賜給我們的。

·  Regarding evil

9:24           世界交在惡人手中,蒙蔽世界審判官的臉,若不是他是誰呢?

4:11           耶和華對他說:「誰造人的口呢?誰使人口啞、耳聾、目明、眼瞎呢?豈不是我耶和華嗎?」

45:7           我造光,又造暗;我施平安,又降災禍;造作這一切的是我耶和華。

3:37-38      除非主命定,誰能說成就成呢?禍福不都出於至高者的口嗎?

3:6             城中若吹角,百姓豈不驚恐呢?災禍若臨到一城,豈非耶和華所降的嗎?

11:20         因為耶和華的意思是要使他們心裡剛硬,來與以色列人爭戰,好叫他們盡被殺滅,不蒙憐憫,正如耶和華所吩咐摩西的。

9:23           神使惡魔降在亞比米勒和示劍人中間,示劍人就以詭詐待亞比米勒。

王上 22:23     現在耶和華使謊言的靈入了你這些先知的口,並且耶和華已經命定降禍與你。

帖後 2:11-12  故此, 神就給他們一個生發錯誤的心,叫他們信從虛謊,使一切不信真理、倒喜愛不義的人都被定罪。

16:4           耶和華所造的,各適其用,就是惡人,也為禍患的日子所造。

9:22           倘若 神要顯明他的忿怒,彰顯他的權能,就多多忍耐寬容那可怒、預備遭毀滅的器皿。

Supporting Argument

·  Sovereignty is necessarily all-encompassing

The absolute sovereignty of God is implied in the very concept of God. If anything can thwart God's will, then that thing is more powerful than God.  What is more, it is difficult to see how God could control anything if he did not control everything.  All of history is woven together by the thread of billions of individual decisions. If the decisions are not under the sovereign control of God, neither is the flow of history.

·  Salvation by grace

If a self-determining decision is required for us to be saved, faith is a work that we perform. We cannot give God all the credit for our salvation.

The Arminian View

The Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius (1560–1609) argued that this emphasis on divine control is incompatible with human freedom and undermines the biblical teaching that God wants everyone to be saved. (This view is sometimes called incompatibilism, for it asserts that human freedom is not compatible with God's control).


  1. God, according to His will, chooses not to control everything.
  2. God gives people “incompatible” freedom and thus responsibility.
  3. God does not always get what He wants, but His ultimate goals will be achieved.



Biblical Argument

·  God gives people the choice of whether to follow Him

30:19    我今日呼天喚地向你作見證,我將生死禍福陳明在你面前,所以你要揀選生命,使你和你的後裔都得存活。

24:15    若是你們以事奉耶和華為不好,今日就可以選擇所要事奉的:是你們列祖在大河那邊所事奉的神呢?是你們所住這地的亞摩利人的神呢?至於我和我家,我們必定事奉耶和華。

·  God gives people the ability and the obligation to make morally responsible choices

10:16    所以你們要將心裡的污穢除掉,不可再硬著頸項。

代下 12:12 王自卑的時候,耶和華的怒氣就轉消了,不將他滅盡,並且在猶大中間也有善益的事。

46:12    你們這些心中頑梗、遠離公義的,當聽我言。

3:8        就不可硬著心,像在曠野惹他發怒、試探他的時候一樣。

·  God is often disappointed and frustrated by humans’ choices

6:5-6     耶和華見人在地上罪惡很大,終日所思想的盡都是惡,耶和華就後悔造人在地上,心中憂傷。

王上 11:9   耶和華向所羅門發怒,因為他的心偏離向他兩次顯現的耶和華以色列的 神。

·  People can and do reject “God's purpose for themselves”

2:17      他們卻不聽從士師,竟隨從叩拜別神,行了邪淫,速速地偏離他們列祖所行的道,不如他們列祖順從耶和華的命令。

代下 12:14 羅波安行惡,因他不立定心意尋求耶和華。

7:26      你們卻不聽從,不側耳而聽,竟硬著頸項行惡,比你們列祖更甚。

代下 36:12 行耶和華他 神眼中看為惡的事。先知耶利米以耶和華的話勸他,他仍不在耶利米面前自卑。

63:10    他們竟悖逆,使主的聖靈擔憂;他就轉作他們的仇敵,親自攻擊他們。

65:2      我整天伸手招呼那悖逆的百姓,他們隨自己的意念行不善之道。

7:30      但法利賽人和律法師沒有受過約翰的洗,竟為自己廢棄了 神的旨意。

·  God does not ordain human’s rebellion

33:11    你對他們說:『主耶和華說:我指著我的永生起誓,我斷不喜悅惡人死亡,惟喜悅惡人轉離所行的道而活。以色列家啊,你們轉回,轉回吧!離開惡道,何必死亡呢?』

彼後 3:9     主所應許的尚未成就,有人以為他是耽延,其實不是耽延,乃是寬容你們,不願有一人沉淪,乃願人人都悔改。

提前 2:4     他願意萬人得救,明白真道。

·  God's choice not to control everything is clearly manifested in the ministry of Jesus Christ

Throughout his ministry, Jesus treated infirmities and cases of demonization as things that his Father did not will. Indeed, the purpose of his ministry was to carry out the Father's will by opposing such things. If God's sovereign will was behind the infirmities and cases of demonization that Jesus confronted, we would have to conclude that God's kingdom was “divided against itself” and thus could not stand.

Supporting Argument

·  Love requires choice

If God controlled everything in detail, love would not be possible.  Humans would be just like robots.  They might be acting “love,” but don’t really have the heart of love.

·  The problem of evil

The Bible teaches that

32:4     他所行的無不公平,是誠實無偽的 神,又公義,又正直。

約一 1:5   神就是光,在他毫無黑暗。

1:13     你眼目清潔不看邪僻,不看奸惡。

How are these verses consistent with the view that everything – including all the evil that people have experienced throughout history – is part of God's sovereign will?  Calvinists admit this is a mystery. From the Arminian perspective, it is a contradiction.

·  Motivation for prayer

A final argument in favor of the view that God does not control all things is that it reveals why the Bible places such an emphasis on prayer.  According to Scripture, a great deal of what God does in the world is influenced by whether his people pray.  For example,

代下 7:14 這稱為我名下的子民,若是自卑、禱告,尋求我的面,轉離他們的惡行,我必從天上垂聽,赦免他們的罪,醫治他們的地。

22:30   我在他們中間尋找一人重修牆垣,在我面前為這國站在破口防堵,使我不滅絕這國,卻找不著一個。

5:16     所以你們要彼此認罪,互相代求,使你們可以得醫治。義人祈禱所發的力量是大有功效的。


Response to Objections

The Calvinist View

·  The problem of evil

If God controls all things, it is argued, then He is responsible for the evil in the world.  Response:

1.     Since Scripture affirms that God is all-holy, while also teaching that God is sovereign over everything, as we have seen, we must conclude that God ordains all things in such a way that he is not responsible for the evil that occurs in the world. The way God does this may be largely hidden from us.

2.     God is justified in creating a world in which evil occurs if it contributes to a greater good that could not be achieved without it.  What’s the ultimate greatest good?  God's own glory. A world without evil would be a world in which God's justice, goodness, and mercy were not displayed (see Romans 9:22-23).

The Arminian View

·  This view denies God's sovereignty

Calvinists often argue that if God does not control everything, then he is not truly sovereign. This would be true if God wanted to control everything but could not. But it is not correct if God himself relinquishes his own control according to His sovereign will.  Arminians affirm God’s sovereignty and that God sovereignly grants humans free will.



The Difficulties of Each View

  1. Calvinists needs to face the problem of the evil.  The answer “it’s a mystery” shows the real difficulty of Calvinist view of the divine providence.
  2. Arminians needs to explain those cases in the Bible that God coercively overrides people’s free will and why God does that in some cases but not in all cases.

What’s Involved

  1. Theodicy (神義論): How to reconcile the evil in the world with the all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God.
  2. Bible interpretation: What are the intended meanings of those quoted Biblical texts?


  1. Prayer
  2. Evil in the world

Lessons Learned

  1. Calvinists often miss the points of Arminians.
  2. Complexity of the real world.

Personal Stance

  1. The Calvinist view implies that God is the ultimate author of the evil in the world.  This implication is unacceptable to me unless it is a clear message of the Bible.
  2. The logic behind the Calvinist view does not hold very well.  We often don’t need to control all the details in order to achieve our final goals.  If mere human beings can do it, why God couldn’t achieve His ultimate will unless He meticulously control everything as Calvinists argue.
  3. I’m leaning toward Arminian view.  It has its difficulties for sure, but those difficulties are more tolerable to me, compared with the difficulties of the Calvinist view.


Further Reading

Boyd, Gregory A. and Paul R. Eddy. Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. Baker Academic, 2008. Chapter 2.

Jowers, Dennis W, ed.  Four Views on Divine Providence.  Zondervan, 2011. Contributors: Paul Kjoss Helseth, William Lane Craig, Ron Highfield, and Gregory A. Boyd.

Olson, Roger E.  Arminian Theology: Myths And Realities.  IVP Academic, 2006.