"The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence" by John Sanders

Paul Helm
Monday, July 16th 2007
Nov/Dec 1999

The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence is, to my knowledge, the first book-length treatment of the idea of providence that one gets if one takes the "openness" of God view. (1) As such it is to be welcomed by those who take an opposite view, a view of providence that is, as far as

God is concerned, riskless. For one of the ways in which debate is fostered is by opposed points of view setting out their respective positions as clearly and fairly as they can.

Clearly and fairly and courteously. One of the great virtues of this book is that Professor Sanders writes clearly. It is usually not difficult to know what he means. And he writes about the position that he dissents from almost always fairly and accurately, and always courteously. And so the pain that one sometimes experiences when reading material with which one sharply disagrees, particularly when that matter is fundamental to one's entire outlook, is considerably alleviated by Sanders' gentlemanly qualities.


The scope of the work will be familiar to anyone who knows The Openness of God, written by several authors, including Sanders (InterVarsity, 1995). There are chapters on the biblical material, both Old and New Testaments; on historical theology; then two important chapters on the divine character and on divine sovereignty; and finally one on the Christian life. The opening chapter, "The Nature of the Task," is about language and methodological issues; and in many ways it is the most important of all. But while there is considerably more detail in this exposition of the position than in the earlier book, it cannot be said that there is anything here that is novel or that casts further light on the theology of "openness."


The central theological claim is that the "openness" view of God, and it alone, entails what Sanders calls a relational view of divine providence. Let us briefly look at each of these-the "openness" view of God, and the relational view of providence.

God's "openness" consists in the outworking of the fundamental metaphysical idea that he has chosen to create individuals with free will, with whom he desires friendship and fellowship, with whom he reciprocates in time, and who have the power to thwart his purposes and often do so. As is shown by chapter five, "Divine Relationality in the Christian Tradition," this claim seems to set the openness position apart from mainstream Christianity, even when that stream is allowed to flow between wide banks. How far apart depends upon the position's understanding of divine foreknowledge. The multitudinous discussions of divine foreknowledge and human freedom by Augustinians, Thomists, Molinists, and Arminians (to name but a few) have been based upon the assumption that God does have complete foreknowledge of the future-meticulous foreknowledge, as Sanders puts it. In these discussions, the questions have always been: If men and women are to be responsible for their actions, then mustn't they be indeterministically free? And if God has meticulous foreknowledge, then how can they be indeterministically free, if they need to be?

There seems to be considerable confusion in Sanders' mind over whether God foreknows the future or not. At certain places (196) he asserts that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of what his free creatures will do. If so, then although God may take risks, nothing can surprise him. Sanders cannot then take literally any of the scriptural anthropomorphisms which imply such surprise. Yet elsewhere (199-200), Sanders sees the need to deny divine knowledge of future contingents in order to preserve the future's openness. If this is to be his position, as I think it must be, it places the "openness" view of God's knowledge firmly outside the Christian mainstream.

Some hold the "openness" position for philosophical reasons. (For example, the main reasons offered by Swinburne, Lucas, Geach, and Hasker are all philosophical reasons.) (2) But Sanders' reasons are more directly biblical. He holds that this is what both the Old and New Testaments teach. Hence what he has to say about human language about God and about hermeneutical method is important. According to Sanders, much Christian theology has gone wrong due to the baleful influence of Augustine of Hippo, who favored Greek categories over biblical categories, and who as a consequence read Greek ideas into the biblical text. (3)

The relational view of providence follows from the openness position in the following way. Suppose that the future is open and that God has providential purposes. How is he to proceed? The answer must be, by endeavoring to enter into relations with men and women who have, by their freedom, the power to overturn his purposes. So it follows that God can err, be fearful, and come to feel remorse and regret, surprise and pleasure, just like you and me. The character of these relations is very like the character of some inter-human relations. Indeed, for those who accept the "openness" position, the best "model" (a favorite Sanders' word) for thinking of divine providence is to think of it like the relation that sometimes may exist between one human person and another. Each may want the other to do something. To coerce the other would be to violate the truly personal quality of their relationship. Hence each must reason and endeavor to persuade, with sympathy, respect, and love. When someone succeeds, in a truly personal way, to get the other to respond, he will experience pleasure and fulfillment; and when he fails, he may suffer pain, frustration, and anguish. But in advance of entering into the relationship there is no guarantee of the desired outcome. Hence each such relationship is risky. This is how it is, according to Sanders, in any personal relationship, whether between human persons or between God and human persons. "God's project involves the creation of significant others who are ontologically distinct from himself and upon whom he showers his caring love in the expectation that they will respond in love" (169). It is claimed that this relationality is itself grounded in the relationality that exists between the persons of the trinitarian godhead.

Sources and Implications

This is the position. Let us turn to its sources: the biblical data and especially the openness way of understanding that data, and particularly its sensitivity to the charge of anthropomorphism (19f.). Sanders defends interpreting such anthropomorphism literally on the grounds that it is distinctively Israelite. He thinks that efforts to think of God non-anthropomorphically "depreciate" that mode of thinking (21) and inevitably "disparage" it, and even that they fail to take the Incarnation seriously. Moreover, what anthropomorphism truly implies is that all our language about God is derived from human categories (22). Each of these claims reveals misunderstanding, and we shall return to them. Sanders is nearer making a significant point when he says that God and we require a shared context (24). (I develop this point later on.)

There is a general problem with Sanders' talk of "models." It suggests that no understanding of God from Scripture is possible until we devise certain models and then interpret the otherwise intractable data in terms of one of them. In this way, the idea that Scripture provides straightforward teaching about the essence and power of God is lost, and with it what the Reformers referred to as the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. Significantly, Sanders pays little or no attention to passages and texts which straightforwardly teach God's knowledge of the future, let alone his working of all things after the counsel of his own will; much less does he show appreciation of the biblical wellsprings of the Gospel of sovereign grace.

The book's doctrinal heart is found in chapter six, "Risk and the Divine Character," which concerns the conceptual intelligibility of the "openness" proposal, and chapter seven, "The Nature of Divine Sovereignty." Although considerable emphasis is given in chapter six to the idea of divine grace and the free sovereign will of God (169), Sanders makes it clear, in standard Arminian fashion, that God's sovereign will can be defeated and that his grace may not be efficacious in respect to its intended effect. Trinitarian love, not the more abstract attributes of omnipotence and omniscience (175), is at the heart of the divine character. And love is precarious and vulnerable. Presumably love cannot be thus by definition, since, one supposes, the interpersonal love of the Trinity is both necessary and invulnerable. Sanders does not dwell on the fact that the Trinity is itself a pre-Augustinian theological construct which uses "alien" Greek terms. In fact, as I show later, it is hard to see how, in the long term, the openness position can remain classically trinitarian. (4) In any case, Sanders himself scarcely avoids the use of philosophical language with clear Greek ancestry (e.g. 223-24).

God's providential "project" is an expression of his wisdom as he interacts in human history in ways which display competence and resourcefulness. According to Sanders, he has a good "track record" (183) of successfully engaging in reciprocal relations of love with humankind. God is faithful in the sense that there is a constancy in his program (186), but his faithfulness does not have immutability at its core, because God is not unchangeable in that sense. Similarly with his power; he has sufficient power to manage all that he undertakes (191). As for knowledge, "the key issue is not the type of knowledge an omniscient deity has but the type of sovereignty an omniscient God decides to exercise" (195). So all divine attributes are redefined in terms of their fittingness to enable God to carry out his "openness" project (206-7).

Chapter seven is devoted to the issue of divine sovereignty. Predictably by now, such sovereignty is defined in terms of the sort of project God has (208-9). He has sovereignly chosen the "project" of reciprocal love (211); he is not a God of particular providence, because if he were he would not be as the Bible portrays him (212-13). Rather, he exercises general sovereignty-he is a boundary-setter-making rules which limit his own power and thus making genuinely indeterministic, risky-for-God choices possible. He is not so much like a chess Grand Master (229) as a theater director (217), allowing the actors their own creativity.

The final chapter applies the openness position to the Christian life, to grace and evil, and particularly to those two perennials-guidance and prayer. Grace must be resistible and only efficacious when the sinner provides independently willed cooperation. One of the ways in which God's purposes fail is through our failure to pray (273), and he acts only because we have freely chosen to ask him to do so (274). On guidance, God seeks to cooperate with our freedom in guiding us, but the success of his project cannot be guaranteed-for we may choose to thwart it. In general, take any Christian doctrine-e.g., the Cross, election-and Sanders produces a defeasible version of it: the Cross could be unavailing (100-1); the divine election of A requires that A accepts his election (61); and so on.


Sanders' position, so very different from the orthodoxy that has come down to us through Paul, Augustine, and countless others, raises serious questions, not all of which can be addressed here. But it should be noted that what is fundamentally at stake is not different understandings of the nature of God and of the interpretation of this or that passage of Scripture, but a profoundly different appreciation of mankind's plight and God's power. For Sanders, because our plight is not so great, the power of God need not be so great either. There is no need of a covenant of grace to which God is immutably faithful, with promises on which the sinner can utterly rely. This is, ultimately, why Sanders' book is so superficial. In treating the language of accommodation, reciprocity and the rest, the book does not get to the heart of the issue: only a God of meticulous providence can ensure the salvation of his elect. However, in the hope of fostering further discussion I shall restrict myself to some of the book's central issues-to those places where Sanders gives a misleading impression of the "no risk" view of providence, perhaps because he has misunderstood it, and to places where his own argument is unclear or deficient.

1. The Nature of Risk, Determination, and Permission

Let us first be clear on what the "no risk" view of providence does and does not imply, avoiding the sort of misunderstanding Sanders falls into (54-55). God's riskless government is for the most part what I shall call positive government. Positive government is government in which the governor brings about whatever he governs.

But God cannot bring about evil in the sense in which he would be the author of sin. Does this mean that a God who cannot positively govern evil takes risks? I do not think so. For there is at least one way of safeguarding God's risk freeless control in the case of human actions which are morally evil; namely, the idea of God willingly permitting particular evil actions. Such permission is not compatible with positive government as I have characterized it, but it is consistent with risklessness. God does not and cannot will such evil actions, but he may nevertheless be willing for them to occur. But is not anyone who is willing for an evil action to occur the cause of that action, or at least an accessory to it, and so himself evil? But why should this be?

God positively governs acts which are not evil. He governs all other acts (evil acts) by permitting them, since he cannot positively govern them. However, if such permission is to be consistent with the absence of risk, then it has to be a particular kind of permission; it has to be knowingly and willingly given, and it has to be permission of particular actions. So God positively governs all acts which occur except those which are evil, and he negatively governs evil acts by willingly permitting them.

So one may make sense of the idea of divine permission in a way that is compatible with risk-freeness if one is prepared to maintain that there are types of actions which God can prevent but which he nevertheless cannot cause, even though he may be willing for them to occur. Then God can only control an evil action by willingly permitting it, by deciding not to prevent it. And the evil action occurs because it is caused by the natures and circumstances of those who perpetrate it, but not caused by God-because God cannot cause it-though willingly permitted by God-because though he cannot cause it, he can willingly permit it, and does so (we might presume) as a necessary component part of some broader overall will.

2. Accommodation

The fundamental methodological issue raised by this book is how to treat the various types of biblical language about God. One of Sanders' serious misunderstandings is that Calvin and others thought of the language of accommodation as second best. (Sanders is sometimes stronger than this; he writes that Calvin and others think of such language, anthropomorphism, as a "dustbin" [68]). Nothing could be further from the truth. The fundamental point is that such language is not dispensable but necessary, not necessary only for the ploughman but necessary for us all, in view of our moral and metaphysical position vis-a-vis God. (5) If the eternal God is to communicate to embodied intelligent creatures in space and time and to bring about his purposes through them, then he must do so by representing himself to them in ways that are not literally true. For instance, how could he put Moses to the test, apart from appearing to change his mind?

On the theory of divine accommodation statements such as "God repented" are false, if taken literally, because God does not literally repent, and cannot do so. But in what sense are they false? Someone who upholds the principle of non-contradiction in logic nevertheless may, when asked if it is raining, say "It is and it isn't." In saying this he does not believe that he has flouted the principle, but he nevertheless succeeds in conveying something intelligible using language which, strictly speaking, is incoherent. Similarly, someone who denies geocentrism as a theory about the heavenly bodies may nevertheless say "It's warmer in the garden now that the sun has come out from behind the clouds." (6)

Each of these sentences, though literally false, may be taken to convey a truth. Sometimes looseness in speech signifies waffle. But at other times language may be loose (when judged from the standpoint of some theory) but economical, the very opposite of waffle. It is hard to believe that such language, the language of accommodation, is typically misleading or wrong; it is language which records the appearance of things in an unpedantic and vivid way.

3. Relationality

Sanders makes much of relationality, and it is certainly a popular theological theme. But there are at least two difficulties. One is his and others' use of the Trinity as the paradigm of a reciprocal relationship of love to which God aspires in his endeavor to establish relations with humankind. The problem is that (at least on an orthodox understanding of the Trinity) the relations in which the trinitarian persons exist are necessary-they could not be other than they are-and so can hardly be a condition to which creatures who are (and must ever remain) indeterministically free can aspire. So reciprocity can only be contingently connected with indeterministic freedom. The irony of this situation seems to have escaped Sanders.

The second difficulty concerns the idea that parity between the partners and the ensuing reciprocity is necessary for a relationship. Of course it is possible to define a relationship in this way, but the result is that you will simply talk past those whom you are trying to convince and misdescribe many genuine human relations in the process. For such a definition is surely unconvincing as a claim about ordinary human relations. You may have a relationship with someone who cannot reciprocate: with a baby or someone with very low intelligence, or with someone who is in a coma, or who has fallen through the ice and is stuck beneath it. Someone in a coma has to be brought back to consciousness and to life; but this process is itself a case of a personal relationship. Divine rescuing and bringing to life, and all that that implies, is the establishing of a relationship the key to which is not indeterministic human freedom but the unilateral establishing of a relationship of love that will not let go until it has secured reciprocal love by re-creating it. According to Augustinianism, God establishes a genuinely personal relationship with people who are incapable of establishing it for themselves. And God does this by an act of condescension and power; condescension because he is the infinite Creator, and power because our plight is such that without that power the relationship could neither be established or continue. This is a different sort of divine-human relationship than that envisaged by Sanders. But isn't it the biblical sort?

4. The Scriptural Basis

As we have already noted, Sanders argues for the openness position a posteriori, that is, from the Scriptures. (7) Hence the importance to him of hermeneutical method. Pursuing this, from time to time he asks a question like: "Calvin says that in the use of certain expressions God is accommodating himself to us; but how does he know?" (66, 68, 156). Surely the answer to this is obvious: it is that besides the accommodated language of Scripture there is non-accommodated language. For example:

"Then Joseph said to them, 'Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams'" (Gen. 40:8). "'Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O Lord, God of Israel, tell your servant.' And the Lord said, 'He will'" (1 Sam. 23:9). "The Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts" (1 Chr. 28:9). "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (Ps. 139:16). "I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city, and set my exiles free" (Is. 45:13). "I make known the end from the beginning" (Is. 46:10). "I foretold the former things long ago, my mouth announced them and I made them known….[T]herefore I told you these things long ago; before they happened I announced them to you" (Is. 48:3-5). "This is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: 'If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live. But if you will not surrender….'" (Jer. 38:17). "For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him" (John 6:64). "This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death" (Acts 2:23). "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight" (Heb 4.13). These passages show that Sanders is simply mistaken when he says that literal talk about God is impossible because all our language about God is derived from human categories (22).

Sanders mostly ignores such data. That such clear language should have theological priority over the unclear, the figurative, and anthropomorphic, is a matter of decision, but given that God is pure spirit it is surely a reasonable decision. If we decide the other way, then biblical data such as that cited above has to be explained some other way, and in turn the anthropomorphisms have to be taken literally. It then follows that God literally has a physical shape, he is located in space and time, and so on. No? Then language about God's location must be regarded as an instance of accommodated language.

Sanders makes much of the narrative language about God, particularly in the Old Testament. That there are such narratives cannot be denied. But he does not adequately face the fact that such narratives can only be made intelligible within a framework in which God is able to bring about what he has promised. Sanders says, for example, that the story of Joseph must be interpreted in openness terms because of the presence of human responsibility and evil. But, as we have seen, the no-risk view embraces responsibility and evil; as Joseph said, his brothers meant it for evil, but God meant it for good (54-55).

In sum, this book presents a view of divine providence which is sharply divergent from the Christian consensus, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. I submit that it offers what is, intellectually speaking, an unstable position. This is because, like Adolf Harnack many years ago, though it warns against what it regards as the intrusion of Greek terms into the biblical world picture, in its trinitarianism it employs such terms-substance, person, essence. If it is to be consistent, it must adopt an anthropomorphic trinitarianism which is not trinitarianism at all, but tritheism. More important than all of this, the proposals which are embodied in the book depend upon an inadequate diagnosis of human need. For the issues raised do not simply concern how one may interpret the narratives of the Old Testament and so how one may come to have a reasoned preference of one interpretative "model" of Scripture over others. The issues raised go to the heart of the Gospel. For our plight is such that only a God who can effectively bring about his redemptive aims, a God who works all things after the counsel of his own will-that is, the God of Scripture-can help us.

1 [ Back ] For a more complete explanation of the "openness of God" movement, see the September/October 1999 issue of MR.
2 [ Back ] Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), chap. 10; J. R. Lucas, The Future (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), chap. 11; Peter Geach, Providence and Evil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), chap. 3; William Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989 ).
3 [ Back ] But as Gerald Bray points out in his helpful response to the "openness" position (The Personal God [Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998]), the Greek terms which came to be used in Christian theology already had a fluid use and then Christian theologians further adapted these terms for their own purposes (50).
4 [ Back ] It is interesting to note that openness ideas were propounded by Socinians in the seventeenth century. The Puritan John Owen subjects the work of one representative Socinian, John Biddle, to careful scrutiny (Vindiciae Evangelicae [1655], in Works ed. W. H. Goold [reprinted, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1966 Vol. XII]). His remarks on the ascription of passions to God (chap. IV) and on what Sanders calls "presentism" are worth consulting. "For mine own part, I will not own nor worship him for my God who is truly and properly afraid of what the men in the world will or can do; who doth, can do, or hath done any thing, or suffered any thing to be done, of which he doth or can truly and properly repent himself, with sorrow and grief for his mistake; or that sits in heaven divining and conjecturing at what men will do here below" (119). "That God cannot accomplish and bring about his own purposes by free and contingent agents, without the destruction of the natures he hath endued them withal, is a figment unworthy of any who indeed acknowledge his sovereignty and power" (131).
5 [ Back ] Accommodation is a recurring motif in Calvin's thought. But unlike some who have used the idea, he does not do so for elitist purposes, to make a distinction between the real and the merely superficial. (I have discussed this point further in "John Calvin and Moses Maimonides on Divine Accommodation," in Referring to God, A Jewish-Christian Symposium, ed. Paul Helm [Curzon, 1999]).
6 [ Back ] For these examples, see Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 101.
7 [ Back ] It is possible to argue a priori about such things, from the idea of the divine attributes: I attempt this in my symposium with William Hasker, "Does God Take Risks in Governing the Universe?" in Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Michael Peterson (Oxford: Blackwell, forthcoming).
Monday, July 16th 2007

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