Providence and Prayer: An Evaluation of Tiessen’s Proposal

by Steve W. Lemke

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

"The School of Providence and Prayer"


Every few years a theological book comes out that is written with such clarity and comprehensiveness that it becomes a classic text in the field for years to come. The book Providence and Prayer by Terrance Tiessen, professor of theology and ethics at Providence Theological Seminary in Manitoba, Canada,(1) could be just such a magisterial text. He surveys ten different theological models to describe God's providence: semi-deism, process theology, freewill theism, church dominion theology, the redemptive intervention model, Molinist middle knowledge, Thomism, Barthian neo-orthodoxy, Calvinist middle knowledge, Calvinism, and Fatalism. The author describes how representatives of each of these positions approach petitionary prayer and the doctrine of providence. The descriptions of each view are written with clarity and insight in a thorough and evenhanded presentation. Tiessen presents each view graciously and fairly, from the pens of its own advocates. Tiessen concludes each chapter with a helpful case study about a prayer group that is requested to pray for a missionary who has been abducted by terrorists. Through the case studies Tiessen applies how advocates of each of the theological approaches would frame the missionary abduction, how they would agree or disagree with those representing other views of providence, and how they would word a prayer for the missionary. Through the methodology of the case studies Tiessen compares and contrasts these theological approaches not only in the abstract, but also in a real life situation. The book also has a helpful glossary, bibliography, indexes, and chart of the various views, in addition to thorough documentation in footnotes.

One could quibble with Tiessen's selection of which models to examine in the book. Church dominion theology may deserve to be included because of its influence in popular piety, but its paucity of scholarly advocates makes it rather uneven with the other chapters. The chapter on Barth seemed unnecessary since there were already two other chapters on Calvinistic views, and because Barthian theology has few serious contemporary advocates anywhere - not in popular piety, not among conservative evangelicals, not in mainstream denominations, and not among liberal theologians. Other twentieth century theologians such as Paul Tillich and Langdon Gilkey have more interesting things to say about providence and human destiny. Including a chapter on fatalism is questionable because Tiessen himself acknowledges that no major contemporary theologians advocate this position (272). The primary motivation for including the chapter on fatalism seems to have been to provide a framework to defend Calvinism against the charge that Reformed theology reduces to fatalism, and thus might have more logically been included in the material on Calvinism. Despite these reservations, each chapter makes for interesting reading and affords a distinctive approach to the doctrine of providence. The approaches that Tiessen examines do provide a helpful spectrum of approaches to these issues. Providence and Prayer is successful in that it compels the reader to think through what he or she believes about these aspects of the doctrine of God.

Critique of Tiessen's Position

Tiessen reserves most of his evaluation of other views until he reveals his own Calvinist middle knowledge view. The author presents his view as the last perspective to be examined, but theologically it actually falls in the spectrum of views between Thomism and Barthianism on one side and Calvinism on the other side. In his own approach Tiessen attempts to hold together two seemingly incompatible approaches - Calvinism and Molinism. From Calvinism he draws the convictions that God is in total control of all events, and that humans have only compatibilist (not libertarian) freedom. From Molinism he draws the conviction that God has both simple foreknowledge and middle knowledge. But by holding these two strange bedfellows together, Tiessen introduces tensions into his perspective. He denies the Calvinist doctrines of immutability and impassibility, opting instead for a view of God as responsive to His creation. At the same time, he denies human libertarian freewill, which is assumed in most middle knowledge approaches. Because God has middle knowledge of the future actions of humans with predictable compatibilist freedom, He can adjust providence to appear to be responsive to human petitions. Tiessen affirms that we should offer petitionary prayer not because it changes things or causes God to change things, but because it was already part of God=s sovereign decree that we should do so.

Since I would identify myself within the Molinist middle knowledge position, I share many points of agreement with Tiessen's Calvinist middle knowledge perspective. Tiessen's affirmation of the sovereignty of God squares well with the biblical witness. He correctly argues that divine foreknowledge does not require reverse causation. Tiessen recognizes that both God=s special and general providence are both an expression of God=s providential care, and thus aptly does not fall into the trap of defining miracles as violations of the laws of nature. God is Lord over nature, not an invader of an alien world. He who creates the laws of nature is not bound by the laws of nature. However, while I share a number of points of agreement with Tiessen's perspective, his perspective is obviously not a majoritarian view in evangelical circles, and this paper will raise eleven concerns about his proposal. Space will not permit extensive discussion of each issue. The concerns will be outlined but not fleshed out in the hope of facilitating further discussion.

1. Confusing Indeterminism and Incompatibilism. Tiessen appears to be confused at points between indeterminism, the perspective that events at the subatomic level is random and unpredictable, and incompatibilism (or self-determinism), the view that persons choose their own actions by an exercise of libertarian freewill. Advocates of libertarian freedom would agree (Tiessen seems to think that they would disagree) with Tiessen's remarks about the danger of applying the Heisenberg principle of indeterminacy to human behavior, since human behavior is accounted for not by randomness but by agent causation. Thus some of Tiessen=s arguments which he directs against libertarian freedom may actually apply to indeterminism, but have no force against incompatibilism. (2)

2. Extreme Options regarding Human Action. Tiessen unfortunately insists that human action is an all-or-nothing, either-or situation. Either the person=s action was determined by prior causes and reasons which may be accurately predicted, or the person's action was merely random or arbitrary (313-314). The only two options he permits are thus hard determinism or hard indeterminism. But he simply begs the question by not providing an adequate answer to the proposal of Norman Geisler and others of a robust self-determinism (187-188, 246-247). A modest view of self-determinism would steer a middle course which would avoid the extremes of absolute mechanical determinism and absolute randomness.

3. Confusing Efficient Cause with Final Cause. As Norman Geisler correctly points out, Tiessen's perspective confuses efficient causality with final causality (186-188). The reason that one acts is the efficient but not the final cause of an agent's action. The reason for action alone obviously cannot bring about the action. For example, a person's desire to have a Jaguar motor car is not sufficient to cause the purchase of the vehicle, as desire-belief psychology might suggest. Ultimately, the personal agent must weigh the reasons and make an informed judgment, which might even cut against his or her own desires.

4. God and Agent Causation. Tiessen acknowledges that humans are created in God=s image (327) with the "power of self-determinacy" (291). He even acknowledges that God is not the only agent, but created angelic and human beings to be self-determining agents (291). He even affirms "double agency" in which not only God but also humans "have genuine agency" (91, 292). Unfortunately, Tiessen does not seem to grasp the consequence of these admissions. Since he denies that humans share a creaturely, finite version of God=s libertarian free agency, Tiessen is stuck on the horns of his own creation. Either God does not have libertarian freewill (but instead has a limited compatibilist freedom similar to humans such that He is bound to act according to His character and to reasons outside of Himself), or God makes libertarian decisions without reasons in a totally arbitrary and random fashion. These are the only alternatives Tiessen allows for human agents; so why do they not apply to the Divine Agent in whose image they were created? If Tiessen can acknowledge that "God is love, and we are called upon to be loving, after his image and his example"(327), why does he not recognize the parallel in human agency? If God=s agency means that He can originate an action without any external forces exerted upon Him, why would human agency not follow that same pattern? Tiessen's radical bifurcation between human agents and the divine Agent stretches his proposal to the breaking point.

5. Hermeneutical Issues. Tiessen's theology is based primarily on Old Testament texts, but a better hermeneutic would take seriously the points at which the New Testament informs and completes Old Testament theology. For example, Tiessen acknowledges the distinction between primary and secondary causes, but functionally he reduces all events to God=s sovereign decree. He attempts to avoid the charge that human decisions are illusory by appeal to a compatibilist account in which actions are seen as free if humans are not coerced into doing them, but such persons act voluntarily consistent with their own desires (365). Nonetheless, he repeatedly affirms that God is the only real cause, because human "agents" act only for reasons and causes prior to themselves. In defense of this claim, Tiessen cites primarily Old Testament Scriptures in affirming that God causes all things. Tiessen does not address the issue of why the polytheistic context of the Old Testament made it imperative to emphasize God=s sovereignty and monotheistic uniqueness rather than secondary causes. While the New Testament continues to affirm the sovereignty of God and proclaim His ultimate victory, it expounds and enriches the Old Testament accounts by distinguishing more clearly God=s activity as primary cause from the activity of human and spiritual beings as secondary causes. The better hermeneutic would take seriously the points at which the New Testament informs and completes Old Testament theology. Reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament would provide a more wholesome perspective on the Tiessen's doctrine of God.

6. Logical Problems. There appears to be a logical error in Tiessen's discussion of fatalism, in which he identifies Stoicism as the primary example of fatalism. He seems to think that if he can establish that Calvinism is distinguishable from Stoicism, he can relieve it of the charge of fatalism. So the argument goes as follows:

(a) Stoicism is a form of fatalism;

(b) Calvinism is not Stoicism;

(c) Therefore, Calvinism is not fatalism.

This argument commits the logical fallacy of denying the antecedent. Fatalism is obviously more comprehensive than Stoicism, and thus proving that Calvinism is not Stoicism does not necessarily free it of the charge of fatalism. It is possible to be fatalistic without advocating Stoicism. It may be that Tiessen could make an argument by abduction to try to make his case, but of course abduction does not guarantee the truth of its conclusion.

7. Conflating "Fatalistic" and "Fatalism". Doctrines can be fatalistic if they share some common themes with fatalism, but not share all aspects of fatalism. Tiessen thus has much work to do if he wants to relieve Calvinism of its alleged connection with fatalism. The starting place for an answer must be that fatalism is normally an impersonal series of events, whereas Christianity explains history as a series of events overseen by a Person. While Tiessen recognizes the value of a personalistic image of God (311), Tiessen unfortunately appears to agree with the assertions of naturalistic and postmodern anthropologists that humans are merely the contingent products of previous causal events. Tiessen agrees with William Pollard that the "I" of the person "is controlled by things and instincts, the product of its given heredity and environment" (247). (3) The event causation account of human action advocated by Tiessen is deterministic, if not fatalistic. 8. Incoherence in Combining Openness Theology with Calvinism. Tiessen's account of divine providence proves to be incoherent because he attempts to bind together a no-risk view of divine providence arising from a Calvinistic view of the absolute sovereignty of God, with a high risk view of divine providence arising from openness theology. On the one hand, as a Calvinist advocating a no-risk view of divine providence, Tiessen claims that "God is realizing His intention at every point" (295), controlling "every detail" (330), and that "God is completely in control at all times so that the accomplishment of his purposes is never at risk" (332). (4) These statements are difficult to square with Tiessen's lengthy attempt to dissociate Calvinism from fatalism. On the other hand, in his effort to be responsive to freewill theism, Tiessen also claims that God does not act coercively, and He disapproves of some actions that take place. For Tiessen, God "always acts in loving persuasion and never coercively" (314, italics mine); "[t]he biblical record leaves us in no doubt that people often resist God=s persuasive work and grieve him in so doing" (314); and humans "normally choose what they do without external constraint" (331, italics mine). How can these apparently contradictory claims be reconciled? Tiessen can't have it both ways - either God is in control or He is not! (5)

According to Tiessen=s proposal, how could God always and in every instance uncoercively persuade genuinely free people? Tiessen's own definition of compatibilist freedom is that people are free when they act "voluntarily, spontaneously or willingly, without coercion by anything outside themselves" (365). If our future actions are already determined and predictable by our character and desires, how could God change us without forcing such a change on us? If people's minds can be changed by persuasion, then Tiessen seems to be covertly endorsing a libertarian view of freedom (i.e., the persons could have chosen something else) that is concomitant to freewill theism. Not only is Tiessen's model of divine persuasion reminiscent of process theology, but his ambiguous treatment of universalism (302, 312) and his rejection of divine timelessness (321-331) reflect troubling similarities with process theology and freewill theism.

By affirming that God is responsive to His creation rather than a mere impassive observer, Tiessen seeks to avoid the trap that befalls some Calvinists and has created a cottage industry for freewill theists. This affirmation further strains Tiessen's consistency, however, when he also affirms that God is in control of all things. If humans do not have libertarian freedom, just how much adjustment would be required by God? If human actions are almost mechanically predictable as Tiessen suggests, then God=s actions would be more like prescripted and predetermined plans along the lines of an interactive computer chess program than as genuine personal responses to the human beings. (6)

9. Divine Foreknowledge, Molinism, and Counterfactuals. Tiessen's approach to divine foreknowledge is rather muddled in accepting some premises of Molinism but denying others, most notably counterfactuals. Tiessen rightly acknowledges that divine foreknowledge does not count as a case of reverse causation, because foreknowledge is not causally connected to the events that follow. He agrees with the Molinist middle knowledge doctrine that God can know actual events chosen by individuals with libertarian freedom. But Tiessen parts company with the Molinist account about counterfactuals. Since he refuses to consider agent causation and insists that libertarian freedom requires random, unpredictable, arbitrary choices, Tiessen asserts that "precognition of libertarianly free actions is not possible even for God" (331). God only knows future human actions because He knows human character and past and present actions (317, 345, 405-406), but Tiessen asserts that for God to know counterfactuals of libertarianly free persons is "incoherent" (317). To utilize the distinction suggested by Paul Helm, Tiessen denies O-foreknowledge, the view that God can know an event ahead of time without bringing it about, but accepts a variety of A-foreknowledge, in which God foreknows by virtue of the fact that He has ordained or ensured that the event will come to place (252).

Setting aside for the moment Tiessen's rigid refusal to consider agent causation as a mediating point between hard determinism and vacuous indeterminism, why would this all-knowing God suddenly get amnesia when confronted with libertarian freewill? Why would the existence of human libertarian freewill be a challenge to the foreknowledge and omniscience of an eternal God of infinite knowledge and wisdom? Tiessen never presents a clear argument as to why foreknowledge of libertarianly free creatures is so far beyond God=s grasp.

10. Theodicy Problems. Tiessen's account creates enormous theodicy problems which raise questions about its theological coherence and its pastoral appicability. One intuition underlying Tiessen's approach seems to be that suffering people most need to believe that God is in control. But suffering people not only need to believe that God is in control, but also that God cares. Tiessen's retreat to mystery as an account for human suffering, and his decision not to deal with the problem of evil in this book, offers at best incomplete answers to those who suffer. But when he insists that "Satan and the demons are never able to act contrary to God=s sovereign purpose" and that "[e]ven in their evil action they accomplish the will of God" (311), Tiessen creates enormous theodicy problems for which there must be some accounting in a coherent theology.

If Satan and all his demons are acting in lockstep uniformity to God's perfect will, as Tiessen appears to affirm, then James must have been either deeply deceived or deceptive when he affirmed that God never tempts anyone with evil (James 1:13-17). My intuition is that persons in the emergency room will have little use for an executioner God who intentionally crushes children and electrocutes fathers. There is no question that God has the power to do such things; the question is whether or not these actions are consistent with the character of God as revealed in Scripture.

11. The Role of Mystery. There is mystery in every viewpoint of providence, but Tiessen's approach places mystery in the nature and character of God, whereas it would seem the better part of wisdom to place the mystery within the inexhaustible omniscience of God. In the final analysis, what distinguishes various views of providence is where to put mystery. Semi-deists try to eliminate mystery. Freewill theists and process theologians remove mystery from divine foreknowledge, and place it in the future instead. A Molinist middle knowledge advocate can affirm but not explain how an omniscient God could have exhaustive foreknowledge of what creatures with libertarian freedom will do. How divine election and human freewill can work concurrently is bound up in the mystery of divine omniscience. Calvinist approaches remove this mystery, however, by affirming that humans do not have libertarian freedom. God decrees and predestines everything, and thus there is no mystery in dealing with human freewill. But because they cannot account for why a loving God would decree such extensive and gratuitous evil, Calvinists such as Tiessen must say that God's character and purposes are mysterious and unknowable. While we cannot know God=s purposes exhaustively, it is precisely the character and purposes of God that are revealed most clearly not only in Scripture, and ultimately in the life of Jesus Christ. Why be an agnostic about God=s character and purpose? Would we not rather place the mystery within the transcendent, infinite, and inexhaustible omniscience of God than in the revealed character and purposes of God?

While this critique has raised numerous concerns about Tiessen's analysis, this should not detract from the immense value of this elegant volume. In fact, raising these issues underscores the significance and value of Tiessen's work. Providence and Prayer raises important issues, offers a variety of perspectives, and proposes interesting answers. It is a thought-provoking and interesting book that will be a standard reference for a long time to come. If you have not read it already, I would highly recommend that you read it in order to refine your own view of God's providence and prayer.

Notes Rorty understands persons to be radically limited by their own contingency - their psychological, genetic, societal, and economic background. Rorty asserts that "Our language and our culture are as much a contingency, as much a result of thousands of small mutations finding niches (and millions of others finding no niches), as are the orchids and the anthropoids" (16). Rorty asserts that "for all we know, or should care, Aristotle's metaphorical use of ousia, Saint Paul's metaphorical use of agape, and Newton's metaphorical use of gravitas, were the results of cosmic rays scrambling the fine structure of some crucial neurons in their respective brains. Or, more plausibly, they were the result of some odd episodes in infancy--some obsessional kinks left in these brains by idiosyncratic traumata" (17). A person who is not merely influenced but controlled by factors outside his personhood is difficult to square with Scripture.

1. Providence and Prayer: How Does God Work in the World? By Terrance Tiessen. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000. All parenthetical references are to this book.

2. "Perhaps if Tiessen could work through the typical misunderstandings of the libertarian view (claiming that decisions and actions are purely 'arbitrary' and 'random,' p 313), he may realize how close he is to libertarian freedom." Klaus Issler, "Divine Providence and Impetratory Prayer: A Review of Issues from Terrance Tiessen's Providence and Prayer," Philosophia Christi, series 2 (3, no. 2):540. For an Arminian/Openness perspective on this book, see Robert Brow's review of the book at For another summary of the book, see Robert P. Mills' review in The Presbyterian Layman, an online journal available at

3. See William G. Pollard, Chance and Providence: God's Action in a World Governed by Scientific Law (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 161. Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) expresses a similar denial of the self from a postmodern perspective. Rorty recognizes that "[t]he very idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature--one which the physicist or the poet may have glimpsed--is a remnant of the idea that the world is a divine creation . . ." (21). He joins those who deny "that there is such a thing as "human nature" or the "deepest level of the self," and views discussions about "the nature of man" as "an unprofitable topic" (xiii, 8).

4. A Calvinist might rightly point out that Calvinism has a richer diversity of viewpoints on divine providence than Tiessen portrays. This concern is well taken. I would describe the Calvinism that Tiessen presents as "classical Calvinism" or "hardline Calvinism." However, references to Calvinism in this paper will refer to this classical Calvinism, since this is the version of Calvinism which Tiessen presents in the book.

5. Issler notes that Tiessen "hedges his bets" in his case study of the abducted missionaries, affirming both God's meticulous providence, realizing His intention at every point, and that evil happens outside His intentions. Issler rightly asks, "Can one have it both ways?" Issler, 340.

6. Issler describes this as the problem of "divine spontaneity," such as in Ezek. 4:9-15 in which God had originally commanded Ezekiel to do an enacted parable in which he was to eat barley cake baked over human dung. After Ezekiel's protest, however, God allowed Ezekiel to eat the barley bread baked over the more acceptable cow's dung. This action (there are , of course, many others in Scripture) suggests that God is genuinely responsive to humans, not artificially so. See Issler, 538-539.