God's Relation to the World:
Terrance Tiessen's Proposal on Providence and Prayer
by Steve W. Lemke
A Paper Presented at the 2002 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society
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, (1) professor of theology and ethics at Providence Theological Seminary in Manitoba, could be just such a magisterial text. He surveys eleven 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 (p. 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, which is the last perspective to be examined. In his own approach T