The Providence of God is the third installment in the Contours of Christian Theology series, which provides “concise introductory textbooks focused on the main themes of Christian theology.” Providence fits this description well; in it Helm outlines historical and contemporary approaches to providence, argues for his model, and reflects on its significance for Christian life and thought.
A short first chapter offers some introductory definitions about providence and details Helm’s theological method. The Christian doctrine of providence must be drawn from Scripture by human reason, utilizing both inductive and deductive methods. Holding a conservative evangelical view of Scripture, Helm asserts that there can be no ultimate contradictions in Scripture’s teaching. The result of Helm’s method is not a theory in the sense employed by natural science, that is, it is not tested by empirical data and used for predicting future outcomes. Rather, Helm seeks to construct a model that serves a twofold purpose: 1) “drawing together the relevant data in as consistent and coherent a fashion as possible” and 2) “prevent or discourage false inferences being drawn.”
Helm begins his analysis by describing the broad approaches possible: “risky” vs. “no-risk.” Risky models assert that God in some way is not in control of all of the details of the cosmos; either voluntarily or involuntary, some aspects of existence (usually human acts) are outside his province. Normally, the proponents of risky models argue that only a risky model sufficiently safeguards human freedom. On the other hand, “no-risk” approaches affirm that God’s providence extends without exception to the created realm. Every being, deed, and thought is within God’s scope and plan. Helm explores the ramifications of these approaches, weighs the gains and losses, and upholds one of the no-risk approaches, compatibilism. Furthermore, he offers a critique of “Middle Knowledge,” an attempt to combine libertarian freedom with a no-risk view of providence.
Having announced his approach, Helm examines the theological foundations of his model. Of prime importance is the nature of the relationship between God and his creatures. After dispatching pantheism, panentheism, and deism, Helm lays out the classical theistic understanding of God. God is the creator and upholder of the universe, all things being dependent upon him. Upholding, though, is distinct (contra Edwards) from creation. He is transcendent, immanent, and eternal (timeless). Divine causality is non-physical and thus not scientifically observable.
According to Helm, who is leaning on Calvin, providence has three contexts: the creation, humanity, and the church. These contexts are obviously interrelated, inseparable from each other. Yet, providence functions in all these contexts especially for the good of the church. Thus, providence must be discussed within the framework of creation, fall, and redemption. Miracles and redemptive acts function within providence, not against it.
The rest of the book (about half the text) investigates certain areas in which Christians acutely feel the mystery of providence. Helm explores the consequences of his compatibilist view of providence for personal guidance, petitionary prayer, human accountability, and the existence of evil. The final chapter offers advice for Christians reckoning with the book’s contents.
Paul Helm’s greatest strength as an author is his ability to lucidly frame an issue and drive relentlessly to a conclusion. Often tangles arise in difficult problems, but Helm handles them without pursuing tangents. Even after announcing his position, Helm writes in a way that includes and encourages readers of other persuasion. He frequently comments about how someone using a different model of providence might adjust the discussion at a crucial point to suit their view. His use of analytic language (Suppose a subject A in circumstance C…) usually elucidates rather than obscures, and he avoids overly subtle symbolic logic.
On the other hand, Helm’s analytic approach may be off-putting to readers used to more direct theological methods. Many chapters begin with a list of options, and although Helm uses Scripture throughout Providence, he tends to eliminate options by adducing their incongruity with other theological concepts. There are no lists of relevant Scripture passages nor lengthy expositions of key texts. To some extent, this is because Helm assumes his readers are already familiar with the biblical data. In any case, I believe that Helm’s theological method is sound and profoundly helpful for helping people think clearly about the issues; the drawback is that readers grappling with difficult passages or attempting to move from a particular passage to theological reflection will not find much explicit assistance. I do think that his omission of any discussion of biblical wisdom literature is unfortunate, as that genre reflects on providence most explicitly and provocatively.
The Providence of God is a very enjoyable read which will doubtless stimulate hours of careful reflection in its readers. It is appropriate both for a determined layperson and for the inquisitive theologian. Its primary strength is its engagement with contemporary thinking.