The Providence of God (Paul Helm)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Helm, Paul. The Providence of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress, 1993.

Thesis: “In summary, the essential elements of divine providence are these. God preserves his creation and all that it sustains” (Helm 22). Helm adopts the “no-risk” view of providence. God’s perfect knowledge and will aren’t threatened by the actions of human beings. Against this view is the “risky” view of providence: God can’t know the future because the future free decisions aren’t knowable.

Helm quickly lists several problems with the “risky” view: If the “risky” view obtains, then it appears that God has a number of beliefs which are false (given the free actions of humans). There is even a problem with God’s goodness: given that God wishes to be good to people, how intense can this goodness be, given the free actions of humans? I don’t think this objection is particularly strong. Part of the battle in our spiritual life is that we often resist God’s blessings.

Solution of divine accommodation. Per Calvin, the movement of direction is from God to mankind, and not vice-versa (52ff). It’s not simply that we are choosing the “sovereignty” passages at the expense of the risky ones. Rather, it “is a logically necessary condition of dialogue between people that those people should act and react in time” (53). However, omnipotence and omniscience are essential properties in God; therefore, they have priority.

One option that avoids these two is Middle Knowledge

Necessary truths: logic, mathematics, stuff related to God’s essence.

Free knowledge: things as a result of God’s freely willing them.

Middle knowledge: among the conditional propositions that God knows “are those which indicate what would happen if an individual performed a free (ie. non-deterministic) action (57). God only actualizes the outcomes necessary to his plan. The rest are human possibilities (which God knows).

Difficulties: it looks like on the MK account that the universe has a “shadow picture.” Another problem is that God seems to only have knowledge of a mirror account of the universe, and never an actualized account (59). I don’t know. I think modern defenses of MK are much stronger than Helm accounts for. I don’t hold to MK myself but I don’t see why God’s having knowledge of possible worlds threatens his perfect knowledge. I can think of a number of theologically plausible worlds, and presumably so can God.

His argument against MK seems to be that on MK’s own admission, people have indeterminist freedom. Therefore, God can’t know what they would do because what they would do is precisely what isn’t known. There seems to be something to that charge.

God-World Relationship

When we say God existed “before” the universe, we are using “before” in a hierarchical, not temporal sense.

Pantheism: if the universe is God, and an individual performed a certain action, then logically God performed that action.

Deism: few today would hold to Deist temptations, and it is a diabolical worldview, but it is a much tougher opponent than pantheism. If the universe was created good, then why does it need miracles? Indeed, in a nice phrase, miracles are “a metaphysical first aid kit.” There are some obvious problems with Deism. Helm lists a few:

a) it is an obvious dogmatism (76). Why don’t miracles exist? Because they don’t.
b) it is not obvious why the Christian must define miracles as “violations” or “interventions” of nature. Indeed, in an open-universe why wouldn’t we expect miracles?

Prayer and Providence

This is the familiar problem if God knows all things, then why pray? Helm doesn’t really solve it, but he does provide a number of clarifying insights that allow us to better approach the issue. Our praying to God exists within a personal matrix within which are a number of smaller issues. If I take out one of those issues, then the matrix changes.

Further, there can be legitimate inter-personal interaction yet there be pressures, limitations, and givens, even in human-human relationships. Why not so in God-man relationships? Therefore, I can pray, and it be real prayer, and God answereth it, yet it still be ordained.


This is more of a philosophical than a theological text. As such, there isn’t much exegesis of key passages. To be fair, though, that would have made the text unwieldy. Nonetheless, Helm nicely covers the issues and provides a number of clarifications.


Puritan Board Senior
I remember reading his for my systematics class on theology proper. I remember being a little overwhelmed by it. But, I bet if I read it again now it would be very helpful.

Thanks for the summary.
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