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A review of The Benefits of Providence: A New Look at Divine Sovereignty. By James Spiegel.

Oct 25, 2006

Crossway Books, 2005.

Having lectured in systematic theology, and being an eager follower of the free will/sovereignty debate, when I spotted this book I snatched it up, without looking at it too closely. I assumed it would be just another biblical and theological defence of the Augustinian/Calvinist position which I would add to my collection.

Well, it is certainly that, but it is also much more. When I actually sat down to read it I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it does not just take the usual approach (digging up proof-texts for God’s sovereignty and providence, and rebutting Pelagians and Arminians) but actually branches out in different directions, explaining how an Augustinian understanding of providence helps us in many other areas, be it science, philosophy, or aesthetics, as well as theology.

Such an approach is explained, in part, by the fact that the author is a philosopher, not a theologian. But he is certainly aware of his theology, as he makes major philosophical and theological forays into various fields. Thus he is quite able to take on recent challenges to the traditional view, such as free-will theism, and its predecessor, process thought.

His chapter on providence and science is almost worth the price of the book. In it he branches out in directions that the typical Calvinist might fear to tread. In this chapter he takes on some of the big controversies of the day. One is the question of origins, and how a providence model can answer the shortcomings of evolutionary theory and philosophical naturalism. He argues that a type of Intelligent Design theory best fits in with the Augustinian model.

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The Benefits of Providence: A New Look at Divine Sovereignty by James S. Spiegel Amazon logo

Spiegel also explores another difficult and ongoing debate, that of the nature of consciousness, and whether some kind of mind/matter dualism is to be preferred over some form of physicalism. He argues that matter is not what lies behind mind, but the other way around. The divine mind is the ultimate source of reality, and the entire cosmos is mind-dependent.

All in all, not the usual sort of discussions heard in the sovereignty/free will debate. However, theological issues are also addressed, especially the issue of God, passibility, and the problem of evil. As to the issue of whether God experiences emotions as we do, and whether he can change, he argues a unique position: taking the best of both worlds. That is, he argues that God does have emotions and is passible, but also that God is atemporal and changeless. He calls this God’s omnipathos. This synthesis (or compromise) may not please everyone, but it is a creative way to deal with this conflict.

As to the problem of evil, he argues that ultimately all suffering and evil has a purpose, although we may not know what that purpose is. He opts for the greater good, or soul-making, theodicy, arguing that our sufferings need not be wasted, but can lead to a greater good, and to more Christ-like character.

He rounds off his discussion with some practical and pastoral applications of the Augustinian model of providence.

If your preference is for more-or-less Reformed theology, and you have interests in philosophy of religion and philosophy of science, there will be much in this book that will be attractive. It is an important contribution to a number of theological and philosophical debates taking place concerning some key biblical concepts.

Whether one thinks Spiegel has successfully made his case or not, one can agree that he has offered a stimulating and innovative way to approach some long-standing and controversial issues.

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One Response to A review of The Benefits of Providence: A New Look at Divine Sovereignty. By James Spiegel.

  • I’ve recently read John Lennox’s “God’s Undertaker” which deals very well with these issues. No doubt you and other readers are well aware of his excellent qualifications and unassailable logic.
    I commend it to any who are interested in demolishing evolution as science’s attempt to remove the need for a Creator. One of his key points is, as above, it’s a choice of mind or matter. If you choose the latter, then that is your god, as it can be used to explain everything for you.

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