Nowhere perhaps is Wesleyan-Arminian theology more distinct from Calvinist than in the subject matter of this chapter. I hope to review this chapter in three installments: 1) today's on Grudem's treatment of God's preservation of the universe, ) a second one on God's "cooperation" with the creation, including whether God causes evil, and 3) a third where Grudem argues against the Arminian position.
For previous summaries and evaluations of Grudem's theology, see here.
Chapter 16: God's Providence
Wayne Grudem defines God's providence in this way: "God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he 1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; 2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and 3) directs them to fulfill his purposes" (315). He treats each of these areas under a distinct heading: 1) preservation, 2) concurrence, and 3) government.
God does not continuously create new atoms and molecules, but God preserves what has already been created. "God has made and continues to sustain a universe that acts in predictable ways" (317). Grudem references verses like Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:17, which speak of God upholding the universe by his word or holding things together. Nehemiah 9:6 says that God preserves the heaven, the earth, and the hosts within them.
One of the biggest weaknesses of Grudem's use of Scripture is his failure to read verses in their full contexts. He more or less takes verses as straightforward propositions. But God spoke to the audiences of Scriptures largely in their worldviews, including their paradigms of the cosmos. This means that language such as that found in the verses Grudem references cannot be assumed to be straightforwardly literal, much less the basis for a firm perspective on a doctrine. In this case, see how few verses he is even able to produce on this subject--a reflection of the fact that we are trying to address questions that were not the questions of the biblical authors themselves.
In Nehemiah's worldview, for example, the hosts that worship God may include stars. In Nehemiah's day, they sometimes thought of stars as heavenly beings, angelic beings of a sort, while we now think of them as burning suns. Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:7 may draw on Jewish traditions about the Logos, which Philo also says glues the world together (e.g., Heir 188). In such cases we are better to take biblical language as more poetic than literal. The imagery is drawn from ancient worldview.
In short, we have no way of knowing exactly how God sustains the universe. The universe would not exist apart from God and it only continues to exist by God's direct will. But does God actively go around making sure gravity always works according to Newton and Einstein's laws? Is God holding my rear end down right now so that I don't fly up and hit the ceiling? Does God specifically make sure the second law of thermodynamics is in play (or is it the result of sin?)? This is certainly the way Christians before the scientific age would have viewed it.
But there is surely nothing heretical to suggest that we may now be able to speculate more precisely than was relevant for Christians before the 1600s and the biblical writers themselves. What if God created the universe as a machine that more or less runs on its own? What if a miracle is God interrupting the normal working of the machine? The key doctrines are maintained. God is still in ultimate control. God is still active in the world according to his will.
However, contrary to Grudem's approach, it was not the sense that God is predictable in his sustaining of events in the universe that gave rise to modern science. Rather, science exploded because thinkers in the 1500s and 1600s believed God had created the universe to run on its own by certain natural laws that inhere in nature itself. Indeed, the view that everything that happens in the world is the action of God or some other spiritual being was an obstacle to the rise of science. It is no coincidence that the Arminian point of view, which argues for free will and which Grudem argues against, rose at the same time as the rise of modern science.
In the end, we have no way of knowing exactly how it works. Does God go around directly making sure electromagnetic forces follow the laws of physics? No one can disprove that he does, because natural laws would look exactly the same. Did God create the universe largely as a machine that runs according to the laws he created as part of it? The fact that the "scientific" paradigms of the biblical authors were a function of their ancient contexts does not argue against this position, since the Bible was revealed in categories its original audiences could understand.
But science has not advanced on the supposition that God flips every switch and yanks every chain. It advances on the assumption that there are regular laws to the way the universe operates and that we best understand those rules by experimentation and the collection of evidence. Grudem's approach thus more pulls against science and the discoveries whose benefits are undeniable and all around us.