When I was five, my family left our comfortable home in southern Oregon so that my father could attend Westminster Seminary. The two years we spent in Escondido, California were harder than my parents expected. My father was working full-time as a physical therapist and made little progress toward a degree, only finding time to take four or five classes. After two years, circumstances aligned perfectly for us to return to Oregon, to my parents’ relief. One positive thing that came of our excursion to California was that my mother helped her mother (who lived in Escondido) through the difficult period following my grandfather’s death, which occurred right around the time we first moved to California.

My mother often related to me the story about God’s provision for us to return, a narrative responsible for my first real appreciation of the providence of God. But this difficult two-year experience loomed large for my parents. Both during that time and in later years they found themselves wondering why God had ordained it. They trusted that God had his reasons, but they desired to know what they were. My mother thought the real reason God put them there was to help her mother; my father wasn’t so sure, since he thought seminary did really help him in his later teaching and thinking. But both of them were rather unsure what God’s real reasons were.

Many Christians find themselves in situations like this. We wonder why God puts us in the circumstances he does. We can see some of the good things that come from these circumstances, but we aren’t sure that those are the reasons God has for ordaining them. Is this why he wanted me here? Or maybe that? Or maybe none of those are why he wants me here, and his reason is something else entirely? The upheavals in the last year raise many such questions: why did I lose my job this year? Why did COVID hit right when I started my business?

Sometimes the reason we want to know why God has put us where he has is so that we can trust him better; knowing at least some of his reasons would allow us to appreciate his wisdom, goodness, and trustworthiness. But sometimes we don’t particularly need to improve our trust in him and still want to know. I think that is because, quite simply, we love him. We want to know the minds of those whom we love. That’s why we are troubled by this uncertainty. Fortunately, there is a divine attribute that can help us enormously in answering these questions: the attribute of omnirationality.

We are familiar with divine attributes like omnipotence (being all-powerful), omniscience (being all-knowing), and omnipresence (being present everywhere). There is another attribute of God’s that we might not be quite so familiar with. Consider a craftsman making a piece of furniture––say, a chair––which is both functional and beautiful. The craftsman recognizes that it is both, but he doesn’t care about the beauty of the piece, only its functionality––he makes it so that people can sit in it. There are good reasons to make the chair that the craftsman doesn’t act on; he only acts on some of the reasons there are to make the chair.

God can’t be like this craftsman. The reason the craftsman only acts on some of the reasons to make the chair is that he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about some of them. But God isn’t ignorant of any of the reasons there are to do something, since he is omniscient. And God fully appreciates and cares about everything that is worth caring about, since he is perfect. Were God the one making the chair, he would be making the chair both because of its function and because of its beauty – and, for good measure, for any and all other good reasons there are to make the chair.

In short, God doesn’t just act for some of the good reasons there are to do what he does. He acts for all of them. Baylor University philosophy professor Alexander R. Pruss calls this divine attribute omnirationality.[1] Since rationality is the property of acting for reasons, omnirationality is a good name for the fact that God always acts for all the reasons there are to do what he does. Pruss is perhaps best known for his ingenious defenses of the cosmological argument for the existence of God, but his identification of this divine attribute is one of the most important developments in recent philosophical theology.

Divine omnirationality actually makes it quite easy to discern at least some of God’s reasons for ordaining what he does. If anything is a genuinely good aspect or result of a circumstance, then that is one of God’s reasons for ordaining that circumstance. Whenever you are inclined to ask “is this why God put us here?”, if this is a genuinely good thing that came from God’s putting you here, the answer is always yes. To return to the example of my parents: my mother was right that God put us in California to help my grandmother. And my father was also right that God put us there for the increase in knowledge and wisdom he gained from his seminary classes. And God put us there so that I could later learn about God’s providence from my mother’s stories about God’s provision. And God put us there for every other good reason there was for him to do so: every good thing that ever happened as a result, every kind word we uttered or which was uttered to us, every moment of joy and laughter, every time we served others or were served by others. And, and, and….Any good reason we can identify for God to bring it about is why God brought it about.

This of course assumes that we can identify when something is genuinely good. And some good things are easy to discern: the smile of a child, the kindness of a stranger, the joy of a good conversation. But it is often harder to tell whether something is good, and it is of course possible to think (by innocent mistake or by sinful misjudgment) that something is good when it is not. In that case, we go wrong when we infer (by omnirationality) that such things are among God’s ends in ordaining our circumstances. What this shows is that it is important for knowing God’s mind that we develop and improve our ways of knowing the good (our consciences and our moral reasoning abilities, which must involve listening carefully to what God has taught us in Scripture about the good). This brings us to a further point.

Divine omnirationality makes it relatively easy to discern some of God’s reasons for ordaining what he does, but it is also impossible to discern all of God’s reasons for ordaining what he does. Since he acts for all the reasons there are to do what he does, we’d probably have to be omniscient ourselves to see the full picture of why God ordained any one thing. The task of discovering God’s reasons for giving us the lives he does is never done: there is always more to discover. In this respect we merely “see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

There are of course many other questions surrounding God’s providence for which divine omnirationality does not provide an answer. The famous problem of evil, for instance, arises because it is difficult to see any reasons which might justify God in allowing all the evil in the world. Another question is whether it is right to say that God intends or causes the evil that he uses to bring about good or which accompanies the good he brings about. A third question is what God’s main reasons are for acting as he does – which reasons weigh the most for him, what are his highest priorities? We will have to look elsewhere than to divine omnirationality for answers to these questions.[2]

But omnirationality offers believers answers to many of the everyday questions we ask ourselves. We see readily enough all sorts of good things that come from the situations God ordains for us – all sorts of reasons for God to do things the way he has in fact done them. We just aren’t sure that those are in fact the reasons that God has done what he has done. What divine omnirationality implies is: there is no need for such hesitation! We can be confident that those good reasons for God to act are among his actual reasons (just as we can be sure that he has other reasons too, which we have not yet seen).

How should we react to all of this? I think at least in this way: we should eagerly notice everything good in our circumstances or which results from our circumstances, and rejoice whenever we notice something new – for in so doing we have discovered one of God’s reasons for ordaining those circumstances. Paying attention to the good things of this world gives us a way to discern the mind of God. This is one of the deep theological truths underlying Paul’s command that “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Every good thing we discover is a new occasion to know and to appreciate God’s motivations – which is a central part of who God is.

Since I’ve begun making a practice of looking relentlessly for the silver linings of everything that happens, I have found myself regularly rejoicing in the goodness and wisdom of God which I can now more easily perceive in the course of the world. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the fact that I am discerning his mind, and that what I can see of his mind is beautiful, its goodness demonstrated by everything good that occurs. Such a practice is bound to move us to spontaneous praise and thanksgiving; it enables us to obey the command to “be thankful in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Similarly, we should always be aware of the fact that God has always more reasons than we can see for what he has ordained. We should live in anticipation of new reasons being revealed to us in the course of events, reasons we couldn’t have imagined while we were in the midst of the difficult circumstances that puzzle us. God’s mind is inexhaustible, so that its depths remain always unplumbed.

Footnotes

  1. Alexander R. Pruss, “Omnirationality,” Res Philosophica 90:1 (2013), 1-21.
  2. For my perspective on such questions, see Daniel M. Johnson, “Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: A Map of the Territory,” in Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 19-55.
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Posted by Daniel M. Johnson

Daniel M. Johnson is an associate professor of philosophy at Shawnee State University.

11 Comments

  1. Nicely said, Dan! I, too, find that life is better appreciated and accepted when I look for the good in everything.

    “In all things give thanks.”
    1 Thessalonians 5:18

    Tricia

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  2. […] Omnirationality and Divine Providence […]

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    1. Omnirationality wasn’t found on the WWWeb. Can you give a meaning to this word please.

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  3. Implicit in here is the idea that EVERYTHING is orchestrated by God, and we, and the whole universe, are but puppets in a plan whose rationality escape us.

    But if that is so, rest assured the plan does not focus on you. Whatever God has in mind for you, He has also. in mind for every creature. You are not special, the universe is not your scene, and other people are not your props. If there’s is a plan, it is devised and played upon for God’s own purpose.

    Perhaps God did not “put” your parents in California. Perhaps they decided to go there themselves. Perhaps God didn’t send Katrina into New Orleans, perhaps it was just physics that moved the wind and water then and there.

    You have to navigate on your own in a creation full of other creatures, as they try to do the same. Their actions and choices impact you, just as yours impact them.

    God gives you tools, and a mind, and guidance, so you can build your path. But remember he has given all the other creatures the same tools and guidance, and the same freedom to build their path.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I have two thoughts in reply:

      (1) While the examples that I gave of the reasons God might have for ordaining my circumstances focused mainly on things that were good for me and my family, I certainly didn’t mean to exclude all of the (many) things that were good for others that might have resulted from those circumstances. Of course God’s reasons encompass the whole cosmos, and the lion’s share of his reasons for ordaining many of my circumstances might have little, if anything, to do with what is good for me.

      (2) You are right that I presupposed that God has a great deal of control over the course of events, which perhaps fits best with theologically determinist views of divine providence (which Calvinists typically embrace) or Molinist views (which many Arminians, including Arminius himself, I believe, embrace). But even views (like simple foreknowledge or open theist views) which ascribe less control to God would have a basically similar implication, I think. That is because, even on those views, God could prevent just about anything he wanted — he could stop us from exercising our free will at any point (at the cost of removing freedom, at least in those cases). He doesn’t do so, presumably for good reason. But now omnirationality comes in — why doesn’t he stop bad things from happening? Omnirationality says: for ALL the good reasons there are for allowing them to happen. That would include all of the good things that do come or could come as a result of them happening. So even these weaker views of divine providence have basically the same implication I’ve pointed out in the article.

      (3) You say that God’s plan is one whose “rationality escapes us.” But in a sense that’s just what I’m challenging in this essay. We CAN understand at least some of God’s reasons for ordaining the circumstances he does (grasping the “rationality” of his plan) rather easily — just look around and notice the good things that have come from it. Of course, there will always be reasons that escape our notice, and so we will never have a comprehensive grasp of the “rationality of his plan.” But we can have a partial grasp of it, and that grasp can improve as we more fully appreciate the goods that have come of the parts of the plan that have been revealed (the events that have actually occurred).

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  4. Yes! I reasoned to this same conclusion as I’ve reflected on being rear ended turning into my church to drop my daughters off at Awana when my wife and oldest daughter went to be with the Lord. I tell people that my wife’s three most fervent prayers were answered in that crash: (1) To be present with the Lord; (2) my ultra stubborn youngest daughter’s salvation; (3) to be a better witness at work. I feel like every prayer she ever told me about in our nearly 16 years of marriage is being answered through that crash. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

    And every good perceived is Christ speaking–my own dissertation.

    Loved your chapter in the evil book you reference. Welty was a main reason I did my PhD at SWBTS.

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  5. This also PERFECTLY melds with an article by another one of my former professors, Dr. Scott Swain.

    “Instead, biblical encouragements should be offered as counterweights. Doing so might look like this:

    I know your heart is (rightly) heavy with sorrow due to the loss of some good thing(s), that it is overwhelmed by present circumstances, that it is uncertain of what tomorrow may bring. However, let me offer you a counterweight, not to remove these emotions (the cup metaphor) but to place them in relation to a larger reality: the reality of God’s sovereign goodness, attention, and purpose, which offer solid reasons for encouragement and hope in the midst of trial.

    These ‘counterweights’ do not remove the other ‘weights’ of our hearts. Rather, they provide consolations that enable our hearts to bear the weights of sorrow, anxiety, and fear in this vale of tears (Ps. 84:6)—until we arrive at our destination of unmixed, unshakeable beatitude in the presence of the triune God (Ps. 84:4)” (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/heart-not-cup/).

    Freed to identify endless “counterweights.”

    And these words from Russell Howell, “A beautiful proof has ideas that take the reader by surprise, somewhat like a series of brilliant moves in a chess match. And the surprises, when put in context, become stunningly beautiful. A good poem often has the same effect. The pattern of words forms a symphony that contains many surprises to be sure, but at the end seems paradoxically inevitable in that it had to be stated the way it was.”

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  6. […] Omnirationality and Divine Providence – Interesting article as I have been reading about God’s providence this past year. […]

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