Helm on Ware

I recall a number of years ago having a discussion with a good friend as we drove home to Windsor from Cambridge. He had recently been to the Toronto meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society and (I believe) had seen Bruce Ware give a paper critiquing open theism. In the paper, which my friend gave me a copy of to read, Dr. Ware argued that God had “compatabilitistic middle knowledge” that both retained God’s divine sovereignty and man’s freedom. It was seen as an answer to the issue of evil in relation to God’s goodness. From what we could tell (admittedly, green-behind-the-ear Calvinists), it was a helpful contribution to the development of a Reformed understanding of predestination. In fact, we believed that this would be the paving of the way of a new step in the progress of theology. Here, a solid theological view, developed, as had so many before, in the midst of intense controversy.
After having thought on that, the issue of “compatabilism” left the forefront of my mind and I concerned myself over the years with other issues. Having read quite a bit on the issues of election/sovereignty/predestination etc., I began to concern myself with other matters of theology. That is, until recently, when I had another conversation with a different friend who brought the issue to mind again.
This friend had taken a course on predestination at Southern Seminary under Paul Helm. I was excited to hear about the class because Helm is a favourite of mine. To say the least, I was quite envious (!) of my friend — hopefully without sinning! In the course of the discussion, my friend mentioned Helm’s critique of Bruce Ware and his understanding of “compatabilistic middle knowledge.” I was a bit surprised, considering that I thought that Ware was fairly sound. I read God’s Lesser Glory as well as some other stuff and was relatively convinced that this was Calvinistic. My friend, on the other hand, didn’t think so. In fact, he believed that it was a veiled form of Arminianism, which I thought was a perposterous statement. That is, until I read Helm’s critique at Helm’s Deep. Now I’m not so sure.
I have been delighted to read Helm’s Deep, a blog where Paul Helm posts articles that will soon come into print. His recent post, “The Classical Calvinist Concept of God” is from a chapter in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views ed. Bruce Ware (Broadman & Holman, 2007). In the article, Helm provides an exposition of the doctrine of God, starting with the “A-team” – Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas – going down through history to Calvin and the Reformation. After the historical reconaissance, Helm delves into Scripture to prove the traditional Calvinist case. He then launches into critiques of various views, including Arminianism, Molinism (middle knowledge) and open theism. Then he addresses the “modified Calvinist” view offered by Ware in the same book and elsewhere.
Helm has helped me greatly, and I admit, I’ll have to reread and continue to ponder the article. But suffice it to say, I think that Helm has actually stated the obvious: that the “compatabilistic middle knowledge” view is essentially Arminian. Here’s a quote, that, while not proving the argument, does give pause for thought:
“Ware’s view is unstable because it combines two contradictory positions. On the one hand, he avows meticulous, exhaustive divine control. This clearly puts him in the traditional predestinarian camp. Yet, on the other hand, he avows ‘middle knowledge’ and distinguishes between God’s knowledge as it relates to persons and their natures and how it relates to their circumstances. These two positions are logically incompatible, so something must give. If the distinction between God’s relation to persons and their natures and his relation to human circumstances gives [sic] by Ware affirming that all of these are uniformly decreed by God, then this places him in the classic predestinarian camp. But if, by contrast, he affirms a difference in principle between God’s relation to persons and his relation to their circumstances, this can only be because of the autonomous powers that Ware attributes to people, which means that God’s meticulous, exhaustive divine control gives, and this places him firmly in the Molinist camp—in effect, in Arminianism.”
Helm argues, rightly I believe, that Ware’s view attempts to maintain the freedom of the individual to such a degree that it still leaves God not knowing the future and puts the main controllers in the hands of man. This, essentially, leads to Arminianism. Granted, an Arminianism with a high view of God, but Arminianism none-the-less.
I hope that Paul Helm’s article, both online and on paper, will lead to greater discussion of this. I would love to hear or read an interchange between Ware and Helm on this. I have no doubt that it would be cordial and friendly, as well as powerfully engaging and intellectually stimulating. And, knowing the strongly evangelical faith of both men, it would be soul-feeding and spiritually encouraging.


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6 responses to “Helm on Ware

  1. David Shedden

    Ian, have you read Helm’s The Providence of God? In that book he develops a rather peculiar theory to explain the sovereignty of God, and human responsibility. I don’t think he uses the idea of middle knowledge, but, from memory, he does use the word ‘compatable’ a lot. As for middle knowledge, doesn’t William Lane Craig use that concept? I think Calvinistic philosophers lose themselves in jargon without helping themselves or others. Bottom line, they’ve got to retain God’s absolute rule and human responsibility (and freedom). That makes it impossible to account for sin in human terms without calling ‘mystery’ at some point.

  2. Ian

    Hi Dave,
    I trust that you’ve been having a great New Year’s in Princeton. I hope the Americans are showing you a good time.
    I have glanced at The Providence of God, but as yet have not read it through. It is a book that I would love to get, in fact, the whole Contours series is great. You and I both know someone who will be contributing to it! ;) I won’t mention any names.
    You are right about the excess of jargon. One thing I’ve learned from reading guys like NT Wright is that we have to stick quite closely to biblical language. What I’ve learned from guys like Trueman is that we have to watch out for a biblicism that will put our systematic theology to risk.
    Helm critiques Craig under the Molinist school, and then applies much of what he said of Craig to Ware.
    We should never be scared to use the word mystery when we consider the vastness of God and His work. But at the same time, I believe we need to be careful not to classify that which has been revealed as mystery.
    Thanks for the comment, I appreciate hearing from you. If you have any further thoughts, I’d love to hear ’em.

  3. Anonymous

    G’day Ian

    Happy New Year to you, brother! I guess the break from studies is allowing you chance to do keep on posting.

    As the to be envied friend with the preposterous statement, I appreciate your openness to ruminating on various perspectives.

    There is obviously a tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but I think part of our difficulty in reconciling the two is our profound inability to REALLY appreciate our total guilt and lack of claim to God’s grace. Compatibilist middle knowledge, I think, denies the total depravity of man. If God merely creates one possible world out of many in which WE choose, there must be some inherent good in us that enables us to choose. The Bible clearly rules out this position. One friend at Southern referred to this position as “trying to stake out a claim in God’s garden.”

    (Sorry about the anonymous post, I couldn’t remember my password. I guess the studies kept me offline for too long as well.)

  4. Ian

    Hey “anonymous” thanks for the post. Again, I appreciated the conversation – you were right all along! :)
    See you when you get back brother. Enjoy your time off boarding on the slopes.

  5. Terry Tiessen


    Don’t be too quick to buy Helms’ critique of Ware’s compatibilist middle knowledge. At ETS, in 2005, I read a paper defending the concept against classic Calvinist objections to the affirmation of God’s middle knowledge. I’d be happy to send you a copy of the paper (32 pages) if you are interested. If so, send me your email address and I’ll get the paper to you.

    Terry Tiessen (ttiessen at wheatonalumni.org)

  6. Ian

    I would love that. You can send it to ianhughclary@hotmail.com. I am more than willing to consider either side of the issue, as I said, I only recently looked at the issue again. I must admit, it has been much on my mind.

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