About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Monday 27 October 2014

Sacred Wrightings

Please visit Sacred Wrightings for the latests thoughts and research from Terry J. Wright.

Monday 20 October 2014

The End of Providence, Divine Action and the Church

Providence, Divine Action and the Church is almost five years old. The first post, which contained a quotation from Rowan Williams, was, um, posted on 6 November 2009, and I’ve posted more than three hundred times since then. PDAC is not the most frequently updated blog in the world, but it is a labour of love, and I know some people enjoy reading my ruminations on all things relating to providence.

But all things have their season, and I’ve decided to retire PDAC in favour of a new blog, punnily entitled Sacred Wrightings. (You should thank my friends on Facebook for this title; otherwise, you’d have had something like Always Wright or The Wright Path.) In many respects, Sacred Wrightings is a continuation of PDAC; you can expect me to continue posting thoughts and research on the doctrine of providence and related themes. But you can also anticipate more general book and essay reviews; reflections, commentary, and introspection; announcements of new publications and forthcoming conferences; and hopefully a few silly things as well. I’ve come to a point where I need to allow myself the freedom to blog more widely, and, at the risk of sounding as though I’m taking things far too seriously, Sacred Wrightings is the realisation of that freedom.

I’ve enjoyed blogging at PDAC, but it’s time to move on. If you’ve enjoyed reading PDAC at all, I hope you move with me and maybe even put a link to Sacred Wrightings on your blog (if you have one). The first post is now up: Opening the Sacred Wrightings.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Illiterate Old Ladies and Salvation Through Theology

I guess I’m going through something of a reassessment of my theological presuppositions, which is why many of my posts at the moment seem to be dealing with the ‘Church’ bit of my blog’s name and are somewhat aimless. As is often claimed, theology is a communal enterprise, an ecclesial practice, and theology done in a vacuum is no theology at all. But being human, and being part of the Church, means that one’s theology is never sedentary but always active – sometimes vibrantly so, other times through necessity. It’s usually a painful experience when one’s theological presuppositions change because of so-called ‘real life’ stuff. And any Christian who says that theology, or the practice of theology, is merely abstract thinking, or pedantry crafted into high art, that has nothing to do with the Church or the Christian life or Christian mission has clearly never thought about his or her faith in Christ at all. The practice of theology is very much connected to the aforementioned ‘real life’ stuff, and everybody practises theology to an extent. But some, I suggest, do it well.

Despite all this, sometimes I find it difficult to see the point of theology. This is more due to the objectivity of God than due to any sense that theology itself is devoid of value. Sometimes I think: What does it matter that Miss Summers doesn’t affirm penal substitution? Who cares if Mr Prime finds it difficult to accept the humanity and the divinity of Jesus? Will God really send Mrs Detoo to an eternal, fiery hell if she doesn’t believe in an eternal, fiery hell? Does Dr Logan’s stance that memorialism is the best way to explain the Eucharist stop him from having true union with the Son through taking the bread and the wine if more participatory accounts of the meal are, in fact, true? In short, does holding wrong or even heretical views about the Christian faith prevent one from truly enjoying a proper relationship with God in Christ? How does the subjective faith of people correspond to the objective reality of God and of what God in Christ has done?

It would be churlish of me to suggest that one’s salvation depends on having the correct views about God. But Bernard McGinn’s biography of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae reminds me that it’s important at least to aim for some level of coherence, no matter how academic, non-academic or anti-academic one is:

Thomas could not be clearer about the necessity of sacra doctrina for salvation, but his insistence raises a problem that again emphasizes the centrality of teaching and learning. If sacra doctrina is needed for salvation, does this mean that Thomas and his advanced students alone will be saved? What about the illiterate old lady in the back of Santa Sabina during morning Mass? Will she have to pay tuition and start a theology degree . . . ? This reductio ad absurdum shows that all believers have to share in the activity of sacra doctrina, that is, in being instructed and learning the truths of faith to the best of their abilities. Since the source of sacra doctrina is God’s infinite self-knowledge, the difference between all our finite receptions of such knowledge, whether those of Thomas and his students or of the old lady in the back of the church, sink into insignificance. For Thomas what they (and we) all need to have in order to be saved is willingness to be instructed.

Bernard McGinn, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 55, italics original

an illiterate old lady
Studying theology, including the ongoing reassessment of one’s theological presuppositions, is non-negotiable for the Christian. The only outstanding questions concern the depth and the extent to which one learns – and these will depend on the individual’s ability and what resources are available. On this account, an illiterate old lady has just as much a responsibility to deepen her faith in God through education (even if she does so, say, by taking part in discussions or listening to sermons, or through liturgical practices) as someone better educated and who has an appetite for formal study. It also shows the importance of liturgical formation. Not everyone will pick up the Summa theologiae, but any Christian who attends a local church service should be entitled to receive an education and grow theologically in wisdom within liturgical space.

Thursday 2 October 2014

On Christian Paperbacks

Since doing my theology degree many moons ago, I’ve developed what I can only admit is a distaste for certain Christian paperbacks. I try not to be snobbish, knowing that if God can speak through blossoming shrubs or dead dogs, God can certainly speak to me through people whose theological presuppositions and experiences are different from my own. But I do have my prejudices, and I’m far more likely to pick up and read something by, say, Richard Bauckham or Tom Wright than I am by T. D. Jakes or Benny Hinn – or even Mark Driscoll or Shaine Claiborne. I make assumptions about the kind of literature that’s likely to edify or challenge me. The works of Bauckham and my namesake are more likely to strengthen or challenge my faith, I reason, even when I disagree with them. But I doubt I’d read Hinn or Driscoll with the same charity. Besides, there’s only so many books one can read, anyway, so why waste time (notice the judgement there) reading these books when others are likely to be more useful?

Having written all this, I should also confess that there are some books I read very occasionally because they reflect the roots of my coming-to-faith.

I’ve read – and mostly enjoyed – the first twelve Left Behind books because the church in which I came to faith taught the Rapture. I still love reading Chick tracts (here’s my favourite) – not because I agree with the theology peddled in them, but because they, as a medium, resonate with my ecclesial roots. And I often re-read the Christian biographies I devoured as a teenager – books such as Melody Green’s No Compromise (about Keith Green), Nicky Cruz’s Run, Baby, Run, and David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade. Indeed, No Compromise, or perhaps Keith Green’s life itself, continues to challenge me.

A few weeks ago, I picked up a book by the aforementioned David Wilkerson: Hungry for More of Jesus: The Way of Intimacy with Christ. I figured this (£1.00!) book might be a useful read for me, given that (a) I’m going through something of a dry, intimacy-free patch with God at the moment, and (b) I have some kind of respect for Wilkerson, a respect borne of reading about his exploits in New York City. But I have to say, I’m two chapters in and I’m wondering if the rest of the book’s worth reading. Why? The second chapter of Hungry interprets the book of Ruth in such a way that it offends my scholarly sensibilities (yes, I do have some) by taking far too many liberties with the text. I can see how Wilkerson’s approach would go down well in certain local church contexts, or even as part of the rhetoric of preaching; his overall point in the second chapter is surely sound. But it’s not the destination that bothers me; it’s the route.

A few days ago, a friend and I were talking about Christian paperbacks. I said that these days, I’m hesitant about reading Christian paperbacks because I’m not sure what I get from them. She suggested that maybe reading Christian paperbacks is difficult for someone who’s been trained to think in certain ways – and she, a trained and practising educational psychologist, admitted that she finds reading pop-psychology books frustrating. I appreciate the parallel.

Of course, this might be a case of my being snobbish: How dare I refuse to learn from someone who hasn’t articulated himself using the language of the academy? (Surely this works both ways. I could retort: ‘Well, how dare you assume that some who usually articulates himself using the language of the academy has nothing to teach the so-called ordinary person in the pew?’) But I don’t think it’s a refusal to learn on my part. It’s simply that the medium doesn’t resonate with me (at least, not these days), so that whatever good Wilkerson is saying (and he is saying good things) is buried beneath communicative forms with which I (now?) find it hard to identify. Employing a limited analogy, and assuming that musical form is neutral, I could argue that most people would find it hard to worship singing hymns death-metal style (perhaps that should be ‘grunting’ or ‘growling’ hymns rather than ‘singing’) simply because it’s not a style that resonates with many churchgoers. The form of our communication, the words we use and the style in which they’re dressed, surely does matter.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Was the Woman of Samaria Childless?

I first came across the idea that the woman of Samaria (John 4) wasn’t all that immoral in Gill Rowell’s The Spiritual @dventures of CyberCindy, but now Margaret Barker – whose perspectives on Scripture often are as refreshing as they are unconventional – has added impetus to this interpretation:

The woman is often presented in commentaries as having a dubious past, but she may well have been a victim of her own society. She had had five husbands, and in a society where it was not easy for a woman to leave her husband – divorcing a spouse was usually a man’s prerogative – this means she had been abandoned five times; or she had been widowed five times and married in succession to her brothers-in-law (Deut. 5.5-6; Mark 12.18-23 and parallels). In both cases the reason for the multiple marriages would have been that she was childless: bearing no child was grounds for divorce, since a man was obliged to father two children; and for the same reason, a childless widow had to marry a brother-in-law in order to give her first husband an heir. These were the Jewish customs, but something similar in Samaria would account for the woman’s having five husbands, and then coming to the well alone at noon, to avoid the other women who would have seen her childless state as a punishment from God.

Margaret Barker, King of the Jews: Temple Theology in John’s Gospel (London: SPCK, 2014), p. 216

I’m no Johannine scholar, but I have to say that Barker’s interpretation – that the woman of Samaria was repeatedly divorced because she had not been able to conceive – seems reasonable to me. So why do the (male) authors of the commentaries on John that I own seem to accept almost without discussion that the woman’s effectively a slut (Kruse is kinder in his commentary than, say, Beasley-Murray)? One of the things I find interesting here is that, if correct, Barker’s interpretation shows how easy it is, even in scholarship, (a) to assume the worst about others, and (b) to treat people as objects whose worth lies in their utility to us. What does it say about us, even today, when we’re more inclined readily to assume the woman of Samaria’s immorality than to probe harder (no innuendo intended) and consider alternative, perhaps more charitable, readings of her story?

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Thomas Aquinas and Final Causality

It’s notice time! Here’s a newly (print-)published article on Thomas Aquinas, final causality, and analogical predication (the title gives it away) that looks interesting.

Corey L. Barnes, ‘Ordered to the Good: Final Causality and Analogical Predication in Thomas Aquinas’, Modern Theology 30:4 (2014), pp. 433–453

Danger: low-flying birds
Thomas Aquinas’s treatments of analogical predication of the divine names have generated perennial and polarizing debates. This article expands the framework for analysis by examining the divine names through the lens of final causality and the convertibility of being and good, stressing agathological participation as crucial for understanding the metaphysical foundation for analogical predication of the divine names. This approach specifies how analogical predication of the divine names functions as an intermediary end subordinate to the ultimate end of the beatific vision and how the ultimate end of the beatific vision causes the intermediate end of analogical predication.

I don’t remember if I’ve already mentioned this, but Corey Barnes has also published on the subject in New Blackfriars:

Corey L. Barnes, ‘Natural Final Causality and Providence in Aquinas’, New Blackfriars 95 (2014), pp. 349–361

I’ve updated the C bibliography above to include both of these articles.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Why the Church Fears Genuine Love

‘Let love be genuine,’ writes Paul to a first-century congregation (Rom. 12:9). But I suspect that, generally speaking, the Church has little time for genuine love because it fears what genuine love might entail.

Not this kind of mask . . . unfortunately.
Let me elucidate. Earlier this year, I had what might be described as a kind of emotional breakdown. It’s not necessary for me to go into details; it’s sufficient for me simply to state that I reached a point where I felt I didn’t know who I was. For the previous eighteen months or so, I perceived people saying to me, in one way or another, that I should be someone I wasn’t. And so I began to conduct myself in certain ways to prove to others that I could be what they expected me to be. Eventually, I could no longer accommodate myself to others’ expectations, and the fragile mask I’d been wearing disintegrated so finely and quickly that I no longer knew if my self-perception approximated to any kind of reality. I’m sure this sounds melodramatic, but for me it was a very real experience. Even now, six months on, I’m still trying to decode the cipher of my identity.

It seems to me that many churches expect their members to behave in certain ways and struggle to know how to deal with genuine difference. In my case, I came to hold that whatever gifts and skills I believed I had for ministering in my local church context needed to be balanced by exercising gifts and skills I didn’t possess. It might simply be the circles in which I mix, but the church culture I inhabit at the moment seems to prize koinonia-as-gregariousness, uninhibited openness and aimless flexibility to such an extent that any other expression of faith is somehow second-class. Thus I – an introverted academic with a strong need for purpose and boundaries, and (I believe) with the gift of teaching (Rom. 12:7) – I began to motivate myself to behave in ways that don’t come naturally to me. Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think that having a particular personality means that a person will only act in particular ways; nor do I suppose that a person shouldn’t be stretched beyond how s/he normally behaves or prefers to behave. But I was denying who I was in order to be what I perceived others wanted me to be, and all in the name of serving the Christian community. No longer did I seek the reasons underlying church activities, because I had come to accept that Christian ministry was principally concerned with ‘hanging out’ or ‘going with the flow’. No longer did I think it desirable to drop doctrinally inspired or historically framed thoughts about faith into conversations, because such would alienate those still to commit wholeheartedly to Jesus. And being what I wasn’t, and believing that faith in Christ should only manifest itself in these aforementioned ways, almost sent me mad.

This is why I believe that, generally speaking, the Church has a problem with genuine love. All Christians are called to love, but it seems to me that for the Church, or for many in individual local churches, only certain expressions of love are welcome. But I would ask the questions: How do we love our neighbour as ourselves? How do I love my neighbour as myself? Or am I truly expected to love my neighbour as someone else, even that ‘someone else’ is an idealised person? And what role does the Holy Spirit play in all this? Is the Spirit acting to transform me to love as someone else, or to transform me so that I will love as the person I am, and am becoming, in Christ?

If I, an introverted academic with a (hopefully) proven teaching gift, am to love my neighbour with a love that is truly, truly genuine, am I meant to empty myself of all these skills in order to do so? Immediately this language calls to mind Christ, who emptied himself and became a slave (Phil. 2:7), and I can imagine people arguing that the imitation of Christ here means restraining one’s skills or withholding one’s talents in order to let the other blossom. After all, if a homeless person knocks on my door and begs for food, am I to talk about kenosis, perhaps with the aid of PowerPoint or a few well-designed handouts, or to practise kenosis by giving away bread? But this misses the point. I can hand out bread without having to stifle my gifts. And yet it seems to me that this is what is so often expected in the Church: not so much to practise kenosis, but to play a zero-sum game in which the rules of the game will favour only some.

Part of the issue, I’m sure, lies in how each local church expects its members to behave. If a local church has a specific focus – arguably, the focus of my own church is its food bank and outreach to the socially marginalised, both very good and necessary things in and of themselves – if a local church has a specific focus, how far is every member in that church expected to contribute towards that focus, even if his or her particular gifts are best used in other ways or better suited to other tasks? But the possibility of even asking this question is what leads me to suppose that the Church fears genuine love, because if, as Paul says, we let our love be genuine, then we will all recognise precisely how diversified the Church is as the prophets prophesy, the ministers minister, the teachers teach, and so on – and this would make church life intolerably complicated. It’s far easier for churches and church leaders to champion certain forms of loving, and to exhort every member of the congregation to submit themselves to these, than to grant people the space necessary for them to discern where the Spirit might be leading them to love in ways appropriate to them. The former is relatively easy to manage: ‘This is our mission plan; how can you contribute to it?’ But the latter is far more difficult to facilitate: ‘You have these gifts and skills; how can you exercise them in our local church context?’ Or, putting it differently: ‘How can you love genuinely, without having to be someone you’re not?’ This is something I’m still figuring out for myself in a church culture that wilfully obscures the face of the diverse body of Christ with a mask of grotesque uniformity.

Monday 15 September 2014

Teleology and Providence

There’s a new book on providence coming out at the end of October:

The book defends that there is both teleological order (design) and chance in non-living and in living systems of nature including man. This is done by giving exact definitions of different types of order and teleological order on the one hand and of different types of chance on the other. For their compatibility it is important to notice that any definition of chance presupposes some kind of order relative to that we can speak of chance. Thus also in evolution which is some growth of some order and for which a detailed definition is given in chpt. 13 chance and degrees of freedom play an essential role.

A further purpose of the book is to show that both the existing order and the existing chance in nature are compatible with a global teleological plan which is God’s providence. However concerning the execution of God’s plan not everything is done or caused by himself but “God created things in such a way that they themselves can create something” (Gödel, MAX PHIL). A reason for that is that God is neither all-causing nor all-willing although he is almighty. This is connected with the result of chpts. 15 and 16 that also human freedom and evil are compatible with God’s providence.

Saturday 30 August 2014

Slamming Social Trinitarianism’s Slammers – and Barth’s Bottom-line

Gijsbert van den Brink’s defence of social trinitarianism in the latest IJST is worth a read. Although he makes many interesting points, this one in particular stood out to me:

As long as social trinitarianism subscribes to the orthodox ‘three hypostaseis in one ousia’ formula, it is not at all clear why it should be at odds with Nicene Christianity.

Gijsbert van den Brink, ‘Social Trinitarianism: A Discussion of Some Recent Theological Criticisms’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 16:3 (2014), pp. 331–350; quotation from p. 341

I think this is a fair point!

(Van den Brink also summarises what he describes as ‘Barth’s Bottom-line’, that ‘[w]hen we have to do with God’s revelation . . . , we have to do with God Godself’ (p. 349). I really hope that the phrase ‘Barth’s Bottom-line’ doesn’t catch on. It conjures up unpleasant images.)

Thursday 28 August 2014

Ian Paul on the End Times and Jesus’s Return

Over the last few months or so, I’ve begun to read Ian Paul’s Psephizo blog. He writes intelligent and thought-provoking posts on a range of issues, and I for one have appreciated many of them, even when I find myself disagreeing with his views. Anyway, he’s written quite a few posts on eschatology, and now he’s provided an overview of these that some of you may find useful. So make like a chess player and check it out!