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.

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!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Ordering the Times: Providence and Foreknowledge

Foreknowledge fans, rejoice! Here are details of an interesting-looking new book on the topic:

T. Ryan Byerly, The Mechanics of Divine Foreknowledge and Providence: A Time-Ordering Account (Bloomsbury Studies in Philosophy of Religion)

How exactly could God achieve infallible foreknowledge of every future event, including the free actions of human persons? How could God exercise careful providence over these same events? Byerly offers a novel response to these important questions by contending that God exercises providence and achieves foreknowledge by ordering the times.

The first part of the book defends the importance of the above questions. After characterizing the contemporary freedom-foreknowledge debate, Byerly argues that it has focused too narrowly on a certain argument for theological fatalism, which attempts to show that the existence of infallible divine foreknowledge poses a unique threat to the existence of creaturely libertarian freedom. Byerly contends, however, that bare existence of infallible divine foreknowledge cannot threaten freedom in this way; at most, the mechanics whereby this foreknowledge is achieved might so threaten human freedom.

In the second part of the book, Byerly develops a model for understanding the mechanics whereby infallible foreknowledge is achieved that would not threaten creaturely libertarian freedom. According to the model, God infallibly foreknows every future event because God has placed the times that constitute the history of the world in primitive earlier-than relations to one another. After defending the consistency of this model of the mechanics of divine foreknowledge with creaturely libertarian freedom, the author applies it to divine providence more generally. A novel defense of concurrentism is the result.

The Mechanics of Divine Foreknowledge and Providence is set to be available from 23 October 2014.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Book Review: Martin Bunton, The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict

Book Review: Martin Bunton, The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

It’s probably to my shame, but I’m not an especially political animal. But the recent violence in the Middle East has persuaded me finally to try to grasp something of what’s going on. And now that I’ve read Martin Bunton’s The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction, I feel that I have a basic understanding of why this area of the world in particular is so volatile.

The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict concentrates on events in historic Palestine from 1897 to 2007, from Ottoman Palestine through to the present-day attempts to reach a mutually satisfactory end to the tensions. In the concluding chapter, Bunton briefly outlines the period from 2007 to 2012 and offers some thoughts on what steps could be taken to achieve peace.

Bunton’s approach is to focus on the political angles and avoid any religious ones apart from where necessary. I dare say that some will find this disappointing, but it seems right to me that Bunton should have organised his material in this way – assuming, of course, that he is correct to say in the first place that the earliest Zionists weren’t concerned to ensure that the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria formed part of any new Jewish state. And so what comes across clearly to me in The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict is the sheer desperation of the human need for a home and for roots. On the basis of Bunton’s commentary, I can empathise to an extent with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, even as I lament the ways in which both sides have pursued their goals, and am angered by the egregious effects of empire that have treated this region as little more than a plaything for larger or more powerful nations seeking mainly to secure their own interests.

The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict is not perfect – Bunton’s prose is often too dry for me, and some of the maps and diagrams could have been much clearer – but I thoroughly recommend it as a helpful introduction to the matter.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A New(ish?) Book on Barth, Calvin and Schleiermacher on Providence – and a Forthcoming Book on Providence and Disability

It’s amazing what a quick browse through Amazon reveals. Here are two newish books on providence. Barth fans will particularly want the first one, I’m sure. I hadn’t seen it listed before, but Amazon says the paperback’s been out since January! Anyway, to business:

This dissertation stages an intervention in Reformed readings of the doctrine of providence, particularly around Barth's critical interpretation of the tradition stemming from Calvin and Schleiermacher, and provides a critical and constructive assessment of Barth's contribution. The author argues that while Barth advances the discussion in key ways, his reading of Calvin in particular is significantly hampered by his running challenge to Schleiermacher. Following an assessment of Barth's critique of the Reformed position, the author provides an extensive reading of Calvin's writings, demonstrating that Calvin is far more concerned with the Christological basis and Christian meaning of providence than Barth's theology recognizes; as well, Schleiermacher's theological construction problematizes aspects of Barth's reading. The upshot of this work is that each of these theologians provide critical safeguards and soundings that need to be heard in concert and mutual correction for a robust doctrine of divine providence.

And here’s the second one:

Human disability raises the hardest questions of human existence and leads directly to the problem of causality – the underlying intuition that someone, divine or human, must have been at fault. Christian theology has responded with almost singular attention to Providence, the expression of divine will in the world as the cause of all things. This preoccupation holds captive the Christian imagination, leaving the Church ill-equipped to engage the human reality of disability. Theological reflection, argues Hans Reinders, can arise only as a second-order activity that follows after real attention to the experience of disability. This book offers a more excellent way to address this difficult subject. Reinders guides readers away from an identification of disability with tragedy – via lament – to the possibility of theological hope and its expression of God's presence. In particular, Reinders reconsiders two of the main traditional sources in Christian thought about Providence, the biblical text of Job and the theological work of John Calvin. Throughout the book, first-person accounts of disability open up biblical texts and Christian theology–rather than the other way around. In the end, a theology of Providence begins with the presence of the Spirit, not with the problem of causality.

Reinders’s volume immediately catches my eye, though I’ll be interested to see what Kim has to say about Calvin. Sigh. . . I wish the providence of God would so arrange for me to have both of these books. And the time to read them.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Books, Books, Glorious Books: Church House Bookshop’s Summer Sale

Ladies and gentlemen, Church House Bookshop is having a summer sale. There are some pretty good discounts, up to 80% off in some cases. Details are here, and you may end up spending a few quid – like I did. Enjoy!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Psalm 88 as Permission to Rant

Earlier this week, I attended Evensong at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. The psalm for this service was Psalm 88. This was the first time that I’d ever heard this particular psalm read during a public service. I guess this psalm in particular doesn’t lend itself to public worship, at least, not in the ways that public services are usually conceived and delivered. So what is the point of this bleakest of psalms?

The spur for this blog post is a short article from the latest edition of Theology. Here’s the closing paragraph:

Psalm 88 is, and has been for thousands of years, the means to bring honest, sometimes violent, emotions, to God. It allows us to demand that God should act in response to our distress. Anger is a reality of our human behaviour as is the desire for vengeance and retaliation. To deny it is to lie to ourselves and to lie to God. We must be allowed to express the reality of our emotions as they are expressed in the reality of the psalmist situation in Psalm 88. In a culture of praise and adoration towards God, Psalm 88 gives permission to rant at God, removing the guilt of those who are angry with God and who feel that their faith is somehow diminished by their feelings. Through the honest expression of emotion, people may discover a closer, deeper relationship developing with God. It allows him to reach us through that red mist of anguish. Psalm 88 gives permission for us to voice our struggles to reconcile ourselves with what we believe God in all his power and might intends for us and our world, when we are surrounded by disaster, violence and despair.

Beverley Jameson, ‘Difficult Texts: Psalm 88’, Theology 117:5 (2014), p. 359

Jameson makes the point succinctly: ‘In a culture of praise and adoration towards God, Psalm 88 gives permission to rant at God’. There is no easy resolution to pain, and lament accompanies the path from loss to wholeness while recognising that the path cannot be avoided. A church culture that denies the necessity of this path is a church that doesn’t know how to handle the darkest human emotions and doesn’t know how pastorally to care for one another.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper on Psalm 88 and argued something similar to Jameson, but also linked it to the Eucharist. Here’s my conclusion:

To conclude, let us consider one further way in which a space may be provided for people to worship in all circumstances. Holy Communion was once the central practice of our services, the place where the Church met with God. Unfortunately, it has been usurped somewhat by our musical worship. How might a renewed emphasis on Communion help us to grieve as well as praise?

Traditionally, Communion is the place where the worshipping community of the Church meets with God as it remembers Christ. This is no mere recollection but both a remembrance of his sacrificial death and the risen Christ’s promised return; as the liturgy puts it, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ These three aspects are important because they address the importance of appropriate worship in suffering.

First, in remembering that ‘Christ has died’, we recognise that Christ’s body is the body broken, that his blood is the blood shed. To participate in Communion is to remember that in his own life, at least according to Mark’s Gospel, Christ experienced the absence of God and died without resolution: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34) In uttering this anguished question, Christ identifies closely with the persistent cry of Heman in Ps. 88. Though our musical worship often gives thanks to God for Christ’s suffering, we tend not to consider what it meant even for Christ to face God’s absence. The Communion meal redresses this balance.

However, secondly, ‘Christ is risen’. The Church moves from considering Christ’s death to acknowledging his resurrection. Though Christ endured immense pain, it was not for nothing; in the redemptive purposes of God, the cross was the essential means by which God reconciled all things to himself through Christ (Colossians 1:20). In triumphing over death by the cross (Colossians 2:15), Christ has removed the sting from death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57) that so over-shadowed both himself in Mark’s account of the crucifixion and Heman’s fear in Ps. 88. There is real cause for celebration in Communion!

Yet whilst Christ is risen, the Church is not; this sounds a more eschatological note as we remind ourselves that, thirdly, ‘Christ will come again’. Paul writes, ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26, my emphasis). By participating in Communion, the Church eagerly awaits its final consummation. This, of course, is a future consummation; for this reason, the Communion meal roots the Church in the present age and discourages it from the delusion that Christ’s victory over death has removed not just its sting but its existence, too.

Such importance indicates that the Communion meal is no simple recollection. Through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the bread and the wine are used as vehicles through which the Church may know of Christ’s presence; but the Spirit’s activity here only serves to emphasise that for the moment, Christ is also absent. He is not bodily present, but sits at the right hand of the Father (e.g. Ephesians 1:20), even though he also dwells in our hearts (Ephesians 3:17). For the suffering Christian, the Communion meal deals both with the absurdity of belonging to the absent Christ and the hope of future resolution. The meal is both an emetic that recognises human suffering and a sumptuous feast that delights in the promise of resolution when its risen Lord returns. In practice, the meal is the place where Christians paradoxically may meet with the absent God, and the inclusion of a psalm such as Ps. 88 that wrestles with the experience of exclusion can only serve to elaborate upon this mystery and thus broaden the scope and resonance of our worship.

Terry J. Wright, ‘The Darkness of Isolation: Suffering Worship’ (unpublished paper, 2006)