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, 2 April 2014

‘The Messiah-plus’ and Clergy Expectations

Here’s another quotation from the latest edition of the Church Times:

I am told that there is a good number of people still coming forward for the ordained ministry; but it appears that there are also good numbers leaving early, for various reasons. I recently sat with an individual who has been a priest for 18 years. He has found his present parish “the least Christian place on earth”.

He went on: “I was thinking it was time to move. I knew I couldn’t do another December, it made me ill; so I started looking at job adverts. They all wanted ‘the Messiah-plus’ – you know, Jesus with a family and extensive PR experience – and I just thought, ‘No, I’ve had enough of this.’”

Simon Parke, ‘Vocation: a fitting story,’ Church Times, March 28, 2014, p. 15.

It’s true: just glance through the vacancies section of the Church Times and you’ll see all manner of requirements. Very often, all that’s missing is something along the lines of ‘must be immune to Kryptonite’.

Last year, I was not recommended for ordinand training by a Bishops’ Advisory Panel. Among other things, the Panel’s report on me suggested that I had unrealistic expectations of the demands on a minister’s time. Honestly, I’m not sure what the Panel meant by this. I spent a lot of time at the Panel explaining how, as an introvert, I’d need to ensure that my time was structured so that I could safeguard my own sanity and preserve something of family life. I know quite a few stories of clergy burnout and family breakdown, and at the Panel I probably emphasised how much I didn’t want to go down the same path. Is this stance what led the Panel to believe that I had unrealistic expectations? I don’t know; the Panel’s report didn’t really say much more on this front. But arguably, I have very realistic expectations of the demands on a minister’s time, and my position constitutes a small but genuine resistance to what I see as the unrealistic expectation that clergy must be on-call 24-7 and be, as described above, ‘the Messiah-plus’.

The problem here is that I suspect that many within the Church of England, ordained and lay, fully endorse the idea that clergy have to be all things to all people – possibly on the basis that (a) God has called them to this form of ministry, and that (b) they have to be all things to all people (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-22). If I am right in my suspicions here, then I think the Church of England – and any other denomination or Christian person who thinks similarly – needs to revise its unrealistic expectations of how much any one person can do.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Fresh Expressions of a Homogeneous Church

I’m ambivalent towards the concept of fresh expressions of church. The Fresh Expressions website says:

A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.

This is fine as far as it goes. If a fresh expression is a form of outreach, then I’m all for it. Indeed, in the days of old, I occasionally entertained ideas to help set up and be part of an expression of church for those who didn’t fit the usual pattern of churchgoers. But while I still see the importance of such groups for those who are ‘outside’ church, I am worried that such groups are not sufficiently integrated into a wider (or narrower, I suppose, depending on your perspective) concept of ‘church’. Consider this, also found on the Fresh Expressions website:

Fresh expressions:

·       serve those outside church;
·       listen to people and enter their culture;
·       make discipleship a priority;
·       form church.

That last bullet point is what concerns me. If any given fresh expression of church is set up ultimately to ‘form church’, then the church that is formed is surely going to be the model of  homogeneity – unlike the Church, the body of Christ, which is as heterogeneous as any body is likely to be! So my ambivalence towards fresh expressions stems from my perception that a fresh expression of church is going to lack serious integration with the more institutional churches and, indeed, other fresh expressions.

With all this in mind, I wish to quote from a book review in this week’s Church Times.

One contributor, somewhat surprisingly, claims that “nothing is more exciting . . . than when bishops take informed and prayerful risks, and share prophetic wisdom.” Perhaps one risk that bishops might occasionally need to take is lovingly to call to order an increasingly anarchic situation rather than, as seems to be the current tendency, seeking to devolve as many decisions as possible to a local level.

Edward Dowler, ‘Engaging with modern society,’ review of Generous Ecclesiology: Church, World and the Kingdom of God, edited by Julie Gittoes, Brutus Green, and James Heard, Church Times, March 28, 2014, p. 23.

Dowler seems to have put his finger on something, at least for me. I recognise that much of my ambivalence towards fresh expressions of church stems from church structure and church governance. I’m a fully paid-up small-‘e’ episcopalian; I see nothing inherently wrong with hierarchy. Also, I’m inclined to think that in a church setting, having a common liturgy and pattern of worship is necessary both to help establish a denomination’s identity and to grant congregations within that denomination sufficient flexibility in its worship without losing its particularity to the larger body. Any given congregation can be local and (inter)national. In this respect, and despite its problems (mostly its often-ambiguous rubric), I think that Common Worship functions well enough to establish a particular church congregation as part of the Church of England and to allow each of those congregations the freedom to tailor its services to local need. But I can’t help but wonder if those who favour fresh expressions are, at heart, congregationalist – which isn’t a problem in itself, of course, but could lead to differences of opinion in a small-‘e’ episcopal environment such as the Church of England.

Am I suggesting that small-‘e’ episcopal churches distance themselves from congregationalist fresh expressions, or vice versa? No, of course not; but I think further questions need to be asked about ecclesial identity – certainly from within the context of the Church of England (‘What does it mean to be part of the Church of England?’), and certainly with regard to the apparent expectation that a fresh expression will one day form church. (I should have made more of this earlier: What does it mean to form church? Is a fresh expression of church intended to become a church?) And there are questions about how the liturgical tradition of the Church of England can be used to serve the cause of fresh expressions. If Common Worship is as flexible as I think it is, then how can its service structures be employed in service of the wider evangelistic aims of the church?

One final observation. Earlier I noted that occasionally I had entertained ideas about helping to establish and be part of an expression of church for those who didn’t fit the usual pattern of churchgoers. But why did I want to do this? No doubt it was because I perceived that I didn’t fit the usual pattern of churchgoers, and I suppose I wanted to worship in a style that suited me alongside others who shared my presuppositions about church, life, etc. I suppose I still do; and cynically, I’d say it’s this sort of attitude that leads to homogeneity in the church, and it’s an attitude we all have to greater or lesser degrees. But this is why I need – and, I would venture, why we all need – to be part of a heterogeneous church, so that I can be challenged to be more than I would prefer to be.

Let me conclude with two questions that I suspect can’t be answered definitively: Do fresh expressions of church necessarily lead to homogeneous expressions of church? And how can prima facie heterogeneous expressions of church (e.g. a typical Sunday service) be so truly heterogeneous that the binary opposition of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the church becomes an absurdity?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A Supervenient Trinity?

Here’s an article – currently available only as an early view online version – that might interest some:

Matthew Zaro Fisher, ‘A Supervenient Trinity: An Alternative to Latin and Social Trinitarian Theories’, The Heythrop Journal, 2014. doi: 10.1111/heyj.12138

The Latin Trinity (LT) and the Social Trinity (ST) represent the two dominant approaches for interpreting the doctrine of the Trinity in contemporary philosophical theology. Both approaches have consequences for Christian theology, however, and I believe that neither sufficiently overcomes the charges of modalism or tritheism, respectively. Moreover, the charge of the overall logical incoherency of the doctrine of the Trinity remains a viable criticism. In order to defend the doctrine of the Trinity against charges of incoherency, while avoiding the modalistic and tritheistic leanings of the LT and ST models, I argue that the unitary nature of God-as-three-hypostases is best understood in terms of a relationship of supervenience between the revelation of (1) Deut. 6:4 and (2) the Gospel of John. The Hypostases of the Trinity supervene on the unitary identity of God insofar as to be ‘God’ is to entail the perichoretic relationship of unbegottenness, begottenness, and spiratation (procession). The Supervenient Trinity (SvT), as an analogical model, provides a way to understand God as (1) and (2) that better avoids the modalist and tritheistic difficulties raised by the LT and the ST approaches.

Looks interesting, doesn’t it? It’ll be interesting to see if this article has any significant impact on the current resurgence (if resurgence it be) of classical trinitarianism.

(By the way, am I the only one who near-detests the use of ‘doi’ referencing?)

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Providence and Other Religions

Tom Greggs, ‘The Lord of All: Rediscovering the Christian Doctrine of Providence for the World’, with a response from David Clough, in Hannah Bacon and Wayne Morris with Steve Knowles (eds.), Transforming Exclusion: Engaging Faith Perspectives (London: T&T Clark, 2011), pp. 44–62

‘The Lord of All’ is divided into three parts of varying lengths: Tom Greggs’s main essay is followed by David Clough’s response and further comments by Greggs.

Tom Greggs’s Essay

Is there a place within systematic theology for ‘the religious other’? In this absorbing essay, Tom Greggs finds scope within the Christian doctrine of providence for such a place, as this doctrine concerns God’s lordship over all, including all those who practise faiths not in the Christian tradition. Thus the Christian doctrine of providence has something important to contribute to interfaith dialogue, and the potential to correct prejudiced accounts of the place of non-Christian religions in the world. Greggs expresses the aim of his essay in this way:

this chapter seeks to influence the preaching of evangelical Christians in terms of the issue of the exclusion of the religious other, by attending to one motif of Christian theology that reminds the preacher of the universality of God’s grace. (Greggs, ‘The Lord of All’, p. 46).

The majority of Greggs’s essay is an exploration of Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence. For Barth, God’s providence is pervasive and touches everything; but it is important to remember that God rules over all things as the King of Israel, and that the salvation or glorification of all things results from God’s victory in Jesus Christ. Despite this exclusivist basis, Barth’s doctrine of providence does intend to include all people and all things within the scope of God’s providence. God is the lord of all, but is so as the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so on. Greggs refers to this as ‘a move of “differentiated exclusivisms”.’ He comments,

there (exclusively) is only one God, who is (inclusively) the God of all the world. . . . While knowledge of God and God’s special work is known only through the salvation history of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, that exclusivity does not mean that God is not the God who in His providence guides all the world as well. . . (‘The Lord of All’, p. 50)

Moreover, as it is concerned with the lordship of one God, the doctrine of providence cannot be reduced to a religious or philosophical system or principle. Greggs distances himself from Barth when the latter effectively says that Jews and especially Muslims do not know God’s rule as completely as do Christians, though he adds that Barth’s aim is not to slate these faiths as such. It is simply that on the basis of their recognition of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, Christians have deeper knowledge of God’s rule than either Jews or Muslims.

To explicate this stance further, Greggs picks up on Barth’s notion that Christians are those who recognise the universal lordship of God in Christ and actively seek to participate in God’s providence in faith, obedience, and prayer (see also Christopher C. Green’s interpretation of Barth on this score). Those who do not claim faith in Christ also participate in God’s providence, but do so passively. Greggs’s point is that while Christians recognise and actively participate in the universal lordship of God in Christ, people of other faiths still come under this same universal lordship but respond to it differently.

The universal lordship of God in Christ means, says Greggs, that Christians must be positive in their assessment of the world, for there is no place in the world from which God is excluded. Christians are called positively to witness to God’s action in Christ and so towards a true monotheism in the place of idolatry. Moreover, this monotheism is to be interpreted as faith in God as Trinity: Christians participate in Christ and in turn participate by the Holy Spirit in God’s universal lordship. On this account, Christians know (but do not necessarily understand) God’s universal lordship more fully than other people. As exclusivist as this is, Greggs emphasises that rather than keeping this news to themselves, Christians are called to proclaim the universality of God’s lordship to the whole world. The doctrine of providence is not for Christians only, for God’s purpose is to glorify the whole of creation in Christ.

As appreciative as he is of Barth, Greggs wants to push beyond him. Why should there not be differentiated covenants of God with creation? There are already instances of this in Scripture, such as God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-17); and there is noted in Genesis (16:9-15; 21:9-20) ‘a special relationship of God with the children of Ishmael, just as there is with the children of Isaac, who do not enter the new covenant.’ (‘The Lord of All’, p. 56. I admit I find this sentence rather confusing, as to me it could imply that the children of Isaac do not enter the new covenant. Greggs’s meaning is surely that the children of Ishmael remain in a special relationship with God even though the new covenant is not realised through them.) Greggs’s overall point here seems to be that even though the one true God is the God and Father of Jesus Christ, whom Christians know and worship – this same God, as God over all, is also ‘the God of Ishmael, of Melchizadek, of Rahab, of Jethro and even of the pagan centurions.’ (‘The Lord of All’, p. 57). Greggs concludes:

Systematic theology must take seriously the reality that the church’s Lord is the Lord of all, and should recognize that in breaking down boundaries, we are likely to find God on the other side, there already. It is this message which systematic theology must make clear to a generation of preachers facing the complexities of a pluralist world. (‘The Lord of All’, p. 57).

David Clough’s Response to Greggs

While David Clough approves of Greggs’s suggestion of multiple, differentiated covenants, he is not so sure that Barth’s distinction between active and passive participation in God’s providence is as clear-cut as Greggs presents it. Clough notes, for example, that although the Egyptians provided for the Israelites fleeing Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36), this is surely an instance of unconscious but active participation in God’s providence by a people who refused to recognise God as lord. Similarly, the activity of non-Christian relief organisations in response to 2010’s Haiti earthquake surely participated actively in God’s providence.

Clough also raises the issue about God’s relation to non-Abrahamic faiths. It is relatively easy to discuss providence in relation to Judaism or Islam, but what shape does such a discussion take when, say, Buddhism constitutes the religious other? Clough wonders if the Noahide covenant applies in this instance, as it might do also for the non-religious or non-human other, or even if a language other than that of covenant needs to be employed.

Clough’s final observation concerns the relation between providence, Christian mission and the religious other: If God is lord of all, what place is there for Christian mission?

Greggs’s Final Comments

Greggs offers brief closing comments, responding to each of Clough’s observations. First, Greggs sees the prayer, ‘Thy will be done’, as crucial in distinguishing between active and passive participation in God’s lordship. Those who actively seek to coordinate their lives with God’s will are those who actively participate in God’s lordship. I am not totally convinced of this, in so far as I am sure anyone could pray this sort of prayer in principle without specifically needing to profess faith in Christ.

Secondly, Greggs recognises that a plurality of engagement with the religious other is necessary. Indeed, concerning non-Abrahamic faiths, ‘the dialogue concerning providence will be significantly different from faith to faith.’ (‘The Lord of All’, p. 61). Overall, the Noahide covenant may prove meaningful for those who already accept some form of divine sovereignty, but a more universal category such as a covenant of creation or the Adamic covenant may be necessary for practitioners of other faiths. I can agree with this to an extent, but I would be interested to know how these covenantal concepts would then be interpreted in the light of Christ. Greggs admits that he needs further to reflect on the issues surrounding multiple covenants.

And finally, Greggs notes that the mission of the Church is primarily to witness to and realise the reality and lordship of Christ; the mission of the Church is necessarily directed towards the (religious) other.


‘The Lord of All’ is a clearly written and engaging study of Barth’s doctrine of providence and its potential implications for Christian dialogue with the religious other. In my opinion, Greggs does not provide any substantial answers to the questions raised within this dialogue, but he does explain why it is important for Christians – especially those of an evangelical persuasion – not automatically to dismiss the place of other religions in this world: God is not necessarily absent from them. Greggs also does well to emphasise that the dialogue between Christianity and the religious other cannot be reduced to common denominators that strip each faith of its particularity. To include is not to homogenise, and perhaps Greggs’s main achievement here is his emphasis on God’s universal lordship over a world of incredible diversity.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Problem with ‘Inclusion’

If to include means to bring what is outside or marginal into the centre, then in what sense does this really challenge the legitimacy of that centre? Does it not instead reinforce the power and normative nature of that centre, and in so doing, fail to destabilize or challenge patriarchy, heterosexism, anthropocentrism and colonizing approaches to sustainability, and so on. Indeed, inclusion read this way translates as an acceptance of the other on the grounds that they become like ‘us’. We ‘accept’ disabled persons, for example, but try and ensure they are ‘able’ to live a ‘normal’ (that is, able-bodied) life; we embrace the religious other, but only on the grounds that they share similar views to our own. Such a reading of inclusion does not respect or truly affirm difference; instead, it continues to uphold particular features of identity as normative and ‘includes’ by trying to make that which is different the same. In this sense, the dynamics of inclusion are exposed as the dynamics of assimilation and homogenization.

Hannah Bacon and Wayne Morris with Steve Knowles (eds.), Transforming Exclusion: Engaging Faith Perspectives (London: T&T Clark, 2011), p. ix

Monday, 24 February 2014

Temple Studies Group, 2014 Symposium: Temple Textiles: Veils and Vestments

Symposium VII of the Temple Studies Group will convene from 10.00 am – 4.00 pm on 14 June, 2014, in King’s College London’s Chapel.

Confirmed speakers are:

Bruce Clark of The Economist, a religious affairs specialist whose family are the oldest firm of linen manufacturers in Ireland:
The Meaning of Linen in the Temple

The Blue, the Purple and the Scarlet: The Making and Meaning of the Coloured Fabrics in the Temple

‘The Barest Alphabet of Reverence’: Vestments and Victorian Ritualism

David Gazely of Watts & Co, the vestment makers, will talk about the design and making of vestments today.

The booking fee is £35, though I think (and I stress ‘I think’) there may be a discount for students. For more details, email the Temple Studies Group.

Friday, 17 January 2014

A Q&A with Greg Boyd

It’s probable that most of you already know this, but over at Rachel Held Evans’s blog, there’s an interesting Q&A session with Greg Boyd – he of Open Theism fame. It’s worth reading, even if you usually consider yourself above such topics.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Incarnation, Divine Action, and the Sacraments

If we suppose that human agents extend the work of salvation in the sacraments without reference to Christ, we blunder. If, however, we reject the idea that human beings and human agency are drawn into the work of salvation at all – so, for instance, as to reject a sacramental approach – then we are in just as much danger of missing what the Incarnation was about, only in the opposite direction. Once the Word has become flesh, the domain of divine action is found among human beings and is given to human beings: in a remarkable way, it is placed into our hands.

Andrew Davison, Why Sacraments? (London: SPCK, 2013), p. 3

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Eucharist as a Protest Against Evil

Terence Cuneo, ‘Protesting Evil’, Theology Today 70:4 (2013), pp. 430–444

This is a fascinating article in the latest edition of Theology Today about, putting it crudely, the Eucharist as a protest against evil. Terence Cuneo argues that by celebrating the Eucharist – and celebrating it properly, with the liturgy’s petitions and blessings – a symbolic stand is taken against evil. When the Eucharist is celebrated, the wider community is blessed, and the evil present within that community is denounced.

Throughout ‘Protesting Evil’, Cuneo is appreciative of ‘the ancient liturgies of the Christian East’ (p. 436). Therefore, it’s no surprise that he offers a warning:

The church’s understanding and celebration of the Eucharist has undergone significant alteration in the last five hundred years. Large stretches of the Christian community rarely celebrate the Eucharist. And the liturgical scripts they employ to celebrate it tend to be very different from those which we find in the ancient liturgies; they are considerably starker, raising no awareness that the eucharistic meal occurs in the shadow of evil. Nor, for that matter, do they prescribe the performance of actions that allow us symbolically to stand against evil in the celebration of the Eucharist. The dynamic of petition and blessing is absent. This alteration in the Christian community’s understanding and celebration of the Eucharist seems to me a turn for the worse. I say this not primarily out of the conviction that the liturgical practices of the contemporary Christian community should more nearly articulate with those of the ancient church. I say it because, to live well, we need ways of symbolically being against evil by symbolically being for the good. (p. 443).

I’m no expert in the history of the development of the Eucharist, or in its theology, but it strikes me that in the Church of England, the Eucharistic Prayers are fundamentally prayers of thanksgiving and blessing – there’s a notable absence of protest in these prayers. I see nothing wrong with this. But the structure of Holy Communion Order One (see p. 166 of the main volume of Common Worship) also posits a close link between the Prayers of Intercession, the Peace, and the Eucharistic Prayer. Together, these should contribute to the conviction that in the Eucharist, God in Christ – and, through the Holy Spirit, the Church as the body of Christ – protests against evil, and blesses those caught up in it.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Søren, and Thanks for All the Fish

Søren Kierkegaard… I probably discovered this Great Dane (only to be bettered in the greatness respect by Peter Schmeichel) around 1994, when I read through the first edition of Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction, but his writings only began to inspire me around 1997 when Alan Torrance gave him the thumbs up. The extent of my admiration was summed up in an essay I submitted in 1998 as part of Colin Gunton’s KCL module ‘A Selected Modern Theologian’, in which I explored Kierkegaard’s influence on Karl Barth. (Despite the module title, ‘A Selected Modern Theologian’ always looked at Barth.) Anyway, it’s been a while since I read anything to do with Kierkegaard, but Grove Books has now published Matthew D. Kirkpatrick’s Søren Kierkegaard, which can be bought here for the not-too shabby sum of £3.95. Enjoy!