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, 28 July 2014

Disunity in Christ: The Most Important Book You'll Read This Year

It’s hyperbolic, sure, but the title of this post isn’t far from the truth. I’ve just finished reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), and I believe that this is one of those rare books that every minister or preacher – oh, forget that, every Christian should read.

Cleveland is a social psychologist, and in Disunity in Christ she explores why so many Christians affirm the need to celebrate diversity in the Church but yet fail to follow through on these aspirations. She recognises that people are naturally drawn to those who are like-minded or from similar or identical cultural backgrounds, but argues convincingly that participation in the body of Christ gives us a far more basic identity than even such important identity markers as gender or race. The Church as the body of Christ falls into disunity when its members privilege their ‘natural’ identity over the fact that they are members of the body of Christ.

The majority of the book is taken up with Cleveland’s treatment of the various cultural group dynamics that can influence Christian behaviour for ill. Of particular interest to me were her comments on homogeneity in the Church (it’s not good!) and how often we confuse our cultural beliefs with our faith in Christ.

I must confess that, at times, I felt quite disheartened by the enormity of the task true reconciliation and cross-cultural work presents. And so, if the book has a main weakness, I would suggest that maybe there could have been more hints or examples as to how negative group dynamics can be overcome. However, Cleveland’s fine analysis of the problems surely contains within itself the seeds of reconciliation, and, as each chapter concludes with some study questions, there is plenty of scope to discuss the issues and act upon them.

To conclude, let me wax hyperbolic once more: Disunity in Christ is the most important book you’ll read this year.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Stanley Hauerwas on Matthew 13

In preparation for a sermon on Sunday, I’ve been reading Stanley Hauerwas’s commentary on Matthew in the SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible series. This will shock some of you, I’m sure, but I’ve never read any of his work before, beyond a couple of book reviews and what I’ve read on others’ blogs. There’s some good stuff in the chapter on Matthew 13. Here’s one interesting quotation in particular:

The church in America [and, I dare say, in much of the Westernised world] simply is not a soil capable of growing deep roots. It may seem odd that wealth makes it impossible to grow the word. Wealth, we assume, should create the power necessary to do much good. But wealth stills the imagination because we are not forced, as the disciples of Jesus were forced, to be an alternative to the world that only necessity can create. Possessed by possessions, we desire to act in the world, often on behalf of the poor, without having to lose our possessions. . . . A church that is shrinking in membership may actually be a church in which the soil of the gospel is being prepared in which deeper roots are possible.

Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew. SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible (London: SCM Press, 2006), p. 130

And here’s another (lengthy) quotation, which partially relates to the doctrine of providence:

an image of Jesus
We do know, like those in his hometown, that our familiarity with Jesus can make it impossible for us to recognize him when he comes to us thirsty, a stranger, naked, or a prisoner. We are burdened by our images of Jesus, none more destructive that the Jesus who has nothing better to do than to love us, to help us love our families, and to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In Matthew’s gospel we can catch only faint glimpses of that Jesus. So the question remains for us whether we would provide hospitality to the Jesus who seems to have better things to do than satisfy our needs.

Jesus observes . . . that “prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” Accordingly, Jesus places himself in the great line of Israel’s prophets who were rejected by those whom it was their task to serve as prophets. . . . Jesus is the end of prophecy because he is God’s word whom the prophets have said was to come. For him to be without honor in his own country, in his own home city, therefore, is not just another rejection of an idealist. It is the rejection of the one who alone is
able to save Israel.

His rejection, moreover, is providential. What often appears as a disaster in the Old Testament retrospectively is providence. . . . Jesus is rejected by his own, but that rejection allows time for the Gentiles to be brought into the covenant (Rom. 9–11). Such judgments cannot be made prospectively as if we could anticipate God’s providential care, but retrospectively they can be a form of faithfulness.

Hauerwas, Matthew, pp. 135-6
another image of Jesus
That last sentence especially stands out to me. I wonder if it’s the necessary corrective to the possible triumphalism Natan Mladin detected in the quotation from Reinhold Bernhardt I posted last week. With Bernhardt, we can be ‘certain’ that God is present and active, and objectively so – but, with Hauerwas, our first-person faith-perspective recognition of this objective divine presence and activity can only happen in hindsight, and after much reflection.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Book Review: Christian Tapp and Edmund Runggaldier (eds.), God, Eternity, and Time

Christian Tapp and Edmund Runggaldier (eds.), God, Eternity, and Time (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011)

I am grateful to Ashgate for the review copy.

How are we to conceive of God’s relation to that remarkably complicated philosophical construct we label ‘time’? Is God in time or outside of time? Should we prefer to say that God is transcendently immanent within the universe, or, conversely, that God is immanently transcendent over all things – and is there a difference? Moreover, can we argue coherently that an atemporal deity can act temporally, or that a temporal God is free from time, that is, not imprisoned by time? These are important questions to ask, and much of the theology we imbibe through our ecclesial practices is likely to be affected and even formed by the provisional answers.

As a technical contribution to the advancement of discussion of these kinds of issues, Christian Tapp and Edmund Runggaldier have collated papers delivered at a conference on ‘God, Eternity, and Time’ held in Berlin during September 2008. The collection consists of research provided by ten scholars, the majority from the United States and continental Europe, and is divided into four main sections. Part I offers defences of the notion of divine timelessness classically understood, and here we find work by Robert Pasnau, Eleonore Stump, and Thomas Schärtl. Pasnau’s paper, ‘On Existing All at Once’, is a fascinating exposition of the concept of timelessness, and Pasnau argues that the best way to understand God’s eternality is to hold that God lacks temporal parts and so exists all at once. Stump’s essay on ‘Eternity, Simplicity, and Presence’ is similarly absorbing, and she contends that divine eternity and simplicity do not prevent God from being personally present to all people. Schärtl’s contribution, ‘Why We Need God’s Eternity’, probes why a concept of divine eternity is needed at all, and concludes that, among other things, Christology is safeguarded when God is eternal. Those studying the theology of Robert Jenson in particular will find Schärtl’s chapter of value.

Part II contains two challenging treatments of the relation between God’s omniscience and human freedom. Linda Zagzebski’s essay, ‘Eternity and Fatalism’, examines the link between fatalism and temporality. Fatalism is often assumed to entail the idea that because one cannot control the past, one cannot control the future; all is fixed. Theological fatalism can be addressed, it is supposed, by a turn to divine timelessness, but Zagzebski shows, first, that this is not necessarily the case, and that, secondly, the matter of (a)temporality is not the most important problem to resolve when seeking to avoid fatalism. Christoph Jäger’s chapter, ‘Molina on Foreknowledge and Transfer of Necessities’, discusses Luis de Molina’s analysis of how free human actions are consistent with God’s foreknowledge.

The three contributors to Part III each propose a ‘third way’ between temporal and atemporal depictions of God. Christian Tapp, in ‘Eternity and Infinity’, carefully notes the various interpretations of infinity and intriguingly advocates an understanding of an atemporal God who becomes temporal with the act of creation. Alan G. Padgett looks afresh at his own concept of relative timelessness in ‘The Difference Creation Makes: Relative Timelessness Reconsidered’, which, he suggests, applies to God before creation. After the act of creation, Padgett continues, God is omnitemporal. Reinhold Bernhardt’s submission, ‘Timeless Action? Temporality and/or Eternity in God’s Being and Acting’, is an interesting but, for me, finally unsatisfying account of how a timeless God acts in created time. Bernhardt notes the priority of the Holy Spirit in conceiving of God’s action in the world, but frames this pneumatology in terms of a spiritual force-field as a pervasive and effective power.

Part IV is concerned to guard divine temporalism in relation to modern science. Here, William Lane Craig’s ‘Divine Eternity and Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity’ defends divine temporality from the allegation that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (STR) presumes or requires God to be atemporal. Craig, with his usual analytical flair, demonstrates that STR instead relies on a defective epistemology. The second paper in Part IV, and the final contribution to the book as a whole, is Hans Kraml’s ‘Eternity in Process Philosophies’, which champions different ontologies (and the need to find models of linking them) and suggests that, for understanding time, process ontologies are best.

To repeat, each of these papers was presented and discussed at the ‘God, Eternity, and Time’ conference, and many of them still have the feel of a position paper rather than of a fully expressed argument, and so it is difficult to ascertain how much impact this volume will have on academic discussions. At times, it seemed that each contributor was employing the terminology of eternity, temporality, and so on, in ways different from the others. Some of the chapters would have been made more accessible had clearer statements of their intent, or even clearer conclusions, been included. In contrast, other papers were especially insightful, and I found that the contributions by Pasnau, Stump, Schärtl, Tapp and Bernhardt in particular contained much of value.

In conclusion, Tapp and Runggaldier have produced a stimulating, but often difficult, collection that should be required reading for postgraduates and specialists researching divine eternity, divine timelessness, and related fields.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Reinhold Bernhardt on Perceiving God's Action

The division of divine action into either subjective or objective needs to be overcome: It is indeed objective, and yet at the same time can be perceived only in the perspective of faith, and as such lies beyond the scope of empirical scientific investigation. This epistemological and hermeneutical consciousness should constitute the framework of any reflection upon God’s action as well as upon God’s eternity.

God’s activity is not evident in a third-person perspective but only in the faith-perspective of the first person – in the mode of ‘Credo’: ‘I am certain.’ However, this should by no means be used as a justification for dismissing it as a ‘projection’. Why should the faith-perspective of the first person be any less capable of recognizing this kind of truth than is the general and supposedly objective third-person perspective?

Reinhold Bernhardt, ‘Timeless Action? Temporality and/or Eternity in God’s Being and Acting’, in Christian Tapp and Edmund Runggaldier (eds.), God, Eternity, and Time (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 140–41, emphasis original

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

What Difference Does Jesus Make to Making Art?

This morning, I listened to Brian Curry deliver his paper on Colossians 1. Although he largely summarised the basic argument of Sean McDonough’s Christ as Creator, Brian hinted at his own developing PhD thesis, which focuses on how faith in Christ as the Messiah shapes our art-making. His main point seemed to be that there is no principle weaved into the fabric of creation that can be tapped to produce art; instead, art must be crafted in connection with Christ the Messiah, in whom the universe holds together (and McDonough’s book shows how this thought might be articulated).

Brian made two comments that particularly caught my attention. First, Brian suggested that church practices show us how to live according to the grain of the universe – that is, by practising prayer, Bible-reading and so on, the faithful person lives in a way fully connected to the way the world is. Rather than being oddities, prayer, Bible-reading and (I would argue) the sacraments show us precisely the way human life is to be lived.

Secondly, Brian raised the issue of what art would look like if it participated in Christ’s victory of the lordless powers. I found this a very interesting train of thought, particularly because Brian himself seemed to focus on Christian artistic participation in Christ, whereas (to focus on popular music) I would see a so-called secular group such as Public Enemy as participating in Christ’s victory of the lordless powers, too – though maybe in the sense of anticipating Christ’s eschatological consummation of the world.

The turnout to Brian’s paper was a little disappointing – just six people, including me and Brian himself. (That can be blamed on the time of year, of course, as most theologians in Britain are no doubt sunning themselves on the beach at Margate and wearing kiss-me-kwik hats.) But when Sam Wells and Jeremy Begbie constitute a third of those present, I’m sure numbers don’t really matter.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Karl Barth on the (1958!) World Cup

Here’s another quotation, most apposite for today, from Karl Barth:

Today what is called sport seems to have become the playground of a particular earth-spirit. [. . .] But what has made sport to a large extent a public matter of the first rank, first in ancient Greece and Rome, and then again today? What is behind the enthusiasm of millions of sporting fans who watch the players with such passionate and often frenzied excitement? What has made the industrializing and commercializing of sport so clearly remunerative? Why is the Sunday evening paper so infinitely more important to countless numbers of people because of the late news it gives about football scores rather than accounts of the most astounding and momentous things that might have happened in the arena of world politics? After the soccer championship games in Sweden in 1958, what led Brazil, the home of the victorious team, to establish a new national holiday, and what was it that brought the prodigy Pélé, then seventeen years old, not only a good deal of money and many other good things but also no fewer than five hundred offers of marriage, while on the same occasion Germany, for the opposite reason, threatened to plunge into a kind of irritated national mourning with all kinds of accompanying phenomena? [. . .] So many facts, questions, and riddles! It should be obvious that we have here a special form of derangement.

Karl Barth, The Christian Life. Church Dogmatics IV/4: Lecture Fragments, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981)

I can guess how Lincoln Harvey would respond to this!

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Karl Barth on Gadgets

I haven’t read any of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics for a while, so I thought I’d flip open one of its volumes and see what’s inside – and I found this insightfully prescient gem of a quotation, originally published in 1951:

For there are few things which the modern man who bears the mark of modern European and American culture and civilisation, [. . .], needs to impress upon his mind more fully than that in order to remain alive before God and for himself he must find a place for rest, no matter what the cost. The strange thing is that in spite of all the astonishing possibilities of intensification, multiplication and acceleration which he has been able to create for himself in the constantly mounting development of his technical mastery of work, he has not so far caused or allowed himself to be induced to relax, to find relief and liberation, to be released from tension, to find intelligent diversion and therefore to find the way to true work. On the contrary, all these new possibilities have thus far had only the result of setting an increasing pace by the accelerating tempo of his machines and gadgets, so that he is driven and chased and harried as it were by them. He has let himself be set by them in a mounting fever for work, and while this fever may later prove to be a channel to new and better health, there is also the possibility—and there are more pointers in this direction—that the patient will one day die of it. There is also the possibility that it is a symptom of the approaching and gigantic ruin of at least a stage of civilisation. There is also the possibility that it cannot continue very much longer. We can scarcely maintain that what modern man has so far achieved in this increasing fever is either gratifying or hopeful.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, translation editors G W Bromiley and T F Torrance, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957–1975, III/4, pp. 555–56

This leaves me with two thoughts. First, I wonder what Barth would have thought of today’s Microsoft-, Android- and Apple-driven world. And, secondly, why on earth did Barth never write a post-apocalyptic novel?

Friday, 11 July 2014

Christ, Creation, and Colossians 1

This is short notice, but the paper outlined below sounds very interesting. It’s scheduled to take place next Tuesday at King’s College London.

Brian Curry will be presenting his paper

Title: Things Hold Together: The Grain of the Universe According to Colossians 1

As Colin Gunton points out, although the New Testament says surprisingly much about Christ and Creation, much ancient and modern theological ontology derives its categories more from interaction with philosophy (Graeco-Roman and otherwise) than from the Bible. Recent NT scholarship has brought the NT’s own categories into better focus again, and none more so than Sean McDonough’s monograph, Christ as Creator. This paper draws on McDonough’s extensive exegetical work to begin to show what difference it makes for theology if we allow the grain of the New Testament to shape our account of the grain of the universe. The result is that our doctrine of creation becomes centered on the person of Jesus the Messiah, rather than on an abstract principle such as ‘wisdom’ or ‘logos.’ Focusing on Colossians 1, we see how messianic categories and scriptural echoes help to clarify ontology. Things hold together, Colossians teaches, because the Creator-Messiah wants them to. Broadly, we are encouraged to consider a Christotelic ontology in which the universe was made (and made new) for covenant relationship between God and creatures.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Does Prayer Create God?

Does prayer create God? Of course not. But let me explain why I ask the question.

I have heard, and continue occasionally to hear, faithful Christians talk about the lack of God’s presence in their lives. There’s no doubt they love Jesus and are eager to serve him, whatever that might mean in practice for them. But the sense of God’s presence alongside them is fleeting or non-existent, and this, for them, is a source of discouragement and dismay.

Notice that it’s the sense of God’s presence that they do not feel. If one accepts the doctrine of omnipresence, then God must be said to be present to each and every person at all times, regardless of whether or not one senses this presence. But this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. After all, who cares if God is merely present? Surely we don’t want simply to affirm the doctrine of divine omnipresence as we struggle through life.

However, it seems to me that, very often, those who lack a sense of God’s presence have only the most superficial of relationships with God. This sounds harsh, of course, especially in the light of what I wrote in my first paragraph. But however harsh it sounds, I believe it’s true. There’s no doubt that many Christians love Jesus and are eager to serve him, whatever that might mean in practice for them – but this love and service translates too often into doing things for Jesus without the appropriate balance of spending time with him in prayer and Bible-reading. An analogy could well be the stereotype of the hard-working man who grafts all the hours God sends to provide for his family, but all the while without even seeing his wife and children. So it seems to me that the reason why so many are saddened by the lack of a sense of God’s presence in their lives is because they do not practise any devotional exercises beyond arrow prayers or reading the chosen passage before the sermon in church on Sundays – assuming they still go to church, of course.

I’m being cynical and judgemental, of course. It’s not as cut ‘n’ dried as all this. Sometimes Christians fail to sense God’s presence despite persistent prayer and industrious Bible-reading. But this is surely a different issue, the so-called ‘dark night of the soul’, where God is arguably so present in one’s life that, counterintuitively, paradoxically, God’s presence is felt intensely as absence. However, the dark night aside, I do feel that if we neglect to pray, to read the Bible, to take time out to be with God – if we neglect these things, it’s no surprise that we will fail to sense God’s presence in our lives. Such things are traditionally the means by which we practise the presence of God. In the Old Testament, for example, God’s presence is maintained among the people of Israel by the rites of atonement (Leviticus) and by focussing on God’s word (Deuteronomy). And in the New Testament, the Eucharist (rites) is put forward as the means by which the risen and ascended Christ (God’s word made flesh) is made present by the Holy Spirit to and within the Christian community. So neglecting prayer and God’s word (in Scripture and in Christ, who is present in the Eucharist) is not really an option for the faithful Christian if s/he wants to recognise God’s presence.

But let’s return to my opening question: Does prayer create God? If our sense of God’s presence is cultivated by our devotional diligence, then isn’t it fair to say that our prayers actually create God for us? It’s this ‘for us’ that’s important here. Our prayers do not create God in any ontological sense; our prayers do not create God ex nihilo or conjure God up from nowhere. But our prayers and liturgical practices, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, somehow tap into the God who is already present and make God ‘real’ to us. The flip side of this is that when we neglect prayer or Bible-reading, God’s presence is perceived as absence. And once this neglect is prolonged, God, for us, may as well not exist at all, beyond an idea or a concept or a fantasy.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Rejoicing in Lament: J. Todd Billing's Forthcoming Book on Providence and Lament

Regular readers of this blog (both of ’em) will know that I’m interested in the relation between God’s providence and the practice of lament. Thus I was pleased to hear that J. Todd Billings is going to publish on precisely this relation – though it saddens me that Billings’s personal circumstances were the occasion for writing this book.

Here’s the blurb:

At the age of 39, Christian theologian Todd Billings was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer. In the wake of that diagnosis, he began grappling with the hard theological questions we face in the midst of crisis: Why me? Why now? Where is God in all of this? This eloquently written book shares Billings’s journey, struggle, and reflections on providence, lament, and life in Christ in light of his illness, moving beyond pat answers toward hope in God’s promises. Theologically robust yet eminently practical, it engages the open questions, areas of mystery, and times of disorientation in the Christian life. Billings offers concrete examples through autobiography, cultural commentary, and stories from others, showing how our human stories of joy and grief can be incorporated into the larger biblical story of God’s saving work in Christ.

I’ve read Billings’s Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, which impressed me, and so I anticipate a thoughtful and stimulating read. Rejoicing in Lament is planned for publication by Brazos Press in February 2015.