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, 16 November 2009

Providence: My Contributions

This blog’s focus is the Christian doctrine of providence, but the doctrine itself is something I’ve been interested in for a number of years. I’ve many views on God’s providence, but nothing ordered enough that I can present as my doctrine – if that isn’t a pretentious aim in its own right. Still, I have published occasionally on the matter; and now, while this blog is in its infancy, it seems appropriate to outline my contributions to the conversation (excluding book reviews).

‘Reconsidering Concursus’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 4 (2002), pp. 205–215
This was my first published paper on providence. Here I tried to approach the doctrine from a christological angle, arguing from Jesus’s faithful life that the issue of concursus is best considered as God’s inclusion of human action in divine action, rather than as God’s accompaniment of human action.

‘How is Christ Present to the World?’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 7 (2005), pp. 300–315By 2004, I had been working on my Ph.D. for just over a year. Around this time, having studied the development of natural philosophy, I made a simple assumption that if deism points to God’s absence from the world, then providence somehow ought to indicate God’s presence in the world. This conviction directed me to the scriptural notion of divine presence in the Bible, particularly the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as God’s new temple (e.g. John 2:21), and to see how it connects with the more conventional ideas about providence. It remains fundamental for me that divine presence and divine providence are inseparable, but I’m not sure I’ve ever articulated the link as carefully or accurately as I’d like. In many respects, this essay represents a greater work in progress.

‘The Seal of Approval: An Interpretation of the Son’s Sustaining Action in Hebrews 1:3’, in Nathan MacDonald, Richard J. Bauckham, Daniel R. Driver and Trevor A. Hart (eds.), The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 140–148
In 2006, the University of St Andrews hosted an international conference: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology. I was a successful candidate to present a short paper on the letter, which I was studying at the time for a chapter in my Ph.D. The essential idea I was trying to communicate was that the Son’s sustaining action in Hebrews 1:3 is best understood in terms of the cultic framework explored in Hebrews, which for me indicates that the concept of preservation or conservation in this particular verse is associated with atonement. Jesus sustains the world by making atonement for it.

Providence Made Flesh: Divine Presence as a Framework for a Theology of Providence (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009)
This is a slightly revised version of my Ph.D. thesis, which I submitted for examination in the autumn of 2007. My basic thesis here is that providence is best understood in terms of divine presence than in terms of divine causality. In order to demonstrate this, I had to cover a lot of angles: I read John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas; I researched the impact of Calvinism on English providential thought and natural philosophy; I considered panentheism and other depictions of providence sympathetic to the aims of the natural sciences; and I engaged with the Pentateuch, Galatians, Hebrews and Matthew’s Gospel, all to claim that in Jesus Christ, God’s providence is made flesh. On reflection, I wish I’d done an in-depth comparison of Aquinas and Calvin, or maybe focussed on Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics III/3, which sets out his position on providence. But there’s no reason why these can’t be future projects.

‘Divine Presence as a Framework for God’s Providence’, Epworth Review 36 (2009), online only
This essay was published online recently, and as far as I can tell, only subscribers to the Epworth Review can access it. (If you’d like a copy, let me know via the comments.) The essay itself is a summary of my Ph.D. thesis, though my approach is slightly different. I identify five distinguishing features first in what I call the ‘causal framework’, and then five in what I call the ‘presence framework’, before concluding with some pastoral observations of how the presence framework can help detect God’s action in the local church.

‘Colin Gunton on Providence: Critical Commentaries’, in Lincoln Harvey (ed.), Essays in the Theology of Colin E. Gunton (London: T&T Clark, forthcoming, 2010)Next year, T&T Clark will publish a volume on the theology of Colin Gunton. It contains essays by such theological luminaries as John Webster, Robert Jenson, Steve Holmes, John Colwell, Christoph Schw√∂bel and… and, um, me. I doubt my contribution to this volume will be as profound as Webster’s, Jenson’s, et al. All I contend is that Gunton’s two chapters on providence, taken from The Triune Creator and The Christian Faith, are valuable for resourcing future discussions of the doctrine. Still, I hope that I contend this with clinical flair!

As you can no doubt tell, I have yet to present a coherent account of providence. God willing, I’d like to do much more research on various aspects of the doctrine before offering such. I feel that while I’ve wrestled with the issues that arise from the doctrine, I’ve not really engaged with the theological heavyweights on the issue – Aquinas and Calvin aside. And even here, I do feel that I could have done a better job.

But I remain convinced that divine providence and divine presence are inseparable, and that this is presence accounted for not in terms of a general metaphysic of omnipresence, but in terms of the cultic presence of God as depicted in Scripture and embodied in the man Jesus of Nazareth. My burden is to try and make sense of this conviction – so watch this space!


  1. Nice to see all your cars parked in one place! :)

  2. Dear Terry Wright,
    If it is possible, I would to receive a copy of your article, "Divine Presence as a Framework for God’s Providence". My subject interests are the Wisdom Literature (OT), providence and the doctrine of God in relation to creation.

  3. Hello, Rob. I'd be happy to send it to you. Just drop me an email (see 'About Me' in the links at the top of my page) or let me know where I can send it.