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, 7 December 2009

Essay Review: David Fergusson, ‘Darwin and Providence’

David Fergusson, ‘Darwin and Providence’, in Michael S. Northcott and R.J. Berry (eds.), Theology After Darwin (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009), pp. 73–88

In this interesting paper, David Fergusson offers an account of how the Christian doctrine of providence has fared since the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859). Fergusson records not only the different objections to Darwin’s arguments that certain Christian scholars have volunteered over the years, but also how other Christian scholars have sought potential common ground between evolutionary theory and the conviction that God acts in the world.

The majority of the paper is divided into four sections, where Fergusson explores the impact of Darwin’s claims on religion. Does evolutionary theory (i) portray God as remote from the world; (ii) diminish God’s sovereignty over all things in order to prioritise the role of chance; (iii) intensify the problem of evil, in so far as creaturely amelioration is inseparable from suffering; or (iv) lessen the importance of humanity in the world? Fergusson demonstrates that these issues need not hinder the development of a robust doctrine of providence. To conclude, Fergusson observes that theological engagement with Darwin’s views reveals that ‘the explanatory descriptions of science and theology work in different ways – we might say at different levels’ (p. 87); that there are sufficient resources in Scripture and Christian tradition to address the complexities raised by evolutionary theory; and that theology can co-exist alongside scientific claims about the world, no matter how damaging they may prove to be to religious faith at first glance. In my view, this is a rather weak conclusion, given all the preceding analysis, for Fergusson’s reflections here apply more generally to the relation between science and theology than they do to that between evolutionary theory and the doctrine of providence.

Mostly, Fergusson simply annotates the various responses that have been made to evolutionary theory since the publication of Darwin’s Origin; but every so often, he betrays his own position. He appears comfortable with the idea that God acts through natural processes, in so far as this is depicted as God’s presence within the natural processes, allowing the world to develop according its own causal structure; and elsewhere, Fergusson describes John Polkinghorne’s idea of divine action as ‘informational input’ as ‘attractive and possibly under-rated within the theological community.’ (p. 82). How far Fergusson is correct to follow these not unrelated ideas is open to discussion.

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