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, 13 January 2010

Book Review: Mark Ian Thomas Robson, Ontology and Providence in Creation: Taking Ex Nihilo Seriously

Mark Ian Thomas Robson, Ontology and Providence in Creation: Taking Ex Nihilo Seriously (London: Continuum, 2008)
The latest edition of American Theological Inquiry features my review of Mark Robson’s Ontology and Providence in Creation. Here are some snippets from it:

A quotation from Ontology and Providence ably summarizes its central aim: ‘Once we get the bad models of God’s creation out of the way, we can develop a better understanding of God’s providence.’ (p. 128). Mark Robson scrutinizes the idea of possible worlds and argues cogently that God’s actualization of a particular possible world, even the best of all possible worlds, is no more than God duplicating that which pre-exists. Consequently, creation is not truly ex nihilo. This conclusion impacts on how God’s creative action should be construed, particularly in relation to the ever-present problem of evil. Robson’s thesis is intriguing and, in my view, persuasive.


God cannot know the sensation of red unless God somehow experiences an instantiation of redness: ‘God, like us, has to look to this world of flesh, blood and stone in order to comprehend it.’ (p. 80). Robson is aware that such a statement is not mainstream Christian thought, but it does appear to cohere with an account of creatio ex nihilo that requires there to exist absolutely nothing but God before the act of creation.


In Robson’s view, an emphasis on divine predestination implies that creation cannot be ex nihilo, simply because God creates with something in mind. (This is, I believe, a very important insight; certainly, I do not recall ever coming across it before, and it will be interesting to see if anything is made of it in future dialogue.) Moreover, if God does create with something in mind, the implication is that all that transpires in the created order is fixed, determined in advance.


God did not know – indeed, could not know – that evil would enter the world. It is important to recognize that Robson does not mean simply that God did not anticipate the presence of evil in the world, or even that God could not know that evil would enter the world on the basis that the future, as something yet to occur, cannot be known. Rather, in Robson’s words, ‘How can God, who is pre-eminently a positive and unsurpassable being, know the negativity of evil?’ (pp. 143–144). Evil, for Robson, can only emerge in a world that is genuinely novel, genuinely free and genuinely other from God, as creatures exercise their own capacities for creativity.


Ontology and Providence is not an especially easy read, though it is a rewarding one.… [Robson] has challenged many dearly-held presuppositions concerning the meaning and implications of creatio ex nihilo and, as a result, has laid a modest but stable foundation for future discussions.


  1. I've long suspected that God is more of an artist than an engineer. To stereotype somewhat: whereas an engineer follows a predetermined blueprint, an artist may not know where his (or her) art is going. And I cannot see that this diminishes God in any way. Indeed, if the predetermined blueprint turns out to be a projection of our own selves rather than the determination of God himself, then the former - and not the latter - is in danger of diminishing God.

  2. I quite agree. I'm guessing that at least the popular level, a strong determinism is psychologically helpful for those who need to be in control of events, etc., but are aware that not everything can be. This does seem to be an extremely subtle form of projection.

  3. One day (in my dreams), I am going to qualify as a psychologist and measure stuff like that.

  4. Meanwhile all of this "provident creation" disintegrates, rots and dies.

    And "creation" altogether is completely indifferent to the well-being, or survival of any one. Countless billions of living-breathing entities die every day. And yet the process of new births (and deaths too) has been going on for forever and a day--and always will too.

    Which is to say that death rules to here.

    But even while all of these birthings, chaos, and deaths are occurring, Real God is (and was) always absolutely PRESENT.


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