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.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Essay Review: Paul Ballard, 'Theological Reflection and Providence'

Paul Ballard, ‘Theological Reflection and Providence’, Practical Theology 1 (2009), pp. 285–289

In this short paper, Paul Ballard argues that practical theology or theological reflection needs to be theologically embedded, lest it become ‘an uncritical borrowing from another external source that is the latest fad.’ (p. 286). Genuine theological reflection draws from Scripture and tradition as those who practise it seek God’s presence in contemporary situations, both positive and negative. Ballard links the task of theological reflection to the doctrine of providence, which itself attempts to discern God in everyday life and to construct an account of that unique presence – even though God is often difficult to locate, as Ballard’s concluding observations on the nature of faith and trust in God make clear.

Most of Ballard’s paper asks (rhetorical) questions of the sort usually prompted by the doctrine of providence. He is not concerned to describe the doctrine of providence in any detail but ‘to raise the fundamental problem about the theological complexity behind theological reflection.’ (p. 287). In my view, however, there is scope for Ballard more adequately to describe the connection he posits between theological reflection and the doctrine of providence. Given Ballard’s concern to demonstrate that theological reflection requires embedment in Scripture and tradition, I am not convinced that he has done anything more than use the doctrine of providence as a case study for a wider claim about the value of practical theology.


  1. Hi, Terry. I was looking at Paul Ballard's article and came across your review of it. Thanks for that. Could you possibly 'flesh out' what further scope you thought Ballard's argument could make? I thought he made a good point, but would be keen to earth it a bit more.

    Yours, Alistair

    1. Thanks for your comment, Alistair. I had to re-read Ballard's article, as I'd not turned to it since I posted this brief review!

      To be absolutely honest, I can't recall precisely what I had in mind when I talked about the scope of Ballard's argument. Hopefully I knew what I meant at the time! That said, on re-reading the essay, I still think it's a little insubstantial, insofar as I'm not entirely sure what Ballard's wanting to propose. I take the point that the practice of theological reflection is essentially rooted in the doctrine of providence - both are concerned to discern God's presence in the world, though presumably the doctrine of providence proper is the theological framework within which, or which allows, the reflection takes place. But Ballard seems to want to push further, because he talks about theological reflection not being a technique or a quick fix (p. 288) - and I'm really not sure why he suddenly comments in this way.

      How do you read the article? I'd be interested to know your thoughts.

    2. Many thanks, Terry, for your helpful response. The way I read the article (and the point I was going to use it for) was that despite the apparent arbitrariness of practical theology and the multiple ways of responding to any particular situation, we 'bank' on God being in some way behind our best efforts. That is to say, practical theology must be a prayerful exercise because we are, in the end, participating with the Spirit of God to bring redemption and new creation in our own little corner of the world.

      To that extent, I think that we must assume some kind of providential oversight of the process. Now, as a more Arminian kind of person, I'm not sure how best to articulate that kind of providence (not a term I'm confident using yet), so I think of providence more as being God's active participation in the process of practical theology, rather than participants fulfilling a plan. I think that Ballard wants to bolster the view that, despite its apparent subjectivity and individual nature, there is finally a necessary and coherent theology behind practical theology.

      Sorry if I'm using these terms in a way that sets your teeth on edge; feel free to set me straight...!


    3. Fret ye not; my teeth are definitely not on edge!

      I think what you're saying makes sense, and it does seem to build on what Ballard's saying. Your penultimate sentence is particularly interesting to me - although I appreciate that this is what Ballard's saying, even I would hesitate to say that the necessary and coherent theology behind practical theology is the doctrine of providence; instead, I'd go for the God of providence (or the providential God). But I'm Ballard wouldn't disagree with that, so perhaps I'm just splitting hairs.

      Otherwise, I think the only thing I would want to say is that rather than talking about God's active participation in the process of practical theology, I'd emphasise God calling us to active participation in God's plan. Practical theology would still be necessary insofar as we'd still have to discern God's presence in any given event and give a theological account of it, but for me the emphasis on us following God is more explicit.

      Are you writing an essay on providence?


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