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.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Paul and the Mysteriousness of God's Providence

Today, the Church celebrates the Conversion of Saint Paul. There’s no need for me to recount his story in great detail, for I want only to draw attention to what the Lord says to Ananias in Acts 9:15:
Go, for he [Saul/Paul] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…
And now look at Philippians 3:4b-6, written by Paul himself:

If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Considering these two passages, is it too simplistic to state that Paul’s background is ideal for his role as the apostle to the Gentiles? It strikes me that Paul’s past could well be interpreted in that way, for he, of all people, would know the devotion and discipline necessary for being a servant of the God of Israel, and thus recognise the seriousness and permanence of the transformation Jesus brings to all those who are called to follow him in the here and now. Moreover, it strikes me that Paul’s background as a Pharisee could well be interpreted as God’s deliberate formation of Paul so that Paul would be the ideal apostle to the Gentiles. The idea here – and forgive my rather mechanical way of phrasing it – is that God intended Paul to preach to Gentiles, and so equipped him with the personal history necessary to proclaim the supremacy of God’s Messiah over all things.

I used the phrase ‘could well be interpreted’ a couple of times in the paragraph above, which suggests that I’m not in favour of regarding the story of Paul’s conversion and its implications in the way that I’ve sketched; but in truth, I’m not sure that I have any substantial alternative. The temptation is to look at Paul’s conversion and his subsequent ministry and attempt to paint parallels in our own individual lives. So I could look back at my life – all 36 years of it – and identify certain points in my past that I perceive God to have ordained or used to form me as the person I am today. And, apart from acknowledging the subtle change of theological emphasis required by speaking of events as either ‘ordained’ or ‘used’ by God (even assuming that one wants to make a careful distinction between the two), is there any reason to deny that at least one of these possibilities is, in fact, true?

I suppose the issue I’m teasing out is that of the mysteriousness of divine providence, that is, the ambivalent form it often takes when abstracted from a wider framework of divine providential action. In Philippians 3 as a whole, Paul doesn’t seem to believe that his background was established in any way to have an impact on his present: he’s more concerned with testifying to the greatness of Christ, especially in comparison with all that he’d known before. And so the implicit danger in trying to identify certain events in my life as those through which God has especially acted or as those that God especially brought about (however that’s to be understood) is that the focus is on me, and not on Christ. The mysteriousness of providence is that all too easily Christ, Lord of all things is displaced by the many things over which he is Lord.

In my view, it’s not enough merely to point to God’s action in our lives, for then it becomes tempting to regard the God revealed in Jesus Christ and active in the world today by the Holy Spirit merely as a genie or an overachieving personal assistant. What’s needed is a sense of perspective, an appreciation of a wider, biblical framework within which our various individual experiences can be placed and from which they can be interpreted. I dare say that each individual interpreter of Scripture (though what nonsense to suppose that there are individual interpreters of Scripture!) already operates from within some form of framework, reading Scripture with a theme or set of themes that he or she takes to make sense of its disparate texts. Mine is the idea that Scripture testifies to God’s promise that the world in its entirety will be the place of God’s intense presence; others will favour different frameworks, and usually for very good reasons. But lest I digress too far, let me return to Paul’s emphasis on the supremacy of Jesus Christ: Even if God in Christ doesn’t bring about or use our experiences, Jesus is certainly Lord of our pasts, Lord of our futures and will make sense of our presents. But this is a faith conviction that surely testifies, and ceaselessly so, to the mysteriousness of God’s providence.

Almighty God,
who caused the light of the gospel
to shine throughout the world
through the preaching of your servant Saint Paul:
grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversion
may follow him in bearing witness to your truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Common Worship Collect for 25 January


  1. That's very helpful.

    I'm very keen on interpreting "The Elect" as God's chosen instrument for his special purpose, not just for their own salvation, but the salvation of "all the families of the earth" (Gen 12:3).

    So thank you for Acts 9:15, as I'd never taken note of what it actually said!

    Also, I've got an unread book on my shelf called "Decision Making and the Will of God" by Garry Friesen. Ever heard any opinions on it?

  2. I'd not even heard of the book, Anon, but looking at the reviews on Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Decision-Making-Will-God-Alternative/dp/1590522052/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1296477220&sr=8-1), it seems a worthwhile read.

  3. Thanks for that!
    Never thought of Amazon reviews -- a new trick for me.

    I see it's a revised edition out now. So do I read my old editio princeps, or buy the new one, or ... just settle for the reviews ... ??!!