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, 6 April 2011

Book Review: Denis Edwards, How God Acts (2)

Chapter 2

See here for Chapter 1.

Edwards chooses to centre his second chapter on Jesus, a thoroughly commendable decision. Divine action is not just the domain of a general theology of creation but needs to take into account God’s action in Jesus Christ. Thus Edwards asks two questions:

First, what does Jesus reveal, in his words and deeds, about the nature of divine action? Second, what further insights come from pondering God’s action, not only in Jesus’ life, but also in his death, his resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit? (p. 15).

Edwards’s response to his first question is to discuss Jesus’s preoccupation with bringing in the Kingdom of God – or the reign of God, as Edwards seems to prefer. All those actions that take place to inaugurate this reign are a particular form of divine action. Jesus’s parables, his healings, his table fellowship with social outcasts, and his community of disciples – all these testify to the presence of God in Israel, working to overturn the status quo and establish the reign of God. Edwards is clear that the reign of God has both its present and its future poles. Jesus’s actions point to the eventual final establishment of God’s reign on earth; they are anticipations of completion, not completion itself.

Edwards draws a number of conclusions from his account of Jesus’s actions on earth: the kingdom, conceived as an act of God, is set in place and awaiting completion (as noted above); the God of Jesus engages with created history; God’s character is ‘radical love and boundless compassion’ (p. 24); divine action involves God’s creation of all things, God’s continuing provision, and so on; Jesus’s followers are called to share in his own relationship with God; such sharing entails participation in the establishment of God’s reign; and the kingdom of God may be experienced now through prayer, community life (presumably Christian community life), acts of love and peacemaking, and so on. I am not entirely convinced that some of these points follow clearly from Edwards’s preceding discussion, particularly the statement about God’s creation of and provision for all things (this seems to be a general statement about divine action and providence that Edwards has attached to Jesus’s mission); but it is pleasing to see that divine action here is being shaped by a framework based on scriptural witness rather than by general considerations.

The second part of this second chapter is, in my opinion, more interesting. The Spirit’s raising of Jesus to resurrection life demonstrates the final transformation of all things. In the so-called Christ-event, Edwards sees two points that are vital to a properly Christian understanding of divine action. First, the Christ-event shows that God waits for creation to make its move before responding. Throughout his ministry, Jesus genuinely expected a positive response from those whom he called or challenged. But the negative responses that he encountered meant that God had to respond to the challenge presented by Jesus’s crucifixion. Jesus ‘met opposition and failure, which culminated in the events in Jerusalem. This meant he now had to find God and God’s saving love at work in rejection, failure, darkness, and death.’ (p. 27). On this account, the death of Jesus on the cross was not necessary; it was, so to speak, merely an accident of history.

Let me be clear: Edwards is not saying that Jesus was never intended to be the means by which God restores all things. It is death by crucifixion that was not planned. The incarnate Son was still to die at some point in his life and so, from within, transform death by the Spirit’s raising of him to resurrection life. But this is, of course, speculation, for Jesus was executed, and his grisly end evidently prompted the earliest Christians to find plenty of symbolism in existing texts to account for the bizarre notion of a crucified Messiah. Edwards’s main point is not to discuss the divine intention in any great detail, but to point out that even in the crucifixion of the Father’s Son, God is seen to be waiting for creation to act first. And even when it seems that the actions of God’s creatures thwart the divine purposes for the world, God is wise and powerful to overcome any obstacle put in God’s way:

The violence inflicted on Jesus is met with defenseless love, a love that will finally disarm all violence. Sin is met with forgiveness. The death Jesus experiences becomes the beginning of victory over death for the whole creation. In the power of the Spirit, God transforms sin, violence, and death into new life in Christ. (p. 29).

The second point is that God embraces the suffering of a suffering world. Edwards explains that he accepts that God is changeless in so far as this means that God is constant and faithful to God’s promises. Moreover, God’s embrace of suffering is to be understood as the fullness of God’s compassionate love – there is no loss or deficiency in God. But the self-emptying love of Jesus expresses God’s heart. Following Walter Kasper and Rowan Williams, Edwards affirms that the self-emptying of Jesus is not ‘the abandonment of divinity, but … the revelation of true divinity.’ (p. 31). The cross of Jesus shows a vulnerable divine love that is at once filled with the power of God’s life. This leads to the concluding paragraph of this chapter:

If the cross is the self-definition of God and the true revelation of divine power, then what is found to be true of divine action in the cross and resurrection of Jesus can be thought of as governing the other forms of divine action explored in the rest of this book. (p. 33).

It will be interesting to see precisely how Edwards conceives of the cross and resurrection as governing other forms of divine action – not least because all too often, such noble intentions are often buried by the weight of the more philosophical or metaphysical angles the issue of divine action provokes. Call me cynical!

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