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, 20 April 2011

Book Review: Denis Edwards, How God Acts (3.1)

Chapter 3

My review of chapter three is lengthier than I anticipated, so I’m posting half now. The other half will be posted in a day or so’s time.

Chapter 1, Chapter 2

So far, Edwards has argued that an appropriate doctrine of providence needs to take into account both the findings of the sciences and the place of Jesus in – or better, as – divine action. In this third chapter, Edwards goes a step further to propose that divine action is best understood as God’s self-bestowal: God creates from nothing (creatio ex nihilo), and enables all things to exist and to act (creatio continua). Thus God is revealed as self-giving love, which, through the action of the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit, shapes the character of divine action and, it seems, the kind of world that is created. Divine action understood as self-giving love or self-bestowal (a strong sense of divine simplicity underlies this concept of divine action) means that the integrity of creaturely autonomy is both ensured and respected. This means first, that creaturely life comes about through evolutionary processes, including chance and natural regularities; and secondly, that divine action is non-interventionist.

When interpreted alongside the central convictions of the previous two chapters, the idea that divine action is God’s self-bestowal prioritises the particular and historical over the general and abstract. This is supremely demonstrated in God’s action in Jesus, who revealed God to be at work in the historical particularities of his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Edwards is not suggesting that God relates to creation at the level of its ontology. Instead, creation encounters divine action in all its historical particularities, which suggests that divine action steers creatures – especially human beings – towards the level of epistemology, whereby divine action is recognised as divine action. Only the ontology of God is of direct importance here, for God’s being and action are conceived together as God’s self-bestowal – a single act – that has innumerable outcomes in creation. The unity of God’s action is encountered in diversity.

Edwards makes no attempt to disguise his indebtedness to Karl Rahner. Moreover, Edwards endorses Rahner’s conviction that God’s self-giving in love means that God always intended to give God’s self to the world through the incarnate Son and the Spirit. On this account, creation is God’s radical decision ‘to give God’s self in love to that which is not divine.’ (p. 40). The incarnation and resurrection of the Son also mean that flesh – presumably more the stuff of creation than simply human flesh – is forever taken to God. Thus God’s self-bestowal is the core of the world’s reality, and the world is the fate of God. But what kind of causality does this entail? Most accounts of divine action appear to presuppose a kind of efficient causality that depicts God acting in a way analogous to humans. Instead, Rahner regards formal causality as a more appropriate account of the way God acts: it is God’s self-bestowal, God’s giving of God’s self, that transforms fallen creation, and from within moves creation towards its final goal. God’s self-giving is God’s indwelling of all things.

However, given that God’s self-giving or indwelling of all things still has various effects, I cannot see how basing a notion of divine self-giving on formal causality rather than efficient causality makes much difference. Aristotle’s distinction between formal and efficient causality is not to make these two types of causality mutually exclusive, and each is likely to be conditioned by the other to some degree. After all, if I recall correctly, Aristotle’s point is that a statue of a woman, for example, has both an efficient cause (the sculptor) and a formal cause (the female figure or ideal), as well as a final cause (a wedding present) and a material cause (marble). Thus if one wishes to employ Aristotelian causal categories, it seems odd or inconsistent to reject one form of causality and adopt another. Indeed, it could even be argued that unless God’s self-giving entails at least some form of efficient causality, the idea that God’s self-giving is a kind of formal causality potentially leads to the strange conclusion that the world does not truly exist except as a form yet to be actualised. Without the presence of some kind of efficient causality, God’s intention to give God’s self to something that is not divine remains precisely that: an intention.

At this point in How God Acts, it seems to me that Edwards has unnecessarily introduced the concept of causality into the discussion. Edwards has already expressed a desire to maintain faithfulness to the scriptural witness to God’s action in Jesus; the notion of divine self-bestowal is a legitimate theological elaboration of that witness. But the turn to causality raises the possibility that this new focus displaces Edwards’s conviction that God’s self-bestowal is God’s self-giving in love to the world through the Son and the Spirit. Are the Son and the Spirit, who work within the historical particularity of creation, subsumed under a more general category of causality? And is God’s self-giving action in Jesus and the Spirit supervenient on or emergent from this more general category of causality? Some clarity is surely necessary here.

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