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, 22 April 2011

Book Review: Denis Edwards, How God Acts (3.2)

Chapter 3

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 (first part)

Edwards states that the concept of divine self-bestowal is a description of the act of creation from God’s perspective. God gives God’s self to that which is not divine, thus creating all things ex nihilo. But the presence of God to and within the created order not only gives existence to that which did not exist, but also the capacity for self-transcendence: creation is enabled to move beyond itself and become something new. It is ‘God’s self-bestowal that enables and empowers creaturely self-transcendence.’ (p. 43). And this is seen throughout the whole evolutionary process by which life emerges and develops.

Once more, Karl Rahner is Edwards’s muse. According to Edwards, Rahner suggests a connection between evolutionary processes and Christology, whereby God’s action in Jesus is fundamentally the world’s self-transcendence into God. Taken alongside the idea of divine self-bestowal, the Christ-event – the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – is the point at which God’s self-bestowal and the world’s self-transcendence become indistinguishable. I appreciate the thought here, but I do wonder how far it depends on making a near-Nestorian division between Christ’s divine and human natures, rather than making a priority of the one person of the Mediator (as John Calvin might put it – even though I don’t think he can avoid the charge of a near-Nestorian Christology). However, I know very, very little about Rahner’s Christology, and so this potential objection is not something I’d want to press.

Given the Christology at play here, it should be clear that divine action is not divine intervention. There is no need to talk about God’s intervention in worldly affairs because God is already present and active within the created order. Consider this quotation:

God is precisely the one whose creative action enables the whole interacting network of creaturely causes and processes to exist and to interact. In the theological tradition, God has been called the primary cause, and this expression points to God’s ongoing creative act, which confers existence on all natural processes. God does not need to compete with these processes, because God is always acting in and through them. Everything we see around us in the universe, every bit of empirical data, is created. It belongs to the world of interacting creaturely causes, which theology calls secondary causes. (p. 46).

This is an unambiguous statement about the continuing relevance of primary and secondary causation: God is the primary cause, creatures are secondary causes. But in the light of one of my earlier posts, I must be careful not to load the concept of primary causation with something that Edwards does not presume. Edwards states that primary causality refers to the provision of creaturely existence. There is no suggestion that God does anything else, such as causing each secondary cause to act in a particular way at a particular time. Yet in the next sentence, Edwards slips something through the conceptual back door: God acts in and through natural processes, that is, through secondary causes. Edwards’s argument here relies on the traditional concept of concurrence, which means that every instance of creaturely action must at once also be God’s action in some sense. So my question is this: Does God as primary cause merely grant existence to creatures and enable them to act, or does God as primary cause somehow cause creatures to act in certain ways? To be sure, Edwards does not present God as a cause among causes; he notes that the concept of cause is used analogically of God. But in saying this, Edwards once more returns to the idea that primary causality merely concerns the provision of existence.

My reservations aside, I do agree with Edwards when he argues that the concept of divine intervention is flawed. Through God’s self-bestowal, God is present to and within the world at all times. Such presence means that the created order is always dependent on God for its existence and capacity to act, even as divine action ensures that the created order exists as something genuinely different from God, having its own integrity and proper autonomy. (Is it pedantic to note that whereas Edwards previously wrote of creation having autonomy, that sentiment has now been qualified to mean that creation has ‘proper’ autonomy, that is, the autonomy appropriate to the created order?) The wider point is that God’s self-bestowal in fact guarantees the freedom and integrity of the creature. As the creature is dependent on God for its existence and capacity to act, so it can only be free in this dependence – that is, its freedom and integrity find their source in the God who enables creatures to be and to act. This surely presumes an ‘existence only’ interpretation of primary causality, or one that holds that primary causality concerns preservation but not concurrence. But once more, on the assumption that primary causality is legitimately equated with God’s action, there seems to be a slip into primary causality as both preservation and concurrence:

God is dynamically, creatively, and lovingly involved, always at work in and through created entities, relationships, and causes, and always respecting their independence and integrity. Through this whole range of creaturely causes, God not only makes things but also makes a difference to things. God enables, supports, and empowers creaturely processes and entities. (p. 49)

I don’t wish to be flippant, but if primary causality is God’s action to confer existence and the capacity to act on creatures, then I’m not entirely sure what it is that God is doing when Edwards, following Herbert McCabe, asserts that God is at work in and through created entities, relationships and causes. At this point, it seems that God is supposed to be doing something more than merely conferring existence and the capacity to act. How does God make a difference to things if God is only ensuring their existence and actions?

Edwards’s wider point is that in God’s self-giving love, God takes risks in supporting the free emergence of creatures through evolutionary processes, a risk-accepting freedom that leads to the death of Jesus on the cross – but also a freedom that permits God to dive deep into the very structures of the world through the action of the Holy Spirit to orchestrate Jesus’s resurrection. It also means that God is patient and waits for the created order to unfold according to its God-given integrity and freedom. God does not intervene to stop events from transpiring; instead, God acts in and through what transpires in such a way that God’s creative purposes are nonetheless fulfilled. There is a place for chance, randomness, and contingency in the world, for God’s purposes may be achieved through these secondary causes. Thus even though God’s intention was not for Jesus to die by execution, God is faithful and free to transform that event into something completely unexpected and entirely new.

This chapter thoroughly engaged me, though I must confess that Edwards’s wider picture convinces me far more than its detail.

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