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.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Book Review: Denis Edwards, How God Acts (4.1)

Chapter 4

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

God’s self-giving love is one divine act manifested through many acts in the world. Most theologians writing about divine action start from a concept of general divine action and go on to show how God’s general action relates to creatures in all their particularity. Edwards argues instead that as divine action is always particular, a notion of general divine action can only be derived from all the particular instances of divine action, that is, from all the instances of special divine action. This reminds me of Karl Barth’s understanding of God’s omnipresence outlined in Church Dogmatics II/1: a general picture of omnipresence can be drawn from collating (for want of a better word) all the particular instances of God’s presence with individual creatures.

Edwards locates the particularity of special divine action in the framework of primary and secondary causality. ‘God causes all particular things to be and enables them to interact.’ (p. 58). Thus accounts of divine action that fail to employ this Thomistic framework are inadequate. The idea that God acts through secondary causes has, for Edwards, three benefits. First, God is not reduced to the level of a created cause; God’s transcendence is maintained. Secondly, creaturely causes and processes are given proper autonomy and independence; their integrity is respected. And thirdly, to say that God acts through creaturely causes is also to say that God respects the limitations of creaturely causes. On this account, the problem of suffering is not especially exacerbated.

I have already expressed my dissatisfaction with Edwards’s position (see here, here and here), and so I won’t do so again – at least, not in this post! But I should point out that Edwards is clear that he does not know – indeed, no-one can know – how God acts through secondary causes. This should not pose a problem, Edwards claims, for neither do we know how God created all things from nothing. I am not convinced this does justice to the critique. There is surely a distinction to be made between creation from nothing and the continuous creation implied by the framework of primary and secondary causality, even if the divine creative power by which God creates and upholds is one and the same. A more adequate defence is Edwards’s conviction that ‘God’s creative act is God.’ (p. 63, emphasis original), for this means that any scientific probing looking for how God acts is doomed to failure – for God cannot be isolated and identified like, say, a gene. But here another problem arises. Let me quote Edwards at length:

But it is inappropriate to think we can describe the nature of divine action, because to do so would be to describe the nature of God. What we know about the nature of God comes from the Christ-event, and on this basis, I have been proposing that it can be understood as divine self-bestowal, as a radical act of love…. We have good reason to attempt to describe divine acts in the light of God’s act for us in Christ. But I do not think we can comprehend the nature of God’s act any more than we can comprehend the divine essence. (p. 64).

This paragraph confuses me. I agree that to describe the nature of divine action is also to describe the nature of God; this is implied by the doctrine of divine simplicity. But if the Christ-event shows that the nature of God may be understood as divine self-bestowal, then we can be confident that the nature of divine action is also to be understood as divine self-bestowal. There is no need to suppose that it’s inappropriate to describe the nature of divine action or, indeed, the nature of God. However, I want to dissect Edwards’s language. He states that what we know about the nature of God can be understood as divine self-bestowal. Is there a conceptual sleight of hand here, whereby Edwards plants distance between the actual nature of God and our understanding of the nature of God? This could explain his final sentence, where he insists that we cannot comprehend the nature of divine action or the divine essence; but I’m not so sure. Edwards needs to be clearer.

While I have problems with Edwards’s employment of the causal framework, I cannot fault his conclusion that God respects the integrity of creaturely causes: ‘God works creatively, dynamically, and responsively, loving the process, delighting in the emergence of a world of creatures with their own independence and integrity.’ (p. 66). Moreover, God is present in this process through the Word and the Spirit. If I were cynical, I would say that the Father’s two hands are simply name-dropped at this point – there is no significant reason to mention them in this part of Edwards’s argument apart from to ensure remembrance of God as triune, or as a link to the chapter’s next section where Edwards discusses the action of the Spirit in our lives.

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