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.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Book Review: Denis Edwards, How God Acts (4.2)

Chapter 4

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 (first part), Chapter 3 (second part), Chapter 4 (first part)

After establishing a framework for its exposition (effectively a Thomistic framework of primary and secondary causation), Edwards turns to discussing what the notion of special divine action means for everyday life. Human experiences of God’s Spirit points to an openness to mystery. Human minds are always inquisitive, probing the ‘inexhaustible depths of reality’ (p. 67); we always want to know more. But the Spirit initiates not just curiosity; the Spirit pushes us towards free, unlimited acts of love – towards openness to the Spirit, to divine grace.

But special divine action also entails God’s provision for creatures. Edwards cites Matthew 6:26: ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’ Thus God personally acts for us, though through secondary causes. Importantly, Edwards does not ignore issues of suffering: the purpose of providence is not to deliver people from all instances of suffering or grief. After all, if God acts through secondary causes, and if God respects the integrity of secondary causes, then God will not act in a way contrary to secondary causes:

The God who provides for me through secondary causes may also respect the proper autonomy of the created order. This means that while God can be seen as acting in secondary causes for my well-being, God may not be free to intervene in the functioning of secondary causes in a way that overturns the laws of nature in order to preserve me from suffering. (pp. 69–70).

Notice again some kind of sleight of hand: God can be seen acting in secondary causes for my well-being but may not be free to intervene in the functioning of secondary causes in order to preserve me from suffering. Surely this is similar logic to that underlying the common – and convenient – claim that God causes all things but is not responsible for evil. Edwards illustrates his point by attending to Christ’s suffering and death: Jesus prays for the cup of judgement to be taken away, but God does not oblige. The context suggests that Edwards understands this to be an instance of God not overruling the integrity of secondary causes, but this cannot be the case. The integrity of secondary causes concerns, for example, the strong probability that Jesus will bleed when his skin is punctured. But the account of Jesus praying for the cup of judgement to be taken away is instead a request between one agent and another. I maintain that the integrity of secondary causes is not at issue in Jesus’s Gethsemane prayers, and that the biblical account here cannot be used to defend the idea that suffering comes about (solely?) because God respects the integrity of secondary causes.

However, Edwards also suggests that providence testifies to God’s ongoing presence in suffering, alongside the one who suffers. We are not abandoned; and in the cross of Christ, God takes suffering flesh into the very being of God. The incarnation of the Word and the comforting, challenging activity of the Spirit in our lives show that God is continually present in – even as – self-giving love. Moreover, particular events or people can be interpreted as particular and historical manifestations of God’s self-giving love; indeed, the man Jesus is God’s uniquely special act, the particular, historical expression of God’s self-giving love. All this points to a sacramental understanding of special divine action, for each experience of God’s action is mediated through creaturely reality.

I appreciate Edwards’s turn to sacramentality here. If creaturely reality is sacramental, then potentially God can be discerned in all things. Perhaps this is why Edwards holds that particular events or people can be interpreted as expressions of God’s self-giving love: it is their sacramental nature that allows God to act through them as secondary causes; or, more likely, it is because God acts through them as secondary causes that creatures can be sacramental. But there are two problems: How do we know when God really is acting providentially through a person or an event? And surely, given the framework of dual-causality that Edwards employs, every action and event in creaturely reality is an expression of God’s self-giving love, including the policies of Nazi Germany, the shooting of Osama bin Laden, and the development of cancer.

I’m enjoying reading How God Acts, but so far, I think Edwards is unearthing more problems than he’s solving.

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