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, 18 May 2011

Book Review: Denis Edwards, How God Acts (5)

Chapter 5

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

Edwards has sought to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the framework of primary and secondary causation in the previous two chapters of How God Acts, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that he now attends to possible instances of God acting apart from secondary causes; that is, to miracles.

Following a brief section focussing on the historicity of Jesus’s miracles (pp. 78–80), Edwards provides a summary of Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of secondary causation and miracles. For Aquinas, God enables all things to exist and to act; God is present interiorly to the creature; all creaturely powers act by God’s power; and God is not a cause like other causes, for only God causes existence and the ability to act. Nonetheless, secondary causes are true causes; creatures have ‘the dignity of causing’ (Summa Theologica 1a.22.3). (Edwards notes that Thomas would likely disapprove of ‘intelligent design’ but be quite happy to support evolutionary theory.)

According to Edwards, Thomas believes that miracles are manifestations of God’s grace, but the precise cause of a miracle is hidden because that cause is, in fact, God. Miracles take place only through God’s direct action, not through secondary causes. Here, Edwards disagrees: ‘What if God, out of loving fidelity to creatures, works consistently through secondary causes?’ (p. 83, emphasis original). For Edwards, miracles take place through secondary causes; that is, God acts through known and unknown laws of nature.

Edwards explores the nature of laws of nature, borrowing heavily from the work of William Stoeger. Essentially, laws of nature are human constructs or models that make sense of or ‘explain’ certain phenomena and observable regularities in the world. Laws of nature are not discovered; they do not have an independent ontological existence outside of the human mind. Moreover, laws of nature do not (yet?) account for metaphysics, the mental, the ethical, the interpersonal, the aesthetic and the religious dimensions of life. (p. 87). These dimensions are real, but are not (yet?) explained by scientific analysis. This leads Edwards to state that miracles only contradict the laws of nature if these are understood as prescribing – or establishing, I would say – reality itself. But if laws are simply a construct to account for reality, then this ‘opens up the possibility that miracles may occur through a whole range of secondary causes that our current science cannot yet model or cannot yet model well.’ (p. 87).

So what does all this mean for a theology of miracles? In the gospels, says Edwards, miracles are signs and mediations of the coming reign of God. This is similar to Karl Rahner’s understanding of miracles, which he affirms are signs and manifestations of God’s saving action. It is through certain events that God calls us to wonder. For Rahner, the world and all its natural processes are part of God’s self-bestowal to the world; thus the laws of nature are part of God’s self-giving action. For Edwards, this means not only that miracles are simply expressions of God’s self-bestowal through – as? – secondary causes in ways we do not (yet?) understand, but that ‘there is every reason to think [they] can take effect in the natural world’. (p. 89).

Apart from the reliance on the idea of secondary causation, I think Edwards is correct to say that miracles take place through the processes and regularities of the natural order. Edwards stresses the wonderful aspect of divine action; early in the chapter, he describes miracles in noninterventionist terms as ‘wonders of God that take place through natural causes’ (p. 77) or ‘wonderful manifestations of grace that occur in and through secondary causes.’ (p. 78). Thus when Jesus heals the blind man Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), we are to regard this as an instance of God acting through secondary causes in such a way that our attention is drawn to God, even if we do not know precisely how God acts through secondary causes to heal.

In his conclusion, and especially in his employment of Rahner, Edwards appears to suggest two possible ways of interpreting miracles. First, the healing of a person born blind is arguably an ‘obvious’ miracle: a blind man can now see. But secondly, some miracles may not be ‘obvious’ but require interpretation; that is, a certain set of phenomena and events may coincide so be construed as miraculous or as a miracle. This means that miracles must be discerned, events must be interpreted, and all must be subject to dismissal by less-involved parties. And underlying this is an even more pertinent question about discerning God’s action in the world more generally: How do we know that x, but not y, is the result of God’s action?

Edwards’s chapter on miracles is relatively brief, but it generates valuable discussion.

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