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, 4 June 2011

Book Review: Denis Edwards, How God Acts (6)

Chapter 6

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 (first part), Chapter 3 (second part), Chapter 4 (first part), Chapter 4 (second part), Chapter 5

According to Edwards, miracles are wonderful acts of God mediated through secondary causes. But is the resurrection of Jesus also to be seen in this way? Or is the resurrection the sole instance of God acting apart from secondary causes? And how does a noninterventionist account of divine action deal with the problem of suffering? These are the questions that form the heart of Edwards’s sixth chapter.

For Edwards, the resurrection is first a free act of God from within creation that gives creation its deepest meaning. The resurrection of Jesus is a promise that all creation will be transformed in Christ, and that this was always God’s plan. The resurrection is the inner meaning of creation and the central expression of God’s self-bestowal. Thus all creation is directed to Christ, who, as noted in chapter three, is both the radical self-transcendence of the created universe into God, and God’s self-giving to the world in the Word made flesh. Resurrection is the ultimate expression of God’s promise and the beginning of the fulfilment of that promise.

It is in this context that Edwards writes,

Jesus, in all his bodily creatureliness, is taken eternally to God’s self. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are always to be seen together. In this paschal event, part of evolutionary history gives itself completely into God and is taken up and transformed in God, as the beginning of the reconciliation and transformation of all things (Col 1:20). (p. 95).

This simple statement is potentially explosive. This is the first time that I recall ever having read such an insight into the place of evolutionary suffering within God’s purposes. That’s not to say that I haven’t actually read anything along these lines, but that this is the first time it’s made an impact on me. For a long, long time, I have believed that in Christ, it’s not just humanity but the very stuff of creaturely existence that is taken into the divine presence – but never once did I realize that this meant the processes of creation as well. The man Jesus, like ourselves, is the product of billions of years of evolution, and through the resurrection, God takes all this into the very being of God to transform it. The implication is that for those who assume evolution cannot be compatible with Christian faith on account of the suffering involved, here is a convincing suggestion that because of who Jesus is, and because of what he has done, that suffering is overturned as God brings all things together in Christ and under Christ.

But there is also a suggestion here that the pain and suffering present in the evolutionary process is somehow justified; that because all things are transformed in Christ, the past is somehow circumvented. It may be, of course, that evolutionary suffering is more excusable than suffering that comes as a direct result of agency, such as the horrors of the Nazi holocaust, but I’m not entirely sure that suffering can be graded. This is not the time or place to discuss these issues further. The all-too simple point that truly impacted me is that the processes of the created order are necessarily part of the created order taken into God, and I feel really dumb for not realizing that earlier!

Edwards’s second point about the resurrection is that it indicates the ontological transformation of all things. In Christ, God takes the whole of creation into the being of God, not just its spiritual or incorporeal aspects – and this makes a difference to the world. ‘Because God embraces creaturely life in the incarnation,’ Edwards writes, ‘and above all in its culmination in resurrection, creaturely life is changed for ever.’ (p. 97). The resurrection of Jesus is the central event in the history of the universe, not least because resurrection is creation’s real meaning and goal. Thus for Edwards, resurrection cannot be divine intervention from without, but takes place within and through creation itself.

This leads to Edwards’s third point, that resurrection is expressed through secondary causes. Though we cannot know how God raises Jesus from the dead, Edwards is once more certain that God transgresses no natural law to perform this act. But the resurrection itself remains nebulous, for it is known only through its impact on the Christian community. The risen Christ is known by the Christian community through the Eucharist, through the proclamation of God’s Word, and through persons, events and so on. (Does this mean that every person or event mediates Christ’s presence, or that any person or event could mediate Christ’s presence?) The wider point is that the presence of the risen Christ is mediated through secondary causes, which leads the world to experience Jesus sacramentally. Edwards also examines the uniqueness of the Easter appearances to the disciples, and the eschatological transformation of creation, again with the conclusion that in all these things, God acts through secondary causes. ‘God creates a universe that is capable of being transformed from within’ (p. 104) and by resurrection. Resurrection may be seen as the instantiation of potentialities already present in creation.

In my view, this sixth chapter was thoughtful but slightly repetitive, as Edwards’s main point is simply to state that the resurrection of Jesus does not conflict with any natural laws or processes. If the resurrection is a miracle of God, it must be a miracle in the sense that it is a wonderful act of God mediated through secondary causes.

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