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.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Book Review: Denis Edwards, How God Acts (8)

Chapter 8

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 (first part), Chapter 3 (second part), Chapter 4 (first part), Chapter 4 (second part), Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7

Edwards has argued for deifying transformation as an appropriate theology of redemption. Now he attempts to connect this to human evolutionary history and the concept of original sin. This latter tells us something vital about our humanity, about why the human tendency to violence exists. Humans exist within select social groupings and each grouping naturally regards other groupings with suspicion; there is an inclination towards scapegoating others for the sake of social cohesion; and this has always been the case on an evolutionary schema.

That said, Edwards insists that when the first humans emerged, the world into which they were born was a world of original grace. If grace is to be understood as ‘God’s presence in the Holy Spirit, offering God’s self in love to every human person’ (p. 135), then God was already present to the first humans, who were presented with a choice to accept or reject God’s love; that is, with a choice to accept and communicate God’s love to all, regardless of social grouping. The emergence of sin, therefore, is to be regarded in significant part as the rejection of this invitation and the failure openly to love those not of one’s own social grouping. And as it happened so early in the evolution of humanity, sin and the violent form it adopts is truly genetic as well as mimetic.

On this account, genuine ethical behaviour, or altruism towards others, arises only from the transformation of our evolutionary inheritance. Humanity is called to love God and other humans without boundaries; and, when placed alongside the modern scientific picture of human origins, a case can be made for a theology of original sin that stays true to both Scripture and evolutionary theory. While I appreciate what Edwards argues here, I am hesitant to affirm it. There seems to be too much of a desire to marry the origins of early humanity with the early chapters of Scripture, a desire that I think presupposes too literalistic a reading of Genesis 1–3.

My reservation aside, there is perhaps something in the idea of original grace (though I don’t see the need for the adjective; grace is grace). Edwards is clear that the invitation of original grace is still present to all humans, and every so often it emerges through acts of compassion, through art, through prophecy, through generosity, and so on. But original grace finds its most potent manifestation in the life of Jesus. Original sin is overcome by the divine act of boundless mercy and forgiveness that takes place in and through the life of Jesus.

Jesus proclaims and lives the kingdom of God; but his commitment to God leads to his execution by those systems the kingdom opposes. Edwards repeats his earlier claim (see Chapter 2) that Jesus was not crucified by some form of divine predetermination; even though Jesus had to die in order for death to be transformed, ‘God did not want Jesus to be rejected, humiliated, and brutally executed by the Romans.’ (p. 139). So how do we make sense of the fact that Jesus was executed? Let me quote Edwards at length:

After the resurrection and the experience of God’s saving and forgiving love, Jesus’ disciples could look back and see God as providentially at work in his death, bringing life and healing. In this context, they could sometimes speak of Jesus’ death as foreordained by God (Luke 24:26-27; 1 Pet 1:18-20). But these texts should not be taken as if God wanted or required the sinful act of crucifying Jesus. Rather, they are a biblical way of affirming that God can transform a radically evil deed and make it the vehicle for grace, healing, and abundant life. (p. 139).

While I’m attracted to the idea that the Father never intended for his Son to be crucified, there is a part of me that thinks that this doesn’t do justice to a range of biblical texts. I’m not sure why the disciples would use the language of foreordination if all they needed to say was that God used the crucifixion to bring reconciliation and healing; I’m not sure why Jesus struggled in Gethsemane, asking for the cup to pass him, if it wasn’t God’s will for him to go to the cross; and I’m not sure why, if Jesus just needed to die, he trudged around Palestine proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, when he could have just stayed at home, making coffee tables, and living faithfully according to the Torah within his community. Reading the gospels, it strikes me that Jesus is called not only to proclaim the kingdom of God, but also to give his life (rather than merely yield it) as a radical protest against the powers of this world in obedience to his Father’s call. Does Edwards’s language here lessen the impact of Jesus’s death in order to lessen the complexity of the foreordination language sometimes used to describe it?

Edwards concludes by observing that Jesus died as a scapegoat – that is, as an outsider – and as a victim who forgives. And even if it is not a predetermined event, the cross is still an act of God through which liberation and healing for the world are achieved. Indeed, liberation from violence is all part of the ontological transformation of creation, where original grace overrules original sin and transforms the created order.

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