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, 13 July 2011

The Abandonment of Divine Providence?

Charles M. Wood, ‘Providence’, in John Webster, Kathryn Tanner and Iain Torrance (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 91–104

‘How is God related to what goes on?’ (p. 91). It’s a deceptively simple question, but one that the Church has struggled to answer throughout its existence. Part of the problem is that the term ‘providence’ and its underlying concepts are Greco-Roman in origin. What is needed, Wood implies, is for a distinctively Christian account of providence that is neither confused with or subjected to a secular or predominantly secular notion of progress, nor pressed to maintain the status quo. The problem is that the doctrine of providence has served both agendas. In particular, the liberal Christianity of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries married providence to the notion of evolutionary optimism. But World War I and its aftermath put an end to the marriage, and the doctrine of providence was, in Langdon Gilkey’s words, ‘left a rootless, disembodied ghost, flitting from footnote to footnote, but rarely finding secure lodgment in sustained theological discourse’ (Gilkey, ‘The Concept of Providence in Contemporary Theology’, Journal of Religion 43 [1963], p. 171; quoted by Wood, p. 93). It is a sentiment that Wood finds still relevant. ‘Put plainly,’ he writes, ‘the doctrine has simply been overwhelmed by the challenges it has faced.’ (p. 93).

Maybe so; but the issues providence addresses persist. How do we speak about God’s involvement in world events? In what way does this speech affect everyday life? And what sources are appropriate for constructing a distinctively Christian understanding of providence? Wood casts the first question as pointing to an explicitly philosophical context for the doctrine, and finds reasonable the suggestion that theological or philosophical concepts only make true sense when employed by and within a particular community – in this case, the Christian Church. Providence is of little importance as an abstract concept; it is only when the Christian Church or its members speak of providence that the concept is flooded with substantial meaning and relevance. So while the concept of providence remains important for disciplines such as process theology and the dialogue between religion and the natural sciences, perhaps its ultimate value lies in the way it is appropriated by the Church. Wood points to Reinhold Bernhardt’s Was heisst ‘Handeln Gottes’? (1999) as an example of this, as Bernhardt aims to draw out the pneumatological angle of providence, make explicit links between the doctrines of providence and salvation, and to reassess the Church’s use of the concept of ‘power’.

But any reassessment of the language of providence leads to how it impacts on everyday life, that is, the consequences of talk about providence; this is the practical context of providence. Traditionally, Wood notes, providence taught believers to accept whatever happens as purposefully sent by God. Thus the question must be asked: Does the doctrine of providence ultimately encourage believers to seek change in adverse circumstances or to accept them? It is true that a Stoic-influenced account of providence was used to consolidate ecclesial authority in the world as a means of maintaining order, but it is increasingly argued that many things, including acts of injustice, are not ordained by God, and that these things should be opposed.

This leads to Wood’s third and final context for providence, the historical: What is it that makes the doctrine of providence authentically Christian? Scripture does not employ the term ‘providence’ or its cognates, so perhaps the doctrine should be abandoned. However, certain movements – Wood names open theism – claim to build on Scripture, abandoning not the doctrine of providence itself but rather certain philosophical sources or commitments that complicate, they say, the interpretation of Scripture. Thus there is a need to determine how a doctrine of providence may be woven from threads found in the heart of Scripture, that is, how Scripture is to be read. Should the Church focus on individual texts, or should it attend more to the scriptural narrative as a whole?

Wood’s essay is a decent and stimulating read, though it is not be regarded as an introduction to the doctrine of providence in any conventional sense. The overwhelming impression Wood leaves is that the doctrine is necessarily under reconstruction. There can be no abandonment of the providence concept, for it is the Church’s responsibility continually to speak of God’s active presence in the world today. But the crucial task here is for the Church to articulate an account of God’s providence that is distinctively Christian so that talk about providence challenges rather than resources a secular interpretation of the world and its events.

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