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.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Providence and Divine Action: Maintaining a Distinction

Is there a formal distinction between the notions of providence and divine action? I honestly don’t recall if anyone has argued that there is; in the literature, ‘providence’ and ‘divine action’ are practically interchangeable terms. But I would suggest that a simple, but crucial, distinction is to be made between the two. So how about this for a rough account?

Divine action refers to God’s actions; but providence is a broader concept that expounds the idea of divine action within an eschatological framework.

Thus it is possible to discuss the manner of God’s action without recognizing a wider context. I see some of the dialogues between science and religion as doing just this by asking questions such as: Is there a causal joint in the world where God acts? Should we conceive of God’s action as top-down or bottom-up causality? And so on. It is perfectly reasonable to talk about the ‘mechanics’ of divine action. The distinction between primary and secondary causation probably falls into the ‘divine action’ category. But the danger is that discussion about divine action need not include explicit recognition that God in Christian tradition is triune, and that any talk about divine action must indicate what it means to speak of triune divine action.

Providence assumes that there is purpose to God’s action – or better, that in acting, God is guiding or drawing all things to their proper fulfilment. The doctrine of providence is not merely teleology; it assumes that one day, all things will be transformed in Jesus through the Holy Spirit. In other words, the doctrine of divine providence functions as a context for divine action, whereby the action of the triune God is geared towards the final completion of all things in Christ. And so it is important to recognize that Scripture speaks of providence but not divine action.

All this clearly needs some refinement, but I hope it is clear what the distinction between providence and divine action is, and why I believe the distinction needs to be maintained.

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