Theology Today 67 (2010), pp. 261–278
In my opinion, David Fergusson is currently one of the most interesting commentators on the doctrine of providence. It’s a shame that so far, in print, I’ve only seen him write prolegomena. (I suspect that Fergusson’s 2009 Warfield Lectures on providence were more substantive, but I don’t think these are in print or available for download anywhere.) However, when prolegomena is as engaging as this short essay, I think that Fergusson can be forgiven.
This essay offers four theses about how a contemporary doctrine of providence should be shaped. It’s enough for me simply to reproduce these theses here.
The classical doctrine of providence as it emerged in the history of the Church is too heavily indebted to philosophical resources in the ancient world, particularly Stoicism. (p. 262). Fergusson does not say that the early Church fathers bought wholesale into this philosophical orientation, for they maintained the fact that providence is personal and fatherly rather than impersonal and (shall we say) arbitrary. But there was enough undue influence to make the doctrine of providence borrow heavily from deterministic presuppositions.
The doctrine of providence is misplaced when presented on speculative, introspective, or political grounds. Grounded in revelation, it is an article of faith that needs to be carefully distinguished from surrogate accounts. (p. 266). Fergusson’s very well-argued point is that a doctrine of providence cannot simply be lifted from the observation of what goes on in the world. Importantly, this means that we cannot assume that everything that happens fits some grand plan for the world. And equally important, we cannot assume that the status quo, especially in the political realm, is divinely ordained.
In Scripture, providence narrates an account of the God–world relationship that is often described in covenantal terms. Although asymmetrical, this relationship is one of codependence and is threatened by human failure and the turbulence of natural forces. (p. 271). Fergusson is clear that God and the world are not equal partners; however, they are real partners and real partners. This means that there is a sense in which God is dependent on the world for God’s own action, in so far as this means responding to prayer, acts of repentance, and so on. But it also suggests that there is room for a genuine irrationality, genuine chaos in the world to which a pancausal account of providence cannot give adequate expression.
And this is Fergusson’s final thesis, found on page 275: If we know the content and scope of God’s providence from contemplating the history of Israel and its fulfillment in the person and work of Christ, then the signs of providence will begin here and spread outward into the cosmos. Yet in discerning these, we remain within the circle of faith. The point here seems to be that providence is primarily discerned in the rhythms and rites of life, and in the presence of God’s action in the personal realm, especially in the Church.
As mentioned above, I found this essay to be engaging; and as prolegomena to the doctrine of providence, it’s one of the best essays out there.
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.