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.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Another Prolegomena to Providence

David Fergusson, ‘The Theology of Providence’, 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.


  1. Hi Terry

    If God holds together creation, how is it possible for him to not be fully in control of creation?

  2. You're conflating two assumptions, James. First, just because God is in control, this doesn't mean that God controls everything that happens. And secondly, God holding together creation is the act of sustaining; but this needn't mean that God controls creation. I guess a lot depends on what you mean by 'control' here, and by fully in control.

  3. Hi Terry

    I may well conflate. How do we know that God limits himself or is not fully in control?

  4. Please define how you're using the term 'fully in control'. Also, why are you suddenly introducing the language of God's self-limitation? Seems to me you want a general discussion about providence than to talk about the blog post as such.

  5. Fair cop guv'nor. Going back to the article, it terms of political status quo what would Sinclair think of scripture references like Romans 13:1? Or Daniel 4:25 & 5:21?

  6. Well, I don't know what Fergusson would think of Scripture references like Romans 13:1, Daniel 4:25 or 5:21 - I'm not Fergusson! But I would say that Romans 13:1 could refer to God's establishment of civil authority but needn't imply specific civil authorities (e.g. our current government or the Gaddafi regime). And with the Daniel passages, we need to remember that Daniel is an apocalyptic book and determinism is a literary feature of apocalyptic as a genre. The book of Daniel was probably written after the events it depicts and so uses determinism as a literary device to show God's hand in events.

    I should also say that the way to do theology isn't simply to throw around proof-texts but to engage with what theologians are actually saying on the basis of Scripture.

  7. I'm sorry, I don't have access directly to the article that you are referring, so I can only go by what you have said about it. (Have EBSCO not SAGE access).

    Referring to Romans 13:1, if God's providence is unspecific then are we dealing with a distant God who has no specific interest in the content of our lives or of the nations?

    As for Daniel, I understand the argument, but don't accept it. It is canon, accepted even within the Qumran community.

    As for using texts to prove a point, one does have to be careful. However theology is made not out of humanity's attempt to understand the unknowable, but out of humanity's attempts to understand God's revelation. If God has revealed that he was intimately involved in the establishment of Nebuchadnezzar rule then that needs to be accounted for.

    That being said, Fergusson is quite right to argue that providence can't be argued from an observation of the world. That is essentially anthropocentric reasoning. But that does not in itself negate the sovereignty of God.

  8. Re: Romans 13:1 - nobody's saying that providence is unspecific. The text says that God quite specifically sets up government as a mechanism to maintain civil order. But that's very different from saying that God specifically sets up Nazi Germany or Barack Obama in power.

    And for Daniel, I don't understand what it's being canon has to do with your point. Every text goes through a process of being written and then accepted into canon, including Daniel. Just because it's written after the event as an interpretation of the event, it doesn't mean it's any less inspired. My point is that because Daniel is apocalyptic literature, its determinism is part and parcel of a literary genre and the whole idea of God setting nations needs to be read in that context. And this may or may not point to an actual determinism.

    And really, Fergusson is not denying God's sovereignty. But I suspect he doesn't understand in the way you do.


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