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, 26 September 2012

Calvin on Prayer: A Less Deterministic Providence?

John C. McDowell, ‘Idolaters at Providential Prayer: Calvin’s Praying Through the Divine Governance’, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (eds.), Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), pp. 353–403

I am grateful to Jason Goroncy for supplying me with a copy of this essay.

How should we understand prayer? John McDowell offers a not uncritical reading of John Calvin’s doctrine of providence to answer this question, one suggesting that Calvin’s theology here need not be interpreted as hard-line determinism, even though the Genevan Reformer himself did not appear to follow this potential.

According to McDowell, Calvin implies that prayer is a gift given to humans by God in order for humans to reorient their desires towards God. Prayer is an opportunity to devote ourselves to God. It is the means by which we receive the benefits of God, and the means by which we entrust ourselves to God’s providence. Thus when praying, we need to ensure that God is truly the object of our prayers; if anything else is, we will end up being shaped by that particular object or goal – or, more polemically, by our most important idol.

However, McDowell notes that Calvin’s ostensibly deterministic account of providence may militate against any depiction of prayer as evidence of a genuine, reciprocal relationship with God. John Sanders, for example, criticises Calvin for suggesting that God cannot truly respond to prayers. Sanders argues that, for Calvin, God determines not only the outcome of the prayer, but also the content of the prayer, with the concomitant suggestion that an answer to prayer is but another effect in a chain of causation. So it appears that Sanders would argue that even if prayer is understood to be a gift given to humans by God, the efficacy of that gift is just as determined as its initial giving. McDowell is critical of Sanders (and, by implication, open theism in general) and seeks to demonstrate that Calvin’s doctrine of providence quite possibly is not as rigid as often supposed. To do so, McDowell identifies three points that ‘considerably complicate’ (p. 371) Sanders’s reading of Calvin on prayer:

1. What is Calvin trying to do with his doctrine of providence? McDowell observes that Calvin nowhere tries to explain how God acts, but rather affirms the constancy of God’s faithfulness to a community of persecuted Reformed Christians. This is an important insight, I believe, and one often forgotten. It means that in large part, Calvin’s doctrine of providence is designed to encourage Christian believers to see past appearances. Persecution may come, but the fact that God oversees all (and remember: for Calvin, providence is not just a matter merely of ‘seeing’ but of an active ‘seeing’) should be a source of comfort for the Reformed. Indeed, one’s faith should not be based on current events or experiences; God has not abandoned the Reformed.

2. For Calvin, there is a gap between God’s action and things that happen in the world. This allows McDowell to analyse Calvin’s conviction that God is not the author of evil, or that God is not responsible for evil. McDowell appears to argue that this shows Calvin’s desire to stress God’s care rather than divine omnicausality, although Calvin probably was not entirely successful in doing so. McDowell points to the variety of terminology that Calvin uses when trying to account for how all things happen according to God’s will despite the fact that God does not will evil; terms such as ‘will’, ‘precept’, ‘approval’, and so on. Discussing Calvin’s treatment of Acts 2:23, for example, McDowell notes that Calvin uses ‘consent’ and ‘decree’ rather than ‘will’. It seems that McDowell is arguing that Calvin uses different words to show that God’s will, though one, is polyvalent, which in turn lessens the idea of God’s sovereignty being tyranny. This is a very interesting idea, but one surely requiring more detailed analysis in the original languages. Has anyone already written such a study?

3. McDowell appears to approve of Calvin’s employment of the distinction between primary and secondary causation. Here, God’s primary causation grounds the world of secondary causes, and so one cause cannot be compared to the other. But whatever promise this distinction has, McDowell is also aware that, in Calvin, there is very little Christological influence on, or earthing of, the doctrine of providence. Jesus, in whom creaturely and divine relate supremely, is reduced merely to a teacher of providence.

In short, McDowell is largely appreciative of Calvin’s doctrine of providence, though, as noted earlier, he is not uncritical (in one place, McDowell even describes Calvin’s thoughts on providence as ‘malnourished’, p. 394). And a correct understanding God’s providence leads to a correct understanding of the function of prayer, by which, says Calvin, we receive God’s benefits. Using Calvin’s doctrine of providence and understanding of prayer, McDowell argues that God does not respond to our prayers in the conventional sense, because in prayer, which is God’s gift, we respond to God; that through prayer, we are reoriented towards God and towards living a properly ordered life (entailing both that the pray-er is an active subject before God, and that prayer cannot be reduced to a technique for manipulating God); that both God the giver and the human pray-er are identified in the person of Jesus Christ; that in prayer, the pray-er presents the world to God in Christ for its healing and flourishing; that prayer is therefore a means of grace by which all things are ordered through communion with God in Christ.

So what do I conclude about McDowell’s essay? McDowell makes many good points, and I’m all for recognising the pastoral side of Calvin’s doctrine of providence, even though I disagree with the way Calvin presents the doctrine. I appreciate McDowell’s closing comments on prayer, too, though I’d not be quite so sure that God doesn’t respond to our prayers. But, more negatively, the opening section of this essay appears to be no more than a justification for its inclusion in a book entitled Evangelical Calvinism; I did not see its relevance to what follows on Calvin, and the concerns raised in this section did not seem to be followed up. Surely this opening section could have been omitted. And, more generally, I found the essay quite difficult to read. I had to work hard to follow McDowell’s wider argument. Even now, I’m not convinced that I’ve followed it as carefully as I should have done.

All this said, the perfections outshine the imperfections, and McDowell’s essay is certainly worth engaging. Moreover, he shows that Calvin is always more nuanced than he appears at first glance. Again, I’d be interested to know if there’s a study out there specifically on Calvin’s use of ‘will’.

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