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.

Friday, 7 September 2012

John Webster on the Problems of Providence

John Webster, ‘Providence’, in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), pp. 203–226

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

This essay is rather curious. It functions as a sort of introduction to the doctrine of providence by attending to the possibility that it is a problematic doctrine, or a doctrine in crisis. And so rather than outlining the main themes of the doctrine of providence, John Webster analyses the various problems it accommodates or provokes, and examines the responses to these that have emerged in recent years. Throughout, Webster is also alive to the fact that, given its complexities, the doctrine acts as an ‘acute register of differing judgments about the tasks of modern theology.’ (p. 205).

Webster notes that there are various pressures, internal and external, exerted against providence. External pressures are those, for example, which suggest the implausibility of the reality of providence in a world that governs itself with no identifiable or obvious sign of divine action. Webster suggests that doctrines of providence are modified in response to these pressures. Conversely, internal pressures drive the theologian towards reassessing the cogency and rigour of the received doctrine. This indicates the need, says Webster, for a ‘more compelling exposition of Christian claims.’ (p. 204).

Webster is also concerned to show how the classical Christian understanding of providence moved from its emphasis on the God of providence to the world in which God acts via the early modern emphasis on mechanical regularities and natural science. It’s a fascinating account.

Finally, Webster discusses five issues that remain pertinent for today’s discussions of providence: How do we know God’s providence? Who is the God of providence? How does God act? How does providence relate to ‘nature’? And how does providence relate to ‘history’?

At times, I wanted Webster’s own positions to shine through more strongly. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed to me that Webster was trying to stand back from the various debates a little too much, as though he was seeking to adopt a ‘God’s-eye-view’ of the present state of the doctrine, in which he himself was not implicated. There was also a hint that Webster regards classical Christian theology as having absolutely everything correct (this probably is an incorrect reading on my part). Otherwise, I commend ‘Providence’ as an excellent ‘sort-of’ introduction to the doctrine. However, if you’re looking at the doctrine of providence for the first time, I recommend reading something a little more basic; in this respect, Webster’s essay in The Providence of God (London: T&T Clark, 2009) would be an appropriate read.

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