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, 19 October 2012

Book Review: The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology [2]

Ian A. McFarland, David A. S. Fergusson, Karen Kilby and Iain R. Torrance (eds.), The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

ISBN: 978-0-521-88092-3
Price: £130.00 / US$ 199.00

I am grateful to Cambridge University Press for the review copy.

The Christian doctrine of providence is well represented in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. ‘Providence’ is listed as a core entry, which means that the entry should be regarded as a framework for understanding a number of other, shorter entries. Thus the reader can expect to read separate entries on ‘Concursus’, ‘Conservatio’, and ‘Gubernatio’; on ‘Divine Action’ and ‘Panentheism’; and on ‘Middle Knowledge’ and ‘Occasionalism’. ‘Process Theology’, which is something I’ve never really looked at in any depth beyond a couple of books, is a core entry, with links to entries such as ‘Theodicy’ and ‘Sin’, as well as to ‘Open Theism’. Interestingly, there is no entry on ‘Causation’, though an acceptance of the validity of the concept permeates much of the Cambridge Dictionary’s content.

So what is dealt with in David Fergusson’s core entry on providence (pp. 416–419)? Fergusson mentions significant moments, and major players, in the development of the doctrine. He refers to Stoic influence; to Thomas Aquinas; to John Calvin; to the Protestant work ethic; to American exceptionalism. He notes the threefold pattern of providence (conservatio, concursus and gubernatio); the distinctions between primary and secondary causation, and general and special providence; and Karl Barth’s major revision of the doctrine. To close, Fergusson attends to various other revisionist approaches such as process theology and open theism. In summary, Fergusson’s article probably covers the most important elements in the history of the doctrine in the Christian West. Someone researching the doctrine of providence for the first can do worse than to read this article and Fergusson’s other articles on providence (see here and here, plus his essays in God’s Life in Trinity and The Providence of God).

Robert John Russell’s entry on divine action (pp. 142–144) primarily deals with how we can say God acts in the world, particularly from the perspective of those who advocate non-interventionist objective divine action (NIODA). Thus a significant part of the entry outlines six different approaches to NIODA: top–down (Philip Clayton and Nancy Murphy); whole–part (Arthur Peacocke); lateral–amplification (John Polkinghorne); bottom-up (Thomas Tracy and Russell himself); primary and secondary causation (Denis Edwards and William Stoeger); and process theology (Ian Barbour). Russell defines and offers a brief criticism of each position, including his own bottom-up approach.

In the next – and final – part of this review, I shall consider the pros and cons of the Cambridge Dictionary.

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