The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 655–673
In recent years, David Fergusson has crafted a number of essays on the doctrine of providence. Mostly, he focuses on analysing the tradition, particularly the classical and Reformed statements of the doctrine, but in ‘Divine Providence’, (probably) his latest, he explores the curious question of how the doctrine of providence came to be secularised. This happened, or began to happen, with the rise of deism: divine revelation and the place of Scripture were diminished in favour of human reason and a natural religion, a religion that neglected the previously crucial concept of the redemption of a disordered, fallen world. On this account, the doctrine of providence was pushed into the realm of natural laws and the moral order. Thus the influence of deism (which Fergusson recognises is a broad category, capable of admitting both Christian belief and practical atheism) led to providence being applied mostly to progress and the development of human happiness and amelioration in society. As long as people adhered to the moral order, ‘providence’ will oversee the orderliness and goodness of civic life.
This had at least two interesting consequences: imperial expansion and free trade. Concerning the former, Fergusson claims that within the early modern period, the notion of providence had become equated to ideas of societal and cultural progress. Of course, for many early modern thinkers, the various advancements made within the British and European context suggested that white Europeans were the most advanced of all peoples. Indeed, were European lifestyles to be imposed on the lesser, primitive, non-Europeans, it would be an enormous kindness. Thus colonisation was regarded as a demonstration of providence, understood deistically, as the various British and European empires believed their rules to be instrumental in the betterment of the world at large. And addressing free trade, Fergusson picks up on Adam Smith’s idea of the ‘invisible hand’ in economics that allows the pursuit of private gain to be transformed into something of benefit to society as a whole. In this context, market forces take on the form of a natural law, having similar effects to empire.
Fergusson concludes his essay with some insightful comments. He argues that as it’s likely that the secularisation of providence had roots in classical formulations of the doctrine, with their emphasis on providence as the exercise of purposeful divine action in every event, there is little point in simply retrieving the thought of Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin in order to re-baptise the doctrine. This doesn’t mean that the doctrine of providence should be side-lined; for Fergusson, this would be to remove theology itself from the public sphere. But what is needed is for a more modest account of providence to develop, one not so prone to making bold declarations about progress, and one that shies away from equating providence with morally ambiguous positions. Fergusson’s closing statement sums up his position: ‘While providence should not too swiftly be read into or out of history, neither should it be eschewed altogether as a means of discerning divine involvement in the world.’ (p. 671).
As I noted earlier, this is the latest in a series of essays on the doctrine of providence that Fergusson has published in recent years. To be honest, I found this essay a little disjointed: the penultimate section on free trade appeared to lack the sharpness of analysis contained within the opening sections on deism and empire, and could perhaps have been omitted to allow more space for discussion of providence and empire. But this essay is also winningly ambitious in scope, and it was refreshing to read something that explored the doctrine of providence not so much in terms of its theological content, but more in terms of its historical development and appropriation.