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, 30 December 2013

N.T. Wright on Providence and the Temple: Some Preliminary Thoughts

According to the index, the only reference to providence in N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God appears in the context of a discussion on 1 Thessalonians 2:

The implication is that, sooner or later, the providence of God will deal with the local Thessalonian opposition, too.

N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (London: SPCK, 2013), 2:1156, emphasis original

My new book?
Of course, it’s dangerous solely to focus on whatever is or isn’t in a book’s index, no matter how large the index is. And the index to PFG states quite clearly that it’s an index of ‘selected topics’ – which makes me wonder why providence is even mentioned in the index, given that the apparently sole reference is more the mention of the word than an actual discussion of how Paul conceived of the concept.

However, Part III – or chapters 9–11 of PFG – absolutely drips with the concept of providence. Or at least, it looks like it does, judging by the table of contents (I was given PFG for Christmas, and I haven’t yet had time to read the 600+ pages that constitute Part III – forgive me). Providence in PFG looks like it centres on the notion of God’s plan and God’s provision of a Messiah for the whole world.

(Of course, it could be argued that what I’m seeing as providence pertains more to election. Certainly, Wright says he understands Paul’s soteriology within the frame of election, and this within a larger frame that includes beliefs about monotheism and eschatology [PFG, 2:611]. But where N.T. Wright sees election, T.J. Wright sees providence; and for sure, the two [providence and election, not the two Wrights] are not easily disentangled.)

The other thing I wish briefly to comment on is Wright’s discussion of the concept of the temple as a microcosm of the creation. This idea has greatly inspired my own thinking on providence (see Providence Made Flesh, plug, plug), and I still find convincing G.K. Beale’s view that Revelation 21–22 depicts the whole world as the temple’s holy of holies. This is what I see as the providential trajectory: God’s movement, through the Messiah’s faithfulness, from the garden in Eden to the world-temple of the new Jerusalem. But even if I find this convincing, others won’t, and still others will have their own opinion on what the temple-as-microcosm-of-creation means. However, after discussing Beale’s and John Walton’s research, Wright makes this observation, which I find pertinent:

These are highly evocative, large-scale pictures which have not, to my knowledge, had much impact in the world of biblical scholarship. If thought through, they could do so. (PFG, 1:102).

I agree. There’s a lot of mileage in the idea of the world as temple, and there is a lot of work being done in this area, really. But most of the work seems to be undertaken by those who aren’t concerned to defend confessional stances. For example, the controversies surrounding Wright’s views on justification pass me by because I’m not really interested if his theology matches this or that confessional stance (or, more cynically, if it matches what John Piper thinks the Bible says). After all, a position that disagrees with, say, the Westminster Confession isn’t necessarily heretical. And so I can’t help but wonder if the reason why temple theology is relatively unpopular, or if its insights are often ignored or passed over with nothing more than a quick glance, is because it’s not going to affect our ecclesial and denominational investment in the creeds and confessions too much. However, if I’m right in this, that’s to our detriment, because, as Wright implies, temple theology can definitely enrich our understanding of Scripture and of our faith.

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