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 February 2014

Providence and Other Religions

Tom Greggs, ‘The Lord of All: Rediscovering the Christian Doctrine of Providence for the World’, with a response from David Clough, in Hannah Bacon and Wayne Morris with Steve Knowles (eds.), Transforming Exclusion: Engaging Faith Perspectives (London: T&T Clark, 2011), pp. 44–62

‘The Lord of All’ is divided into three parts of varying lengths: Tom Greggs’s main essay is followed by David Clough’s response and further comments by Greggs.


Tom Greggs’s Essay

Is there a place within systematic theology for ‘the religious other’? In this absorbing essay, Tom Greggs finds scope within the Christian doctrine of providence for such a place, as this doctrine concerns God’s lordship over all, including all those who practise faiths not in the Christian tradition. Thus the Christian doctrine of providence has something important to contribute to interfaith dialogue, and the potential to correct prejudiced accounts of the place of non-Christian religions in the world. Greggs expresses the aim of his essay in this way:

this chapter seeks to influence the preaching of evangelical Christians in terms of the issue of the exclusion of the religious other, by attending to one motif of Christian theology that reminds the preacher of the universality of God’s grace. (Greggs, ‘The Lord of All’, p. 46).

The majority of Greggs’s essay is an exploration of Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence. For Barth, God’s providence is pervasive and touches everything; but it is important to remember that God rules over all things as the King of Israel, and that the salvation or glorification of all things results from God’s victory in Jesus Christ. Despite this exclusivist basis, Barth’s doctrine of providence does intend to include all people and all things within the scope of God’s providence. God is the lord of all, but is so as the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so on. Greggs refers to this as ‘a move of “differentiated exclusivisms”.’ He comments,

there (exclusively) is only one God, who is (inclusively) the God of all the world. . . . While knowledge of God and God’s special work is known only through the salvation history of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, that exclusivity does not mean that God is not the God who in His providence guides all the world as well. . . (‘The Lord of All’, p. 50)

Moreover, as it is concerned with the lordship of one God, the doctrine of providence cannot be reduced to a religious or philosophical system or principle. Greggs distances himself from Barth when the latter effectively says that Jews and especially Muslims do not know God’s rule as completely as do Christians, though he adds that Barth’s aim is not to slate these faiths as such. It is simply that on the basis of their recognition of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, Christians have deeper knowledge of God’s rule than either Jews or Muslims.

To explicate this stance further, Greggs picks up on Barth’s notion that Christians are those who recognise the universal lordship of God in Christ and actively seek to participate in God’s providence in faith, obedience, and prayer (see also Christopher C. Green’s interpretation of Barth on this score). Those who do not claim faith in Christ also participate in God’s providence, but do so passively. Greggs’s point is that while Christians recognise and actively participate in the universal lordship of God in Christ, people of other faiths still come under this same universal lordship but respond to it differently.

The universal lordship of God in Christ means, says Greggs, that Christians must be positive in their assessment of the world, for there is no place in the world from which God is excluded. Christians are called positively to witness to God’s action in Christ and so towards a true monotheism in the place of idolatry. Moreover, this monotheism is to be interpreted as faith in God as Trinity: Christians participate in Christ and in turn participate by the Holy Spirit in God’s universal lordship. On this account, Christians know (but do not necessarily understand) God’s universal lordship more fully than other people. As exclusivist as this is, Greggs emphasises that rather than keeping this news to themselves, Christians are called to proclaim the universality of God’s lordship to the whole world. The doctrine of providence is not for Christians only, for God’s purpose is to glorify the whole of creation in Christ.

As appreciative as he is of Barth, Greggs wants to push beyond him. Why should there not be differentiated covenants of God with creation? There are already instances of this in Scripture, such as God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-17); and there is noted in Genesis (16:9-15; 21:9-20) ‘a special relationship of God with the children of Ishmael, just as there is with the children of Isaac, who do not enter the new covenant.’ (‘The Lord of All’, p. 56. I admit I find this sentence rather confusing, as to me it could imply that the children of Isaac do not enter the new covenant. Greggs’s meaning is surely that the children of Ishmael remain in a special relationship with God even though the new covenant is not realised through them.) Greggs’s overall point here seems to be that even though the one true God is the God and Father of Jesus Christ, whom Christians know and worship – this same God, as God over all, is also ‘the God of Ishmael, of Melchizadek, of Rahab, of Jethro and even of the pagan centurions.’ (‘The Lord of All’, p. 57). Greggs concludes:

Systematic theology must take seriously the reality that the church’s Lord is the Lord of all, and should recognize that in breaking down boundaries, we are likely to find God on the other side, there already. It is this message which systematic theology must make clear to a generation of preachers facing the complexities of a pluralist world. (‘The Lord of All’, p. 57).


David Clough’s Response to Greggs

While David Clough approves of Greggs’s suggestion of multiple, differentiated covenants, he is not so sure that Barth’s distinction between active and passive participation in God’s providence is as clear-cut as Greggs presents it. Clough notes, for example, that although the Egyptians provided for the Israelites fleeing Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36), this is surely an instance of unconscious but active participation in God’s providence by a people who refused to recognise God as lord. Similarly, the activity of non-Christian relief organisations in response to 2010’s Haiti earthquake surely participated actively in God’s providence.

Clough also raises the issue about God’s relation to non-Abrahamic faiths. It is relatively easy to discuss providence in relation to Judaism or Islam, but what shape does such a discussion take when, say, Buddhism constitutes the religious other? Clough wonders if the Noahide covenant applies in this instance, as it might do also for the non-religious or non-human other, or even if a language other than that of covenant needs to be employed.

Clough’s final observation concerns the relation between providence, Christian mission and the religious other: If God is lord of all, what place is there for Christian mission?


Greggs’s Final Comments

Greggs offers brief closing comments, responding to each of Clough’s observations. First, Greggs sees the prayer, ‘Thy will be done’, as crucial in distinguishing between active and passive participation in God’s lordship. Those who actively seek to coordinate their lives with God’s will are those who actively participate in God’s lordship. I am not totally convinced of this, in so far as I am sure anyone could pray this sort of prayer in principle without specifically needing to profess faith in Christ.

Secondly, Greggs recognises that a plurality of engagement with the religious other is necessary. Indeed, concerning non-Abrahamic faiths, ‘the dialogue concerning providence will be significantly different from faith to faith.’ (‘The Lord of All’, p. 61). Overall, the Noahide covenant may prove meaningful for those who already accept some form of divine sovereignty, but a more universal category such as a covenant of creation or the Adamic covenant may be necessary for practitioners of other faiths. I can agree with this to an extent, but I would be interested to know how these covenantal concepts would then be interpreted in the light of Christ. Greggs admits that he needs further to reflect on the issues surrounding multiple covenants.

And finally, Greggs notes that the mission of the Church is primarily to witness to and realise the reality and lordship of Christ; the mission of the Church is necessarily directed towards the (religious) other.


*****

‘The Lord of All’ is a clearly written and engaging study of Barth’s doctrine of providence and its potential implications for Christian dialogue with the religious other. In my opinion, Greggs does not provide any substantial answers to the questions raised within this dialogue, but he does explain why it is important for Christians – especially those of an evangelical persuasion – not automatically to dismiss the place of other religions in this world: God is not necessarily absent from them. Greggs also does well to emphasise that the dialogue between Christianity and the religious other cannot be reduced to common denominators that strip each faith of its particularity. To include is not to homogenise, and perhaps Greggs’s main achievement here is his emphasis on God’s universal lordship over a world of incredible diversity.

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