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.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Stanley Hauerwas on Matthew 13

In preparation for a sermon on Sunday, I’ve been reading Stanley Hauerwas’s commentary on Matthew in the SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible series. This will shock some of you, I’m sure, but I’ve never read any of his work before, beyond a couple of book reviews and what I’ve read on others’ blogs. There’s some good stuff in the chapter on Matthew 13. Here’s one interesting quotation in particular:

The church in America [and, I dare say, in much of the Westernised world] simply is not a soil capable of growing deep roots. It may seem odd that wealth makes it impossible to grow the word. Wealth, we assume, should create the power necessary to do much good. But wealth stills the imagination because we are not forced, as the disciples of Jesus were forced, to be an alternative to the world that only necessity can create. Possessed by possessions, we desire to act in the world, often on behalf of the poor, without having to lose our possessions. . . . A church that is shrinking in membership may actually be a church in which the soil of the gospel is being prepared in which deeper roots are possible.

Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew. SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible (London: SCM Press, 2006), p. 130

And here’s another (lengthy) quotation, which partially relates to the doctrine of providence:

an image of Jesus
We do know, like those in his hometown, that our familiarity with Jesus can make it impossible for us to recognize him when he comes to us thirsty, a stranger, naked, or a prisoner. We are burdened by our images of Jesus, none more destructive that the Jesus who has nothing better to do than to love us, to help us love our families, and to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In Matthew’s gospel we can catch only faint glimpses of that Jesus. So the question remains for us whether we would provide hospitality to the Jesus who seems to have better things to do than satisfy our needs.

Jesus observes . . . that “prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” Accordingly, Jesus places himself in the great line of Israel’s prophets who were rejected by those whom it was their task to serve as prophets. . . . Jesus is the end of prophecy because he is God’s word whom the prophets have said was to come. For him to be without honor in his own country, in his own home city, therefore, is not just another rejection of an idealist. It is the rejection of the one who alone is
able to save Israel.

His rejection, moreover, is providential. What often appears as a disaster in the Old Testament retrospectively is providence. . . . Jesus is rejected by his own, but that rejection allows time for the Gentiles to be brought into the covenant (Rom. 9–11). Such judgments cannot be made prospectively as if we could anticipate God’s providential care, but retrospectively they can be a form of faithfulness.

Hauerwas, Matthew, pp. 135-6
another image of Jesus
That last sentence especially stands out to me. I wonder if it’s the necessary corrective to the possible triumphalism Natan Mladin detected in the quotation from Reinhold Bernhardt I posted last week. With Bernhardt, we can be ‘certain’ that God is present and active, and objectively so – but, with Hauerwas, our first-person faith-perspective recognition of this objective divine presence and activity can only happen in hindsight, and after much reflection.


  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! I love and fully agree with that last paragraph. Providence is objective - ontology. But this objective providence will only be perceived retrospectively, " in hindsight, and after much reflection" - (theological) epistemology.

    Polkinghorne also is keen to stress the objective, forward movement of providence, against someone like Maurice Wiles. Without objective providence, “the retrospectively claimed pattern would be just a trick of perspective” (p. 44 Polkinghorne, Science and Providence). Providence, we might say, is situated between the eye of the beholder and the objective unfolding of divine action however hidden and resistant to investigation it may be in the present. The 'hindsight providence' must a basis in objective reality. That objective reality is captured and described in Scripture. So we might say our belief married with hope that God is objectively active is grounded in Scripture. It has been confirmed and will continue to be confirmed in experience, when interpreted within the 'perimeter of (personal) faith', in dialogue with the Christian community, present and past (tradition). What do you think, Terry?

  2. I agree. And I think what comes out quite clearly is how provisional our interpretations must be, and perhaps especially so of political or public events. It would be all too easy to claim in retrospect that such-and-such a disaster is obviously God's judgement on a nation. Even an ecclesial interpretation of x as God's action could be wrong. All in all, we must affirm the objectivity of providence but largely refrain from making objective statements about special providence. Probably! :)


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