It is a real pleasure to engage David Fergusson’s important new book The Providence of God: A Polyphonic Approach, not least because it is a (partial) answer to my ongoing prayers for doctrinal and spiritual renewal in the Church of Scotland. David arrived at New College (the faculty of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh) a couple years after I left to return to Trinity, and I was encouraged by his appointment, a thoroughbred Scot, first to the Chair of Divinity and then as Principal of New College. It was reassuring to know that there was a theologian in Edinburgh, sleeves rolled up, diligently pursuing the search for the understanding of the ways of God. That search, of course, continues, but Fergusson here provides a significant interim report.
The book has many strengths and I anticipate assigning it as a required text for my course on providence. The writing is always clear, never dull, and often striking. The following sentence is representative of the way Fergusson’s sentences can pack a punch without breaking a sweat: “Without stronger Christological and pneumatological expressions of divine providence, the polyphonic witness of the scriptural tradition was always in danger of diminution” (p. 58).
The book covers an impressive number of figures and questions using both primary and secondary sources, but it is not simply descriptive. There is a definite Tendenz to Fergusson’s narration, and the various subplots converge in the first twelve paragraphs of the final chapter: “Providence Reconstructed.”
Fergusson sets forth his most important contributions under the banner of “polyphony.” Stated briefly: he calls theologians to acknowledge the full scope of the biblical witness, the diverse modes of divine action, and the ways in which providence is “dispersed” among the persons of the Trinity and across various doctrines, rather than making it a subset of belief in God “the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
To make room for those constructive moves, however, Fergusson has first to undertake some deconstruction. In particular, he questions the centuries’ long iron grip divine determination has had on the doctrine of providence (in his terms, the “Latin default setting”) by retrieving biblical passages that support a more synergistic position: “God must wrestle with recalcitrant material to bring about intended outcomes” (p. 28). Specifically, biblical depictions of divine-human interaction require a “more dynamic and future-oriented account of providence” and a rethinking of the God/world relationship in terms of asymmetrical co-dependence (p. 31).
Plaints: Three Muted Voices
Despite the welcome emphasis on polyphony, I confess that I was disappointed not to hear more from three particular voices.
The first voice I missed was that of the Reformed theologian. Well, I heard about Reformed theologians, but I wasn’t able to detect a Reformed accent in Fergusson’s own voice. Fergusson wonders whether the Reformed tradition, with its signature emphasis on divine foreordination, is “in good order.”So: in what sense is Fergusson’s theology of providence still Reformed? In particular, is it still able to provide the “only comfort in life and death” of which the opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks? It is not: neither the biblical narrative nor subsequent church order provide warrant for the idea that the world is the way God wants it to be. Accordingly, Fergusson offers a “chastened” doctrine of providence and “a more circumscribed description of what constitutes the will of God” (p. 7).
I wonder whether Fergusson thinks that the life and research program of Reformed theology has therefore reached its terminus: a dead end. Relatedly, does Fergusson continue to identify with the Reformed tradition and, if so, what does that mean? I don’t mean to pry; I ask in large part because I’m currently teaching a course about what makes Reformed theology Reformed.
It’s a fair question to pose to the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology (even if the doctrine of providence is conspicuous by its absence). I wonder to what extent the conclusion of Fergusson’s essay, “Reformed theology in the British Isles,” is autobiographical: “Reformed theology in the British Isles reveals a striking latitude and absorption of intellectual shifts from the Enlightenment onwards.”Paul T. Nimmo and David A. S. Fergusson, The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 267. So: in what sense is Fergusson’s theology of providence still Reformed? In particular, is it still able to provide the “only comfort in life and death” of which the opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks (and whose answer appears to parse providence in Trinitarian terms)?
Those who try to articulate what makes Reformed theology Reformed often come up with variations on the theme of divine sovereignty. One need not go as far as Henry Meeter, who identified Calvinism’s fundamental principle as “the absolute sovereignty of God in the natural and moral spheres,”H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel’s, 1960), 33. to acknowledge that the ethos of Reformed theology is glorifying God for his greatness. Fergusson flat out denies that the world is the way it is because God wills it, and appears to follow open theists as they nose-dive with Tom Oord into a kenotic relational panentheism only to pull up at the last moment by insisting that a world that is presently open (and at risk) is finally determined: “Our freedom is bounded by grace and so cannot finally frustrate the promises of God” (p. 271). Fergusson admits divine sovereignty into the providential equation, then, but only at the end: “The sovereignty of God should be constructed in promissory terms, rather than in a total control that is everywhere and always exercised” (p. 300). He averts crash-landing the doctrine of providence, then, but to what extent does his position remain Reformed? Is a little determination a dangerous thing, or not?
The second voice I missed was that of John Webster, another important theologian at work in England’s attic,I take this expression from Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist, who refers to himself as “a voice in the [North American] attic.” not least because Webster too had recently written an essay “On the Theology of Providence” (in one of the few works (inexplicably) not in Fergusson’s bibliography, a collection of essays, many by fellow Scottish theologians, on divine providence).Francesca Murphy and Philip Ziegler, eds. The Providence of God (London: T&T Clark, 2009). This is regrettable, not least because Webster was concerned to retrieve the “Latin default position” that Fergusson criticizes for being religiously inadequate (i.e., fatalistic), overly deterministic (i.e., monergistic), and unable to do justice to biblical depictions of God’s “more interactive and dialogical” struggle with his creatures (p. 73).
Webster’s definition is anything but fatalistic: “Providence is the work of divine love for temporal creatures whereby God ordains and executes their fulfillment in fellowship with himself.”John Webster, “On the Theology of Providence,” in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Vol. 1: God and the Works of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 127 (previously published in the afore-mentioned Murphy and Ziegler, eds., Providence of God, 158–175). Like Fergusson, Webster develops providence in Trinitarian fashion, for the proper starting point for every doctrine is God’s immanent triune perfection: “A Christian doctrine of providence . . . is a representation of how the Father’s plan for the fullness of time is set forth in Christ and made actual by the Holy Spirit”Ibid., 131. He is also concerned, again like Fergusson, to attend to biblical testimony and resist undue influence by ideas borrowed from elsewhere (e.g., Stoicism).
I wonder, however, whether there is a clear parting of the ways as concerns God and the God/world relationship. Where Fergusson speaks of God’s “wrestling” and “improvising” with a recalcitrant creation, albeit asymmetrically, Webster refuses to see God as one term in a dyad, insisting that God is “inexhaustibly alive . . . and so beyond the reach of any agent or act of contestation.”Webster, “Non Ex Aequo: God’s Relation to Creatures,” in God Without Measure, 120. Indeed, that God is executing his “plan for the fullness of time” (Eph. 1:10), moving things to their appointed ends, is, for Webster, “the essence of the gospel.”Webster, “On the Theology of Providence,” in God Without Measure,137. What is ultimately at stake is the power of the love presupposed by the gospel: can God’s governance secure a free creature’s end? The question Webster poses to Fergusson concerns the nature and scope of God’s good will: is God able to will determinately all things or only some things? If only some things, then what may we hope?
I note, finally, that Webster’s view is polyphonic, even if he doesn’t use the term. First, it is clearly Trinitarian. Second, Webster describes God’s providential activity as “omni-causal but not solely-causal,”Ibid., 140. for God orchestrates a host of secondary causes as part of his loving rule.
One of Fergusson’s key claims is that providence is less a single verb than an adverb: “the statement that God acts providentially might be the primary form of a theology of providence” (p. 298). My final question therefore pertains to the excursus he devotes to the topic of divine action (pp. 217–240) and to his championing a “polyphony of divine actions” (p. 305). Conspicuous by its absence is divine speech action as a form of providence.
1 Kings 19 recounts Elijah’s running for his life into the wilderness to escape the wrath of Jezebel. It’s a poignant story of God’s providence for one who thought he was the last prophet on earth (1 Kings 19:10). He eventually finds himself at Horeb the mount (Sinai) of God,It is well and good to incorporate other voices into a reformulated doctrine of providence, but it’s something of a shame to omit the voice of God. who ultimately appears not in the wind, earthquake, or fire but in “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). This is the third and final voice I strained, but couldn’t quite hear in Fergusson’s book. It is well and good to incorporate other voices into a reformulated doctrine of providence, but it’s something of a shame to omit the voice of God.
Fergusson does discuss Frank Kirkpatrick’s argument that God’s agency is akin to human agency inasmuch as it does not intervene in but deploys the causal infrastructure of the material world, but he never mentions either William Alston’s essays on the topic of divine speech or Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Divine Discourse.See Frank Kirkpatrick, The Mystery and Agency of God: Divine Being and Action in the World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2014); William Alston, “How to Think about Divine Action,” in Brian Hebblethwaite and Edward Henderson, eds., Divine Action: Studies Inspired by the Philosophical Theology of Austin Farrer (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 51–70; Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). This is a shame, not least because the Bible depicts God doing things with words probably more than any other kind of action. God creates and sustains all things by his mighty word but, more to the point, a good case could be made for God governing the course of human events through his speech action. In the book of Acts, for instance, the word of God becomes the central character, and its world-conquering power is displayed by its ability to “increase and multiply” the people of God (Acts 6:7).
“God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:5). Much more could be said about speech as a form of divine action. It encourages a Trinitarian exposition, with the Father initiating, the Son executing, and the Spirit perfecting God’s self-communication. Moreover, focusing on divine speech distributes providence and features the persuasive activity of the Holy Spirit—what Reformed theologians describe as an “effectual” call. If God’s call can be effectual, what about other forms of speech acts? One advantage of thinking in terms of communicative action is that speech is not the sort of action that deprives another of her freedom: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7, cited in Heb. 3:7–11). Another advantage is that a focus on divine communicative activity does justice to the dialogical action that Fergusson feels more traditional models have overlooked. I have argued elsewhere that divine providence is best viewed dialogically, in terms of efficacious triune communication: the Father rules by speaking Christ through the Spirit into human minds and hearts.Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 366–377. “Come now, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18). All this to say: Fergusson’s polyphonic approach would do well to add one more voice, that of the Conductor, to the choir.