Many contemporary approaches to divine providence strive towards a relational and explicitly Christian, read Trinitarian, account of the doctrine, and David Fergusson’s work numbers among these. The goal is a praiseworthy, good, and powerful God, who is neither distant nor dominant, thus enabling dignified creaturely action. However, Fergusson risks absenting the Father in various ways so that the relational providence outlined may be less than properly Trinitarian, since the immanence of Son and Spirit eclipse the Father.

The Father Almighty

Cambridge University Press, 2018

A previously vivid and dominant figure makes the absence more striking, and Christians have long confessed the Father Almighty Creator of heaven and earth, so that the Father holds prime place, by association, in the doctrine of providence. For example, almightiness and fatherliness recur in Heidelberg catechism answer 26, “God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father,” and in answer 27, “The almighty and ever present power of God . . . by his fatherly hand.”Heidelberg Catechism A26, A27. Similarly, Herman Bavinck describes in providence faith’s perception of “royal power and fatherly love.”Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, volume 2, 618. Bavinck alludes to the Heidelberg catechism in the closing paragraph of this section.

Traditionally, this association does not negate Trinitarian description of divine action, for example, the Second Council of Constantinople affirmed all things from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.Second Council of Constantinople 553, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd edition, ed. Bettenson and Maunder, 100. See Paul Blowers for an extended exposition of early prepositional theology of the Creator’s relation to creation. Charles Wood summarizes, “God relates to things ‘triunely,’” but lack of Christian specificity, shown through lack of Trinitarian explication, produces functionally unitarian providence.Charles Wood, The Question of Providence, 69, 77-78. Wood responds by coordinating Father, Son, and Spirit, with their prepositions, into the threefold division of providence: preservation, concursus, and government. God’s single providential action is “the conservatio from the Father, the concursus in the Spirit, and the directio through the Son.” Wood, 80. In this way, God provides the ground, context, and end of all things, such that all creatures are from him, through him, and to him. Three persons and a threefold division provide a neat correspondence and hence a Trinitarian account of providence with little development, but an explicit Trinitarianism with conventional providential terms. Mark Elliott observes of the traditional threefold division, “These are not different actions, but three aspects of one Divine work that has been ongoing ever since creation.” Providence Perceived, 293. Like Wood, Barth keeps the older division and he gives accounts of divine preserving, accompanying, and ruling in line with preservation, concursus, and governance. Barth’s Trinitarian use here demonstrates that the division could be kept without an allocation to different divine persons. Wood’s work raises a valid alarm, but he does not address the particularities of providence and accusations against a domineering Father, which is where Fergusson’s moves.In contrast to Wood, Barth addresses this concern. “God is the Father—not the father of a father-complex but the Father of Jesus Christ and therefore our beloved Father. It is thus the better for the creature the more fully it stands under the lordship of God, and the worse for it the more that reservations and restrictions are placed upon this lordship.” Barth, CD III.3, 49.3 The Divine Ruling, 150.

Barth and Christological Specificity

Fergusson’s critique at times echoes Karl Barth who described “the agreed doctrine of orthodoxy” as an “empty shell” lacking Christological and Trinitarian specificity, such that lordship is “the act of a superior and absolutely omniscient, omnipotent and omnioperative being whose nature and work do of course display such moral qualities as wisdom, righteousness and goodness, etc. But this is all.”Barth, CD III.3, 48.2 The Christian Belief in Providence, 29. Furthermore, he explicitly criticizes earlier focus on the Father as he points out that “one of the deficits of classical theology is its tendency to appropriate providential action to the first person of the Trinity only.”Barth responds by affirming the Father’s providential rule and the place of Son and Spirit in the economy and correlates creation and covenant so that the history of created being “proceeds under the fatherly care of God the Creator” seen in election, in the covenant of God and Man, in Christ.Barth, CD III.3. 48 The Doctrine of Providence, its basis and form, 1. This theme is further developed in paragraph 49, “God the Father as Lord of His Creature.” Barth, CD III.3, 49 God the Father as Lord of His Creature, 56. “God fulfils His fatherly lordship over His creature by preserving, accompanying and ruling the whole course of its earthly existence. He does this as His mercy is revealed and active in the creaturely sphere in Jesus Christ, and the lordship of His Son is thus manifested to it.” Only in Christ is God other than “the chief Monad,”Barth, CD III.3, 49.3 The Divine Ruling, 195. Providentially creation moves from, through, and to its Creator, who alone is true God, Father and King, while all others are idols. The centrality of the covenant is the only basis on which the dignity and honor of creaturely actions may be affirmed, since in Christ the goodness of creation finds its meaning and fullness. and because God works objectively by His Word and subjectively by His Spirit in the central event of all history, this is the pattern for all divine action from, through, and to Godself.Barth, CD III.3, 49.3 The Divine Ruling, 146. Nonetheless, Fergusson suggests that Barth neglects the Spirit and hence still fails to be properly triune (p. 282).

Fergusson repeatedly asserts that divine action cannot be constricted to one mode, but providence must be diffused and “de-systematised” (p. 245).Hence, Fergusson is reacting not only to earlier focus on the Father, but also to more contemporary focus on the Spirit, “a multiplicity of models may be required to characterise [providence’s] several manifestations. To reduce these to one modality alone is to inhibit the full range of actions that the distribution of providence across the various articles of faith requires” (p. 264). Fergusson levels a similar criticism against Thomas Oord because of Oord’s insistence that compulsion and special divine action are not possible (p. 267). In Fergusson’s estimation, general providence alone, even if pneumatological, is insufficient again because this limits possible modes of divine action. In moving away from the Father, Fergusson argues that a singular divine will, one great providential blueprint, results in determinism that destroys creaturely agency and too closely aligns God with horrendous evil.Bringing in the two hands loosens the Father’s strangling grasp on the details and “by loosening the fit between divine volition and contingent occurrence, we are no longer committed to regarding all history as fulfilling a single foreordained plot.” In order to promote his positive proposal, Fergusson foregrounds Son and Spirit: “without stronger Christological and pneumatological expressions of divine providence, the polyphonic witness of the scriptural tradition was always in danger of diminution” (p. 58).Fergusson’s survey of scriptural themes acknowledges that many passages do not shy from deterministic language. Furthermore, he explicitly criticizes earlier focus on the Father as he points out that “one of the deficits of classical theology is its tendency to appropriate providential action to the first person of the Trinity only . . . I shall argue for a better distribution across all three articles of faith” (p. 26). The Father provides the substrate of creation and preservation that form a backdrop for the dynamic Christological and pneumatological enactment of creaturely possibility.

Irenaeus and God’s Two Hands

Correspondingly, when describing how God works, causal description of providence is deemed necessarily deterministic or deistic, and greater “free-play” is required between God and creation, which will more appropriately reflect a scriptural motif of divine struggle and wrestling (pp. 31; 72–73). Here, Fergusson calls on the Irenaean “two hands” metaphor, which he appropriates with credit to Colin Gunton’s construal (p. 23).Interestingly, in the first instance Fergusson reaches for the scriptural vocabulary of wisdom and spirit, rather than Son and Spirit. This admirably displays scriptural discipline of dogmatic language and thought. Fergusson, Providence, footnote 44, page 195. However, Colin Gunton displays more caution with the metaphor, at least in his first reference to it in The Triune Creator. This allows Fergusson to challenge the tight fit between a divine plan and contingent action:

The ‘two hands of God’ thus give a multi-dimensional meaning to the concept of double agency, even if this does not play out according to the classical distinction between primary and secondary causality. The fit is looser to accommodate the contingency of creation, the freedom of creatures and the striving of God to fashion a future for us (p. 232).Like others before him, Fergusson prefers to speak of agents and not causes.

Specifically the Spirit enables creaturely possibilities rather than a singular plan and realigns causal accounts from earlier Thomist or Calvinist expressions.“The action of the Holy Spirit can be construed in terms of an enablement of providential possibilities rather than a single decree that actualises each particular, ranging from the intensely trivial to the grotesquely genocidal. Within this shift of perspective, the configuration of primary and secondary causality is modified from its classical expression in its Thomist and Calvinist inflections” (p. 132). Fergusson will later contrast his position with that of process theology, which Fergusson claims is almost exclusively pneumatological (p. 257). Fergusson registers appreciation for Christological elements in Barth’s account but ultimately finds it overly deterministic and a reheat of old troubles. Pneumatology appears more urgent for Christology in Fergusson’s clarification of providence (pp. 271–272; 293). The Father is implicitly associated with divine patience, endurance, and restraint, which is a more passive role, in direct contrast with the restlessness of the Spirit (p. 236). “We recall the two hands. God is always active but in ways that have a specificity characterised by the Word and universalised by the Spirit” (p. 237). Fergusson’s rejection of earlier models of divine action mean that the Father’s role is scaled down and effectively minimized.Fergusson speaks of the appropriation of creation and preservation to the Father, of incarnation, remaking and indwelling to the Son and the Spirit. It is unclear how this appropriation fits with the distribution of providence across the three articles that Fergusson says he wants (p. 195). In reaction to earlier dominance, Fergusson’s insistence on distribution and prominence of the two hands metaphor reduces the Father’s role to one of backstage provision, rather than intimate and meticulous care for creatures (pp. 297–300). A strangling grip is removed.

A Distant Father?

This question becomes important: who or what is excluded or removed by shifting emphasis from Father to hands?And the follow-up I suggest might be, scripturally who should be included? Removing the Father is culturally equivalent to removing an oppressive tyrant, but while an absent Father may not be a tyrant, neither is he a loving, protecting, guiding provider. Hence, relational accounts fail to be distinctly Christian or Trinitarian if the Father is missing, because binitarian is not good enough.Therefore, sidelining the Father or requiring the Father to have mediation distinct from the Father’s self, which is God’s self, distorts Irenaeus’s two hands metaphor.“The economy is the economy of God, for the Son and the Spirit are doing the work of the Father and it is to the Father that they bring this work in order that it receive approval, and its existence, from him.” Douglas Knight, “Time and Persons in the Economy of God,” in The Providence of God, eds. Francesa Aran Murphy and Philip. G. Ziegler (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 142. This is true even if accounts are entwined with “Irenaean” metaphor for legitimacy. Mere reference to Irenaeus’s ‘two hands’ formulation is, in isolation, insufficient to safeguard one’s account of providence as sufficiently normed by the doctrine of the Trinity. Further, the manner in which Irenaeus himself employs the ‘two hands’ image is significantly dissimilar to Fergusson, because for Irenaeus the significance of God using two hands is the triune God’s direct action in creation.A close reading of Against Heresies book 4 would be a good place to start. The two hands metaphor does not emphasize distance, nor the need for a third-party mediator, but rather closeness, intimacy, and direct relation between God most high and creation. Therefore, sidelining the Father or requiring the Father to have mediation distinct from the Father’s self, which is God’s self, distorts Irenaeus’s two hands metaphor. Tri-unity and God’s direct action as Creator are in the forefront of Irenaeus’s position, especially given the anti-gnostic purpose of the larger work. Because the one God, the Father, creates; therefore, in the Son, God is seen, speaks, confers, is present, saves, is perceived, frees, causes humans to serve, sanctifies; so that “man, having embraced the Spirit of God, might pass into the glory of the Father.”“There is therefore one God, who by the Word and Wisdom created and arranged all things” (Against Heresies 4.20.4). The actions of God in the economy are tri-une all the way down. Appeal to the two hands metaphor, at least Irenaeus’s version thereof, should not be used to banish the Father.

God’s work has a mysterious unity that has analogy but no equivalent in the unity of creaturely agents.Useful here is Tyler Wittman’s recent examination, “The old rule that opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt, servato ordine et discrimine personarum is best understood when its two clauses are read together as mutually informative. Read thus, and grasped according to its principles and grammar, the rule articulates two things: the pure benefit of God’s activity terminating in time, and the intimate yet unconfused relation between theology and economy.” Tyler Wittman, ‘On the Unity of the Trinity’s External Works: Archaeology and Grammar,’ International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 20 Number 3 July 2018, 359. doi:10.1111/ijst.12294. “Flowing forth from the Trinity’s mutual relations are the missions of Christ and the Spirit from the Father, which reflect temporally their eternal processions.” Wittman, ‘On the Unity,’ 369, 372, 375, 386. Unity with differentiation in God’s triune life is mirrored by unity with differentiation in God’s external works.Wittman, ‘On the Unity,’ 373. We register appropriate restraint that the unity of God’s work does not reductively collapse the divine life to unitarian singularity, and nor should a personalist push for plurality divide and overly specify a division of attributes or an appropriation of operations or diversity of modality in divine action that separates beyond paternity, filiation, and spiration. Since this is the triunity of the living God, the three and the one, the one and the three, mutually reinforce rather than contradicting one another.

In reaction to traditional dominance, Fergusson sidelines the Father and looks to the Irenaean metaphor to exposit mediated Trinitarian action, but for Irenaeus, the two hands of God do not float freely without source. The Father embraces us through the Son by the Spirit and the two hands are the hands of the Father, not a tertiary mediator between God and creation. Providence is a single fatherly care by the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father and as such, providence is not impersonal but triunely personal. Fergusson’s push for polyphony rather than a single melody and his attempt to avoid cacophony risks all together muting a significant harmony.


The Providence of God: Introducing the Symposium
Rebekah Earnshaw | Dordt University
The Two Hands of God
Rebekah Earnshaw | Dordt University
Hooked on (Poly)phonics: Voicing Plaudits and Plaints
Kevin Vanhoozer | Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Double Agency and the Threefold Form of Providence
Terry J. Wright | Spurgeon’s College
Polyphany, Cacophany, Symphony
Tom McCall | Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Wisdom and Providence
Craig Bartholomew | Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics
The Providence of God: A Rejoinder
David Fergusson | University of Edinburgh