Professor Fergusson’s The Providence of God: A Polyphonic Approach is an impressive contribution to the search for an adequate Christian doctrine of divine providence. The merits of the book are many, and there is much to appreciate.
Cambridge University Press, 2018
Fergusson’s discussion is grounded in consideration of Scripture (including both the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament and the New Testament). It is readily conversant with the thought of important figures from the Christian tradition. It is deeply engaged with important movements in modern thought; this includes not only major theological shifts (e.g., those of Schleiermacher, classical Protestant liberalism, and open and process theologies) but also relevant and sometimes challenging developments in such disciplines as philosophy, economics, and the natural sciences (his questions on the possibilities of reconciling Darwinism with divine providence are penetrating and insightful). Moreover, the book is attuned to the vicissitudes of life and approaches the doctrine with pastoral sensitivity, but without being improperly propelled by a quest for an adequate theodicy. In short, in many ways it is a model of how systematic theology should be done.
Raising A Concern
Fergusson is not unappreciative of the theological tradition, but he is concerned about major elements of its legacy. He is opposed to the traditional tendency to locate the doctrine of providence under a single theological heading (e.g., creation or the divine attributes). He is concerned to appreciate and appropriate—rather than domesticate—the “strikingly diverse” (p. 298) ways that the Bible depicts God’s providential activity.As he tells the story, sometimes the determinism is out in the open and celebrated by various theologians, while at other points it is more muted. Nonetheless, it is clear that he interprets this tradition as deterministic. He is exercised to critique and reject the determinism of the mainstream Latin theological tradition (as well as its various deterministic mutations in modern political and economic thought). He wants to provide an account of the doctrine that is consistent with contemporary scientific discoveries (while retaining its own theological integrity). And he is insistent that any proper formulation of the doctrine is one that is more properly, thoroughly, and intentionally Trinitarian than the accounts found in mainstream traditional statements.
While appreciative of his work, in many ways sympathetic to his concerns, and in some respects attracted to his overall proposal, I do have several concerns. First, I am somewhat concerned that his account of the broad Latin tradition might be just that—rather too broad. In many places the handling of a very wide range of sources is deft, but overall one is left with the impression of something approaching a “central dogma” motif. Fergusson is deeply opposed to the determinism that he sees resident in this tradition. As he tells the story, sometimes the determinism is out in the open and celebrated by various theologians, while at other points it is more muted. Nonetheless, it is clear that he interprets this tradition as deterministic. To be just as clear, I am completely with Fergusson in his rejection of determinism. I do not doubt that there are determinists within the Latin theological tradition, and I think that they were mistaken. That is not at issue between us. Rather, I worry that his portrayal of this tradition is somewhat too quick, and the argument for this conclusion is not quite as clear as it could be. Is it a strictly historical argument? In other words, is the claim being advanced that this tradition just was—with the exception of a few outliers and rebels—overtly committed to determinism? Or is Fergusson’s point that there is something in the Latin tradition that commits it to determinism—whether or not the theologians themselves were committed to it? In other words, is the argument a historical argument, or is it a conceptual argument that various propositions which were routinely affirmed by the major theologians in the tradition somehow entailed conclusions that they did not intend and would not wish to accept?
Getting the History Right
If the former—if this is a strictly historical argument—then Fergusson has more work to do. He calls upon such luminaries as Zwingli and Calvin as expert witnesses, and surely he is right that their views are deterministic. But many of his corroborating witnesses provide very different accounts, and at several points we are left to wonder if other evidence might be available. Indeed, we should wonder if some of that additional evidence might actually be exculpatory.Fergusson does not paint the tradition as monolithic; of course he knows better than that. But he pretty consistently worries that determinism is at least the result or outcome of the tradition. For instance, he claims that “Augustine’s later thought becomes more determinist” (p. 51). Whatever one makes of Fergusson’s claim, it is also interesting to note that even the fairly late (and polemically anti-Pelagian) Augustine says things that do not square well with determinism. And it is more important to note that Augustine’s views of these matters were not widely accepted by later generations of anti-Pelagian theologians. It would not be hard to produce counterexamples from patristic and medieval theologians; many are exercised to reject determinism.
Fergusson does not paint the tradition as monolithic; of course he knows better than that. But he pretty consistently worries that determinism is at least the result or outcome of the tradition, and he views the Reformed scholastics as the zenith of the tradition and thus sees any disagreements with Turretin and company as mere “revisions to the classical doctrine” (p. 95). Unfortunately, however, Fergusson gives short shrift to the contemporary debates about these matters among historians of Reformed orthodoxy and early modern theology; here Richard Muller and others are mounting rigorous arguments that the very Reformed scholastic tradition that is seen by Fergusson as “Exhibit A” of determinism is actually opposed to it. But even if Fergusson is correct that this (Reformed) element of the tradition is committed to determinism, we should not conclude that this is true of the broader tradition. And, again, prominent counterexamples are not at all hard to adduce—they are found not only in Arminian/Remonstrant theology but also within Anglican theology, Lutheran scholasticism (which also includes Molinism), and elements of early modern Roman Catholic theology. Simply put, if the argument is a historical one, then Fergusson has more work to do.
Tightening the Argument
But perhaps Fergusson’s argument is intended more as a conceptual or logical argument. Maybe what he means is that there is something in this tradition that implies or entails determinism. Again, if this is his point, then he has more work to do. Just which elements of the traditional view take us down this road? How do they do so?Professor Fergusson’s wide-ranging and insightful book will be helpful to us all as we continue to develop views of providence. I have learned much from it, I am grateful for it, and it is an honor to engage it. Suppose we grant that the traditional account, with its distinctions between primary and secondary causality and its insistence upon concurrence, is consistent with determinism. Fair enough (this seems right to me), but this in no way amounts to the conclusion that the traditional account entails determinism. Given the extent and magnitude of the claims made by Fergusson, it would seem that a tighter argument would be appropriate here.
This leads me to a second area of concern, one that is more directly theological in nature. Fergusson’s doctrine posits a relationship between God and creatures that is “one of co-dependence” (p. 31). What does it mean to say this? Granted, this is stated as part of an “initial hypothesis,” but the precise meaning is less than plain (at least to me) at the conclusion of the book. Fergusson clearly rejects process versions of the doctrine, and he just as clearly wants to affirm an eschatological sense of the ultimate triumph of the good divine will. But how does the notion of co-dependence fit together with this confidence in the sovereignty of divine action? How does God guarantee an outcome if “God” (God’s purposes, or God’s being, or just what?) depends on me? I do not mean to suggest that all this cannot fit together, but the claim of co-dependence worries me.
Fergusson says that “Aquinas’s account of divine action sits somewhere between earlier Islamic forms of occasionalism and later forms of deism” (p. 68). Surely this is true. But there is a lot of room between Muslim (as well as other) forms of occasionalism and deism. There is more than one traditional or “classical” account of providence, and there is room for more than one in that wide space. Professor Fergusson’s wide-ranging and insightful book will be helpful to us all as we continue to develop views of providence. I have learned much from it, I am grateful for it, and it is an honor to engage it.