I wish to thank my fellow symposiasts for their careful and generous reading of my book. Their criticisms have enabled me to think further about its central themes, historical perspectives, and argumentative moves. In what follows, I offer some further musings which I hope are neither too defensive nor inconsistent with the published material. At the very least, these constructive criticisms have alerted me to ways in which my reflections lack clarity and (inevitably) completion.
The Two Hands of God
Cambridge University Press, 2018
Rebekah Earnshaw has produced an elegant summary of the book that I could not have surpassed myself. Clear and succinct, her précis captures its contents in the most accessible way. I gratefully commend her for that. Her principal criticism is that my use of the ‘two hands’ metaphor results in an unintentional binitarianism in which the Father recedes too far into the background. The only role of the first person is that of backstairs management or scene setting, after which the other two persons assume responsibility for the divine economy. There is undoubtedly some risk here. If the metaphor is given too much scope, then the two hands can become the principal divine agencies with the consequence that those works traditionally appropriated to the Father are largely absent. She is certainly right that the ‘two hands’ theme in Irenaeus is intended to stress against the Gnostics the unity of all the works of God through creation and redemption to sanctification and eschatological fulfillment; these are the instruments of the one God. But in my own account of the theology of providence, the excessive focus on the ‘hands’ might result, she fears, in a possible loss of ‘fatherly care.’ This causes some collateral damage, as I flee from an overbearing determinism.
There may be several ways of tackling this problem. The first is to stress that the divine work of conservation is continuous. This is a sustained action of God that betokens faithfulness and constancy. Creation is not a mere scene setting or opening move. It is accompanied by a daily upholding of all contingent existence.Here, admittedly, I have chosen to err on the side of stressing the diversity of God’s ways and the richness of a providentially ordered world, largely through a fear that in the past theologians have been tempted to offer a single template that has resulted in claims that demanded later deconstruction. My reflections on Julian of Norwich were intended to underscore this point. The continuous work of conservation is closely intertwined with God’s wisdom and spirit. Scotus somewhere makes the point that the world scarcely exists. The Father whose hands are ever active is ceaselessly engaged in ruling and redeeming the world. The act of conservatio attests this. Moreover, I am not clear how one can speak about the promissory aspect of the work of Christ and the Spirit without reference to the Father whose promise is here being declared.
But is this sufficient? I can sense a subsequent criticism looming here. If the polyphonic nature of God’s work is overly accentuated, is there not a danger of losing any sense of consistency or purpose in the divine economy? Have the persons become so discrete that their unity of action is not properly registered? Here, admittedly, I have chosen to err on the side of stressing the diversity of God’s ways and the richness of a providentially ordered world, largely through a fear that in the past theologians have been tempted to offer a single template that has resulted in claims that demanded later deconstruction. The history of providential theologies is littered with inflated judgements. But what Earnshaw really points towards, I think, is the opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa principle. How does one capture the indivisibility of God’s works while also accommodating an adequate diversity? This may also be an issue for Kelsey, whose three differentiated plot-lines have influenced my thinking on providence. The answer must surely lie in the consistency of divine act and being through the involvement of all three persons or modalities in each outward act.Admittedly, the doctrine of appropriations runs the risk of failing to stress the co-activity of the three persons; it was rejected by T. F. Torrance for this reason. See Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 200. My own concern here is to describe the works of the economic Trinity in order to convey a stronger sense of the diversity of God’s providential acts across all three articles. The Word and Spirit act together as the Word and Spirit of the one God. There is no dissonance between the diversity of God’s activity and God’s eternal being. Even when the overall coherence lies beyond our vision, an affirmation of consistency and purpose accompanies our faith. This is a rule governing confession of the one God. I shall try to say a bit more about this in other responses below.
Kevin Vanhoozer offers some perceptive remarks about my Scottish context. On a personal note, I regret that his own stay in Edinburgh was relatively brief.I regret that his own stay in Edinburgh was relatively brief. His impact as a teacher and scholar at New College was considerable in that short time and he was much missed after his departure. Haste ye back! His impact as a teacher and scholar at New College was considerable in that short time and he was much missed after his departure. Haste ye back! He presses me on the extent to which I now consider myself a Reformed theologian. This is fair enough and I confess that I often had to ask myself that same question as I took issue with my own tradition on key points. Of course, my preoccupation with the subject itself is probably an effect of the Reformed tradition. I was reared on the principle ‘that what’s for you, will not go by you.’ But has this simply become a point of departure? I hope not. There is an attempt in this work to display the habits that Brian Gerrish has identified as distinctive marks of the tradition. The anti-speculative tone and the warnings against over-systematization reflect the ethos if not exactly the content of Institutes, Book One. Here I frequently recalled Nick Wolterstorff’s remarks on ‘living wisely in the darkness.’ Although he is articulating the religious underpinning of Thomas Reid’s epistemology, there is also something distinctively Reformed in this pragmatic approach. Furthermore, I have labored in this book to offer a strong account of providence that is pastorally adequate and that will preach well. Whatever the success of the outcome, I judge this to be a legitimately Reformed endeavor in its refusal to allow systematic theology to drift apart from the life of the church.
On the issue of sovereignty, Vanhoozer offers the wonderful simile of a nose-dive (with Tom Oord) that only narrowly avoids a crash landing by virtue of my eschatology. I was left with the image of hitting an eject button, while Oord remains steadfastly strapped to a process cockpit! It is certainly the case that some traditional notions of divine sovereignty are discarded in my account. I do not want to say that everything that happens is the will of God, even though I do not in the end ditch double agency. Measured by the standards of five-point Calvinism, I will be found wanting in more than one respect. On the other hand, I do affirm a sovereignty that is being continuously enacted though in a more promissory key. Eschatological outcomes are assured by virtue of promises that are received through the Word and the Spirit. And these promises are not secured or disrupted by anything that we can do, even if we are permitted a finite time in which to work together with the Holy Spirit. Our future is settled only by grace.
I should have said more about John Webster’s contribution, especially as his sudden and premature death occurred while I was writing the final draft. His passing, added to that of Colin Gunton in 2003, is a grievous loss to systematic theology in the UK. The Aberdeen symposium to which Vanhoozer refers is one in which I participated. John Webster’s contribution struck me as a powerful reprise of a traditional account in his characteristically baroque style. Until then, I had not fully appreciated the Thomist turn in Webster’s theology.If God’s agency is better characterized in personal than non-personal terms, then divine speech too should be characterized by the adverbial use of providence. There are certainly some similarities in our views—the need for a more fully inflected Trinitarian account and the sense that providence is a distributed theme rather than confined to one article—but my clear sense was that his approach was one from which I was steadily departing as a result of questions that he would probably have regarded as misplaced. At the symposium my own attention was more preoccupied by David Bentley Hart’s (Orthodox) claim that the Western tradition had conflated divine willing and permitting in ways that were deplorable. But for a rehabilitation of a Thomist-Reformed position, I agree that Webster’s cogent and elegant expression is unsurpassed in recent literature.
More could profitably have been said about divine speech, and I thank Vanhoozer for that observation. I need to think further about the relationship of God’s speaking to God’s providence. One obvious benefit is its linkage of Word and Spirit in ways that will prevent a depersonalizing of the person and work of the latter. If God’s agency is better characterized in personal than non-personal terms, then divine speech too should be characterized by the adverbial use of providence. In its description of preaching, The Larger (Westminster) Catechism points to its providential outcomes. The Word of God is to be preached ‘in season, and out of season’ and applied ‘to the necessities and capacities of the hearers’ (Q. 159). In a related context, William J. Abraham’s recent work on divine action has something to offer—as I read him, he claims that the rich diversity of God’s acts should not be narrowed or pressed into one single mold by our modern epistemological concerns. Particularly striking is his reading of Teresa of Avila in which he resists any reworking of her language about divine locutions.William J. Abraham, Divine Agency and Divine Action, Vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 158–174.
Three Questions, Three Answers
Terry Wright raises three questions for me around some of the more methodological decisions adopted in the book. I take each of these in turn.
1) Do we need a doctrine of providence as opposed to a theology of providence? This is a matter on which I remain open. My purpose in eschewing the language of a (single) doctrine was to draw attention to the distributed nature of providence across all the doctrines of the Christian faith. In the past, providentialism has suffered from its location as a sub-division of either the doctrine of God or the doctrine of creation. Once it is settled near the outset of a systematic exposition, then it tends to suffer either from neglect or distortion, or perhaps an admixture of both. I wish to see providence as an aspect of creation, Christology, pneumatology, and eschatology. To this extent, it functions rather differently from, say, the doctrines of creation, the person of Christ, or the church as a discrete locus. This is not to deny that the other doctrines are interrelated, yet in speaking of providence we are more often speaking adjectivally of God’s diverse works. This, of course, raises a converse question as to whether we need to speak of ‘providence’ at all.Here I think that the Reformed tradition was right in foregrounding providence as a characteristic of God’s actions upon the world and in each human life. Might it be dropped without detriment to our theology? Why bother with it, given its almost total linguistic absence in Scripture? Here I think that the Reformed tradition was right in foregrounding providence as a characteristic of God’s actions upon the world and in each human life. Its personalized, particular, and parental elements are vital to the Christian life, and rightly accorded a central place in confessions, paraphrases and hymns. If it helps to speak of a doctrine of providence here, then so be it.
2) Is the language of double agency necessary, especially given my declared anxieties around the distinction between primary and secondary causality? This aligns with another question posed by a reader of the MS prior to publication, namely whether my constructive position ends up much closer to a traditional position than one might have expected from the criticisms leveled against it. I take some form of double agency to be necessary unless one is committed to more radical revisions to the doctrine of God than I am prepared to make. If divine permission, presence, and encounter persist as central commitments, then some form of double agency needs to be accommodated. God permits, accompanies, and is present in every creaturely occurrence. Without these notions, we are faced with a form of deism in which God is remote and disengaged, or a form of panentheism in which any sense of a divine rule needs to be abandoned. For these reasons, I followed the (admittedly difficult) account of double agency advanced by Austin Farrer, one of the most underrated theologians of the last century. Inevitably, this affirmation of double agency generates a major theodicy problem which I take to be largely insoluble. But if the question is pressed as to how God’s double agency is to be discerned even in Auschwitz then I can only follow Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in asserting that God was present in the command not to murder.
3) Wright’s third question asks whether I inflate the language of appropriations to the extent that the actions of God are divided or unbalanced at the expense of the first person. In some respects, this echoes Earnshaw’s aforementioned query. Here I need to invoke the opera ad extra principle again—perhaps I should have said more about this—and to stress that the language of appropriation is intended to differentiate aspects of divine operation rather than an internal division of labor amongst the three persons, an absurd notion which afflicted some versions of kenotic Christology. The ‘two hands’ metaphor at least has the advantage of expressing the unity of God which was part of Irenaeus’s intention. What is perhaps needed is a richer account in which all three persons remain involved in each work, even while it may be appropriated to one person in particular—the two hands are not confined to the second and third articles but are active in every divine work. Aquinas does this in an exemplary fashion in his doctrine of creation which appropriates the act to the Father but indicates ways in which the Son as wisdom and the Spirit as perfecter are intimately involved. What is instructive in Wright’s queries is the way in which they draw attention to the underlying doctrine of God in all of this.
Tradition and Co-Dependence
With some justification, Tom McCall asks whether my account of the ‘Latin tradition’ might be too monochrome. Clearly, there is a danger here. I’ve offered a broad-brush account that speaks of a default or dominant setting in the Western reading of providence and, while I have sought to nuance this thesis along the way, there is an inevitable risk of distortion.I’ve offered a broad-brush account that speaks of a default or dominant setting in the Western reading of providence and, while I have sought to nuance this thesis along the way, there is an inevitable risk of distortion. There is no doubt that many Reformed orthodox theologians of the seventeenth century believed that not only were their accounts of divine sovereignty consistent with human freedom, but that only these could guarantee it. Recent work by Muller and Van Asselt points to the philosophical sophistication and variety of these positions. My argument however is that several ingredients of the Western tradition tend towards a problematic determinism or compatibilism, e.g., the distinction between primary and secondary causality, the insistence upon a meticulous providence in which every single event is not just permitted but willed by God, and the view that everything that happens is foreordained as an element in a rich and harmonious world. In discussions of providence in the West, this has been the prevailing, if not unanimous, view which has deeply affected the life of the churches. All of these elements are prominent in Aquinas and Calvin, and later thinkers in the Reformed tradition did not view themselves as departing from them on these matters. Does it have to be like this? It’s certainly the case that Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Anglican theologians in the West (along with the Orthodox in the East) have expressed major scruples about the Reformed tradition on its alleged determinism. But, with the exceptions of Arminianism and Molinism, they have tended to do so without much disruption to the regnant account of providence. In the face of the dominant tradition in the Latin West, my claim is that providence has to be rethought if these concerns are now to be accommodated. But I do not doubt that the historical story deserves more attention and better nuancing in this respect.
McCall also questions the language of ‘co-dependence’ which I may have drawn from Terence Fretheim’s reading of the Hebrew Bible. Does it jeopardize divine sovereignty and promised outcomes? I would claim that this tension is actually integral to Scripture. For the prophets, there is sometimes a conditionality in God’s Word. Judgement and disaster can be averted if there is repentance. God can change tack in ways that reveal a divine mercy and patience. This suggests an improvisation with recalcitrant material not fully under God’s control. At the same time, there is an asymmetry which is not readily captured by the concept of ‘co-dependence.’ God’s mercy can and will outlast us. More apocalyptic texts describe a victory that is wrought not by us but by God, even if sometimes this appears to await a faithful response from at least a few. This material is not easily assimilated into a systematic theology, but my inclination is to accommodate these strands by delimiting the more cooperative aspects of our relationship to God in the actions of the Spirit and to uncouple this from eschatological outcomes. God may afford us a measure of cooperation today and tomorrow, but in the end this is not what saves us. Here the charge of universalism may loom, but I’d prefer to be arraigned for that than some of the other possibilities.
Wisdom and Providence
Craig Bartholomew helpfully indicates ways in which my use of ‘wisdom’ could have been elaborated in describing the providence of God in creation. I am sure that he is right and that there is much in what he says that I should follow. The doctrine of creation is about much more than how the world got started, and theologians (in good company with the creeds and the eucharistic liturgy) have tended to move much too rapidly from creationAnd the two possibilities of wise and foolish living might also indicate ways in which the work of wisdom is dynamic and cooperative though bounded by constraints set by God. to the story of sin and redemption. Bartholomew points to ways in which my account of wisdom in this context could have been further developed. We need to conceive of divine providence in creation as about more than scene setting in the laws of nature or the regularity of the seasons. The social and ethical discourse of the wisdom literature is a neglected resource here, not least given its prominence in the teaching of Jesus. And the two possibilities of wise and foolish living might also indicate ways in which the work of wisdom is dynamic and cooperative though bounded by constraints set by God. In this context, we are not merely passive recipients of divine providence—we are enabled by the grace of wisdom to become its agents.
I suspect that there are some important ecological insights to be gleaned here too. The created order is not simply a given that determines our lives. In the so-called age of the Anthropocene, we cannot think of creation as merely a static stage or an external context within which a divine-human drama is enacted. Our relationship to the created world is more internal and relational; the order of the world can itself change and be disrupted through our human folly. This deep connection might be articulated through the language of wisdom and law to generate a richer theology of creation that has much more to say about the natural world and other creatures.
Beyond the theology of creation, I suspect that the language of wisdom can also assist in articulating important themes under the other two articles; it might function constructively as a distributed theme, in a manner not dissimilar to providence. In her recent study, Amy Plantinga Pauw has shown the potential for a wisdom ecclesiology for understanding the more mundane forms of ecclesial existence.Amy Plantinga Pauw, The Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). Coincidentally, she concludes with reflections on ‘the polyphone of church life,’ drawing upon the same metaphor in Bonhoeffer.
These responses are partial at best. I have more work to do and I look forward to that. In the meantime, I thank my five colleagues for reading my book with such discernment and for the constructive comments they have offered.