The providence of God is an exquisite and awe-inspiring doctrine, relating, as it does, to God’s relationship to the world he has created. It is also a doctrine with vital pastoral significance. Early on, Fergusson defines providence as follows: “Within Christian theology, providence is the sequel to creation. After creating the world, God preserves and directs it to fulfill God’s purposes” (pp. 30–31, 41). As with most doctrines, providence is also mysterious and one that merits hard thought. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with Fergusson’s recent book on this topic.
In chapter 1, Fergusson attends to the scriptural data for the doctrine of providence. He notes that after creating God continues to make provision for his creation and to offer it direction. Following Irenaeus, Fergusson speaks of God’s two hands—the Son and the Spirit—by means of which God achieves his purposes with his creation. Fergusson refers to these two, which he names as wisdom and spirit, as bridge concepts. “Both connect God and the world by denoting forms of divine agency that extend beyond the making of the world” (p. 23). My response to Fergusson will focus on his use of biblical wisdom as an important source for the doctrine of providence.
Wisdom is too easily neglected and so it is gratifying to see Fergusson’s attention to it. He notes that from Proverbs we learn that wisdom pervades the creation, every aspect of it. Wisdom is comprehensive: it relates to the natural world but also to the social, political, economic, domestic worlds, etc. However, Job and Ecclesiastes problematize any doctrine of retribution or what is often called its act-consequence structure that too easily correlates virtue and consequence. The speeches of God in Job evoke a world of grandeur but also teach us that the creation is not without risk. “The world is created, ordered and constrained but without a tight control or immediate interposition by its Maker to ensure those outcomes that human beings might prefer” (p. 24). Furthermore, God never answers Job’s queries. Wisdom themes are also found in Jesus’ teaching. Fergusson refers to Matthew 6:25-34 which calls us to trust God’s care but never promises relief from suffering.
One of Fergusson’s aims is to develop a new doctrine of providence that does justice to the variegated scriptural witness, and what he does with wisdom is typical of his handling of the Bible. Repeatedly, he first sets out a major approach from certain biblical data, and then he invokes other data that appear to complicate or raise questions about the first. Proverbs, in the case of wisdom, is the first element, with Job and Ecclesiastes problematizing the teaching of “Proverbs,” or more precisely ideologies that closely correlate virtue and prosperity.
The subtitle of Fergusson’s book invokes “polyphony,” which is a musical metaphor referring to many voices together producing a wonderful harmony.The subtitle of Fergusson’s book invokes “polyphony,” which is a musical metaphor referring to many voices together producing a wonderful harmony. However, while there are undoubtedly many different voices in the Bible, a polyphony is very different from a collection of contradictory voices. However, while there are undoubtedly many different voices in the Bible, a polyphony is very different from a collection of contradictory voices. Fergusson does not discuss wisdom in detail but the sort of approach he assumes is often taken in OT studies to see Job and Ecclesiastes as representing a major crisis in wisdom, and not just complementary perspectives. Fergusson does not say this, but the ideology Job and Ecclesiastes are seen as reacting to is commonly taken to be that which is embodied in Proverbs.
I have argued elsewhere that Job and Ecclesiastes do not represent such a crisis but attend to aspects of wisdom—vital aspects—that are already present in Proverbs. The view that Proverbs teaches a simple act-consequence structure has been refuted. Van Leeuwen, in particular, has argued that Proverbs is a literary whole, with chapters 1-9 setting out the basic, foundational aspects of wisdom and then subsequent chapters providing greater nuance to the basic picture. Van Leeuwen has explored this in detail in relation to poverty and wealth, demonstrating that prosperity does not automatically follow wise behavior.Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs.” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992): 25-36.
Furthermore, although Fergusson nuances his position, it is not true that Job never receives an answer to his suffering. It is true that he never receives a logical explanation, but he does receive an extraordinary tour of the creation in the divine speeches and finds resolution through his existential relationship with God: “I had heard of you but now I have seen you” (Job 42:5). Certainly, God’s speeches in Job alert us to the fact that there is far more to the creation than human beings. And certainly, Job confronts us with outcomes different than those we might prefer, but this is very different than subverting God’s “tight control” or what is more commonly called his sovereignty. When it comes to wisdom motifs in Matthew 6:25-34, Fergusson’s comments need to be set in context against the strong wisdom motif of two houses (cf. Proverbs 9) in Matthew 7, which does indeed alert us to major advantages in building the house of our lives on rock.
Wisdom and the Doctrine of Creation
However, my main concern in this response is to agree with Fergusson that wisdom is a major and neglected resource for the doctrine of providence, and to argue that it has more to offer than he realizes. Of course there are limits to what one can do in a short monograph. In a chapter on “Wisdom and Atonement,”Craig G. Bartholomew, “Wisdom Books (Old Testament)” in Adam J. Johnson, ed., T & T Clark Companion to Atonement (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 801-806. I argued that Proverbs is the foundational OT wisdom book, and in it we see that wisdom:
- Is an attribute of God (Prov. 8:22-31);
- is the means through which God created the world (Prov. 3:19-20) so that his wisdom is built into the fabric of creation and cries out to be heard by humans in all areas of life (Prov. 1:20-21);
- is needed by humans in every area of life to flourish in the creation (Prov. 3:13-18);
- finds its starting point and foundation in the fear of Yahweh (Prov. 1:7, etc.);
- is the opposite of folly, an ever present reality in a fallen world (see Proverbs 9).
Wisdom is thus not just about wise activities, but about how these fit within God’s order for creation and the eros that directs our lives. Wisdom is thus at base a theology of creation, so that creation is, as Fergusson says, pervaded by wisdom, and comprehensively so. Underlying the choices humans make is a God-given dynamic order to the creation. The metaphors of Proverbs construct a world for the reader to indwell which is ordered by God. God’s world is the overarching context for human life and as such has two characteristics. First, as creation it has boundaries or limits. Second, human life in God’s world is characterized by two possibilities. Either it is drawn towards Wisdom, who sets out life within God-given limits, or towards Folly, who offers counterfeit delights in defiance of created limits:
Love of Wisdom means staying within her prescribed cosmic-social boundaries . . . Thus, recognition of cosmic structure or limits is inseparable from proper eros or direction . . . The socio-ethical order of Proverbs 1-9 is grounded in the creation order revealed by Wisdom who accompanied God as he set the cosmic boundaries.Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Liminality and Worldview in Proverbs 1-9,” Semeia 50 (1990), 116–117.
There are aspects of God’s creation order that we have no choice but to obey—consider gravity, for example. However, there are many aspects of God’s order for his world that humans have the freedom to obey or disobey, to be wise or to be foolish. However, it makes a great difference whether we live according to the grain of the creation or against it. Living against it generates resistance, whereas living according to it aligns us with God’s order for his world.
Fergusson asserts that wisdom can change with social circumstances (p. 24). Such a statement needs to be unpacked. Proverbs (cf. 26:4-5) is well aware that discernment is required in different situations to determine what is fitting. If this is what Fergusson means, well and good.In this way, wisdom opens a door to closer and more precise, although still fuzzy, insights into how God accompanies his creation and rules over it as he leads it towards its destination. We might say, provocatively, that wisdom provides us with some insight into the mechanics of providence. However, this is very different than saying that God’s order for creation is so fluid as to be virtually historicist. If it is true that his dynamic order holds for the creation then, if we can ascertain key elements in this order, such as the centrality of the family to human life (cf. Gen 2:18-25), then we have important clues as to what God intends for his creation and where we might expect a “kick-back” effect of judgement when humans live against the grain of the creation. To take another example, Patrick Miller evocatively describes the Ten Commandments as the “ethos of the good neighborhood.”Patrick D. Miller, “The Good Neighborhood: Identity and Community through the Commandments,” in W. Brown, ed., Character and Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 55-72. If law concretizes the creation order for a particular time and place, as I think it does, then texts like the decalogue enable us to hold up a mirror to the world to compare the grain of the creation with the direction of our societies and neighborhoods. In this way, wisdom opens a door to closer and more precise, although still fuzzy, insights into how God accompanies his creation and rules over it as he leads it towards its destination. We might say, provocatively, that wisdom provides us with some insight into the mechanics of providence.
A final point: Fergusson argues that positioning providence under the doctrine of God or of creation has retarded its development, and argues for spreading it across the loci of doctrine. Doubtless we need a Christological and Trinitarian doctrine of providence—Karl Barth, for example, notes the Christological deficit in Reformed doctrines of providence. However, wisdom with its theology of creation provides at least an encouragement to revisit the positioning of providence under creation, as Barth, for example, proposes. It is to Fergusson’s credit that he has alerted us to the contributions wisdom has to make to a doctrine of providence.