When I requested the first two volumes of William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action tetralogy (Oxford University Press, 2017–), I must admit I did not expect them to shape my thoughts on divine action and, by extension, providence quite so much as they have.See my review of volumes one and two, and my review of volume three.
Before reading Abraham’s fine work, I accepted without question the inevitability of having at least a tacit theory of divine action, the major task being to articulate this coherently in ways appropriate to orthodox Christian belief.
But Abraham has persuaded me that this kind of enterprise is no longer tenable. There is no such thing as divine action; there are only divine actions, and all our theology—from the doctrine of the Trinity, Christology, and pneumatology to creation, providence, and eschatology, and everything in between—all our theology recognizes and presupposes these divine actions plural. The triune God acts variously, and the church responds intelligently to these acts in faith.
The first two entries in the series were a sort of ground-clearing exercise. Volume one analyzed mid-twentieth-century debates on divine action, and the second book drew from earlier theologians to ascertain how they approached the matter. In this third installment, Systematic Theology, Abraham offers a deliberately constructive contribution to configure how doctrinal loci might look once God’s actions (e.g., acts of creating or acts of redemption) are accepted as the specific acts they are. “Theology assumes the reality of divine agency and divine action,” says Abraham (p. 24), and it has no need to justify its methodologies by appealing to outside disciplines or by prioritizing (nonetheless important) sub-disciplines such as the epistemology of theology. Abraham never advocates rejecting insights gained from other fields, of course, but he implies that systematic theology has a somewhat privileged place in the scholarly world as it derives its confidence not simply from its practitioners’ academic abilities, but from the fact that God truly has acted in human history and reality.
Why Systematic Theology?
This is, for Abraham, why systematic theology is important. It is “university-level, post-baptismal Christian instruction” or “university-level catechesis” (pp. 9, 23), with each doctrine an intellectual response to the variety of divine actions as narrated in Scripture and Christian life and experience. Its purpose is spiritual formation, “a form of faith seeking understanding” (p. 32) that, when done appropriately and self-critically, speaks truthfully about God’s actions in the world. Theologians are called to engage with the origins of doctrines and traditions, the issues and questions raised by them, and their interpretation for the present-day church, all while defending Christian faith from outside (and perhaps even inside) critique (pp. 32–33). Systematic theology is a spiritual practice that strengthens belief and fortifies faith in God.
But who is this God? For Abraham, God is “a unique, mysterious, tripersonal Agent” (p. 42). The word Abraham uses here, “Agent,” is important: God is not something abstract, a concept in need of embodiment. Instead, God is revealed in Scripture to have acted in the world for its good, and specifically its healing (p. 52), in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. This, for Abraham, implies two things: first, that only an incomparably almighty God can achieve the world’s redemption; second, that only a supremely loving God can do this. And these two aspects frame the triune God’s attributes fittingly: God is loving, worthy of worship, holy, and righteous (all entailed by God’s goodness), but also omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, and necessary (God’s power). When we develop an understanding of what God’s attributes truly mean, we discover that they are far from dry, abstract concepts but in fact form the basis for our trust in the God revealed in and through Jesus (pp. 57–60, 68).
Systematic theology is a spiritual practice that strengthens belief and fortifies faith in God.
The foregoing is my summary of Abraham’s first four chapters here; I thought it prudent to comment on these in particular, as they lay the foundation for everything that follows. Systematic Theology explores the standard doctrines that any theology primer would include: Christology, pneumatology, atonement, theological anthropology, ecclesiology, and so on. Abraham comments early on that he intends the book to cover the staples of Christian thought in the hope that it will help form faithful Christians, including church leaders (p. 8). I am sure it will do just this.
I should like to make here one final observation. Given the convictions weaving through Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action series as a whole, a work of pure theology or of theology proper is a logical, even necessary, outcome. If it is no longer a priority to speak of divine action singular, or of a “problem” of divine action aiming to find resolution through definition of its mechanisms, then theology proper, I submit, is all that is left. Theology is inescapable and primary. Indeed, Abraham himself appears to recognize this: “I do not follow slavishly the emphasis on divine agency and divine action,” he confesses, “but deploy ruminations on these where relevant” (p. 8). This is a rather unusual statement to make within a series purporting to focus on matters of divine action—but I for one welcome it, finding here both a challenge and inspiration. The four participants in this book symposium have, of course, drawn their own conclusions about what Abraham has attempted or achieved in Systematic Theology—and this dialogue, along with the final rejoinder from Abraham himself, will enrich our knowledge of the deep things of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.