The third volume of my tetralogy on divine action represents a significant departure from traditional genres of systematic theology. On the surface, the work looks like a standard treatment of the loci of systematic theology and thus could readily be dismissed as archaic at worst and conventional at best. However, it is placed very deliberately in a sequence that branches out into conceptual, historical, and philosophical work that is crucial for theology generally but needs to be kept on a tight leash for systematic theology proper. It is decidedly not one more exercise in loci-theology.

Oxford university Press, 2018

The first volume takes up the conceptual work related to divine action and argues that in the end we need precise specification if we are to get beyond very generic talk about divine action. It is also a work of apologetics in that it clears the decks of long-standing vetoes related to divine action from at least Kant onwards. I aim to rid us of the contraceptive pill handed out by theologians and philosophers that prevent us taking actual divine action seriously. The second volume builds on the damage of the contraceptive pill by seeking to be tutored by earlier treatments of specific divine actions. We need cognitive healing and the best medicine is to look critically at selected ways in which earlier theologians wrestled with what they saw as the crucial problems to be addressed about various divine actions. This then paved the way for my constructive work in volume three. And that in turn paves the way for deeper philosophical and theological work that arises when one does the constructive work carried out in volume three. In particular, it takes up the claim that God is best seen as an agent and thus begins to articulate a research program that takes agent causation as crucial both in thinking about God and in resolving long-standing theological problems like divine grace and freedom and divine action in the Lord’s Supper.

The third volume proposes that we see systematic theology as post-baptismal, university level catechesis. The inspiration for this stems from the earliest systematic theologians like Origen and the Cappadocians who saw much of their work as offering deeper initiation into the intellectual content of the creed received in baptism.First, understand the gospel, second, respond in faith, be baptized, and receive the basic creed of the church, third, now let’s go deeper and begin a further exploration of what is intellectually involved. Thus, my work presupposes an understanding of the gospel, radical faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and instruction in the basic beliefs and practices of the church. The basic beliefs were handed over in the Creed; and it was the Creed that provided the rationale for the loci that have become standard in much systematic theology. It was a moment of deep illumination to see this connection because otherwise volume three can be dismissed as one more boring exercise in loci-theology. So, there is a crucial process in play: first, understand the gospel, second, respond in faith, be baptized, and receive (among other elements) the basic creed of the church, third, now let’s go deeper and begin a further exploration of what is intellectually involved. The latter project is like getting married; you need help in sorting out what you have gotten into even though you had already begun to understand and welcome what was involved. This latter task is no walk in the park; it requires extensive knowledge, the ability to undertake different tasks, and an eagle eye on developing deeper love for God and neighbor. Beyond this work we can then take up some of the issues presupposed or left incomplete in the third volume, most especially, the metaphysics of agency as predicated of God.

With this in place let me first express my deepest appreciation for all the reviewers. I could not ask for a better team of sympathetic but critical readers. In what follows I shall focus on the concerns they raise and approach them with an equally sympathetic mind.

Dodds and Thomas Aquinas

I know Professor Dodds’s fine work on providence and my disposition towards Aquinas overall is a mixed one. To put the issue at its simplest, I much prefer Aquinas as a theologian than materially as a philosopher. Formally, I am with him on drawingTo put the issue at its simplest, I much prefer Aquinas as a theologian than materially as a philosopher. on the best philosophical resources available, a position favored by some Thomists, notably, Bruce Marshall. However, the challenges posed in his sensitive response are real. Let’s take them in order.

I agree entirely that we should see most talk about divine action as analogous. I am skeptical whether this applies across the board; in the case of the incarnation we often start with the divine case and then apply it to creaturely phenomena. On metaphor I think that Martin Soskice got it exactly right. If we have analogy, then there will be incompleteness in our knowledge of God; and I maintain a deep sense of mystery about the essence of God not just for this life but for the life to come. We will always be lost in wonder, love and praise. If this is the equivalent of the via negativa then our differences are verbal. However, I remain unpersuaded that we can keep in play the distinction between ontology and meaning that is required for the doctrine of simplicity. The difference in meaning goes all the way down. I understand the motivation for this move; it involved intuitions about ultimate explanations, divine sovereignty, and divine aseity; and I know of the efforts to salvage the difficulty by appeal to a distinction between sense and reference. However, I do not share these intuitions and am not persuaded by the Fregean move.

On creation ex nihilo, I am not sure Dodds understands what I mean by a basic act. This is a technical term meaning that the agent performs the action straight off rather than by doing something else. Moreover, my tough line on this relates to the dead-end debate about some kind of causal joint. That’s what I mean by a bogus enterprise. Dodds has something entirely different in mind. The crucial issue here is that I have a stronger notion of divine causation here than the claim that the white ‘comes from’ the non-white, that is non-being. This is much too weak a notion of causation. Moreover, I cannot see non-being as having agency in any robust sense of agency. Nor do I find the analysis of the sculpture convincing.I admire Dodds’s extended account to develop a doctrine of providence without determinism; I share this goal. It inevitably involves a vast network of concepts regarding motion, change, action, passion, principle of being, and so on, that I cannot unravel here. They belong in the research program of Thomism and I prefer a different research program centered on agent-causation. In fact, this is what is now emerging in my engagement with the Thomist tradition of philosophy.

One difference in research programs arises in our contrasting approaches to providence. I admire Dodds’s extended account to develop a doctrine of providence without determinism; I share this goal. However, I do not think Dodds avoids determinism because whatever the intricate conceptual footwork about transcendence, primary and secondary causation, non-competitive action, and so on, he ends up with God bringing about contingent actions of human agents. Moreover, I think the really hard problem of providence is God bringing good out of the deliberate evil actions of human agents, and this is rarely if ever addressed. I agree my position may make it look as if God is one more creaturely agent, but this is to ignore the fundamental move that sees an analogy between divine and human agency, a vision underwritten by the theological claim that human agents are made in the image of God. More importantly, it is misleading to think I see God as just one more agent in the universe, as if God, as an agent in the universe could create the whole universe out of nothing. An agent within the universe cannot create the whole show out of nothing; if so, that agent would be creating itself, which is absurd.

Van den Brink and the Work of a Theologian

Turning to Gijsbert van den Brink, my opening comments are in part intended to take care of his utterly legitimate first observation. I tackle the metaphysics of agency as applied to God in the early chapters of volume four. I think the deeper philosophical material should not be ignored but be kept at arm’s length, given my vision of systematic theology. Moreover, I am delighted in finding a comrade in arms on at least some of my claims about canon formation.I am entirely happy to accept the amendment to speak of Christian systematic theology. In fact, I think our differences here are not really substantial. This in no way rules out an epistemic appeal to Scripture, but it needs to be done within a full-scale epistemology of theology, primarily under the banner of divine revelation. I have covered all these issues elsewhere over the years in my work on canon, divine revelation, and the epistemology of theology. Like metaphysics I want to keep these at arm’s length from systematic theology. This does not mean I am diffident or that they do not matter; it is a matter of the focus of one’s endeavors.

This is where it gets really interesting in that van den Brink worries that I take too narrow a view of the work of the theologian. I understand this worry and have no interest in legislating my stipulation for others; nor do I rule out other kinds of work in theology; at present I am deeply interested in the intersection, say, of theology and politics, or theology and culture, as I work on the legacy of Basil Mitchell. I have written elsewhere on theology and terrorism. I also hold that moral theology is a vital element in the full range of theological sub-disciplines that we need and have written elsewhere on the nature and content of practical theology. So, let a thousand flowers bloom. Furthermore, I am entirely happy to accept the amendment to speak of Christian systematic theology. In fact, I think our differences here are not really substantial.

There are two issues to note. First, while I have lived over half my life in Texas my formation in Northern Ireland and in England means that I know the world of which he speaks pretty intimately. My mother’s generation was essentially the last generation of nominal Protestants in Ireland. My generation walked from the faith and I had a very bad dose of intellectual measles as a teenager in which for a time I became an atheist. In addition, neither Perkins School of Theology nor Southern Methodist University have been a bastion of conservative Christianity, even though I have flourished here. In theology the prevailing research program de facto but not de jure was a version of Bultmannian Christianity wedded to Process Philosophy and this then shifted to a version of Progressive and Liberation theology with some notable exceptions.It is serious work in the epistemology of theology that is needed to deal with the critical issues that are in play in Europe and now increasingly in the USA. Second, I agree entirely we need to offer an account of why we believe as we do. Indeed, this has been utterly central in the development of the sub-discipline of the epistemology of theology which was invented here at Perkins. It is serious work in the epistemology of theology that is needed to deal with the critical issues that are in play in Europe and now increasingly in the USA.

Within this work, I do want to maintain a distinction between insiders and outsiders for two reasons. First, because I think that there is an order of learning the faith that is important. Our students are often totally confused precisely because they have not been taken in an orderly way from gospel through catechesis to systematic theology. They have bits and pieces of theology and secular lore mediated in the public arena and in very limited undergraduate preparation. Second, I think that some of the evidence for the Christian faith (as well as some of the most acute problems) only shows up once one is well inside the faith. This, of course, is complex and contested; it is an issue in the epistemology of theology. However, my view is a consequence of such work; it is not a presupposition of such work. None of this means that universities may not deploy different models of theological education. Whatever model we adopt we are impoverished without exposure to the recent work in analytic philosophy of religion and analytic theology. My own work rejects the prevailing totalist, precisionist account of both of these; I much prefer the more sensitive work of, say, W. B. Gallie, Basil Mitchell, and John Lucas, but this is an inhouse debate I have with folk like Michael Rea and others. I assume that the theologian will in fact take on different roles in different arenas and woe betide us if we are not well read across the board both in the history of theology and in the rival alternatives that have been in play in the modern and postmodern world. Thus, being an insider does not mean being isolated; it means knowing where one stands (two cheers for Luther) and how to deal with full range of options in our culture.

Vidu and the Unity of Divine Actions

Turning to Adonis Vidu, I concede immediately that I have not solved the problem of unity of the divine actions given the doctrine of the Trinity. Ever since reading seriously in the Cappadocians, this has been a problem at the back of my mind. Given that it is the Son who became incarnate rather than the Father or the Spirit, how can we speak of this action as an action of the whole Trinity? It was the Son who made atonement not the Father and the Spirit. There it is. In response I simply have insisted that the actions of the Son are never apart from the action of the Father and the Spirit. They are intimately involved. But this is not a solution; it is simply a repetition of the problem for we now want to know what we mean when we say “never apart” and “intimately involved.”Ever since reading seriously in the Cappadocians, this has been a problem at the back of my mind. The problem is so deep that I do not intend to take it up in my fourth volume. Truth be told, I have been waiting on Vidu to solve this problem. I mean this not as a joke but in dead earnest. I am delighted that he has given a foretaste of what is to come.

In the meantime, here is a preliminary response. The crucial move is to draw a distinction between actions and missions. Once we make this distinction, we can reject Rahner’s Rule that the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity and vice versa; and we can eschew Moltmann’s move to read the suffering of Christ into the suffering of God simpliciter. Missions are correlated, says Vidu, with the divine processions and they reflect the mode of those processions. This is a bold move, to put it mildly. It is an inference from the missions to the quality of being that is sent that is at stake, not an inference from this or that action of, say, the Son. So, faith confesses in Jesus of Nazareth the mission of the eternal Son. This in turn then safeguards us from making various errors about the internal life of the Trinity. And it illuminates Sonship by seeing it as a matter of eternal divine receptivity. Likewise, similar moves can be made for the Spirit as proceeding from the Father and the Son or through the Son.

Let me deliver four telegrams. First, Vidu fails to register the careful focus to my work in systematic theology. We need initially some basic teaching on the Trinity and he has made no case for his claim that a treatment of the divine missions belongs there. I chose to deal with a robust exposition plus a brief account as to why the church adopted it. This is more than enough at this stage in the game.I applaud Vidu in taking up the challenge poses by trinitarian action; if he does solve the problems involved by an appeal to the neglected topic of the divine missions this will be good news. To speak of a blind spot is simply to ignore my intentions and potentially to exaggerate the significance of the divine missions, important as these may be in the classical multi-volume treatises in systematic theology. Given the fact that we await further work on this topic, it is premature to overcook its significance. Put differently, I see instruction on the missions as an element in a wider research agenda on God as an Agent. Second, I need far more on the distinction between missions and actions before I am ready to sign on to his proposal. Divine missions are a sub-set of divine actions in which certain actions are assigned to the Son and others to the Spirit. A mission is a kind of meta-action where the designated agent is appointed to do certain acts and not others. If this is not the case, then we need to be told why the missions cannot be construed as divine actions. Third, I do not see how this move solves the problem of the unity of the divine actions; in fact, it only repeats it by identifying more precisely the actions of the Son and the Spirit. Speaking of the stilling of the storm as involving “all the trinitarian persons at certain levels” makes this abundantly clear. It is the word “levels” that brings us back to the original problem. Finally, I am far more reserved on how to articulate exactly what we mean by the processions than Vidu. I do not reject a distinction between eternal generation and eternal procession; I do reject the procession of the Spirit from or through the Son; but I share Augustine’s confession that speaking on the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirt is presented more to prevent silly things being said about God rather than offering a positive vision of what they mean. I suspect that Vidu may end up rearranging the furniture in the room by adding in the missions rather than solving the deep problem involved. Notice the wary move to see the procession of the Holy Spirit as having the effect of human love. However, all these are preliminary responses; I applaud Vidu in taking up the challenge poses by trinitarian action; if he does solve the problems involved by an appeal to the neglected topic of the divine missions this will be good news. Even so, it is a matter of choice as to what is to be included in what I stipulate as systematic theology. A different stipulation may require a different set of issues to be taken up.

McCall and the Work of Christ

McCall’s response is a tonic to the mind and soul. I am delighted that he has chosen to focus on the doctrine of the atonement, an issue that I have pondered for years. Indeed, I tend to think that only a saint can fathom what is at stake and, not being a saint, I have been hesitant to take it up. McCall carefully delineates how I approach the topic. I want not just a morally acceptable account but morally rich account.McCall carefully delineates how I approach the topic. I want not just a morally acceptable account but morally rich account. Moreover, I think that it is a mistake to jettison any of the standard visions available in scripture and the piety of Christians critically and broadly received. McCall also captures my main strategy: keep all the images and set them in a new key.

We then hit two bumps in the road. First, am I siding with Lindbeck on the nature of theological language? Absolutely not. I reject Linbeck’s amateurish nonsense as it might apply to my proposal. Lindbeck on one reading (which is part of the problem with his work) thinks of doctrine as a set of rules; for me it is a set of propositions or a set of reality-depicting assertions; and this includes our discourse about atonement. The difficulty arises because he also considers and then rejects doctrine as the expressions of the affections; and there is a sense in which mention of “expression” will lead to an association with his views. I speak of my proposal as a cognitive-expressive view. By this I mean to say that atonement is an act of the Son, not an expression of emotion. It is an assertion about God. I also mean that how we speak of the atonement is framed by our intimate sense of how the sacrifice of Christ in his love for us impacts our vision of sin, say, in terms of guilt, uncleanness, worthy of punishment, laden with debt, captured by alien forces like the devil, and so on. So, we speak rightly of being washed in the blood of the Lamb when we reliably see sin as a matter of deep uncleanness before the holiness and righteousness of God. These responses are not merely expressions of emotion; rather as expressions of emotion they register the truth about our lives as sinners before God.

However, I have long been haunted by the deep impact of the penal substitutionary account of the atonement. So, I suspect that McCall has put his finger on something missing from my account. I look forward to following up on his dense paragraph on more recent work that overcomes the natural moral and theological objections that I in part recite. The interesting issue that will then arise is whether this work requires a rethinking of the cognitive-expressive framework or whether it requires a fuller account of one image in that framework that takes the language of penal substitution much more seriously than I have done to date. What I will not give up is that we need to preserve a raft of images to capture what is at stake.

Divine Agency and Divine Action, Vol. III: Introducing the Symposium
Terry J. Wright | Spurgeon’s College
Abraham and Aquinas on Divine Agency and Action
Michael Dodds | Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology
Just for Christians? Why Theology Is More than High-Level Catechesis
Gijsbert van den Brink | Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Where do the Divine Missions Fit in Abraham’s Theology of Divine Action?
Adonis Vidu | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
God’s Action in Christ: Observations on Abraham’s Account of Divine Action
Thomas H. McCall | Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Divine Agency and Divine Action, Vol. III: A Rejoinder
William J. Abraham | Perkins School of Theology, SMU