Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review of "Providence Made Flesh"

Calvinism can quickly run into a roadblock. If God exercises exhaustive providence over the world, how can we talk about human free will? Normally Calvinism (since Calvin although you can trace the development of thought back to Aristotle) uses primary and secondary causation to explain how God rules. It works something like this, though this is greatly truncated: God will use secondary agents to cause his will. So he primarily moves secondary agents and accomplishes his purposes without being held responsible for doing the act directly.

When I explain this to students I teach, their reaction is almost always the same: "But that doesn't really explain anything or get God off the hook."This is unfortunate because I think Calvinism, as a whole, provides the best way of understanding the Bible. The problem is often how the discussion is framed.

Enter Providence Made Flesh: Divince Presence as a Framework for a Theology of Providence by Terry J. Wright. The title basically explains the premise. Wright believes a better model for understanding causation is Trinitarian presence.Wright is not trying to re-Wright (haha, see what I did there?) the book on providence. Rather, he is interested in demonstrating that "the doctrine of providence is demonstrated to concern the action of the triune God: The Father sends the Son to become incarnate and to act as God in the world; the Son obeys this calling within the freely accepted limitation that creaturely existence imposes; and the Spirit enables him continually to offer himself to the Father despite the temptation to reject his vocation." (222)

His goal is rather modest and he accomplishes what he sets out to do which is simply provide a slightly different framework from which we ought to think about providence. This is Wright's dissertation and I must be honest: it is pretty remarkable what he accomplishes. First, he explores the idea of secondary causation. In chapter two, he explores secondary causation in John Calvin. In chapter three, he explores how secondary causation actually shoves God out of the equation.

So basically the first quarter or so of the book is systematic theology. He then turns his attention to biblical theology and the action of the triune God. After outlining God's providence in both the Old and New Testament (borrowing heavily from G.K. Beale's temple theology), he goes on to exegete particular texts. So we have a work of philosophical, systematic, biblical and exegetical theology. This is a great work.

I will say, however, that Wright actually doesn't solve the issue of God's sovereignty and human free will. If you are looking for the magic bullet, it isn't here. There are still plenty of unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions. All Wright is doing, again, is suggesting a better way to discuss God's providence. For that, I couldn't be happier! 

Be forewarned: since this is a dissertation, it maintains a fairly high level of technicality. A working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew would definitely help, especially in the later chapters. However, educated laity should have no problem tracking with the gist of what Wright is saying.

Overall, it is a great work. I look forward to seeing how Wright extends the scope of this work. It certainly provoked me to think in new ways about God's providence.

*Thanks to Wipf and Stock for the review copy!*


  1. As I try to digest this, I consider this practical application. With regard to the Charleston tragedy, God allowed the murder of nine followers during their Bible study. From a Calvinism perspective of causation, the murderer was a secondary agent (exerting his own free will to ignore God). The families of the victim's became primary agents allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through them (their own free will to obey God).

    The Trinitarian perspective of causation explains the families' response, but how does it explain the murderer's?

    Forgive my simplistic application. It would love to hear your perspective on this. I wish I could sit in on one of your theology classes!

    1. Hey Deana,

      So, I spent a day or so thinking about your question. Truthfully, I think your question exposes a weak point in the book--he never directly explains how God and evil relate within his system. I went through and re-read the relevant portions and the most I've been able to find is this:

      "God's presence is his active presence, indeed, his sovereign presence; but notions of primary and secondary causation cannot avoid transforming this divine sovereign presence into the pancausal execution of a fixed eternal decree.What the scriptural presentation reveals instead is that God is present and active within the world to fulfill the purposes he has for it; indeed, the doctrine of providence concerns God's faithfulness to fulfill those purposes." (114)

      Further he states, "At the heart, then, of the doctrine of providence is the notion that God gives himself to the world. Providence is not the pancausal execution of an eternal decree but the enabling of a fallen, sinful world to enter once more into relationship with God its creator." (136)

      There are a couple problems with this language. First, it opens up the possibility that God actually does not know the future but is actually just "enabling man" to enter into relationship with him.

      Second, he never in his book explicitly explains what the ultimate purpose of God is, which doesn't help us frame the problem of evil.

      So I would agree that the language of "pancausal decree" should be scrapped for the language of "covenant" because that is how God essentially interacts with the world. But God in the past foreknew and authorizes how things will come about and how the covenant(s) will be fulfilled.

      So all of THAT to say this: I think God (the Father) before time began covenants to uphold and sustain creation for the purpose of all of creation bringing him glory. Because mankind sinned (and God permits it) He sends the Son so that the elect can be saved. The Spirit works in enlightening, drawing and convicting the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.

      So, I would say that God shows his presence by being with those who were shot in their last moments, by not stopping the shooter, and permitting racial reconciliation that we have seen on a fairly grand scale here in South Carolina.

      Christ has purchased eternal life for those who have died in the church, potentially the shooter, and all who have repented since then and put their faith in Christ BECAUSE of what they have seen.

      The Spirit is working in convicting all of their sin (such as racism) and showing the need for a Savior; illuminating and enabling the elect to believe; and convicting the shooter of sin so that he might be saved as well.

      I think this is how we should begin envisioning how the Trinity might be at work in every situation. I think we have to adopt a larger vision of what God is doing at any given moment--to bring about salvation and worship to his glory.

      I think this allows us to use the language of relationship without stepping outside the boundaries of Calvinism. Sorry if this sounds confusing! I am typing this at 1:35 A.M. Hope that makes a little bit of sense.

  2. Thanks for the positive review, Daniel. I'm grateful. :D

    Just a couple of things. You write: 'Second, he never in his book explicitly explains what the ultimate purpose of God is, which doesn't help us frame the problem of evil.' From my perspective, the ultimate purpose of God is to transform the world to be the place of God's presence - or, as Greg Beale puts it, to make the whole world like the holy of holies. Providence, then, is God's faithfulness to God's intention to do this.

    On evil: I published in the online-only version of the Epworth Review 36 (2009) an essay imaginatively entitled 'Divine Presence as a Framework for God's Providence'. The essay is kind of a summary of my approach in 'Providence Made Flesh', but has more pastoral reflections in its conclusion. Here are the two concluding paragraphs, which you may find interesting:

    "Conversely, the presence framework does not assume that each and every action or event is caused directly by God’s will. This allows more scope to recognize cancer as a painful reality of this fallen world than as something implemented specifically by God’s will. On this account, the
    conceptual space necessary to perceive God’s ongoing action in the teenager’s life is freed for appropriate pastoral support to be offered. The danger is that this pastoral support becomes an impotent well-wishing that amounts to little more than a tepid version of the exhortation to a pious
    resignation so easily a consequence of the causal framework. There should be recognition that while God is present, God is not present necessarily to ensure a ‘good’ end. It would be pastorally
    irresponsible categorically to state that God will heal the teenager of her cancer; God may not. Yet it could be that the teenager experiences God’s presence as the Spirit’s firm assurance that her cancer will not have the last word, even as her life draws to a close.

    "The importance of the action of the local church cannot be overstated as a crucial element of pastoral support. Through the action of the Spirit, each local church is the presence of the triune God in the wider community. As the local church offers its prayers, it elevates those who are
    suffering, its own members or otherwise, to stand alongside the glorified Son in the presence of the Father. As the teenager participates in the life of her local church, she can be assured that she is in God’s presence. Perhaps something like this is an appropriately responsible word of comfort to convey: God in Christ has removed the sting of death, so that the Spirit may immerse the teenager in the full intensity of the divine presence, transforming her diseased body into one that bathes
    in the glory of the risen Christ; and this promise finally is not for her alone, but for the whole world."

    Thanks again for the review.

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