Providence

when the answer you give doesn’t answer the question!

No. I’m not talking about essays I wrote at College (although there may have been a couple that fitted in this category).

I’m talking about what Christians do when we invoke particular doctrines as the All Purpose Answer — the sovereignty of God and the Holy Spirit spring to mind (but they’re only the most common).

They function as conversation-closers. Problem is, they often don’t answer the question. They just relocate it.

Last week I asked some people: “How does Jesus transform and liberate us so that we can now please God?”

After not too many attempts, they hit on the ‘answer’ — he gives us the Holy Spirit!

Of course, this can’t possibly be wrong.

And it’s not. It just doesn’t get us quite as far as we imagine it does.

This became obvious when I pressed them: “How does having the Holy Spirit transform and liberate us so that we can now please God?”

Uhhhh…

That question is much harder to answer! But it’s only when we can answer it that we’ll be on our way to helping people experience lasting change and genuine freedom.

what it feels like to forget God in prosperity

In the last week or so I’ve gradually begun piecing something together. I’m slowly gaining a sense of what it feels like to forget God in prosperity. And it’s freaking me out.

Now, I don’t claim to have an unblemished record when it comes to remembering and thanking God for his constant provision. But that I think I’m finally starting to pay attention to the dynamic Moses lays bare in Deuteronomy 8.

You see, for possibly the first time since I started getting paid to work in church contexts, I’ve found myself waking up full of energy and ideas.

What’s the problem with that?

The problem is that I’m struggling to switch off.

I suspect this is bad for my long term sustainability and mental health. And I’m sure it’s bad for relationship with Natalie — especially while we’re both working from home (as we have been for the past month or so).

Worse, it’s caught me totally unprepared.

My struggle in the past was always working out how not to be overwhelmed by my responsibilities and the things that needed doing. Learning to switch off was a matter of survival — it was about keeping my head above water.

But now I walk away from every planning meeting buzzing, itching to tackle my ever-lengthening To Do list. And rather than feeling crushed by the burning pastoral issues afflicting the people I’m serving among, I’m thoroughly energised by the whiff I’ve got of what God might do in and through us.

It’s not even that what’s happening is necessarily any more or less successful and prosperous objectively. Simply that I feel differently about it this time around.

So to adapt the words of Deuteronomy 8.17-18, I fear I’m in mortal danger of saying, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this’ — forgetting that it’s God who gives the power in fulfilment of his promises.

the all-purpose theological trump card (ii)

Late last week I dared to suggest that we can make too much of the story of Israel — particularly if we imagine that it can unravel every theological tangle.

Understandably, I was pinned in the comments for failing to specify how and where this might happen. So I’m going to try to make good my negligence.

Before I do, though, let me give just two examples of how and where I find the story of Israel theologically illuminating.

To begin with, I feel it sheds light on many details of exegesis — especially in the Gospels.

For instance, I was recently reading about how to understand the request we make in the Lord’s prayer for God to give us our ‘daily bread’. Commentators apparently argue over how best to translate the word behind ‘daily’.

It can get quite involved. But, as Halden has recently argued, the debate is thoroughly recast when we pay the probable reference to God’s provision of manna in the desert:

When Jesus then instructs his disciples to pray for “our daily bread” ought we not … realize that in calling his followers to pray in this way Jesus is calling us back into the desert with Israel. Out of the security of land, possessions, cultural production and into a life of sojourning in which we, once again, are given to depend, quite literally on God for the essentials of survival?

Likewise, I find that proper attention to the story of Israel puts a whole new spin on some classical bigger picture problems.

Take the problem of evil, for example. Rather than an abstract equation to be balanced, the goodness and all-powerfulness of God collides with the evil reality of evil in Israel’s concrete historical experience.

In the face of evil, the Old Testament points relentlessly forward to the (eschatological) future instead of backward in the manner typical of theodicy (e.g., to human free will or an angelic rebellion).

This response gathers momentum as it bounces around what Richard Hays calls ‘the prophetic sounding chamber’ of Israel’s exile. A momentum thoroughly alien to the environment of an air-conditioned tutorial room…

you may not be able to judge a book by its cover…

…but what about by its introduction?

Over the weekend I read the first chapter of David VanDrunen’s new book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision For Christianity and Culture. Chris has glowingly reviewed it (at some length). And various snippets are appearing around the web.

Since I’ve only read one chapter, I’m in no position to make any definitive pronouncements. But I do want to share my gut discomfort with what appears to be a key distinction VanDrunen introduces on p 26:

Scripture … requires a distinction between God’s providential sustaining of human culture for the whole of the human race and his glorious redemption of a chosen people that he has gathered into a church now and will gather into the new creation for eternity.

In a sense, this distinction is unobjectionable — as far as it goes. I don’t think that we’d want to invest every action or occurrence in the history of the world with redemptive significance. Not that God doesn’t (providentially) sustain and govern his world. Simply that not everything is invested with the same significance as the events and occurrences picked out in Scripture.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that it’s the connection between the (admittedly distinct) realities of God’s providential and redemptive action that gets big billing in the Bible. I’ve pondered this before.

Keeping it tied to redemption is certainly part of the burden of the traditional theological analysis of providence in terms of God’s governance and preservation of (as well as his co-activity with) a world he’s given its own created — and therefore dependent — integrity and independence.

Why is it important though? I’m not sure I can exhaustively say in this brief post. That’ll have to wait for a later instalment (preferably when I’ve read more of VanDrunen’s book).

a providential coincidence?

We’ve just finished a series on Ruth at church. And one of the things that struck me is how significant coincidences are in moving the story forward — people ‘just happening’ to be in the right place at the right time, like at the start of chapter 4.

My impression is that this is a pretty common feature of biblical narrative (I’d like to wrestle with its significance in the Gospels one day).

Gustave Dore, 'The Gleaners'

And yet for all that the story may work to highlight the contingent and fortuitous nature of each occasion like this, it also constantly invites us to see God’s providential hand — even in the most surprising turn of events. In this case at least, Calvin’s insistence that it is unwarranted to speak of ‘fortune’ or ‘chance’ is on the money (Institutes I.xvi.2, 8-9).

Nevertheless, recognising this ought not obscure the fact that things didn’t have to turn out as they do. And, in fact, the way things do turn out is nothing short of an expectation-shattering reversal of pretty much every foreseeable possibility at the end of chapter 1.

What I think we glimpse in Ruth is the good and faithfully loving God of Israel invading this tragic human situation so that he can put things right (rather than completing or bringing to fruition its latent tendencies). That is, I think the Book of Ruth operates with what contemporary theologians have begun to speak of as an apocalyptic view of God’s action in history. And in so doing, it proves marvellously able to testify to the sovereign God’s gracious — and surprising — work without thereby ironing out all the agony and messiness of human history and agency.

In fact, I suspect it’s only such a view of history that will enable us to hold God’s sovereignty together with the reality of human history and agency, so that we can echo Peter’s words about that most providential of coincidences — the death of Jesus: ‘this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law’ (Acts 2.23)…

the Sustainer’s cross

Having dwelt briefly on the Creator’s cross, I want to explore what it might mean to speak of the Sustainer’s cross.

Fortunately, there’s not too much distance to travel here. For the crucified (and risen) Creator is the one ‘in whom all things hold together’ (Col 1.17). From the perspective of the biblical presentation of God’s providence, there are clear hints that the reconciliation of all things through the cross is close to the heart of what it means for God to sustain his world — and provide for his people.

This is evident in the locus classicus of the OT doctrine of providence, Genesis 22. There, what God provides is a sacrificial lamb at the crucial moment. But it’s also there in the vision of Isaiah 40-66, where the expectation of the imminent arrival of God — who’ll care for his sheep like a shepherd (Isa 40.10-11) — is woven together with the promises about that elusive Servant — upon whom the sins of the straying sheep are laid.

Providence leads up to and centres on the cross of Jesus — the one who ‘bears all things’ to their ordained end is the same one who ‘made purification for sin’ by offering himself (Heb 1.3-4). That much is clear. But how does the cross shape our understanding of God’s providence? What does it say about the Sustainer that he was crucified?

One thing I think it says is that he’s no stranger to our grief and sorrow. We cannot let go of this. Whatever we end up saying about the puzzle of Christ’s divinity and humanity. However strongly we feel compelled to insist that any comfort we draw from the confession ‘God suffered for us’ be disciplined by the recognition that it was God who suffered. And however much we must maintain that evil and suffering really do not belong in God’s good world — and certainly do not stand approved (for the sake of a bit of cosmic contrast, for example).

The fact that the cross of Jesus is the Sustainer’s tells us of the all-conquering love of God. The love that bears the evil and rebellion under which creation reels. That permits it with grief. That persists with it in patience. And that finally triumphs over it, allowing it to do its worst ‘according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2.23) in order to extinguish it…

providence and climate change: redux

Climate change seems to be making a comeback from post-Copenhagen obscurity (although someone really needs to tell the sceptics to stop flogging the dead horse of the University of East Anglia ‘cover up’).

Since I wrote did some work on it last year, I’ve been doing a bunch more thinking. Back then, I kept banging on about the fact that in the face of widespread anxiety and cynicism, God’s providence means that Christians are invited to participate in his care for and rule over the world he’s perfecting through Jesus by the Spirit.

Far from writing a permission slip for a laissez faire attitude (because ‘It’s all going to burn anyway’ perhaps?), this means that a Christian response to climate change will be marked by confidence and humility.

  • Confidence without humility quickly becomes an excuse for arrogant meddling — whether along the lines of greedy exploitation or hardline conservationism that seeks to wind back the clock. Creation remains God’s. He bears primary responsibility for it and we are ‘junior partners’, seeking his glory rather than our own comfort and selfish ends.
  • On the flip-side, humility without confidence in the risen Lord quickly descends into panic, despair or (perversely) frantic activism. Under God, we bear genuine responsibility, which we shirk to our shame. But we do it with hope and iron-clad trust that God’s ultimate purposes will not be thwarted. Life not death will triumph.

That being said, I’m keen to push things further in terms of practice. I’ll post a plan for my reflections next week.

Before I begin, I want to indicate something about how I’m going to tackle it: My reflections will be anchored in Jesus’ confrontation with the devil in the wilderness. Why? For the one thing, it’s a climatic moment in God’s interaction with his world. More, it has stacks to say about God’s providence and what it means for us to live truly human lives, liberated from the devil’s distorting influence.

By sticking with this one passage I can keep things both theologically informed and focussed on the practical implications. That’s the hope anyway!

Stay tuned…

a preview of the kingdom

In The Triune Creator, Colin Gunton argues that ‘the death and resurrection of Jesus is the model for all providential action’ since it is what enables ‘the world to become itself by action within, and over against, its fallen structures’ (p 190). The kingdom established by Christ simply is the future of creation.

And yet we get previews of this ‘in-breaking’ kingdom throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry. One of these previews especially grabs me —  Jesus’ encounter with the man possessed by a legion of demons. It’s reported in Luke 8.26-39 (and parallels).

Four points leap out at me:

  1. The ‘in-breaking’ kingdom confronts the active and threatening reality of evil. The demons have robbed this man of his humanity (v. 27), making him a danger to himself and others (v. 29). If we take God’s action in Jesus as a model for all his action, then we’ll have to own some form of what David Bentley Hart calls ‘provisional dualism’. Evil is evil. And God is opposed to it. We must not back down on this, e.g., by allowing evil to stand on the same footing as the unreservedly good works of God like creation and redemption.
  2. Jesus triumphs effortlessly over the evil that has enslaved the man. Indeed, the very possibility of the demons causing any destruction is contingent on his permission (v. 32). Consequently, however much we must acknowledge some form of provisional dualism, we can admit no ultimate dualism. In Christ, God triumphs over evil. Indisputably. Unreservedly.
  3. God’s intervention does not erase but restores this man’s humanity. The barely human figure who meets Jesus on the sea shore is transformed by this encounter, ultimately finding himself ‘at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’ (v. 35). As we think of God’s all-powerful achievement in Christ, it’s all too easy to cancel out human dignity and responsibility. But we must strive uphold it.
  4. The man’s restored humanity is fulfilled in the worship of God through Christ. The formerly-possessed man is commissioned — ‘declare how much God has done for you’ — and he goes away declaring ‘how much Jesus had done for him’ (v. 35). The dignity and responsibility God providentially hands back to us in Jesus is not to be twisted and polluted again by our behaviour. It is to be realised in praise of our Triune God.

What better way to celebrate post no. 250!

locating providence

John Webster (‘One Who Is Son: Theological Reflections on the Exordium to the Epistle to the Hebrews’ in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, p 88) has some insightful things to say about how Hebrews 1.1-4 helps us locate the doctrine of providence:

It has its place in a larger sequence of teaching about, first, the immanent lively relations of Father and Son, and then, second, the Son’s agency as creator, saviour and Lord. Providence is shaped by theology proper, by Christology and soteriology. It is not an aspect of a theistic cosmology or a theory of history, but a corollary of the Father’s dealings with creatures in the Son.

Yet the force of this recognition ought not to shrink our understanding of the Son’s providential work (pp 88-89):

This, of course, does not collapse the properly cosmic scope of providence into the domestic sphere of Christian experience. Bearing all things, the Son’s governance is comprehensive. The one who bears all things is their maker. And his relation to all that he makes is not merely originary, as a kind of initial impulse; it is enduring and purposive. Having brought the creation to be, he enables it to continue to be, making it the object of his continual care.

How awesome that this is true about the One who made purification for our sins and is seated at God’s right hand!

jehovah jireh (ii)

Read Part (i).

You may not know that some people consider providence an unscriptural idea. Imposed on the Bible as a distorting grid.

And the word itself is pretty rare in Scripture. More common are notions of ‘governance’ — drawn from the image of God’s kingly rule over creation and history — and ‘preservation’ — associated with God’s care for the world, which he lovingly upholds and sustains through his personal involvement with it.

Some feminist theologians have protested that even these biblical images can be (and often have been) hijacked by oppressive patriarchal agendas. As when God’s kingship, for example, is wrenched from its proper context — the manifestation of his loving fatherhood (Matt 6.9-10) and essential attitude of humble service (Phil 2).

But potential abuse doesn’t eliminate proper use. There are moments in the Bible at which providence occupies the limelight, and God’s provisio — ‘seeing to’ his creatures’ needs — is highlighted. Such as the climax of that story in which Abraham is called upon to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac (Genesis 22). With wood piled, son bound, and knife poised, God makes good on Abraham’s confession of hope against hope: ‘God himself will provide (see to) the lamb for the burnt offering’ (v 8).

Here, God hints at the unbreakable connection between his sovereign provision and what he achieves through the propitiating sacrifice he himself graciously sets forth.

This, furthermore, is taken up in the New Testament reflection establishing that the God who provides is the God of resurrection. The God of the living not the dead. Whose intention to secure peace, life and harmony won’t be thwarted by sin or death. Even through the fires of judgement, God will achieve cosmic renewal, establishing the home of righteousness (2 Peter 3).

In Abraham and Isaac we thus get a (shadowy) preview of the fact that providence has its centre in God’s achievement in Christ, inaugurating the new creation and guaranteeing the ultimate victory of life and hope…