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The Providence of God: A polyphonic approach, by David Fergusson 

12 April 2019

John Saxbee considers a discussion of belief in God’s providence

“MANY of us need some notion of providence by which to live our lives, both in good times and in bad, though others seem to eschew any notion of a unifying narrative pattern. But we are also conscious of the formidable difficulties that surround the standard accounts that have been given.” So David Fergusson embarks on this eirenic and very engaging contribution to CUP’s excellent Current Issues in Theology series.

We are taken on a tour d’horizon, including the origins of Christian providentialism in Stoic and Platonic philosophy, the medieval systematisation of the doctrine strongly influenced by St Augustine and Aquinas, and its foregrounding in Reformed theology.

He demonstrates how, in contrast to the diverse accounts of providence in scripture, the dominant assumption was that everything is ordained by the will of God as creator and sustainer of all that exists, and is a function of divine omnipotence. But “this location of the concept of providence is deeply problematic”. There is the perennial tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom, but Fergusson also posits challenges from scripture, empirical observation, and lived experience.

While the Lisbon earthquake of 1785 is a key case study in challenging the medieval and reformed default positions on providence, Fergusson also examines the influence of Deism and secular rationalism, scientism, imperialism, and free trade. Sometimes we find ourselves in unexpected territory: the providential overtones of Adam Smith’s invisible hand in the free market, for example. But given his current post as Professor of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh, it is not surprising that Scots feature prominently in the dramatis personae.

The longest chapter takes us into the 19th century, and attempts to manage the relationship between Darwin and divine providence. On the whole, he sees this as a positive process that purged the received tradition of several unsustainable assumptions.

He concludes that, by the dawn of the 20th century, it was clear that the providence of God could not be established by natural theology alone. Also, science and theology can be complementary disciplines without requiring a binary choice. Furthermore, theology of providence needs to be distinguished from the task of theodicy: the former can inform the latter, but need not be circumscribed by it.

By no means least, and most significantly for his purposes, the way was open for the incarnation and the Holy Spirit — the “two hands of a God” — to complement the first article of the Creed in formulating a polyphonic approach to an understanding of providence in today’s world.

The extent to which Fergusson posits scripture and the articles of the Creed as the measures against which to evaluate the revisionist tendencies of modern theology (Process Theology, Open Theism etc.) will disconcert liberals. Equally, his pluralist approach will probably disappoint those of a conservative disposition. Of course, failing to give total satisfaction to those at the extreme ends of this theological spectrum may be exactly what a post-trenches/post-Holocaust doctrine of providence requires.

The main point of the project, however, is to move on from set positions so as to accommodate a polyphony of perspectives which distributes providence across all three articles of faith. Providentialism is “parasitic upon the core doctrines of Christian faith”, and it variously derives its form and content from these. Furthermore, “if a multi-layered account of providence suffers some loss of systematic coherence, it will gain through greater adequacy to the themes and moods of Christian life and worship.”

The final chapter, “Providence Reconstructed”, seeks to affirm what is right and serviceable in the development of providential ideas at the successive periods in church history which he has so clearly described and evaluated.

More importantly, he recruits the creatio continua of Aquinas, the theologia crucis of Luther, and the creator spiritus of, among others, Marilyn McCord Adams to provide a polyphony of divine providence above the cantus firmus of the incarnation. As Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his last letters from prison: “only the polyphony gives your life wholeness, and you know that no disaster can befall you so long as the cantus firmus continues.”

By way of illustration, Fergusson concludes with a practical theology of providence in relation to prayer, politics, and suffering. This section is more suggestive than prescriptive, but that concurs with his overall conclusion that the forms of providence he advocates “fall some way short of proof, while admitting elements of tension and ambivalence”.

This work sits well alongside Vernon White’s Purpose and Providence. Between them, they provide a comprehensive account of what can and should be said on this subject, given the history of the doctrine and the contemporary challenges that it must face — and overcome.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

The Providence of God: A polyphonic approach
David Fergusson
CUP £21.99
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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