About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Slamming Social Trinitarianism’s Slammers – and Barth’s Bottom-line

Gijsbert van den Brink’s defence of social trinitarianism in the latest IJST is worth a read. Although he makes many interesting points, this one in particular stood out to me:

As long as social trinitarianism subscribes to the orthodox ‘three hypostaseis in one ousia’ formula, it is not at all clear why it should be at odds with Nicene Christianity.

Gijsbert van den Brink, ‘Social Trinitarianism: A Discussion of Some Recent Theological Criticisms’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 16:3 (2014), pp. 331–350; quotation from p. 341

I think this is a fair point!

(Van den Brink also summarises what he describes as ‘Barth’s Bottom-line’, that ‘[w]hen we have to do with God’s revelation . . . , we have to do with God Godself’ (p. 349). I really hope that the phrase ‘Barth’s Bottom-line’ doesn’t catch on. It conjures up unpleasant images.)

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Ian Paul on the End Times and Jesus’s Return

Over the last few months or so, I’ve begun to read Ian Paul’s Psephizo blog. He writes intelligent and thought-provoking posts on a range of issues, and I for one have appreciated many of them, even when I find myself disagreeing with his views. Anyway, he’s written quite a few posts on eschatology, and now he’s provided an overview of these that some of you may find useful. So make like a chess player and check it out!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Ordering the Times: Providence and Foreknowledge

Foreknowledge fans, rejoice! Here are details of an interesting-looking new book on the topic:

T. Ryan Byerly, The Mechanics of Divine Foreknowledge and Providence: A Time-Ordering Account (Bloomsbury Studies in Philosophy of Religion)

How exactly could God achieve infallible foreknowledge of every future event, including the free actions of human persons? How could God exercise careful providence over these same events? Byerly offers a novel response to these important questions by contending that God exercises providence and achieves foreknowledge by ordering the times.

The first part of the book defends the importance of the above questions. After characterizing the contemporary freedom-foreknowledge debate, Byerly argues that it has focused too narrowly on a certain argument for theological fatalism, which attempts to show that the existence of infallible divine foreknowledge poses a unique threat to the existence of creaturely libertarian freedom. Byerly contends, however, that bare existence of infallible divine foreknowledge cannot threaten freedom in this way; at most, the mechanics whereby this foreknowledge is achieved might so threaten human freedom.

In the second part of the book, Byerly develops a model for understanding the mechanics whereby infallible foreknowledge is achieved that would not threaten creaturely libertarian freedom. According to the model, God infallibly foreknows every future event because God has placed the times that constitute the history of the world in primitive earlier-than relations to one another. After defending the consistency of this model of the mechanics of divine foreknowledge with creaturely libertarian freedom, the author applies it to divine providence more generally. A novel defense of concurrentism is the result.

The Mechanics of Divine Foreknowledge and Providence is set to be available from 23 October 2014.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Book Review: Martin Bunton, The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict

Book Review: Martin Bunton, The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

It’s probably to my shame, but I’m not an especially political animal. But the recent violence in the Middle East has persuaded me finally to try to grasp something of what’s going on. And now that I’ve read Martin Bunton’s The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction, I feel that I have a basic understanding of why this area of the world in particular is so volatile.

The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict concentrates on events in historic Palestine from 1897 to 2007, from Ottoman Palestine through to the present-day attempts to reach a mutually satisfactory end to the tensions. In the concluding chapter, Bunton briefly outlines the period from 2007 to 2012 and offers some thoughts on what steps could be taken to achieve peace.

Bunton’s approach is to focus on the political angles and avoid any religious ones apart from where necessary. I dare say that some will find this disappointing, but it seems right to me that Bunton should have organised his material in this way – assuming, of course, that he is correct to say in the first place that the earliest Zionists weren’t concerned to ensure that the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria formed part of any new Jewish state. And so what comes across clearly to me in The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict is the sheer desperation of the human need for a home and for roots. On the basis of Bunton’s commentary, I can empathise to an extent with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, even as I lament the ways in which both sides have pursued their goals, and am angered by the egregious effects of empire that have treated this region as little more than a plaything for larger or more powerful nations seeking mainly to secure their own interests.

The Palestinian–Israeli Conflict is not perfect – Bunton’s prose is often too dry for me, and some of the maps and diagrams could have been much clearer – but I thoroughly recommend it as a helpful introduction to the matter.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A New(ish?) Book on Barth, Calvin and Schleiermacher on Providence – and a Forthcoming Book on Providence and Disability

It’s amazing what a quick browse through Amazon reveals. Here are two newish books on providence. Barth fans will particularly want the first one, I’m sure. I hadn’t seen it listed before, but Amazon says the paperback’s been out since January! Anyway, to business:

This dissertation stages an intervention in Reformed readings of the doctrine of providence, particularly around Barth's critical interpretation of the tradition stemming from Calvin and Schleiermacher, and provides a critical and constructive assessment of Barth's contribution. The author argues that while Barth advances the discussion in key ways, his reading of Calvin in particular is significantly hampered by his running challenge to Schleiermacher. Following an assessment of Barth's critique of the Reformed position, the author provides an extensive reading of Calvin's writings, demonstrating that Calvin is far more concerned with the Christological basis and Christian meaning of providence than Barth's theology recognizes; as well, Schleiermacher's theological construction problematizes aspects of Barth's reading. The upshot of this work is that each of these theologians provide critical safeguards and soundings that need to be heard in concert and mutual correction for a robust doctrine of divine providence.

And here’s the second one:

Human disability raises the hardest questions of human existence and leads directly to the problem of causality – the underlying intuition that someone, divine or human, must have been at fault. Christian theology has responded with almost singular attention to Providence, the expression of divine will in the world as the cause of all things. This preoccupation holds captive the Christian imagination, leaving the Church ill-equipped to engage the human reality of disability. Theological reflection, argues Hans Reinders, can arise only as a second-order activity that follows after real attention to the experience of disability. This book offers a more excellent way to address this difficult subject. Reinders guides readers away from an identification of disability with tragedy – via lament – to the possibility of theological hope and its expression of God's presence. In particular, Reinders reconsiders two of the main traditional sources in Christian thought about Providence, the biblical text of Job and the theological work of John Calvin. Throughout the book, first-person accounts of disability open up biblical texts and Christian theology–rather than the other way around. In the end, a theology of Providence begins with the presence of the Spirit, not with the problem of causality.

Reinders’s volume immediately catches my eye, though I’ll be interested to see what Kim has to say about Calvin. Sigh. . . I wish the providence of God would so arrange for me to have both of these books. And the time to read them.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Books, Books, Glorious Books: Church House Bookshop’s Summer Sale

Ladies and gentlemen, Church House Bookshop is having a summer sale. There are some pretty good discounts, up to 80% off in some cases. Details are here, and you may end up spending a few quid – like I did. Enjoy!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Psalm 88 as Permission to Rant

Earlier this week, I attended Evensong at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. The psalm for this service was Psalm 88. This was the first time that I’d ever heard this particular psalm read during a public service. I guess this psalm in particular doesn’t lend itself to public worship, at least, not in the ways that public services are usually conceived and delivered. So what is the point of this bleakest of psalms?

The spur for this blog post is a short article from the latest edition of Theology. Here’s the closing paragraph:

Psalm 88 is, and has been for thousands of years, the means to bring honest, sometimes violent, emotions, to God. It allows us to demand that God should act in response to our distress. Anger is a reality of our human behaviour as is the desire for vengeance and retaliation. To deny it is to lie to ourselves and to lie to God. We must be allowed to express the reality of our emotions as they are expressed in the reality of the psalmist situation in Psalm 88. In a culture of praise and adoration towards God, Psalm 88 gives permission to rant at God, removing the guilt of those who are angry with God and who feel that their faith is somehow diminished by their feelings. Through the honest expression of emotion, people may discover a closer, deeper relationship developing with God. It allows him to reach us through that red mist of anguish. Psalm 88 gives permission for us to voice our struggles to reconcile ourselves with what we believe God in all his power and might intends for us and our world, when we are surrounded by disaster, violence and despair.

Beverley Jameson, ‘Difficult Texts: Psalm 88’, Theology 117:5 (2014), p. 359

Jameson makes the point succinctly: ‘In a culture of praise and adoration towards God, Psalm 88 gives permission to rant at God’. There is no easy resolution to pain, and lament accompanies the path from loss to wholeness while recognising that the path cannot be avoided. A church culture that denies the necessity of this path is a church that doesn’t know how to handle the darkest human emotions and doesn’t know how pastorally to care for one another.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper on Psalm 88 and argued something similar to Jameson, but also linked it to the Eucharist. Here’s my conclusion:

To conclude, let us consider one further way in which a space may be provided for people to worship in all circumstances. Holy Communion was once the central practice of our services, the place where the Church met with God. Unfortunately, it has been usurped somewhat by our musical worship. How might a renewed emphasis on Communion help us to grieve as well as praise?

Traditionally, Communion is the place where the worshipping community of the Church meets with God as it remembers Christ. This is no mere recollection but both a remembrance of his sacrificial death and the risen Christ’s promised return; as the liturgy puts it, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ These three aspects are important because they address the importance of appropriate worship in suffering.

First, in remembering that ‘Christ has died’, we recognise that Christ’s body is the body broken, that his blood is the blood shed. To participate in Communion is to remember that in his own life, at least according to Mark’s Gospel, Christ experienced the absence of God and died without resolution: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34) In uttering this anguished question, Christ identifies closely with the persistent cry of Heman in Ps. 88. Though our musical worship often gives thanks to God for Christ’s suffering, we tend not to consider what it meant even for Christ to face God’s absence. The Communion meal redresses this balance.

However, secondly, ‘Christ is risen’. The Church moves from considering Christ’s death to acknowledging his resurrection. Though Christ endured immense pain, it was not for nothing; in the redemptive purposes of God, the cross was the essential means by which God reconciled all things to himself through Christ (Colossians 1:20). In triumphing over death by the cross (Colossians 2:15), Christ has removed the sting from death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57) that so over-shadowed both himself in Mark’s account of the crucifixion and Heman’s fear in Ps. 88. There is real cause for celebration in Communion!

Yet whilst Christ is risen, the Church is not; this sounds a more eschatological note as we remind ourselves that, thirdly, ‘Christ will come again’. Paul writes, ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26, my emphasis). By participating in Communion, the Church eagerly awaits its final consummation. This, of course, is a future consummation; for this reason, the Communion meal roots the Church in the present age and discourages it from the delusion that Christ’s victory over death has removed not just its sting but its existence, too.

Such importance indicates that the Communion meal is no simple recollection. Through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the bread and the wine are used as vehicles through which the Church may know of Christ’s presence; but the Spirit’s activity here only serves to emphasise that for the moment, Christ is also absent. He is not bodily present, but sits at the right hand of the Father (e.g. Ephesians 1:20), even though he also dwells in our hearts (Ephesians 3:17). For the suffering Christian, the Communion meal deals both with the absurdity of belonging to the absent Christ and the hope of future resolution. The meal is both an emetic that recognises human suffering and a sumptuous feast that delights in the promise of resolution when its risen Lord returns. In practice, the meal is the place where Christians paradoxically may meet with the absent God, and the inclusion of a psalm such as Ps. 88 that wrestles with the experience of exclusion can only serve to elaborate upon this mystery and thus broaden the scope and resonance of our worship.

Terry J. Wright, ‘The Darkness of Isolation: Suffering Worship’ (unpublished paper, 2006)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Fandom and Religion: An International, Inter-disciplinary Conference

Here are details of a conference due to take place next year that appeals to my innate geekery:

28th-30th July 2015

This conference will take place at the University of Leicester’s award-winning new Conference Centre, College Court.

The Conference will explore interactions between religion and popular culture. How does fandom work? What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion? What can the study of religion learn from explorations of fandom? This event will provide opportunity for participants to explore these and other questions about popular culture and religion in plenary, panel and short paper sessions. Speakers will include:

  • Matt Hills (Aberystwyth, author of Fan Cultures)
  • Kathryn Lofton (Yale, author of Oprah)
  • John Maltby (Leicester, co-author of Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence)
  • Chris Partridge (Lancaster, author of The Lyre of Orpheus)
  • with John Lyden and Eric Mazur (co-editors of The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture)
A main plenary strand will focus on fandom and religion. In addition, there will be opportunities for researchers, and scholars/practitioners interested in the religion/popular culture interchange to offer short papers and presentations.

We expect to offer conference participants opportunity to offer papers on such topics as: 

  • Celebrity worship
  • The impact of celebrity culture on religious practice
  • Media practices and religion
  • Uses of popular culture by religious groups
  • Case-studies of fan culture (TV, sport, film, music)
  • Theoretical debates about ‘fan culture and/as religious practice’
The Call for Papers will be issued in September 2014.

Researchers in all academic disciplines are welcome. The conference is designed to enable tricky, challenging, invigorating, stimulating intellectual encounter to occur, and fresh insights to be formed, in a way which benefits both theorists and practitioners.
For any questions, or to register your interest in the conference please send an email here.

H/T: TheoFantastique

Looks like I wrote ‘Collecting Memories: Identity, Nostalgia and the Objects of Childhood’ a few years too early! Also, notice that a used copy of the book it’s in is selling for almost £4,000. A bargain, methinks.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Book Review: Benjamin G. McNair Scott, Apostles Today

Benjamin G. McNair Scott, Apostles Today. Making Sense of Contemporary Charismatic Apostolates: A Historical and Theological Appraisal (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014)

I am grateful to Pickwick Publications for the review copy. In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that Ben is a close friend of mine. He asked me to proofread the PhD thesis on which Apostles Today is based, and I also helped to prepare it for publication.

Many churches, especially those within the charismatic traditions, believe that God is gifting and calling more and more people to be ‘apostles’. According to these churches, apostles are those whom Christ calls and empowers by the Holy Spirit specifically for the sake of the Church’s ongoing development and mission (cf. Ephesians 4:11-13). Moreover, apostles are not necessarily ordained ministers; the term refers to a role rather than a title or a position. The belief that God is calling a new generation (or new generations) of apostles has ramifications for our ecclesiologies: How do the ‘newer’ churches and the more established, mainstream churches regard apostolic ministry? Is the so-called charismatic apostolate (CA; the phrase comes from Andrew Walker) a new phenomenon, or does it have historical precedent? And is the CA limited to churches within the charismatic traditions? In this thought-provoking study, Benjamin G. McNair Scott, a minister in the Church of England, reflects on the historical and biblical foundations of the CA and offers some suggestions on how it might influence (British) churches in the future.

The first section of Apostles Today, ‘Where We Are’, engages with the CA traditions in both the United States and Great Britain, and with a number of popular Christian authors, including Derek Prince, Peter Wagner, Mike Breen, Terry Virgo, and Kenneth Hagin. Drawing from these sources, McNair Scott identifies three different interpretations of ‘apostle’. First, there is the apostle type 1, which presents apostles as having supreme authority in the churches. Apostle type 2 refers to select members of a congregation who are gifted as apostles but remain under the authority of the local pastor or minister. Conversely, those categorised as apostle type 3s are non-select members of a congregation gifted to serve as apostles but who do not possess any special or absolute authority. (Essentially, the difference between apostle types 2 and 3 lies in the application of Ephesians 4:11-13: Are the gifts reserved for a chosen few or available to all?) McNair Scott demonstrates a firm understanding of his source material, and his categorisations (apostle types 1, 2, and 3) make sense of the diversity of literature.

In the second section, ‘How We Got Here’, McNair Scott sketches the history of charismatic apostles from the end of the first century to the 1990s. As might be expected, from the early centuries to the Reformation period, apostolic ministry is mainly identified with episcopal succession. However, many groups that remained dissatisfied with the extent of the reforms during the sixteenth century began to advocate an ongoing apostolic ministry directly inspired by the Holy Spirit rather than legitimised through tradition. This trend is widespread within modern charismatic traditions, and concepts of apostolicity germane to these traditions find extensive dissemination through various media, including popular-level books, television and radio programmes, and ‘gift courses’  – hence the increasing popularity and acceptance of the CA, especially among churches with declining memberships that desire nonetheless to have a greater missiological impact in their communities. The turn to some form of apostolicity, where specific church members are gifted apostles, is attractive.

The matter of the CA’s biblical support (or otherwise) is the theme of the third section, ‘What We Should Make of It’. Of particular importance are 1 Corinthians 12:28; 15:3-8; Ephesians 2:19-20; 4:11-13; and Revelation 21:14. McNair Scott’s analysis suggests that the pivotal issue concerns the supposed ongoing nature of apostolicity: Do the relevant New Testament texts point to an ongoing CA, or do they assume that the gift will be withdrawn once the Church has reached a certain developmental stage? Each position has its advocates, but McNair Scott refuses to camp on either side of the divide, and he holds that while the original twelve apostles, Paul, and other first-generation apostles are unique given their roles in establishing the Church, the biblical texts themselves do not rule out an ongoing CA. This does not mean that McNair Scott endorses all that modern proponents of the CA claim. Rather, given its legitimacy, McNair Scott seeks to determine how their general ideas about the CA can take shape within more mainstream traditions. Apostle type 1s do not help here; they do not allow for ecclesiological diversity, ecumenical interactions, or for legitimate expressions of the Church outside of the apostles’ own circles. Thus apostle types 2 and 3 allow for an interpretation of the CA that identifies it with pioneering ministers and church planters. Seen through these lenses, the CA is not such an incredible or exegetically indefensible phenomenon – even the Church of England has its pioneer ministers! – although each local expression of such apostolicity or pioneering will doubtless take on forms conditioned by the immediate context.

The fourth and final section, ‘Where it Might Go’, contains McNair Scott’s summary of his research and, importantly, his speculation about the future of the CA in Britain. He sees little potential for apostle type 1s; any influence they have will likely be through media or within the black Pentecostal Church. Apostle type 2s (and, to a lesser extent, apostle type 3s), interpreted as pioneer ministers and church planters, will find homes within both independent and mainstream Christian denominations. Even within non-Protestant churches, there is scope for the CA to exist, even if the term ‘apostle’ is not used. Thus the increasing attention paid to the CA is not an example of faddism; for McNair Scott, the CA, however it is conceived, is of paramount importance for the Church’s mission.

Apostles Today is a compelling account of certain trends within both the charismatic traditions and, increasingly, mainstream denominations. McNair Scott has shown that, despite employing terminology that resonates mostly with charismatic-type ecclesiologies, the concept of the CA is one found within a large number of churches, including McNair Scott’s own Church of England. Arguably, this book will appeal mainly to those who have some background in charismatic traditions; those unfamiliar with the teachings of, say, Derek Prince or Terry Virgo may wonder why the matter of an ongoing CA is important. That the matter is important and not merely fascinating is something that gradually becomes clearer during the course of the study, especially when McNair Scott draws attention to its mainstream instantiations (e.g. Fresh Expressions and pioneer ministry). Here lies the true value of this thesis: in effect, McNair Scott has demonstrated that the Spirit’s distribution of gifts, including apostolic ministry, is for the Church catholic and not just for particular traditions or denominations.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Disunity in Christ: The Most Important Book You'll Read This Year

It’s hyperbolic, sure, but the title of this post isn’t far from the truth. I’ve just finished reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), and I believe that this is one of those rare books that every minister or preacher – oh, forget that, every Christian should read.

Cleveland is a social psychologist, and in Disunity in Christ she explores why so many Christians affirm the need to celebrate diversity in the Church but yet fail to follow through on these aspirations. She recognises that people are naturally drawn to those who are like-minded or from similar or identical cultural backgrounds, but argues convincingly that participation in the body of Christ gives us a far more basic identity than even such important identity markers as gender or race. The Church as the body of Christ falls into disunity when its members privilege their ‘natural’ identity over the fact that they are members of the body of Christ.

The majority of the book is taken up with Cleveland’s treatment of the various cultural group dynamics that can influence Christian behaviour for ill. Of particular interest to me were her comments on homogeneity in the Church (it’s not good!) and how often we confuse our cultural beliefs with our faith in Christ.

I must confess that, at times, I felt quite disheartened by the enormity of the task true reconciliation and cross-cultural work presents. And so, if the book has a main weakness, I would suggest that maybe there could have been more hints or examples as to how negative group dynamics can be overcome. However, Cleveland’s fine analysis of the problems surely contains within itself the seeds of reconciliation, and, as each chapter concludes with some study questions, there is plenty of scope to discuss the issues and act upon them.

To conclude, let me wax hyperbolic once more: Disunity in Christ is the most important book you’ll read this year.