The Great Divorce from God’s Sustenance: Mapping Divine Providence

I am continuing to read John Webster’s chapter on providence in the edited book Mapping Modern Theology. As usual Webster offers keen insights on every page he writes, and in the quote I am going to share from him we get to see how he thinks the doctrine of Divine providence has become less ‘Divine’ and more anthropocentric or naturalist. Webster writes:

pantocratorroundIn the modern history of the doctrine of providence, then, we have an incremental transformation from a Christian metaphysics of nature and history (including the nature and history of human creatures) toward one in which appeal to Christian beliefs about God’s relation to creation comes to be considered as at best redundant and at worst destructive. This transformation is effected both by elements of internal disarray in Christian theology and by the increasing cultural prestige of ways of thinking about nature, history, and humankind critical of or indifferent to Christian providential teaching. Of the factors “internal” to theology, three related elements should be noted. First, there is a gradual “anonymization” of providence. Little significance is accorded to the identity of the agent of providence, which can be stripped down to a nameless causal force, the term “providence” itself often becoming a substitute for “God.” Second, there is the “immanentization” of providence: the effects of divine maintenance of the world are considered in and for themselves, without reference to their origin in the divine counsel or to present intentional action by a divine agent. Providence means “world order.” Third, there is the “generalization” of providence, so that the domain of providence is the order of nature and time considered apart from the special history of the elect. These internal shifts in Christian teaching are closely related to wider alterations in the understanding of the natural order and of human history that, in effect, weaken conceptions of nature and history as created realities sustained and directed by their Creator. [1]

It would be easy to blame this kind of ‘turn’ to the modern on the world ‘out there,’ but more apropos to blame it instead on the thinking and acting of the Christian church, across the board (progressive, evangelical, liberal, conservative, etc.). We live in a time where it is common for Christians to speak of ‘being on the right side of history,’ or to hear people say ‘it will just work out, things always do.’ But none of that is Christian.

It is time that Christians repent and return to a genuinely Christian order of thinking about God. Not just on Sundays, but every day, as if in God’s providence He has given us the means in His Son, Jesus Christ, to think properly and orderly about His acts in creation and as those acts and sustenance impinge upon our daily mundane lives; that we realize that every step we take and every move we make is given purpose because of the providential care of God in Christ. That we inhabit the theater of God’s glory (theatrum dei gloriam), as such there is artistry, God’s, embedded in His creation and creatures; as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” We are God’s ποημα or ‘workmanship’, literally, we are God’s ‘poem’ created in Christ Jesus.

The turn to the modern has sought to put God to death, and to give history its own Stoic-like, fate-like force divorced from the personal Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. This great divorce has penetrated the church insofar as the church has allowed itself to be shaped more by the deistic and/or agnostic shape of the culture rather than by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is time to repent, and return to our first love; the love who orders all things to find their beginning and end in the Alpha and Omega, Jesus Christ.


[1] John Webster, Providence, in eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, April 2012), 310 Scribd.

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2 Responses to The Great Divorce from God’s Sustenance: Mapping Divine Providence

  1. Cal says:

    Of course, this absorption of this Pagan kind of providence opens a gap between God and the functions of creation. That gap “protects” God from all the horrors in the Creation. Deism entered into the post-Lisbon Earthquake era. Open Theism, Process Theology entered into the Holocaust era. God can’t be blamed for the creaks of the machine. God can only weep due His bestowal of freedom on the creation. etc etc.

    These theologies are quite stirring and can evoke a lot of sympathy for their desire to be pastorally sensitive. But we’re placed at an impasse: the God who could prevent but doesn’t, or the God who can’t save but is blameless. Thus we are jarred and disturbed.

    Though not directly related, every Christian, when he/she is mature enough, and has spiritual council, should read Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor parable within the Brothers Karamazov. One certainly gets as close as one can get to the temptations Jesus faced in the Desert.

    Anyway, as its hinted, Christians need to train themselves to see a creation made for Christ. But I wonder too about practical concerns. Christians are not trained up to see Death as that final enemy we battle with (a Victory guaranteed and won on our behalf!), we are not trained up to see life in that frame. We mostly maintain bourgeoisie sensibilities and ethics of niceness.

    Maybe part of the reason many American Christians gravitate towards Pagan, whether Stoic or Pollyanna-esque, forms of Providence is that many lack the maturity to want to see any differently. Many an Evangelical has a decent grasp of the cosmological reality, but functionally neglects it in the day to day. If we are not striving to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, how can we possibly understand that salvation!?

    Thus, American Christians emphasize the American, being moral infants ala. Gen. Bradley.


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  2. Bobby, it is astonishing that I can tap my screen and have your brief essay on divine providence pop into view. The miracle is not the screen.

    The very first blogs were nothing like this vast hypertexted oeuvre that you have been tapping out for… ten years? Guys on oil rigs out in the Gulf with time on their hands were posting stuff that today would belong on Twitter. “Water quiet. Passing boat with nude sunbathers. New rations tomorrow by chopper. Is that a funnel cloud?” When you started this blog, did you have any idea that it would look like this?

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