Diversifying Divine Providence in a Secular Age

Tyler R. Wittman on David Fergusson

David Fergusson. The Providence of God: A Polyphonic Approach. Current Issues in Theology. Cambridge University Press, 2018. Paperback $31.16

The strangest negotiations with fate happen on game day. What overzealous sports fan hasn’t questioned whether their team’s success is correlated in some fashion with their individual choices? Should I wear this pair of lucky socks or that player’s jersey? Will standing during the second quarter help the defense? Might the team turn things around if I abstain from snacks during halftime? These sorts of questions may be silly, but then again, the gods are fickle and often cruel. For around two decades, football fans have worried about the (alarmingly consistent) curse that befalls marquee football players appearing on the cover of a popular video game. And from 1918 until 2004, baseball fans witnessed the dreaded “curse of the Bambino” linger over the Boston Red Sox. To the initiated, dark forces seem to toy with us and require our most strenuous opposition. Players as much as fans perform their own acts of oblation: some refuse to wash particular items of clothing while others talk to inanimate objects like goalposts so as to be on favorable terms with them before the contest begins.

Whatever psychological impulses drive these rituals, they display a tension between what we can and cannot control that operates in more serious ways on the battlefield, say, or the farm. This tension is normal, and our beliefs about the way that the world is either open or closed to our influence affect how we wrestle with it. If my agency has some impact on the natural world or history, then the realities external to me are not merely external because I have some responsibility to them and they to me. What is this responsibility, and what in particular are its limits?

When this question and the tension underneath it become explicit, some form of religious reflection emerges, particularly as it concerns how we inhabit the natural, social, and political domains. Here, we have often been told, is where the old concept of providence should enjoy particular prestige. What else is better suited to addressing our anxieties about what we can and cannot accomplish than the hand of the divine in steering the course of things? If we are to play our part in these various domains responsibly, then our agency must be integrated into a larger, encompassing vision of whatever order there is to history, the natural world, reason, or morals.

Providential beliefs are thus powerful forces, because either the world is merely what we make it or it isn’t. In the latter case providentialism becomes a balm or a poison depending on whether we think the world is charged with grandeur or only full of sound and fury. Christians have long espoused the doctrine of providence in a way that affirms more grandeur than fury, largely because the doctrine has much more to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ than with individual or communal projects of self-realization. But the doctrine has struggled to satisfy every listener’s experience with petitionary prayer or suffering, to name only two examples. At other times, theologians have not successfully resisted the temptation to accommodate the doctrine to prevailing cultural, political, and scientific attitudes with the consequence that God’s will has been invoked to justify the evils of society, the state, and the market. Why is this so, and what does it say about the doctrine of providence? These are the questions animating Scottish theologian David Fergusson in The Providence of God, in which he argues that unresolved tensions between the doctrine’s biblical witness and its development have fostered such struggles, suggesting the time for reevaluation has come.


Fergusson, who serves as Professor at the University of Edinburgh and also as Chaplain to the Queen, is a churchman with wide-ranging interests. He brings his broad learning in history, science, philosophy, and political theory to bear on his analysis as much as he does his constant pastoral concerns. These features distinguish his analysis and also focus it, in a way. He is not concerned to tie everything together neatly: “As an exercise in systematic theology, this book will prove frustrating to those who seek greater conceptual coherence.” Nor does he offer detailed interaction with ideas and figures, opting instead for a head-spinning pace that touches on nearly all of the doctrine’s possible agenda. But readers will find at least two central concerns running through it all, one diagnostic and the other prescriptive. Diagnostically, some perennial issues in the doctrine reveal a failure to have sufficiently reckoned with the diversity of its biblical sources. The book’s structure tells as much, with an introductory chapter on the doctrine’s philosophical and scriptural roots followed by chapters concerning the doctrine’s development in the Latin West, its partial disfigurements in modernity, scientific and philosophical challenges, and various attempts at revision in the twentieth century. Prescriptively, divine providence is best understood as a “tracking manoeuvre that summarizes and connects several forms of divine action rather than itself constituting a Grundprinzip.” Equally distributing the doctrine across all three articles of the creed, rather than articulating it under one locus or appropriating it to one of the Trinity, would embrace the “polyphonic” or “unsystematic” variety of ways that God acts in the world in a way that more adequately answers the heterogenous biblical materials. Fergusson concludes by outlining briefly what that might look like.

Doubling as a thematic introduction to the doctrine as well as a constructive proposal, Fergusson’s book invests much in the doctrine’s history as a guide to an ever-increasing sense for how it should and should not be handled by contemporary theologians. This methodological feature may itself betray something of Fergusson’s own construal of divine providence, but it also means the argument emerges only gradually and cumulatively. The argument springs from a conviction that the biblical testimony requires a doctrine that is significantly different from what has developed into the standard Western teaching. Fergusson writes:

“Providence in Scripture narrates an account of the God-world relationship that has general, pervasive and particular features which are characterised in covenantal terms. Although asymmetrical, this relationship between God and creatures is one of co-dependence. Even while threatened by human failure and the turbulence of natural and historical forces, the world is overruled by God’s good purposes, which are directed towards a future resolution.”

With creation, God begins a project that is continued in his providential working throughout history, in which we find God’s agency conditioned by the response of free human agents as well as “surd-like components,” unruly and hostile forces with which God must contend. The resolution to antitheses between divine sovereignty and human freedom, goodness and evil, is eschatologically deferred but promised sovereignly by Christ’s cross and resurrection.

This starting point grounds a narrative, not so much of decline as evolution: each development Fergusson traces brings something to contribute, but not without unnecessary baggage. As the doctrine develops in the Latin West and particularly in medieval and Reformation theology, biblical themes of reciprocity, struggle, and promissory overcoming are increasingly written off as accommodations to our finite modes of understanding. The more the doctrine was annexed to a vision of a timeless and immutable God who predetermines the course of history with exhaustive foreknowledge, the more the doctrine became harmonized with fate. This classical emphasis on God’s sovereignty and meticulous providence was the seedbed for the doctrine’s secularization as a philosophy of history in the early modern period. At the hands of rationalists and deists, providence became focused less on particular events and more on the general direction of history because general providence was identified with the natural and moral laws governing the world and society. Overemphasizing general providence in this manner precipitated two shifts: one loosened the tight fit between God’s intention and contingent events while the second discerned the hand of God in human progress, happiness, political stability, and tolerance. However, because detached from the diversity of its scriptural roots, providence was beholden to ideological designs. Opposing movements like British imperial expansion and the American revolution could both invoke the same generalized accounts of providence to support claims of providential exceptionalism. And if civilizational hegemony is sanctioned by God, then it can exact a steep price, like slavery.

The final arc of Fergusson’s narrative covers the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing on developments in natural science and physics, and attempted revisions of the doctrine in the wake of political and social changes. Advances in evolutionary science and quantum mechanics forced theologies of divine action to reckon with more chance and contingency in the natural world. Greater reflection on the workings of providence in nature also helped to shed light on the importance of the non-human creation, without detracting from the importance of human creatures in the cosmos. Finally, the author turns to three attempts at revising the doctrine of providence in the twentieth century before proposing his own set of revisions. Here he examines the contributions of relational theism, Karl Barth, and the views of doctrinal critics closer to deist accounts of non-interventionism. The concluding chapter summarizes the lessons learned from the narrative, briefly suggests how providence needs to be inflected across each article of the creed (especially the third), and then relates these insights to prayer, politics, and suffering.


Throughout this narrative, Fergusson leaves hints about where he’s going as he evaluates the doctrine’s twists and turns deep admiration and clarity. Even when he finds a traditional feature of the doctrine lacking, like God’s meticulous sovereignty, he takes pains to show that some saints nevertheless drew great comfort from such views. And where the doctrine is distorted by prevailing customs and contextual concerns, Fergusson assesses the damage soberly. All along the way, the focus is on the various tributaries down which the doctrine’s influence extends and how this affords lessons for contemporary appropriation. By the book’s end, it comes as little surprise that “some recasting of the doctrine of providence is now demanded of us.”

Sometimes the recasting takes the guise of advocating for a certain emphasis or stream of reflection over others. Many of these suggestions are welcome. For instance, Fergusson argues that since providence is simply a way of speaking about God’s action, then it is best distributed across all three articles of the creed. It is “parasitic upon the core doctrines” rather than being one itself, so “it is best handled not as a discrete locus but as an element shared and modulated by all the doctrines.” While this perhaps doesn’t negate the need for direct reflection on providence, it reminds us that such reflection must not be isolated from Christology and pneumatology. Another welcome reminder is Fergusson’s argument that, though questions of evil and suffering understandably loom large in modern accounts of providence, they cannot take center stage. The doctrine of providence is not chiefly an answer to such questions, though it should have something to say in response. Moreover, his concern to accommodate as much of the tradition as possible resists the impulse towards radical deconstruction. There are certainly plenty of things Fergusson wants to change, but he does so with an eye on how to remain consistent with the church’s liturgical and spiritual dispositions.

Other proposed revisions to the doctrine are slightly controversial, at least without further elaboration to relieve some stubborn ambiguities that cloud the argument. Two issues in particular stand out in this regard, concerning his treatment of Scripture and the conclusions he draws for the doctrine of God. Consider first the basic claim about Scripture’s diversity. It would be unfair to expect too much detailed exegesis in a book of this nature, but there wasn’t enough to validate the kind of co-dependent relationship between God and creatures Fergusson takes as one of his starting points. This is not a minor claim in the overall sweep of his argument, since he uses it to license significant changes in our understanding of God’s sovereignty and aseity. In turn, he leverages these changes to restrict providence on more than a noetic register. Since anthropomorphic language and narratives of divine response suggest that God does indeed change in some respect towards creatures, then, divine sovereignty must be interpreted as “promissory” and therefore eschatologically deferred. Without sacrificing God’s transcendence or creation ex nihilo, Fergusson suggests that the tradition ignored such elements out of embarrassment with anthropomorphic language or nervousness about its entailments for the doctrine of God. Hence, we must now accommodate the diversity of the biblical materials and the changes this brings to our doctrine of God.

What is unclear is what we should make of Scripture’s unity. It was precisely a concern for the unity of what Scripture says about God in all its diversity of forms and details that led older theologians to prioritize certain modes of biblical speech over others when confessing the nature of God. Since authors like Augustine, Aquinas, and even Calvin found in Scripture a robust account of God’s aseity and beatitude, they made decisions about what kinds of language had to be interpreted in ways that ‘fit’ that portrait. The history of how they interpreted anthropomorphic language tells as much. Though such methods have received plenty of scorn from revisionist theologians, they were nevertheless sophisticated accounts of theological exegesis ordered towards the cultivation of godliness. Yet we are never introduced to any of this. Instead, Fergusson’s treatment of the Latin tradition focuses almost exclusively on philosophical details rather than exegetical motivations. And what little there is of the latter is, frankly, unconvincing. Cumulatively, this leaves the impression that traditional modes of reflection are motivated by philosophical scruples more than exegesis. Perhaps Fergusson doesn’t want to make such a case; impressions are sometimes merely impressions.

If there is reason to pause here, it’s due to the second related concern. Fergusson’s ambiguous handling of Scripture’s unity an equally ambiguous treatment of God’s unity. Materially, these two doctrines are closely related: the unity of Scripture stands or falls with the unity of God, and vice versa. In view of Scripture’s polyphonic witness to God’s action, Fergusson concludes that such action must be construed with “a Trinitarian differentiation of agency types.” This kind of language is pervasive, but the idea of a “multiplicity of forms of divine agency” is never clarified. The need for clarification arises when Fergusson speaks of certain kinds of divine action requiring a more robust pneumatology than the tradition has offered. For instance, Fergusson finds a grain of truth in deism’s insistence that providence works “in and through the regularities and contingencies of the world” rather than through a meticulous outworking of an eternal divine decree. He then relates this to pneumatology, because the Holy Spirit’s action gives room to freedom, contingency, and possibility “rather than a single decree that actualizes each particular.” Related to this is what Fergusson calls the “pneumatological possibilities of panpsychism,” because divine influence and persuasion are more amenable to petitionary prayer. Pneumatology is somehow uniquely equipped to give voice to “notions of partnership, improvisation and interaction” in the doctrine of providence. The reason for this is that the Spirit’s “circumambience and indwelling constitute distinct forms of divine influence upon the world.” There is a problem here, but it has nothing to do with relating the Holy Spirit’s agency to our own agency; the permeability of “spirit” language in the New Testament demands as much. Rather the problem is that it often sounds as if the Holy Spirit is a cipher for immanence, reciprocity, and subjectivity, or as if the Spirit performs a “type” of divine action that the Father and Son cannot. Without more to say about the identity of the Spirit – who eternally proceeds from Father and Son, whose essence is identical to them both, and whose action is therefore indivisible from both – it is unclear exactly how the Spirit is indeed one with the Father and Son. Whatever the shortcomings of scholastic doctrines of providence and the Spirit, they were clear on this matter.

These issues may only concern those looking for the kind of systematic coherence that Fergusson eschews, for it appears that the ambiguities discussed and his resistance to systematicity go together. This preference for the un-systematic affords him the flexibility to survey the doctrine the way he does and comes with undoubted benefits, because questions can be raised without having to provide all the answers. As the latest entry in Cambridge’s Current Issues in Theology series, which is meant to question existing paradigms and approaches with authoritative treatments, Fergusson’s book does exactly what it is intended to do. If contemporary doctrines of providence will nevertheless need to provide answers, they will do well to consider Fergusson’s questions and insights first. Some of these insights will sustain dialogue better than others, but all of them provoke in the best way: by taking doctrine seriously in its full range, grounding it in the exegesis of Holy Scripture and the religious life of the church.

Tyler R. Wittman is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth (CUP, 2018) and several articles in International Journal of Systematic Theology, Modern Theology, Pro Ecclesia, and Studies in Christian Ethics.