Divine Providence and Human Agency

Paul Helm Articles
Alexander S. Jensen, Divine Providence and Human Agency: Trinity, Creation and Freedom. Farnham, Surrey, Ashgate, 2014. 215 pp. $104.99/£57.99

How would you go about developing the theme that is the title of this book? The typical reader of Reformation 21 would - I guess and hope - turn at once to Scripture, and would take as his default position the confessional position of his own church or denomination. This would not be because he is lazy, or 'worships' the confession, but because he already accepts it ex animo together with the system of doctrine that it sets forth. This provides him with a ready doctrinal and hermeneutical framework for his further reflection. And then, if the reflection is taking place in a pastoral setting, the needs and responsibilities of the people - the applicatory side of things.  

Dr Jensen is an Australian academic theologian, a German by birth, and is not, I believe, related to the Jensen clan of the diocese of Sydney. He teaches at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. The book is serious and worthwhile, written clearly and forcefully. It is the outcome of a different method from that already mentioned.   

The book may be thought of as being constructed out of blocks of ancient and modern theological work to provide Jensen's account of providence: a 'strong' account of divine transcendence, (ch. 1) an account of the will, divine and human, but especially human, and of their relation (chs. 2 and 3), a consideration of divine activity in the world, (ch. 4) and finally his account of God's relation to evil (ch. 5). The whole is prefaced in the 'Introduction' by a critical account of process theology as an example of an outlook which incorporates a 'weak' account of transcendence, but which stresses divine immanence, an evolutionary theology and divine persuasion. I was puzzled by this at first, because it is very different in tone from what follows. But I think that a process outlook is possibly where Dr Jensen was coming from, even though he regards some of its insights as valuable; and the book is a reaction to this, not a development of it.

Dr Jensen's core belief is that Christian doctrine is constructed out of the expressions of the faith of the church, especially the liturgical expressions (p.13). In each chapter he progresses easily and steadily from the patristic and medieval world to that of post-Kantian Protestant theologies of Schleiermacher, Barth and Pannenberg, adopting the latters' anthropological method. So the transcendent God of the earlier writers fulfills the same role the agnostic God of post-Kantian Protestantism. So Dr Jensen's God is strongly apophatic, 'utterly ineffable' (p.141).

The first block of data champions a strong view of divine transcendence, by which the author means a view of God not as one being among others (which is a weak, essentially anthropomorphic view), but as the timeless and space-less source of all being, essentially incomprehensible. In this role God is not only the creator but also the providential source of its history. This is the patristic and medieval view of God which he thinks is watered down in late medievalism due to the innovations of Scotus and Ockham. This is most certainly a mistake, for it does not account for the presence of the strong view of transcendence in the Reformers, and in Reformed Orthodoxy and Puritanism. (Dr Jensen has his friends, and it seems that Calvin is not among them). The point is that if one holds this transcendent or agnostic view of God, then (Dr Jensen holds) God's activity is not in competition with the activity of his human creatures. If God ordains that someone does A, then that person can still be a fully responsible cause of A happening. Whereas a God who is one being among others, existing in time, and so forth, competes with those beings in the manner of a zero-sum game. 

The second block, on omnipotence and human freedom, has to do with the will. Dr Jensen thinks an indeterministic view of the will, libertarianism, is a modern view, stemming from the innovations of Duns Scotus. What the author regards as the classical view of human free will is assumed to be consistent with divine activity, while indeterminism is not. The puzzle here (and elsewhere) is how Dr Jensen knows this much about God. If God is beyond the world of time and space - a mystery - how can we know that what he wills is at the expense of human wills, and vice versa?  What's to stop him appealing to transcendence when he reaches an impasse, turning the headlights off to deal with the fallen tree in the way? In a later chapter Dr Jensen introduces the idea of human autonomy, without which there is no responsibility. How does possessing autonomy differ from possessing an indeterministic will? Dr Jensen does not say. How, indeed, can we know that the activity of a God who is beyond knowledge carries this implication, that it is inconsistent with indeterminism but consistent with the action of autonomous agents? 

The third theme, on divine activity within the creation, culminates in a discussion of the world seen as the unfolding of the divine purposes while at the same time humans in it are free agents (p.141). It is at this point that Jensen's trinitarianism comes into play. Following Maximus the Confessor, divine will is a function of the divine nature, not of distinct divine persons (p.143). The Trinity is unfolded as follows: the Father is the transcendent divine agency beyond time and space, the logos is God's creative act of willing, and the Spirit seeks the communion of those finite creatures made in the image of God (p.147).

The final theme has to with the overcoming of sin and evil. Dr Jensen boldly claims that in his strong view of the divine will, evil is caused by God. But sin must not be thought of primarily as individualistic, as the result of the effects of a Fall... Since God is beyond being he cannot be judged by creaturely concepts of goodness and justice (p.156). The cross must be at the center of an account of suffering and evil in God's world, for it alone speaks to us of God overcoming evil and suffering in all its forms. 

When all is bolted together, set out in systematic form, what does it look like? The creation has an evolutionary history of countless aeons, with the pains and losses attendant upon it. God directs the course of it all, including the comparatively few years of human history. Human autonomy arises, with its incapacities and failures, and God's 'redemption' of these has a cruciform shape, the exact outline we cannot discern, enjoying an eschatology which partakes of the apophatic character of all our knowledge of God. So there is no good creation, no fall, no atonement, no resurrection of the dead to new life, no hell. 

Not surprisingly the culmination of the divine purposes, hidden though they are at present, has a decidedly supralapsarian flavor, even though I dare say Dr Jensen would not see it that way.
This redeeming action, the incarnation, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was not a contingency plan after God's original plan had been thwarted by the fall. They must have been part of the original plan, so that creation is intrinsically linked to redemption, and thus sin and evil are inherently linked to God's saving action. Furthermore, given that the whole of creation throughout time and space are the object of God's one eternal act of willing, we may say that the world was created with redemption in mind (p.185)

There's a good deal of this which will interest and even could be appropriated by the Reformed theologian. This is so even though their methods and the conclusions are at odds. 

Paul Helm is professor of theology at Highland Theological College in Scotland and Teaching Fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. He is author of The Providence of God, The Secret Providence of God, and John Calvin's Ideas.