The Doctrine of Providence

We turn finally to the second of the two major, non-credal doctrines which underlie all the actual doctrines of the creed, namely, the doctrine of providence. This, as I say, has received a very great deal of attention from philosophers of religion and philosophical theologians in recent decades. Not that the concepts of providence and divine action simply coincide. Creation is par excellence God's action, and as such was discussed in chapter 3 (see especially section 3.1). But the act of creation itself is to be differentiated from the acts of God within creation and, in particular, within human history. It is the latter that constitute the field of providence. And of course they are supremely exemplified, for Christians, by the acts of God, culminating in the Incarnation and its sequel, to which the Bible bears witness and which the creeds summarize. But the sphere of providence is not restricted to the 'mighty acts of God' that constitute the story of our redemption. Christian believers, and indeed believers in other theistic faith traditions, claim to see God at work in innumerable ways in history and in individual lives, through vocation, inspiration, guidance and in answer to prayer.

To distinguish between creation and providence in this way is really to distinguish between creation and special providence. For, as was the case with revelation, there is a distinction between general and special providence. General providence is a matter of the structural regularities and inbuilt propensities, including the laws of nature and the moral law, which enable God's creation to fulfil its intended goals without divine intervention. In this sense it is possible to blur the distinction between creation and providence. But the issue that particularly concerns both theologians and philosophers is the question of specific acts of God within these divinely ordained structures — the question, that is, of special providence.

It is a happy fact that recent work on the topic of special divine action has already been surveyed and assessed in a book, with precisely that title, by

Paul Gwynne.22 The existence of that book enables me to be even more selective than before in my own discussion of the key issues.

8.4.1 Special providence under attack

Three factors in particular have led a number of theologians, as well as many philosophers, to question the idea of special providence: namely, the problem of evil, the rise of modern science and the rise of modern historical-critical sensibility. There is so much evil and suffering in God's world that the course of human lives and of human societies often appears anything but providential. And our increasing scientific and historical knowledge of the structures of creation, and of the way things work in the world, leaves less and less scope for postulation of the hand of God behind what happens. These are the main reasons why the theologian Maurice Wiles (whose views on revelation were discussed in chapter 2, section 2.2), has attempted to dispense with the whole idea of special providence.23 Instead, he see the whole world, with its God-given powers, including human freedom, as one great divine creative act. Wiles's God is not an absent God, like the God of the deists. God's immanent presence is universal. The divine Spirit pervades everything and can, as it were, be latched on to by human beings in many different specific ways. But the particularity is all on our side. What may look like the effects of special providence are better understood as particular effects of general providence, the all-pervasive presence and pressure of the divine. Thus salvation history is better understood as the response of Israel and the Church to God's universal will and purpose than as the mighty acts of God. Personal conversion and growth in sanctity are better understood in terms of people's own response and the retrospective light this throws on their life story than in terms of'arbitrary election, implausible disposition of external circumstance and unacceptable manipulation of inner life'.24 That quotation sums up most trenchantly Wiles's objections to the notion of special providence.

It is interesting to compare what we might call Wiles's reduction of special providence to general providence with two other attempts to provide a non-arbitrary theory of providence that at first sight look very different indeed. I refer to Paul Helm's 'no-risk' view of creation and providence, already mentioned in chapter 3, and Vernon White's The Fall of a Sparrow.

Helm's 'no-risk' view of creation and providence sees the whole story of creation from start to finish as providentially ordained in all its detail, including human actions and God's specific responses to what humans do.

From God's angle this is indeed one single non-temporal act, and to that extent Helm's position is like that of Wiles. But from our angle, God does come to meet us in innumerable special ways. It is just that these divine acts too are part of the whole story which God ordains. We shall return to this view when we consider the issue of prayer and providence in the final section of this chapter. As pointed out in chapter 3, Helm is unusually frank in admitting that there is no room for libertarian freedom on the part of humans in his 'no-risk' view.

Vernon White's position appears to be at the very opposite end of the spectrum of views of divine providence from that of Wiles. For where Wiles does away with the notion of special providence, White sees special providence at work in everything that happens and in everything that is done in God's world. This seems more like Helm's view. But it differs in at least two respects. White does not deny human freedom. Our free acts are themselves elements in the providential pattern being woven by God, as is, of course, what God himself makes of them. In the second place, White is more ready than Helm to explore the notion of divine temporality, a temporality out of which God adapts his action in the world to the world's temporality. On the other hand, White's, like Helm's, is a 'no-risk' view of creation and providence. From God's perspective there is no such thing as chance or accident.

All three views are highly problematic. We may ask, of Wiles, whether personal theism can survive the restriction of particularity to the human side alone. This does not begin to do justice to the reciprocity of personal relation, however asymmetrical, which Christian spirituality and incarna-tional religion make possible and show to be real. And it is clear that, for Wiles, both the Incarnation and the Resurrection have to be demytholo-gized. We may ask, of Helm, whether freedom is not of the essence of personality and of any gracious personal relation. We must also ask whether Helm really succeeds in absolving God from responsibility for evil, when he says that evil is indeed ordained by God, not as evil, but rather as a necessary element in an overall good. And we may ask, of White, whether ascribing everything to God's special providence really differs from ascribing everything to God's general providence. Moreover, it is far from clear that White succeeds, any more than Helm does, in detaching evil from God's direct responsibility.

Where freedom is concerned, we know where Wiles and Helm stand. Wiles affirms it. Helm denies it. White's position is ambiguous. Does he or does he not allow our libertarian freedom its genuine autonomy? The notion of our free acts being at the same time God's acts in and through us is a topic to which we shall return in section 8.4.4 below.

Divine intervention has no place in the worldview of any of these three authors. This is quite clear in the case of Wiles. For him, the world has its own God-given autonomy, with many opportunities for human response to the divine Spirit, but that is all. In Helm's case, natural and historical happenings are only aspects of a much larger world story that includes many particular divine acts, but these can hardly be thought of as divine interventions, since they are parts of the whole God-ordained story. And, in White's case, God is at work in everything that happens; so again we can hardly speak of intervention.

8.4.2 Providence, predestination and foreknowledge

The most difficult issue for any theory of providence is that of God and time. Readers will recall that, in chapter 3 (sections 3.1.8 and 3.2.5), it was suggested that divine eternity is better conceived in terms of sempiternity than timelessness, and that an open-futured world, including genuine alternative possibilities, is a greater creative project on the part of God than a fore-ordained whole such as Helm appears to envisage. It was pointed out that, on such a view, even omniscience cannot know the future in all its details. Rather, God acts and responds appropriately to what his creatures do, and weaves the results of both free choice and accident into the tapestry of his providence. Only the eventual outcome of the whole story is predestined and foreknown, not the precise paths by which that future goal is eventually to be attained. Peter Geach compares this view of providence and the future to the way in which a chess Grand Master will indubitably win a whole number of games, whatever moves his amateur opponents make.

In an essay in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Thomas P. Flint distinguishes four positions on providence and predestination. He calls them determinist traditionalism, compatibilist traditionalism, libertarian traditionalism and libertarian revisionism. The first three views all enable one to maintain divine foreknowledge and thus God's overall control of everything. That is why Flint calls all three of them forms of traditionalism.

On the first view, determinist traditionalism, everything is simply determined by God, and freedom is an illusion. Flint claims that this view lacks contemporary support, though surely Helm's 'no-risk' view falls within this category. (Flint cites Helm in his bibliography, but appears to classify him as a compatibilist; but that ignores Helm's explicit rejection of free will.)

On the second view, compatibilist traditionalism, which Flint holds to be the mainstream view (as found in Aquinas and many others), human freedom, like all other forms of created causality, falls under God's supervenient governance. There is no incompatibility between God's primary causality and what God enables creatures themselves to do. This compatibi-list view Flint deems implausible philosophically, and, ifGod's governance is indeed understood deterministically, he is surely right about this. (Compa-tibilism is the view that freedom and determinism are perfectly compatible, provided you define freedom as lack of external constraint. But, clearly, that is not what freedom really means.) Whether the mainstream view attributed to Aquinas is, in fact, a version of compatibilism may well be doubted (see section 8.4.4 below).

On the third view, libertarian traditionalism, human beings are given true libertarian freedom; but God, through his middle knowledge, is able infallibly to know what any free creature will do, and thus what has to be allowed, if their freedom is not to be overridden. This is the view that Flint himself prefers. Accepting the view that God has middle knowledge, Flint is able to defend divine omniscience in its strongest sense, while at the same time accepting libertarian freedom. But middle knowledge, as argued in chapter 3 (p. 55), is a deeply incoherent notion. Recall the objections raised against it: not even omniscience could possibly know precisely what a genuinely free creature will do, let alone would have done in other circumstances. And, in any case, the idea that God could simply actualize individuals who would freely act only in certain ways makes no sense at all. Free creatures cannot just be actualized fully formed. A free person is the result of a whole history of interpersonal relationships. Only in and through such a history can God himself relate to his free creatures. Nor does it make any sense to suppose that God could simply actualize only those situations in which free creatures would act one way rather than another. Supporters of middle knowledge fail utterly to reckon with the logical constraints on what can be actualized just like that. (Readers are referred to articles and books by William Hasker and by Robert Adams for further arguments against middle knowledge.)

On the fourth view, libertarian revisionism (which denies the possibility of middle knowledge), God cannot know the future in all its details, but does know all possibilities and what he will do whatever creatures do. Flint mocks this view for reducing God's omniscience to little more than probabilistic guesswork. Hence his preference for libertarian traditionalism and middle knowledge. But, if middle knowledge is impossible, we ought surely to look more closely at the view outlined in chapter 3 (section 3.2.5), whereby the limitations on God's foreknowledge, logically entailed by his creation of an open-futured universe, do not deprive the Creator of overall control.

I sketched a libertarian revisionist view along these lines in an earlier article, 'Some Reflections on Predestination, Providence and Divine Foreknowledge' and defended it against criticism of Geach's Grand Master chess analogy by Patrick McGrath. McGrath wrote: 'if God does not have knowledge of future free actions, it means that he is constantly acquiring new knowledge; and such a being cannot be either infinite or unchanging'.31 I replied:

But such an objection does not take seriously the logic of creation. We cannot consider notions such as omniscience or omnipotence in abstraction from the situation set in motion by God's free decision to create. Creation is an act of God's omnipotence, but in order to relate himself to the creatures he has made, he must limit himself in a manner appropriate to the nature of what he has made. . . . [But of course] the creation does not escape the purview of God's omniscience. He knows every past and present fact, and every future possibility. Nothing takes him by surprise.32

Much more, of course, needs to be said about the way in which God's providence works in such an open-futured world, drawing the threads together and ensuring that its ultimate destiny is realized, whatever free creatures do. This is indeed the key issue in the doctrine of special providence, whatever one's views on divine foreknowledge.

Geach's Grand Master chess analogy certainly captures something of the libertarian revisionist view. But I have to admit to parting company with Geach over God's immutability. Geach tries to combine his view of omniscience and the future with the traditional view of God himself not being subject to change. He suggests that it is only the creature who changes, thus making statements true of the creature's relation to God which were previously false, but not ascribing real change to God himself. But, if God does not know my next move in the game of chess until I make it, then his knowledge of my move when I have made it is something new in the divine mind. The same point has to be made about God's action in the world in response to what his creatures freely do. Defenders of divine immutability have not reckoned with the self-limitations logically involved in the creation of an open-futured world. God subjects himself to change, in knowledge and action alike, in making a changing universe.34

8.4.3 Providence and miracle

The question immediately arises whether God's special providential action both prior to and in response to what his free creatures do necessarily involves miraculous intervention. Ludwig Feuerbach declared, without any qualification: 'Belief in providence is belief in miracle.' But it depends what you mean by 'miracle'. If, with David Hume, we define miracle as 'a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity', then clearly not all acts of special providence are miracles. Believers generally hold that God acts in the world in many ways in and through events and words which in no way involve transgression of the laws of nature. A particular vocation, for example, may come to someone through a sermon heard. That natural event becomes the vehicle of God's call, God's act, in the believer's life. Revelation, as discussed in chapter 2, consists of many acts of God, mediated through events, books and prophets. Moreover, many combinations of events in people's lives may well, in retrospect, be deemed providential, without involving miracles. So we can distinguish between miraculous intervention, whereby God brings something about which goes beyond any possible natural explanation (turning water into wine, for example) and providential intervention, whereby God brings something about which could be given a naturalistic explanation, but which, nevertheless, would not have occurred without God's intervention, working in and through nature, history and human words (the call of the Apostles, for example).

Miraculous intervention, in the sense defined, is a perfectly intelligible notion, given a theistic world view, as Swinburne shows in an early book, The Concept of Miracle.37 On the question of evidence for miracles having taken place, both Swinburne and Houston (whose treatment of this theme was mentioned in chapter 438) are agreed that Hume's notorious argument against reported miracles has no force at all. What normally happens has no bearing whatsoever on the question whether or not, for some exceptional reason, God has miraculously intervened.

A prima facie case for scepticism about miracles may be found in Hume's subsidiary arguments, first, that miracle stories tend to come from relatively primitive and unsophisticated milieux, and tend to proliferate wildly in relation to any remarkable religious innovator, and, secondly, that the presence of miracle stories in all the religions of the world tends to undermine the credibility of any one religion's reported miracles.39 These are by no means decisive arguments, however. Even if many miracle stories are suspect, one cannot rule out the possibility of an occasional miracle being given, say, as a sign of God's unique presence by incarnation. And one could construct a theory of the genesis and growth of religion the whole world over which allows for some miraculous interventions in all the world's religions. This suggestion finds tentative support in the writings of Keith Ward.40

There is no denying the fact that the rise of modern science has made us more and more sceptical about miracles. This is really the converse point to the one about miracle stories proliferating in pre-scientific, relatively ignorant cultures. In a later section we shall consider the bearing of modern science on theories of divine providence. But even miracle cannot be ruled out of court by a scientific worldview. For scientific explanations and predictions only work ceteris paribus (other things being equal). And on the hypothesis of theism, other things are not equal. God may be intervening.

The most compelling arguments against miracles — though even these do not rule them out — are thoroughly theological arguments, coming from within a developed theistic worldview. The first argument stems from considerations of theodicy. In order to make even minimal sense of the presence of so much evil and suffering in God's world, it is necessary to suppose that God has to respect the structures of his creation, if his purpose of fashioning a world of finite persons out of an evolving world, and in a regularly structured predictable environment that secures their relative independence and personhood, is to be achieved. Even occasional miraculous interventions could upset the whole story. The second argument, touched on in our reflections on the Incarnation (pp. 67f), concerns the theological implausibility oftreating God's action as one cause among others at the same level, and ofsupposing that God has to override the structures of creation in order to act within them.

The present structures of creation are indeed overridden with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But, as Farrer pointed out in Saving Belief, 'the Resurrection is not a miracle like any other. It is a unique manifestation within this world of the transition God makes for us out of this way of being into another'. So it would be a mistake to draw general conclusions about miracle from the Resurrection.

For these reasons, many theologians and philosophers ofreligion now try to spell out a non-miraculous view of God's providential action in and though what is said and done, and in and through what happens, at the creaturely level. We shall survey and comment on such theories of 'double agency' in the next section.

Before we leave the topic of miracle, however, it is worth asking whether the language of divine intervention should be retained in respect of such non-miraculous, mediated agency. David Brown, whose work on the topics of Revelation, Incarnation and Trinity was discussed in chapters 2, 4 and 5 (see pp. 30—2, 61—3 and 81—8) was keen in his early book, The Divine Trinity, to defend the idea of divine intervention against all forms of deism, and against Wiles's reduction of special providence to general provi-dence.42 But later, in Tradition and Imagination, Brown says of his earlier book, 'use of the term ''intervention'' to describe God's action in the world was unfortunate, since it could so easily be taken to imply that God was absent except where he was intervening'. He goes on to say that, in later work, he had attempted to correct this by substituting the term 'interaction', and insisting that most divine action in the world had no need to be brought under the rubric of'miracle'.43 While agreeing with this last point, we may not share the fear that 'intervention' necessarily has the implications stated. There is no need to equate divine intervention with miracle, nor to suppose that talk of special interventions implies God's absence elsewhere.

8.4.4 Double agency

Let us then consider the notion of'double agency' involved in the view that God acts in and through the acts of creatures. The philosophical theologian most closely associated with this notion is Austin Farrer. It is the leading theme of the four short books that Farrer wrote towards the end of his life.44

Farrer's recognition of the difficulty of ascribing the same event or act to two agents, divine and human, is reflected in his talk of the paradox of double agency; but a paradox is not a contradiction. It is only when we treat divine and human agency as two causal factors operating at the same level that it makes no sense to speak of double agency, except in mundane terms, say, of delegation. The notion remains paradoxical, but only because, as Farrer admits, the modality of divine action is strictly inaccessible to us. 'The hand of God is perfectly hidden.'46 We do not have access to the 'causal joint' between the supernatural and the natural.

Where the natural is concerned, Farrer seeks to do full justice to the reality of creaturely causality and agency at every level. 'God not only makes the world, he makes it make itself.' But, in and through the events of nature, history and human action, the providence of God is at work. Moreover, says Farrer, 'God's agency must actually be such as to work omnipotently on, in, or through creaturely agencies without either forcing them or competing with them.'48 God lets things follow their own bent, and yet 'without faking the story or defying probability at any point he pulls the history together into the patterns we observe'.49

One of Farrer's most powerful analogies is the author analogy already cited in chapter 3 (p. 41). It will be recalled that Farrer compared the Creator to 'the good novelist who has the wit to get a satisfying story out of the natural behaviour of the characters he conceives'.

The hand of God may be perfectly hidden, but the effects of God's action are far from hidden. Anyone who has experienced the grace ofGod at work in their life will know that grace and free will are not rivals. I am most myself, most truly free, as I embrace the divine will, and yet I am, at the same time, most conscious of God's working in me. As Farrer puts it: 'We know that the action of a man can be the action of God in him.' This becomes the paradigm case, for Farrer, of double agency. But, contrary to John Polkinghorne's criticism,52 Farrer by no means restricts the scope of the notion to God's interaction with persons. Rather, he uses the paradox of grace as a clue to the way God acts throughout the created order. The whole story of nature and history, as well as of individual lives, is a matter of God's agency working in and through creaturely agency. This goes for the effects of evolution. And it goes, especially, for the history of Israel, culminating in the Incarnation, which, Farrer says, has a providential intelligibility not elsewhere evident, because nowhere else is the goal of God's purpose so clear. But, of course, Farrer returns to the personal in the end. The interaction of human and divine, he observes, is most clearly evident in 'Christ's ability to play his part, with a mental furniture acquired from his village rabbi'.54

The notion of double agency has been followed up and developed by a number ofphilosophers ofreligion, examples ofwhose work may be seen in the volume which came out of the fourth International Conference on the Theology of Austin Farrer held in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1986. Of particular interest is the essay by Thomas Tracy, enlarging on his own earlier book, God, Action and Embodiment.56 Tracy suggests 'that we think of God as continuously shaping the direction of each individual's self-determination by contributing to the network of influences that condition our actions from moment to moment throughout our histories'.57 Tracy's critics, we may note, have expressed some doubts about this account. Does he avoid the danger of treating God as just one force among many others? But at least he does not confuse God's special acts in and through what his creatures do with God's basic act of creating and empowering everything. This confusion, sadly, is to be found in Keith Ward's dismissal of Farrer's 'paradox' of double agency in his own book, Divine Action.59 According to Ward, this 'is not really a paradox... if one spells out the way in which particular states are brought about by natural causes, while the whole system of causal powers is held in being by God's action'. That is simply not the point. What Farrer is talking about is the way in which, over and beyond that 'holding in being', God acts in specific ways in and through what Ward refers to here as 'natural causes'.

Double agency in this sense presupposes that the created world is open or flexible enough to permit such mediated divine influence or persuasion. This leads us to reflect on the question of science and providence.

8.4.5 Science and providence

A good starting point for reflection on this theme is John Polkinghorne's Science and Providence.60 Polkinghorne, a former professor of mathematical physics, is well placed to expound our new understanding, in quantum physics and chaos theory, of the physical universe as a non-determined, open environment, productive of, and hospitable to, freedom and creativity. On this, by contrast with his critical remarks on double agency, already noted, Polkinghorne is prepared to endorse what Farrer wrote: 'The grid of causal uniformity does not (to any evidence) fit so tight upon natural processes as to bar the influence of an over-riding divine persuasion.' Philosophers had already appealed to the openness of a non-deterministic universe in order to account for the possibility of freewill in the human world. In her inaugural lecture at Cambridge, Elizabeth Anscombe observed that 'there is nothing unacceptable about the idea that ''physical'' haphazard should be the only physical correlate to human freedom of action'. In philosophical theology, the same openness or flexibility of structure is held to make intelligible the possibility of divine action in and through the contingencies ofnature and history. The central chapters of Keith Ward's book, Divine Action, explore this in some detail.63 Ward is particularly interesting on the constraints of creation, the parameters within which divine action takes place and has to take place if the structures of creation are to be respected. These constraints include those of probability, and we are reminded again of what Farrer wrote about God's mediated providence not defying probability. It must always be possible to give an account of what the believer sees as providential in terms of coincidence, however unlikely, its unlikeliness as coincidence suggesting interpretation as providential.

One of the factors reckoned with by Farrer, Polkinghorne and Ward is that of chance. Unlike the 'no-risk' view of creation and providence, the view under scrutiny here allows not only for freedom but also for chance elements at all levels, material and interpersonal, within the non-deterministic structures of creation. This aspect of providence in an open universe is the subject of the book, God of Chance, by the statistician, D. J. Bartholomew.

There is much controversy over the question of the location of the 'causal joint' between divine and creaturely agencies. Ward is more inclined than Polkinghorne to see scope for divine action at the quantum level, interpreted indeterministically. Polkinghorne himself prefers to think of the macro-level at which chaos theory operates as giving scope to the operations of God's providence.66 He draws the analogy with our own 'top-down' agency, which exploits just such openness and unpredictability in order freely to realize our purposes in the physical world.

Such suggestions are discussed, with special reference to Polkinghorne's work, by Steven Crain in an article in Faith and Philosophy.67 Among other things, Crain defends the idea of miraculous intervention against Polkinghorne's restriction of divine special action to mediated providence. But he also expresses scepticism about any attempt to locate a specific feature of the world that God is supposed to exploit in acting within it. Since God is the transcendent creator, the 'causal joint' between God's action and the world is, in the nature of the case, metaphysical, and not to be located or identified in inner-worldly terms.

This point is helpful in reminding us that God's action cannot be treated as one causal factor among others operating at the same level, and simply at locatable points in the world story. But Ward and Polkinghorne, and indeed Farrer, are perfectly well aware of this. God's action informs the world process and influences its outcome from another dimension, as it were. But it remains 'top-down' agency, by analogy with our agency. And there is still a case for attempting to spell out the nature of the openness or flexibility within the world process that permits it. And, to borrow Anscombe's phraseology, there is nothing unacceptable about the idea that 'physical haphazard' should be the correlate of divine special providence.

8.4.6 Prayer and providence

In the opening chapter of this book I made a case for the legitimacy of philosophical reflection on the theoretical aspects and implications of religious belief and practice. In conclusion, I illustrate this again with some reflections on prayer and God's answer to prayer.

Ward defines prayer as 'the conscious turning of the mind and will to God'.68 This raises no problems as far as meditation, contemplation, praise, thanksgiving and penitence are concerned. These are all aspects of the creation's response to its Creator referred to above in connection with the philosophy of worship; although, again, it should be noted that these are not simply matters of creaturely response. Christians hold that the divine Spirit is active in human hearts and communities precisely as they turn to God in prayer. But the chief problems for the philosophical theologian regarding prayer and answers to prayer concern petition and intercession.

The first difficulty reflects the intuition that God is bound to do what is for the best in any case. What, then, is the point of petitionary or intercessory prayer? A clear and convincing response to this difficulty is provided by Ward, who argues that, if personal theism means that human beings are called into a gracious personal relation with their Maker, then that can only be realized through the reciprocities of prayer and answer to prayer. In other words, it is better that some things should occur as a result of prayer and God's answer to prayer than that God should bring them about in any case. As Ward puts I: 'What is best if we do not pray might well be different from what is best if we do pray. So it is a feeble argument that, since God will do what is best anyway, we need not bother to pray.'

The second difficulty takes us back to the question of God's immutability. Are prayers and answers to prayers themselves changelessly predestined? It looks as if Thomas Aquinas, at the end of the day, thought so: 'We do not pray in order to change the decree of divine providence; rather we pray in order to acquire by petitionary prayer what God has determined would be obtained by our prayers.'70 As we saw, Helm's 'no-risk' view states this even more explicitly. The trouble with this view, as Ward says, is that, while in a sense it allows for our prayers to have real effects, in that God has decreed the whole story, including our prayers and his own response, 'the suspicion remains that, in such a case, our prayers are not really freely made, and God does not really respond to them in new and creative ways'.

Much better sense can be made of prayer and answer to prayer, if we adopt the theology of mediated, non-manipulative providence, sketched above. If God can be thought of as acting freely and creatively, in and through each aspect of the whole world story, not as one agent among others at the same level, but rather as the all-pervading Spirit, guiding, calling, inspiring and drawing good out of evil, then it becomes possible to see prayer and answer to prayer as central aspects of an open world process, now conscious of its source and rendering itself explicitly instrumental to the divine activity.

It is worth remembering, at this point, the way in which Farrer sought to extend his view of mediated providence from the paradigm case of grace and freedom to every level of creation. An open-structured, flexible world process does not only allow for the operation of the hidden hand of providence in response to prayer. Nor is response to prayer necessarily restricted solely to God's interaction with human hearts and minds.

These and other problems about petitionary prayer are discussed perceptively by Eleonore Stump in her contribution to Blackwell's A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion. She has wise words to say about heartfelt prayer and appropriate prayer. Petitionary prayer undertaken in an experimental frame of mind could not possibly constitute a genuine response to the love of God. Believers have to learn, too, what it is that is religiously appropriate and inappropriate in the matter of prayer. But Stump's attempt to combine her sensitive understanding of Christian prayer with the classical doctrines of divine atemporality and immutability does not convince. According to Stump:

Although an atemporal God does not frame his response to a prayer after the prayer any more than he determines it in advance of a prayer, he can still act simultaneously with prayer (where simultaneity has to be understood in a more sophisticated way than temporal co-occurrence) and nothing in the nature of simultaneity keeps God's action from being a response to the prayer, a divine action done because of the petition in the prayer.73

This notion of simultaneity seems hardly intelligible. Again, it makes much greater sense to follow Farrer and Ward in thinking of God's special providence, including his answers to prayer, in temporal terms, as responses to, and interactions with, free creatures — and other creaturely energies — in a manner appropriate to their God-given nature.

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  • niklas
    What is the doctrine of providence nigel cameron?
    10 months ago

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