Friday, 5 December 2014

Alexander S. Jensen on Providence and Free Will

Maximus the Confessor: Are you not entertained?
Alexander Jensen’s recently published Divine Providence and Human Agency is proving to be one of the best books written on providence in recent years. I’ve just finished reading Chapter 3, ‘Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom’, and Jensen’s analysis of the relation between the (free) human will and God’s providence is fascinating and sharp. He starts with the classical view of the will, passes through Scripture, discusses Augustine and Maximus, and moves from Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus to Kant, Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and Pannenberg via the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Jensen’s account is not the final word on the subject of the human will, but it’s pretty thorough.

Of Chapter 3’s forty-eight pages, only four pages, give or take a line or two, are allocated to Jensen’s own position. (In many respects, this is a commendable example of how to do theology: listen extensively to other voices before making one’s own contribution.) First, Jensen argues for a strong understanding of God’s transcendence, meaning that God is the source of created time and space. Secondly, following Bultmann and Pannenberg, Jensen contends that the regenerated human will is directed towards God, while the fallen and sinful human will remains directed towards worldly things and self-love. This means, thirdly, that the human will is truly free when aligned with God’s will; the fallen will can only choose arbitrarily between options. Jensen’s worth quoting here:

Ironically, the very feature which is most important in the modern self-understanding [of the will], namely that the will determines that which is previously undetermined, is the result and sign of human alienation from God.

Alexander S. Jensen, Divine Providence and Human Agency: Trinity, Creation and Freedom (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), p. 111

It’s an interesting point, methinks.

Finally, Jensen’s fourth observation is that because salvation is of the whole person, including the (enslaved) human will, salvation has to come from the Holy Spirit.

So how does Jensen hold together the concepts of divine providence and human free will? He is quite sure that the matter cannot be resolved simply by pointing to its ostensibly paradoxical nature. Instead, he proposes that any account of human freedom must draw from ‘the foundational Christian experience of the saving presence of Christ.’ (p. 113). And because all things come from God, the source of creaturely being and existence, free human agency, too, must stem from participation in God, and so from God’s own freedom.  True human freedom, Jensen argues, is the freedom to respond to God. He concludes:

A completely free will would regard every given situation as a gift from God and act in a way that responds to God’s love and discerns God’s will. This is expressed in the life of Jesus Christ as it is described in the gospels, which represents true humanity, including human freedom, at its fullest. (p. 113).

As I noted earlier, I’m finding Divine Providence and Human Agency a compelling read, and Chapter 3 has really made me think through some of my own entrenched positions. However, questions remain for me. It seems to me that sometimes Jensen indulges in a theological sleight of hand when talking about the free human will. I accept that, theologically speaking, the truly free human will aligns itself with God’s will, and that the fallen, sinful human will seeks the good in anything but the good who is God. And I accept that the fallen, sinful human will is more likely, for example, to indulge in sensuous pleasure than engage in ascetic practices – assuming, of course, that the latter enable one to know God more deeply and appropriately than the former (and this could be debated, I’m sure). But is this distinction the only one of note? If I prefer a cheese sandwich to a ham sandwich, is this a free human action aligned with God’s will? Or is it an enslaved human action more concerned with satisfying my own desires and needs? And is there a difference (or what is the connection) between having a free human will and performing free human actions? Undoubtedly, I need to think through these issues some more – and no doubt the remainder of Jensen’s book will continue to help me do this.

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