Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Is There a Need for a Trinitarian Theology of Providence?

In a recent article, Alexander Pierce argues for an explicitly trinitarian theology of providence, that is, a theology of providence that recognises both that the economic operations of the triune God are undivided (e.g., creation is the work of the Trinity) but appropriated where necessary to a specific divine person (e.g., creation is appropriated to God the Father). In his conclusion, Pierce offers ‘two explicit axioms’ of this approach:

(1) The triunity of the Christian God necessarily shapes Christian doctrine: Specifically, this model provides resources to enhance the generically monotheistic accounts most often put forth concerning divine providence; in contrast to these standard considerations, divine activity in the world, on the part of the Christian, needs to be considered in terms of God’s tripersonal identity.

(2) The providential activity of the eternal and omniscient God encompasses his election and creation: Providence is not merely the action God takes once he elects and creates, but instead comprises all divine activity ad extra, for the eternality of God does not fit with a temporal sequencing of divine activity that suggests he is merely figuring things out as he goes along.

Alexander H. Pierce, ‘Opera Trinitatis ad Extra Tanquam Providentia Dei: A Dogmatic Adumbration of God’s Teleological Triune Activity’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 33:2 (2015), pp. 163–172 (p. 172)

The general thrust of Pierce’s article is that the trinitarian shape of divine providence emerges as we consider the story of the triune God’s dealings with creation, from the act of creatio ex nihilo (God the Father) to sanctification and eschatological communion (God the Holy Spirit) via redemption and reconciliation (God the Son). Pierce writes,

The perfect communion of mutual love and glory between the triune God and his sanctified creation quite literally is the raison d’être of all operationes externae trinitatis. Divine providence is in its broadest form this all-encompassing enactment of God’s plan to bring about his end for creation. (p. 171)

This is fair enough; and, to indulge in a spot of shameless self-promotion, I argued along similar lines in my Providence Made Flesh (it’s an international bestseller in an alternate universe, you know), contending that the entire biblical narrative needs to be taken more seriously when describing providence. But Pierce also comments,

Despite the recent proliferation of theological reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of providence has remained nearly unaffected. In many cases the questions of contemporary theology have set the terms of theological inquiry rather than the normative formulations of ancient Christianity. However, the expository task of theology must be undertaken before apologetic concerns are satisfied. (p. 171)

I empathise with Pierce here, insofar as the Church should be able to articulate a theology of providence on its own terms—presumably a doctrine of the triune God’s gracious and faithful (self-)provision for the benefit of creation—rather than formulate one solely apologetic in intent (one that, for example, attempts to explain why good things happen to bad people—and yes, I did put it that way). But to say that ‘the doctrine of providence has remained nearly unaffected’ by recent reflection on trinitarian doctrine is surely overstating things; I suppose much hangs on what Pierce means by ‘nearly unaffected’. There are significant voices out there, from Karl Barth to John Webster and Charles Wood (and dare I add my own to the list?), who certainly account for providence in trinitarian terms.

But there are another couple of questions here; they might prove to be silly questions, but they’re ones I want to ask. First, if Pierce is right to say (as he does and as he is) that ‘the doctrine of providence encompasses all divine activity in the Creator-creature relationship’ (p. 163), then how far does the Church actually need to articulate a doctrine of providence at all? Its teachings on creation, redemption, reconciliation, sanctification, and eschatological communion, taken together, testify to God’s providential action—thus making providence more of an adjective to describe God’s action and not a doctrine per se. And secondly, if the doctrine of providence does encompass all divine activity ad extra, then this divine activity takes place within a fallen, sinful world; so what would a doctrine of providence actually look like were it to be exposited apart from apologetic concerns? On the basis of what Pierce has argued, it seems that eschatological communion requires a fall, which implies (and possibly strongly so) that apologetic concerns must lie at the heart of the doctrine of providence—if only because the emphasis is not so much on triune divine activity as such, but on how the triune God of providence wills to act towards the world.


  1. The bit about providence being a descriptor rather than a theological doctrine is my kind of approach. I see how God works in the world, or rather I see God as He works in the world, and I can guess at what it points to, in my limited, mortal understanding. Also, it never occurred to me that people would see things so much in the way of the Three instead of the One. God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are as much One as the oceans of the earth are one, each flowing into and through the other and never quite separating because in reality they are not three - just as the oceans are not separate - but One. God showed me once, but it is like explaining the light of the Sun to a man born blind: you'll never do it adequately. Which is not to imply that you're blind! Or rather, we're all blind and God showed me this one little bit, which is humanly un-explainable.
    I don't follow much of what you wrote, but of what I understand that is my tuppence-worth.

    1. It sounds to me that what you're describing is perichoresis - the mutual interpenetration of the three persons. But I wouldn't agree that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are not three in reality - I believe they are three distinct persons even as they are each fully God and constitute one God.

    2. And thus the difficulty of ever finding an adequate explanation of the Trinity, because what you said makes perfect sense, too.