Monday, 10 October 2016

Discerning God’s Presence in World Events

How do we know what things in the world are the direct result of divine action? Or, to put it differently, (how) can we say that event x was God’s doing but event y was not? It’s not an easy sort of question to answer. In the days when I used to do some serious thinking and writing, I thought one way of addressing the matter was to talk about intensities of divine presence in events (see my Providence Made Flesh, pp. 229–232, and the final section of my hard-to-locate article, ‘Divine Presence as a Framework for God’s Providence’, Epworth Review 36:3 (2009), online edition). I still see no reason why something like this can’t prove helpful. Let me explain.

Even though he appears to criticise my stance on this issue in a review of Providence Made Flesh (see Evangelical Quarterly 82:3 (2010), pp. 286–288), Ian McFarland has since argued that God’s glorification of the creature entails God ‘returning’ to the creature through an intensification of the divine presence. He explains, ‘I am no nearer to a person sitting next to me before than after we are introduced, but the fact of acquaintance profoundly changes the quality of that nearness. Similarly, there is (because there can be) no augmentation of God’s proximity to creation in glory, but there is an increase in intimacy.’ (Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 178). In his review of my book, McFarland seems to believe that I was equating intensification of divine presence with an increase in divine presence, which I was not. Regardless, McFarland’s language of intensification suggests some mileage in the idea. But the task is to transfer the language of intensification from eschatological glorification to current events.

Some help comes from Vernon White’s Purpose and Providence, which, let me say, is the best book on providence I’ve read in quite a few years. White uses the idea of figural interpretation (‘the possibilities of seeing a patterned family resemblance between events, even though there is no visible causal relationship between them’, p. 7) to contend that divine meaning in events can be detected when it is interpreted in light of the Christ event. Naturally, such divine meaning cannot be stated absolutely; but, White argues, some events relate more clearly to the Christ event than others, and this gives us a basis for locating the place and significance of any given event within the purposes of God (see Purpose and Providence, p. 123).

It seems to me that there can be a happy marriage between my (and McFarland’s) talk of the intensification of divine presence and White’s use of figural interpretation if we can say that genuine meaning and purpose are found in those events that approximate not to the Christ event simpliciter, but to the eschatological rule of the crucified but exalted Christ; that is, to how far events are present instantiations of the age of come as brought about by the intensification of divine presence in those events. Is this plausible?


  1. I've been studying probability today. I wonder how the probability of an event being caused by God would be written mathematically? As much as I'm charmed by the idea, I'm not sure it's as straightforward as that. All things are, at least, allowed by God, but not necessarily caused by Him, I think. But I'm no theologian. Maths is much more my sort of thing.

    1. Hmm. . . We may share a fondness for soft SF with hard SF leanings, but we part company at the maths thing! There are people who discuss probability in connection with theology - e.g. David Bartholomew's God, Chance and Purpose, which I reviewed years ago somewhere. I probably focussed on the theological implications of the maths!

  2. Very good writing! Thanks for sharing.

    - The Smiling Pilgrim