Edwards on providence

If God acts in a non-interventionist way as Denis Edwards suggests–acting through “secondary causes” and allowing natural processes and created beings their own proper autonomy–then what about events that theology has traditionally viewed as special divine actions that bypass the normal order of things? Let’s look at two cases: God’s providential ordering of all things (as traditional faith would have it) and unique, miraculous events. In this post I’ll talk about providence and save miracles for a later post.

Traditionally, “providence” refers to God’s guiding of nature and history toward divinely chosen ends. Some theologians have gone so far as to say that God directly wills every event that occurs. But if, as Edwards maintains, God allows created being a level of autonomy and doesn’t act in an interventionist way to change the course of nature or history, then what becomes of providence?

Edwards takes as an example of providence the development of life on Earth, including the emergence of human beings:

In the approach I am advocating, this can be seen as a special act of God in the sense that God chooses, eternally, that the universe would bring forth biological life on our Earth by means of emergence and increasing complexity. What makes this act special is that (1) this action of God has a specific effect in creaturely history, the emergence of life in the universe, and (2) this specific effect is intended by God. (pp. 64-5)

He goes on to say that this “act of God takes effect in and through all the regularities and constraints of nature, including chance events occurring within the structure provided by the laws of nature” and there are “no gaps in the causal explanation at the empirical level that theology should fill” (p. 65). God’s one act of choosing this world entails (or is identical with?) the act of choosing a world that would bring about the emergence of life.

But does this mean that every event that happens must be viewed as a direct expression of God’s will? No, because while God wills to give his creatures good things, he also respects the processes by which they come into being, which can in turn have unpleasant side-effects:

[T]he God who provides for me through secondary causes may also respect the proper autonomy of the created order. This means that while God can be seen as acting in secondary causes for my well-being, God may not be free to intervene in the functioning of secondary causes in a way that overturns the laws of nature in order to preserve me from suffering. (pp. 69-70)

This may seem to be an arbitrary distinction, but we have to remember that, for Edwards, God’s nature is revealed in the self-giving love of Jesus. That’s why it makes sense to affirm that God sends us good things, regardless of merit, but also that God chooses to create through secondary causes and to respect their “freedom.”

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