God’s transcendent providence
Is God truly in control of human history? People living at the beginning of the twenty-first century might well have their doubts. Theologians, pastors and laypeople continue to ponder, and at times struggle mightily with, the question of God’s goodness and power as manifested in the midst of the unprecedented suffering and evil of our century. Modern horrors such as the Holocaust, the violence in Darfur, the death of millions in Cambodia, Rwanda and Kosovo, and the more recent destruction of the World Trade Center towers silence any flippant responses to the question of God’s control and governance of human history.
Each of us has at one time or another asked the question why. Whether we have encountered or experienced an accident, sickness, natural disaster or war with its accompanying horrors, the question wells up within us–Why? Why didn’t God protect us? Why couldn’t circumstances or timing have been different?
excerpt from Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, (Hall, 2002)
I have been learning theology with the church fathers. I have been impressed with a number of things in my reading. In his treatise on the providence of God, Chrysostom continually exhorts his readers to learn to think and live like a Christian. The one who has learned to think like a Christian, the one whose thinking has been shaped by the gospel and the realities it represents, will not judge God’s providence by appearences. Instead, genuine believers will remain sensible and vigilant, wary of making a premature judgment concerning God’s actions or permission. They will understand that the events of this life in themselves are indifferent matters and take on the character of good or evil according to our response to them.
By way of contrast, those who are “worldly, difficult to lead, self-willed, and utterly carnal” will continually misread God’s providence because they lack the eyes to see him at work, a vision that only comes to those who are actively exercising faith, that is, allowing their perspective to be shaped by the gospel and acting accordingly.
The believer who possesses a deeply grounded Christian disposition will experience pain and grief on his journey home, but never harm.” (Hall, p. 170)
It’s the age old question: “Where is God when it hurts?”
The other great idea taken from the chapter entitled, “Christ Divine and Human,” is how the church fathers developed a theological framework to “explain” this ineffable mystery. Much of the controversy in the historical era is reflected in the exchanges between Bishop Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius. Basicly Nestorius watered down the incarnation by thinking of it in terms of God exalting the human, Christ, through an indwelling association. But it was not God taking on flesh in the fullest sense.
Cyril finds fault with the methodology of Nestorius. As far as Cyril is concerned, Nestorius is fundamentally a theological innovator. Cyril is convinced that Nestorius has ignored the previous theological reflections of the church in the construction of his theological proposal regarding the relationship of Christ’s deity and humanity. Cyril argues, “he innovates as seems fit to him.”
Hmmm. I ponder the implications of the methodology one uses in interpreting Scripture. How one views the Apostolic Tradition will impact the way in which we approach the Scriptures and interpret it. As Mennonites, how is theological innovation a part of our tradition as we read and interpret the Scriptures?
The early church fathers would tell us that the reality of the incarnation simply refuses to fit within an entirely coherent logical framework. Cyril would encourage us to think concurrently, holding seemingly contradictory thoughts side by side and allowing the tension between them to remain rather than attempting to resolve the tension through a premature rationalistic maneuver.
In the twentieth century Robert Oppenheimer advocated much the same methodology, but for use in a different discipline, contemporary physics. Why is there a need for occasionally logical inconsistency? Huston Smith notes the presence of “many findings in contemporary physics that refuse to be correlated in a single logical framework.” Hence, Oppenheimer’s proposal that physicists employ a “Law of Complementarity as the basic working concept in the field, meaning by this (in part) that opposing facts must be held in tension even when logically they are at odds if they can help account for phenomena observed. In more than one field, it seems, reality can be more subtle than man’s logic at any given moment.” (Hall, p. 96)
I find this analogy very helpful. This model allows for us to acknowledge the mystery of our faith that does not fit nice and neat into the containers, and the narratives of Enlightenment rationalism. It also strikes me as possible language to describe how it is possible to say that the Body of Christ is manifested on earth in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church despite the messy, confusing evidence that would seem to counter this confession.
On Tuesday I begin the course Conversations with Anabaptist Theology Today, taught by Brinton Rutherford. I am looking forward to exploring these questions and many others during this course.
I was thinking about the challenge of raising children in a time of war. This post is already very long so I will save this for another time.