Divine Agency and Divine Action

William J. Abraham

[Editor’s note: Written shortly before his untimely death in the fall of 2021, this essay provides a window into Professor Abraham’s four-volume work, Divine Agency and Divine Action (Oxford University Press, 2017–2021).]

After working through my four-volume work on divine agency and divine action, readers can be forgiven for thinking that the whole point of the exercise was to create space for instances of divine action that have been set aside in the modern period. The obvious catalog would include, say, miracles, divine speaking, and even exorcism. Even though this is an attractive conclusion to reach, it is not accurate. It suggests that from the outset I was cooking the books in favor of a robust edition of Christian theology. In reality, my starting point was simply genuine curiosity about the numerous worries about divine action in place when I first took up work in the philosophy of religion.

In my early work, I focused on claims about divine inspiration and divine revelation, seeking to articulate and defend both these notions in the light of various objections. However, the more general worries about divine action as a whole were never far from the surface. Hence, in volume one I set out to find out why many philosophers and theologians were so defensive about divine action. Why the furrowed brows and hesitation? Moreover, given a longstanding interest in debates about the concept of action, I decided to stand back and see what light such debates might throw on the theological worries and claims about divine action. I planned at that point to write a single volume that would map the terrain and clean up the landscape; within a month the project had grown to no less than four volumes.

Put bluntly, volume one is a series of obituary notices arguing that debates about divine action from the 1950s assumed that we could have a precise conception of action modeled on a precise conception of knowledge. There was a philosophical and a theological version of this mistake. The philosophical mistake rested on the search for the necessary and sufficient conditions of action, say, as represented by intentionality. The theological version rested on the search for a general conception of divine providence. With these in hand we could then, it is said, focus on understanding particular or special acts of God by means of a doctrine of analogical predication.

Focusing on the first of these moves, I argued that, while there are sufficient conditions of action, there are no non-trivial necessary conditions. This is a radical thesis in terms of conceptual analysis that immediately demolishes the quest for the kind of precision beloved of certain kinds of analytic philosophy. However, even if this does not hold (a point I do not concede), any account of the necessary and sufficient conditions could never help us in understanding particular acts of God because it could not differentiate between particular acts of God. All acts of God would be seen, say, as intentional; but this is useless in sorting out the difference, say, between divine creation and divine incarnation. With this in hand, I then demonstrated how this observation showed up more or less in all the major treatments of divine action from Ian Crombie to Kathryn Tanner. Even William Alston, one of the finest analytic philosophers of his generation, faltered.

However, as I proceeded, two crucial insights began to emerge. First, the most attractive account of action applicable to divine action is available in the work on agent causation, a longstanding if contested account of action that flits across the history of philosophy. This opened up the gate for apt ways of thinking of explanation of divine actions, namely, the identification of relevant motives and reasons for particular acts of God. Second, it became clear, following the lead of one aspect of Austin Farrer’s work, that understanding divine actions meant understanding specific divine actions. It is no good speaking of divine action in general; we want to know what exactly has God done and why. But once this is on the table, we are doing theology proper. Philosophy can help map how we might go about understanding this or that divine action, but once we pinpoint the divine action under review, we are knee-deep in theology itself. Thus, the volume ended by a radical turn to theology proper.

Yet, we need to proceed with caution. The intellectual cramp theologians had developed about talk of divine action was not a mere intellectual operation; it touched our hearts and minds at a deeper level. Hence, there was a need to do a whole series of soundings in the tradition so as to get a feel for the commitments to the wide range of divine actions explored prior to the modern skepticism about particular or “special” divine action. Thus, volume two was an effort to think with and through the tradition. So, I explored the debates about divine action by taking stock of the claims, problems, and evidence presented by great figures of the past from Paul (on the wide range of specific claims advanced) to Louis de Molina (on the effort to think through the idea of concurrent divine action in salvation). Hence, I explored Origen and Irenaeus on inspiration, Athanasius on the incarnation, the Cappadocians on the action of the Holy Spirit, Augustine on grace and free will, Maximus on Christology, St. Symeon in divine action in the church’s ministry, Aquinas on transubstantiation, Teresa of Avila on divine locution, and Calvin on predestination. In itself this was an education in theology proper. It is fascinating to behold what specific actions troubled this or that theologian and why. Think of Paul’s effort to reconcile the divine action among the Gentiles to the covenant made with Abraham. Or, think of Aquinas inventing his own metaphysical position in order to secure a coherent doctrine of transubstantiation. Note again my intention: I wanted to be tutored by a lively, diverse network of premodern theologians who thought long and hard about specific cases of divine action.

While I sought to be historically informed on all of these issues, my interest was theological from top to bottom. I wanted to know what worries these figures entertained and sympathetically assess how they resolved them. The goal was to get outside the modern and postmodern worries that inhabited the air we all breathe and be confronted with a radically different enterprise than the one explored in volume one. Looking back, I discovered how much I owed to Maurice Wiles, with whom I worked at Oxford. Wiles moved deftly from exposition of classical themes to revisionary restatement. He was in retrospect a wonderful scholar and teacher, even though I found myself creating space for instances of divine action which he had jettisoned. I also rediscovered that my instincts on the relevance of agent causation were confirmed by this foray into premodern theologies. I was gradually coming to think of God first and foremost as an Agent, a position readily dismissed in some circles as a form of idolatry.

The first two volumes paved the way for volume three, that is, a single volume of systematic theology that would cover all the loci of the trade from God to eschatology. To be sure, virtually all my work to date fed into this endeavor: work on the philosophy of religion, the history and theology of evangelism, divine revelation, the logic of renewal, the debate about canon, the epistemology of theology, and Methodist Studies. However, divine agency and action are at the very heart of the enterprise in volume three. Theology is first and foremost about God, who God is and what he has done.

Yet this vision of systematic theology must be stated with care. For me, systematic theology is, first, a form of post-baptismal, university-level catechesis that assumes an understanding of the gospel as the inauguration of God’s kingdom in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. Second, systematic theology takes its bearings from the first great theologians of the church like Origen who effectively presupposed robust initiation into the life of the church and worked from the creeds of the early church. Third, while the volume inescapably deploys epistemological and metaphysical assumptions, its focus is resolutely on God and what God as done in creation and redemption. Finally, this focus, while it draws on the core claim of the early creeds, opens up terrain and topics that go beyond this material. Thus, while the classical loci arise from the content of the creeds, they of necessity demand that we fill in other topics, say, sin and sanctification, that go beyond the creeds. Hence there is a real difference between this enterprise and a commentary on the creedal material.

One crucial feature of the work deserves mention. Theologians in the modern period have fussed at length about the justification of their commitments. Hence, the long sections on divine revelation and authority of scripture that detain them at the beginning. As a result, God can become sidelined. We are so preoccupied with knowing how we know God that we cease to know God for ourselves. With Frederick Aquino, I solved this dilemma by the invention of the epistemology of theology (in The Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology) so that the worries about credibility could be moved elsewhere and get the philosophical attention they deserved. It is tiresome to read theologians on epistemology who have next to no clue what it is. I also took up this task in Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, and thereby stalled the objection that I was evading the crucial question of the truth or justification of theological claims. In addition, I tried to keep an eye on the relation between theological inquiry and spiritual formation, even though I insisted that theology needed to deploy a variety of methods (exposition, historical excavation, fruitful criticism and construction, and irenic defense) related to the subject in hand and the needs of the hour. The intended outcome is a clear, substantial, engaging articulation of the Christian faith that will serve the leadership of the church. One clear goal is to foster lasting love for God and neighbor.

As already noted, theologians inescapably deploy metaphysical resources in their work. So, volume four opens with a hearty defense of God as a mysterious, tri-personal Agent. The first two chapters explain what this means both in and of itself and in contrast to the Thomistic vision of God as Being. The goal is to become as clear as possible on the claim that conceptually and categorically God is best understood on analogy with agent causation. I have no illusions about the contested character of this claim. However, I am convinced that all other options (Process, Holy Mystery, Serendipitous Creativity, Being beyond Being, and the like) cannot do justice to the God of Israel and the God of Christian piety. In fact, I think they undermine a proper appreciation of the God of Israel. I then set out to tackle a ragbag of topics where I think that my work on divine agency and divine action can throw such light as will enable us to make progress for the future. Put conventionally, I set forth a theological research program focused on divine action and divine action and took some initial steps in executing that program. I hope others will take up this research agenda in the future.

This phase of my initial work seeks to solve once and for all the long-standing debate on the relation between grace and freedom. John Lucas of Oxford solved this problem a generation ago; my goal was to articulate afresh its central moves and their cogency. This problem and the failure to resolve it is a stone in the shoe of contemporary theology that needs to be removed. The prominence of this issue, often concealed behind a curtain of equivocation and mystery-mongering, was one of the deep surprises of my work as a whole. I am convinced that stone can and should be removed. Once it is removed, we can walk in genuine freedom into a new future. Most especially, we can take human action radically seriously as a theological theme that has long been treated with suspicion in Western theology.

Beyond that issue, I tackled a series of other problems where drawing on my work on divine agency and divine action can move the discussion forward. Think of a series of chapters where divine action is related to providence, baptism in the Spirit, the Eucharist, skepticism in the book of Exodus, the preferential option for the poor, sexist discourse, design in nature, history, the demonic, and Islam. Each of these chapters can stand on its own but they explore claims about divine action that are commonly made in theology. No doubt the list could be longer but sufficient unto the day are the troubles thereof.

As I look back, I find it amazing that I have been working on this project ever since I was an undergraduate and wrote an essay on the concept of action. I came across it recently when clearing out my library. We are looking at a stretch of fifty years. No doubt I shall continue to pick up loose ends as I move into a new phase of my life and work. At the moment I have turned to sorting out issues in political theology and to the writing of an intellectual biography of Basil Mitchell. Mitchell was one of the most important Christian philosophers of the twentieth century; his life and work, representing the offering of a saint and scholar, is of the highest order. Not only did he give me the chance to go to Oxford when I was ready; he was a superb teacher who cultivated the kind of intellectual independence that continues to animate my work. In the meantime, it is a joy to find those who have found my work illuminating and fruitful, even when they disagree deeply with what I have written.

Posted Dec 04, 2021