How Can The Doctrine of Providence Be Used Today? A Redemptive Historical and Synergistic Doctrine of Providence

OK, the following is adapted from an early draft of an essay that I have been writing over the last few days. It is far from perfect, but it is an attempt to articulate some convictions that I have had on the subject of providence for some time, but which I have yet to see expressed to my satisfaction elsewhere. Any thoughts, comments, or constructive criticisms that any of you have would be greatly appreciated.

On the surface of things, the question of the manner in which the doctrine of providence might be ‘used’ may appear to be a strange one. Indeed, it could be argued that, of all doctrines, the doctrine of providence is the one that most encourages passivity and fatalism. In response to such charges, I will attempt to provide an account of the doctrine of providence that is both biblical and practical.

The goal of this post will be that of articulating a redemptive historical account of the doctrine of providence. By situating the doctrine in the context of broader biblical themes, I will endeavour to move beyond a merely formal account of providence towards an account in which the covenantal, personal and relational content of providence is presented with a greater degree of clarity. In the process, I will try to demonstrate the way in which such an account relieves certain of the difficulties that often attend doctrines of providence, most particularly in the areas of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom and the problems of sin and evil. Once I have presented this doctrine of providence I will conclude with more direct thoughts on how such a doctrine can be applied in a contemporary context.

A Redemptive Historical Doctrine of Providence
Perhaps one of the most surprising teachings within the biblical text is that which proclaims Christ to be the one by whose word the creation is brought into being, sustained and governed. The scandal of such a teaching is only fully recognized as we begin to see that the biblical texts that speak of this never lose sight of the humanity of Christ. It is the eschatological Man who stands at the helm of the cosmos. The implications of this truth for our doctrine of providence are not always appreciated. Re-evaluating providence in the light of Christ can grant us some startling new perspectives on the doctrine.

Historically, presentations of the doctrine of providence have tended to present the relationship between history and providence in a way that treats providence as if it were more or less constant and unchanging in its operations. Despite saying much that is of value, such treatments of providence seem to present the doctrine in far more formal a manner than the biblical text seems to be inviting us to. By the relationship that the Scripture draws between Christ and providence we are invited to conceive of providence as something that is not merely operational in guiding history from behind the scenes, but as the rule of God that develops as part of the action onstage. Providence does not merely act on and within history: providence itself has a history. The drama of history is not merely one sustained, governed and guided by providence, but is one that concerns the manner in which God’s rule over His creation changes over history’s course.

The relationship between Christ and providence also brings the issue of particularity to the surface. Divine presence and providence are most naturally conceived in primarily generic terms—God is primarily present and active in His creation in general and only secondarily in a particular way in one place or another. The particularity of Christ challenges us to invert this relationship, giving conceptual priority to the particular presence and action of God, out of which we come to understand His more general presence. Our understanding of God’s preservation and rule of His creation must begin with God’s proper presence in Christ and special presence in the Church.

Christ also gives a personal face to providence. Whilst the operations of providence are frequently hidden from our sight, the providential God is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ the telos of providence—the gathering together of all things in Him—is also an open secret. Once this has been appreciated, the inscrutability of providence need not be regarded as a threat.

The humanity of the face of providence is especially significant and it is the implications of this dimension of a Christological doctrine of providence that we will now turn to explore. Christ, by whose word the creation is sustained and governed, is neither the Logos asarkos nor just a generic human being. He is the eschatological Man—the Last Adam. He is the one in whom human nature is perfected and glorified.

Colin Gunton helpfully observes that the creation is best thought of as a ‘project’ directed towards an eschatological end. Providence is that which enables the creation to achieve the ends for which it was created. The original creation was good, but imperfect. It was the imperfection of the creation that made the Fall of Adam a possibility. In Christ, the human story that went wrong in Adam is recapitulated and reordered towards its proper end, the eschatological telos of the human story being realized in Him.

The History of Providence
The fact that Christ exercises providence as the Last Adam suggests that the exercising of providence was an integral element of the eschatological goal for which man was first created. The creation account of Genesis 1-2 supports this claim; God created mankind to be His vicegerents over creation and granted them dominion over the rest of the animate world. By creating mankind as the imago dei God set humanity apart as having a ‘peculiar responsibility for bearing divine presence and carrying out the divine will.’ God’s intention was for His rule over creation to be worked out through humanity.

Taking this as our starting point, we can read the biblical narrative as the account of God’s maturation of humanity and of His bringing humanity into ever-greater measures of rule. God trains humanity to share in His rule over creation. As man grows in wisdom, understanding and virtue, God grants him a greater realm of government.

The biblical narrative begins with a naked Adam being placed in the Garden of Eden in order to dress and keep it. Man is not yet active within the land of Eden, let alone the wider world. In Genesis 2:10-14 we are told of the riches of the land and of the wider world, with which Adam would presumably progressively glorify the garden. The creation was originally placed under the rule of angels. Mankind itself was under the tutelage and government of the angels, until the time would come when they would inherit the rule of the creation. Through the training of the angels, man would be prepared for the future expansion of his rule.

In the light of this, we could interpret the role of the serpent in Genesis 3 as that of being mankind’s tutor. The serpent is wise and is to instruct humanity, until mankind is mature enough to enter into a greater degree of rule. The prohibition on the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was temporary. The Fall was a premature grasping for rule that man was yet unprepared for. The claim that the prohibition on the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was temporary and probationary is amply supported by the rest of the biblical text, where the knowledge of good and evil is presented as something that is possessed by the wise ruler and is associated with kingship and rule (cf. 2 Samuel 14:17; 1 Kings 3:7-9; Hebrews 5:14). The knowledge of good and evil is the ability to rule and pass wise judgments within the wider world, beyond the ‘kindergarten’ of Eden.

Over the course of redemptive history we see a progressive growth of man’s authority and rule over the creation. The growth of man’s rule can be seen in such things as the garments that he is permitted to wear, in the progressive expansion of areas of holiness, in the things that he is permitted to eat and in the increasing glory of his environment. As men mature under the old covenant they become increasingly like their angelic tutors. Priests guard the Holy Place just like angels; kings wisely govern the land like angels (cf. 2 Samuel 14:17, 20; 19:27); prophets participate in the divine council along with the angels, making judgments concerning kingdoms in the wider world, participating in the exercise of God’s rule to the ends of the earth (cf. Jeremiah 1:10).

By the end of the biblical narrative we see the fullness of the Image of God realized in the Totus Christus. As this fullness is realized we see the creation flooded with the presence of God and all things placed under Christ’s feet. The world to come is subjected to humanity in Christ, rather than to the angels (Hebrews 2:5ff.). The saints will participate in the judgment and authority of Christ as His body (1 Corinthians 6:3). The rule of Christ is comprehensive and supreme and is the full realization of the telos for which humanity was created.

A Synergistic Doctrine of Providence
Such a narration of the history of providence can ease some of the difficulties that arise in the area of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. The history of providence that I have narrated above is one in which the human will is progressively matured and gradually brought into the full realization of its freedom. On this account one could argue that the full flowering of the human will’s freedom is nothing less than providence’s greatest goal.

What is the will and what does it mean for it to be free? Maximus the Confessor’s thought on the subject of the human will developed in the context of the Monothelite controversy. In common with Augustine, Maximus ‘opposed a model of free will as a reserve of autonomy cut off from God and the world in favour of an understanding in which it is ‘always already’ related to both.’

For Maximus human beings are characterized by self-determination, the ‘unhindered willing of a rational soul towards whatever it wishes.’ God created mankind with a natural will. This natural will is a function of man’s nature and is ordered towards God and the good. It is irreducible to instinct, as it is also related to man’s rationality. Man’s will is irresistibly moved towards real and apparent goods.

This natural will is hypostatically expressed in a particular mode of operation, seen in the way that we live out our nature as particular persons. Maximus terms this the ‘gnomic will’. The relationship between the natural and gnomic will is akin to the relationship between ‘the power of sight and the mode of perception’. The gnomic will is characteristic of the exercise of the human will within the limitations of time and is characterized by deliberation, uncertainty, misapprehension of the good and, following the Fall, a set inclination towards evil. This is the case because as limited creatures we fail fully to apprehend the telos of our natures. It is also the case since the Fall makes our natures opaque to us.

For Maximus, the freedom of the will consists ‘in the turning of a rational being towards the natural objects of its desire.’ Far from being constitutive of the freedom of human freedom, deliberation is a result of the will’s weakness—its sinfulness and imperfection (to return to Irenaean categories). The state of being caught between decisions is a sign of the will’s inability to truly apprehend the good and is a sapping of the will’s strength.

Much of the difficulty that we experience in relating the freedom of the will to divine sovereignty arises from the redefinition of the will that has occurred in the modern era. Popular modern definitions of the will tend to locate freedom in the arbitrary exercise of control over our nature, rather than in the liberation and realization of our natures. The location of the freedom of the will in the freedom of choice is an error arising from the failure to appreciate that such choice is generally an imperfection.

The true significance of dythelitism is that is allows for the full ‘deification’ of the human will. Maximus’ formulation allows for the co-existence of a divine and human will in Christ, apart from opposition or coercion. Once the possibility of such a relationship is appreciated the tension between the divine and the human will in general is considerably relaxed, for the realization of the full freedom of the human will is quite compatible with the freedom of the divine will.

This claim is further supported by the fact that freedom is something bestowed upon us by the ‘other’, who enables a movement beyond the self. The person who is freed from all relationships is profoundly unfree; it is only through relationships that we are able to arrive at a clear apprehension and the possibility of a realization of the good. Freedom is not innate. We may be suited for freedom, but no man is free until he is brought to participate in a freedom of relationship. A feral child may run ‘free’, but he does not know the true freedom that comes as one learns to walk upright and speak and relate to other people. The truly free person is the person who is brought into the freedom of relationship. Such freedom is shared, but it is not symmetrically shared by the different parties within the relationship. We participate in the freedom that flows from others. God opens possibilities for us that would never have apart from Him. Our freedom is always God’s freedom, which we share in. People like to think that freedom is the absence of rules and autonomy, but true freedom is always gained by the internalization of law in relationship. The freedom of the gifted pianist on his instrument is not an innate freedom; rather, it is a freedom learned through engagement, relationship and subjection of the will to outside constraints.

René Girard observes that mimetic desire is intrinsically good, claiming that

If our desires were not mimetic, they would be forever fixed on predetermined objects; they would be a particular form of instinct. Human beings could no more change their desire than cows their appetite for grass. Without mimetic desire there would be neither freedom nor humanity. Mimetic desire is intrinsically good.

Far from being the threat to freedom that many regard them to be, structured relationships and imitation of others are the foundation of true freedom.

‘Choice’ should be distinguished from voluntarily adopting one course of action when we could have adopted others. The latter is constitutive of true freedom; the former is not. The fluent expressiveness of the improvising musician, who does not have to hesitate to decide which note should come next is an example of genuine freedom. It is to such freedom that God is leading us. The musician has such a clear apprehension of what constitutes good improvisation that his improvisation is not so much a ‘choice’ between alternatives as a natural (but not necessary) expression, apart from the need for choice. Whilst he could certainly have done things differently and achieved results that were no less perfect, the way that he has followed was not followed as the result of a choice between alternatives, but as a matter of genuinely free expression. Choice is only necessary when we lack a clear apprehension of the good.

Human freedom is not necessarily tied to the struggle against sin. Presentations of freedom that focus on the choice between good and evil lead us to wonder whether freedom fades away in the absence of sin. By treating the freedom of the will in the context of Christ’s Gethsemane prayer, Maximus provides us with a way to move beyond this impasse. McFarland writes:

The process whereby grace is victorious in this life involves real fear and real pain—but without sin. In this way the movement of grace in and by which a person becomes most himself has genuine drama, but at its heart is not the problem of sin and the question of whether to follow God’s will (in which grace and the will are conceived as operating over against each other), but of how to follow it (in which God transforms a generic humanity into a particular human destiny). Such reading of the agony of the garden checks concerns about grace undermining the freedom of the will by providing a narrative in which human life, freed from sin and moved by grace, retains all the ingredients of a true adventure.

Such synergism is akin to a dance in which the Holy Spirit as the leading partner leads us towards the realization of the fullness of our particular personhood as a creative realization of the telos of our human nature. This leading of the Holy Spirit is God’s vocation. Both the Holy Spirit and the human will are active, but they are not competing.

Leithart writes:

Further, Hanby argues, “Since creation is an act of utter gratuity which does not merely impose a hylomorphic form on a passive ‘substrate’ by immanent force, but brings being out of nothing, this ‘causal’ activity is manifest in the creature as effect, precisely in the creature’s own actuality and activity. Consequently, a strict dichotomy of action and passion—the precondition for the Pelagian opposition to Augustinian grace—will simply have no place here.”

We can think of this in Thomistic terms: For anything to be, it must be in act, actualized; when God created the world, He didn’t move unactualized matter to actualization, but brought things into actualization from nothing. Thus, the effect of God’s creative act is the act, the in-act-ness, of the creature.

Relating all of this to our discussion of providence, we can see that God progressively matures the human will in order that it might arrive at a deeper apprehension of the good. As the will gains deeper discernment of the good, man will be brought into ever deeper participation in God’s poetic activity in creation, through the inspiration of the Spirit. In Christ we see the human will perfected in synergy with the divine will. In Christ we see the human will fully involved in God’s providential rule over His creation. This is the foundation for a synergistic doctrine of providence, in which man is created in order that he might become God’s co-worker (2 Corinthians 5:21—6:1).

Divine Freedom and Providence
Most of the questions that attend the doctrine of providence have to do with the character of divine freedom, the supposed threat that it poses to human freedom and the relation that it bears to the presence of sin and evil in the world. Some of our previous considerations regarding the freedom of the will are helpful here.

The recognition that true freedom dispenses with the need for choice illuminates certain of the problematic areas of divine freedom immensely. The world that God creates and the terrestrial drama that He sustains are neither necessary nor an arbitrary choice between possible worlds. Rather they are a fitting display of His glory. God’s creation of the world is an expression of His artistic freedom and no place is given for us to wonder whether He could have made it better.

Problems arise when we think of creation and providence as operating according to a choice between possible options, whether conceived of as arbitrary or necessary (the claim that we live in the ‘best’ of all ‘possible worlds’). The notion of a decree predetermining all of history’s contingencies seems to be related to such a conception of the divine freedom. In reality, God’s creation and providence involves no choice between possible worlds or courses of action. Consequently, it would be far more helpful to dispense with the idea of a divine decree underlying all of the events of history and simply see all as an expression of God’s poetic freedom.

This is the appropriate answer to the question of why some of God’s creatures will end up in hell or to questions about the existence of evil. This wasn’t merely an arbitrary choice between possible worlds on God’s part. Nor, however, was it that God thought that this was the best way to go about things (sending humans to hell allows God to demonstrate His justice, etc., etc.). God simply did things this way as an act of creative freedom and as a fitting and beautiful expression of His glory.

The notion of a prior decree seems to undermine creaturely freedom and threatens to reduce all to an emanation of the divine will. Berkouwer claims:

The word “decree” causes this misunderstanding whenever it is interpreted out of its context in Scripture. It is then interpreted as a decree which was pronounced in our absence, in which we were not really involved, and which, therefore, does not come forth out of divine love for us. Bavinck has protested against this interpretation according to which the counsel of God “is as a design which lies ready and waits only to be executed,” He denies that God’s counsel can be described as “an act of God in the past,” and he calls that counsel “an eternal act of God, finished from eternity and continuing from eternity, apart from and beyond time.”

When we dispense with the idea of a comprehensive prior decree, pre-scripting all of the drama of history, the way is open for us to understand God’s poetic work in creation as something that we genuinely cooperate with and to regard the future as genuinely open from our perspective within history. However, this need not entail a reduction of creaturely freedom into pure autonomy, for we only move as God moves us by grace.

God’s determination of the course of history does not demand a choice preceding His action. His determination of the course is found in the action itself. However, God’s action in determining the course of history is, as observed in the Leithart quote above, manifested in and through the action of the creature. The two operate together: God’s determination of the exact shape of the future is achieved through the determination of our wills and does not exist temporally prior to the action of our wills. History is not merely a print-out of something that has been exhaustively determined by a prior eternal decree, where everything has its set place. Rather history is a dance, created and sustained by the God who acts from eternity. Within this dance we are genuine participants, willingly moving as we are moved by the Holy Spirit.

How might such an approach shed light on the problem of evil? If we reject the idea of a prior divine choice in our absence concerning our actions, we are able to do far greater justice to the presence and operation of wills other than God’s in the world. Man does not sin because God has chosen that he should sin. Once we appreciate the account of free will as outlined above we should be able to recognize that this does not mean that God is absolutely unwilling that man should sin or that He merely grants it a bare permission. However, our understanding of freedom can free us from the idea that sin is a necessary presence in the world, either according to prior divine decree or as a result of divine impotence. God permits sin through His divine poetic expression, a poetry in which His infinite freedom grants the finite freedom of His creatures to play a part (although I do not believe that our finite freedom is purely autonomous, it is distinct from the will of God Himself), even when those creatures prove to be rebellious. To probe any deeper than this is unhelpful.

There is no warrant to regard sin as part of God’s ‘purpose’. To regard sin in such a manner is to grant sin a necessity that it does not necessarily possess. In a freely created work of art, all elements should belong together, but one cannot say that there is only one way of going about things. I believe that there is good reason to regard the presence of evil in the world as ‘accidental’. Its presence is to be attributed to God’s artistic freedom and not to a ‘purpose’ or determination that a world with sin would be better than a world without it.

The Use of the Doctrine of Providence
Having presented a brief sketch of some of the aspects of a redemptive historical and synergistic doctrine of providence, I will now move to a discussion of the manner in which such a doctrine can shape our action.

Cruciform Providence
Once we refocus our doctrine of providence upon God’s proper presence in Christ and special presence in the Church nature/grace and creation/redemption tensions can be considerably relaxed. Refocusing the doctrine in this way also allows us to move beyond reflection on the bare fact of providence, to a clearer reflection on the shape and character of divine providence. If divine providence is most clearly revealed in Christ and His body then many common notions of divine sovereignty are challenged.

The sovereignty of Christ is a cruciform sovereignty, a sovereignty exercised by means of the cross. It is by the cross that evil is defeated and the creation is reordered to its telos. God’s providence and sovereignty are realized through weakness and humility. Such truths should disabuse us of the many sub-Christian notions of sovereignty and rule that we possess and should work out in our relationships with others.

Human Providence
By God’s grace in Christ and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we have been given to share in His providential rule of His creation. We are called to bring the creation under the rule of Christ. This task will be performed as we act as the cruciform community. As we live out of the death of Christ we will be raised up and will share in His authority.

We are empowered for the task of exercising providence by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. The Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, constituting us as His body. The one Gift of the Holy Spirit is re-presented to the body by the various gifts of its members. Each member of the Church has a unique vocation and role to play in exercising the rule of Christ. These vocations are profoundly personalizing. God graces us to become ever more individual in our Spirit-led service of the community. As we mature in our vocations we become increasingly active as co-workers of God.

I do not believe that we should be reluctant to observe an analogy between the anthropomorphic descriptions of God’s activity within the world in the OT (God’s hands, God’s eyes, etc.) and the role that we are called to play as the ‘body’ of Christ (thanks to Dennis for this observation). We can serve as the ‘eyes’ of God that see the distressed; ours are the ‘hands’ of God that welcome the outcast.

Providence, far from encouraging fatalism, can be interpreted as a gracious invitation to participate in God’s action. We can participate in God’s providential activity with confidence, as we are assured that God’s activity will ultimately prove to be successful. Despite all of the resistance that we face in the present, our efforts will never be finally frustrated. Our labour in the Lord is never in vain. The fact that God sets us apart as His chosen instruments is a fact that can be of incredible comfort when we face opposition. God could achieve His purposes without us, but He generally achieves them by means of us. It is both a profound challenge and a powerful reassurance to know that God might have brought us to our present situation ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:13-14).

Doxological Application
The beauty of God’s providence is that, although He has no need for our help, He graciously makes us participants in His sovereign rule. This should lead to a response of profound gratitude on our part and should deeply humble us. Such a posture before God will enrich our worship. Furthermore, a recognition of the numerous ways in which God preserves and upholds our lives by His gracious providence should case us to respond in thanksgiving and lead us to filial fear.

The more that we become God’s co-workers, the more aware we will be of our dependence upon Him and will realize that we are completely out of our depth without Him. Synergistic providence ought to lead to our growth in faith and dependence.

Providence and Evil
As we grasp the relationship between God’s will and evil as outlined above we will be saved from either regarding evil as beyond God’s control or as God’s positive choice and purpose. Evil will always be frustrated in its attempt to realize its final ends as the operations of evil are always limited by the fact that they exist within the drama that is sustained and directed by God.

On the other hand, once we have dispensed with the idea of a prior choice of a world with sin in it and see the presence of sin merely as a result of a particular expression of the divine poetry, the otherness of sinful wills from the will of God is more clearly maintained. This helps us to resist the tendency manifested in certain circles to attribute everything that occurs to the choice of God and makes it easier for us to regard sin and evil as enemies. [‘Natural’ evils might well be harder to account for than sin. It seems to me that the Scripture suggests that certain natural disasters can be attributed to demonic activity.]

When all is regarded as a product of the divine choice, there is a tendency to become inactive and see the appropriate response to God as merely being one of passive acceptance and submission. The form of providence explored above challenges us to tackle evil and sin proactively, wrestling with God in prayer and engaging in activity in the creation. It is God’s purpose that the victory over evil in the creation will be one in which redeemed humanity in Christ truly participates (Romans 8:17ff.).

Prayer is perhaps the most significant area in which we can apply our doctrine of providence. The reality of divine providence assures us of God’s omnipotent power and of His will to ensure that creation achieves the ends for which it was created. The doctrine of providence also teaches us that God wishes us to participate in His providential governance of the creation. Prayer is one of the chief means by which we can do this.

Prayer must have Christological foundations: we have access to God in Christ, and as our hearts are conformed to His. In Christ we are permitted to participate in God’s council. We are privy to God’s purposes and we are permitted to share in the shaping of God’s activity in the creation. As our wills are matured in union with Christ and we grow in discernment, through prayer we can enter into real dialogue with God and be part of the process of God’s creative shaping of the future. It is prayer in particular that opens up the future to us.

In this post I have sought to explore the doctrine of providence, demonstrating the manner in which it can be used within the Church today. I have endeavoured to reveal the practical value of providence and to prove that, far from the impractical and fatalistic doctrine that many present it to be, providence is in fact the doctrine that most impels us to action.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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17 Responses to How Can The Doctrine of Providence Be Used Today? A Redemptive Historical and Synergistic Doctrine of Providence

  1. Pingback:» Blog Archive » Providence

  2. Seth says:

    What a great first post to inaugurate your return to blogging!

    Your essay dovetails perfectly with some thinking and writing I’ve been doing (for a PhD in English of all things!), so I’m incredibly excited to see that folks in theology are working on the problem of agency from this perspective–much too excited in fact to read it critically, at the moment. I think there is some kind of deep, culture-wide paradigm shift in the works.

    I’ve also become a big fan of James Jordan and Peter Leithart in the last few months, so seeing the connection with them was the icing on the cake. Thanks!

    If you would like to see some of my writing on this subject (including a bibliography) please email me.



  3. Seth says:

    For some reason, my email doesn’t appear to have shown up on my post. It’s


  4. Al says:

    Thanks for the offer, Seth; I would very much like to see some of your writing on the subject. My e-mail address is

    P.S. E-mails don’t show up on comments. However, I can see them when I look at the comments that I have received in my blog editor.

  5. garver says:

    I don’t know if I should read this post or not. After a forced fast from your blogging, Al, this might be too rich for me. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Sacred Journey » Blog Archive » Divine Providence as the Poetry of God

  7. Chris Williams says:

    Alastair, this was absolutely gorgeous. I usually rush reading blog posts but I’m glad I took my time with this one.

  8. WTM says:

    This is, indeed, a provocative essay. Doctrines such as providence, concursus, etc., are of particular interest to me as well, and I am pleased to see that you are doing such careful work in these areas.

    I don’t have anything of particular import to say other than that I find your treatment of the biblical narrative as the progressive maturation of humanity to be quite interesting. But, I am interested in hearing a little more about sin in this respect. Is sin, then, something of an “immaturity?” A “childish thing” to be “put away” when one reaches adulthood, to allude to the Apostle Paul? Would this give you a line of understanding the presence of sin in the traditional location of the Eden / Serpent pericope without sacrificing your reading?

    Again, well done!

  9. Al says:


    You ask about sin. Sin is only possible due to the immaturity of man’s will. The will is naturally driven to real and apparent goods. A will that had matured to the level that it could properly perceive the good would be incapable of sinning as it would not will against the good of human nature, which finds its perfection in fellowship with God.

    The inability to sin is a perfection of the freedom of the will as it is only the immature will that can misapprehend its proper object. This helps us to understand the sinless state of the glorified saints. The glorified saints are not merely preserved from sin by means of some external power of God exercised upon them, but by the self-determination of their own wills. This is one area where such an account of the will really comes into its own; an account of the will that focuses on choice will have trouble understanding how the state of the glorified saints is truly one in which the will is free when the choice to sin is a dead one.

    Sin, inasmuch as it is a privation of the good, is only possible in an immature state, where the good is not completely apprehended. Sin is an impossibility for God.

    I think that distinctions between an immature state and a perverted state of the will are important. The will can be immature with being sinful. The will can undergo a negative ‘maturing’ process, hardening against its true object. This is what happens in the case of sin. This can be observed in the way that the wicked find their wills drawing them with ever greater consistency towards death.

    I am not sure entirely what to make of this ‘inversion’ of the will’s maturing process. Is a ‘perfect inversion’ a possibility? I am inclined to say that it will not persist into the state of final damnation and that the eternally reprobate have their perception opened to see the true object of the human will and experience unending self-loathing as a result. This will be at the heart of their torment.

    With regard to your question concerning Eden, I am not entirely sure that I understand exactly what it is that you are asking, so I am not sure that the following comments really answer it (they largely reiterate points that I made within the post itself). My basic position is that mankind in Eden was in a state of immaturity — good but not yet perfect. God’s creation of a world that was designed to be matured over time was a creation of a world for which sin was a possibility, but not a necessity. Satan and Adam could fall because their wills were not yet perfected. The right to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil awaited a later stage in the process of the divine perfection of man’s will. I point out some of the important biblical allusions to this concept in my post.

  10. WTM says:

    The thrust of my comment was this: How do you maintain a notion of the “fall,” as generally deduced from the Eden / Serpent narrative, under this new conception of sin? I was after your thoughts on sin as immaturity in relation to this, some of which you have given me, and I must say that they are quite interesting. Are you reading anyone in particular who gets at this sort of notion?

  11. Al says:


    I believe that it is important to start with a recognition that sin is not to be equated with immaturity. A will that does not clearly apprehend the good is not the same as a will that is set against the good. Immaturity is thus the precondition for the possibility of sin, but immaturity does not necessarily entail sin. The immaturity of God’s creation was ‘good’, much as an infant is good. However, were an infant never to grow up or to grow up in a twisted fashion that is no longer good.

    Reading the biblical narrative as one in which God is progressively bringing mankind to maturity we can see the Fall as a backward turn away from God and a rejection of the true telos of human nature, leading to a fundamental disorder of man’s will. Following the Fall man’s nature becomes increasingly opaque to himself and he is trapped within set inclinations in his mode of willing that run entirely contrary to the good of his nature. He ends up seeking the very things that lead to his unhappiness.

    Sin, therefore, takes the state of immaturity as its occasion. However, sin goes on to produce its own ‘maturation process’ that is a distorted mockery of the true maturation process whereby God brings the will into the fulness of freedom.

    Am I reading anyone in particular on this subject? My thinking on the idea of history as the progressive maturation of humanity has been formed particularly by the various writings of James Jordan, who is far and away the most stimulating writer on this subject, in my estimation. Treatments of creation in terms of maturation can also be found in early writers such as Irenaeus. It is also found in a number of more recent writers (Douglas Knight’s recent book, The Eschatological Economy being one example). The material on the will is not from Jordan, but is shaped by Maximus and others. I am not aware of any theologians who really go to great lengths to try to put all of these pieces together, but there are a lot of pieces out there that are not really that hard to co-ordinate.

    I have dealt with the subject of maturation previously on this blog, in the context of a number of different debates. For example, here I connect it with the doctrine of election and here I relate it to the issue of biblical authority and interpretation.

  12. Pingback: alastair.adversaria » Brueggemann on the Loss of Lament

  13. Corrie-Beth says:

    Hi Alastair,
    Is sin, then, a possibility, though not a necessity, for all of us? What exactly happened when Adam and Eve rejected the true telos of their natures in favor of their own childish desires that made it impossible for their offspring to mature without the necessity of sin? Or do you reject the idea of “original sin” and its subsequent curse on humanity?


    • Thanks for the comment, Corrie-Beth. Let me preface my response by making clear that this post is almost seven years old: without reading through it again, I cannot determine whether I now agree with everything that I wrote above. Although I suspect that I largely agree with my comments as stated, my views have developed in various ways.

      In brief answer to your questions. A lot depends upon the sense in which you are using the term ‘necessity’, I suspect. There are many forms of necessity. I hold to a doctrine of original sin and believe in the existence of a curse. I believe that the Fall separated us from fellowship with God, the telos of humanity in the created order. As that relationship is severed, all else starts to unravel. Every person born into the world is born into a broken network of relationships, stemming from the primary broken relationship between humanity and God. Our own natures and desires are compromised in every part. Humanity is a glorious ruin, still bearing many marks of what it once was and what it was intended to become, but in no part is it undamaged. In this sense, sin is more than just a possibility for us: it is a reality that will always be present in our lives.

      What we have since the Fall is a maturation of evil in humanity and human society, not only of good. Adam set humanity off on a path of twisted maturation. We sometimes make the error of reading the Fall account in Genesis 3 by itself: it should be read with the chapters that follow, within which the sin introduced into the world through the serpent and Adam spreads and starts to infect all forms of relationship, realms of human activity, and sorts of persons.

      Not sure whether this is answering your question or not. Feel free to follow-up!

  14. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

  15. David Jekel says:


    This is great post, and so I want to comment on it even though it is very old (after all, we still comment on the works of Plato even though they are very old, and he has probably changed many of his beliefs since he died).

    Your emphasis on God and man’s rule and man’s maturation is Biblical. However, as a Calvinist, I would call this idea “the kingdom of God” rather than “providence,” and I think the idea that God has planned history is Biblical. God ordains and plans things “before the foundation of the world,” and Psalm 139 says God had written down all the days that were formed for David before they happened. However, Calvinists and other people who think too much (“humankind cannot bear very much reality” says Eliot) overemphasize the idea of God as a planner, and with their noses to the ground sniff out its implications to the furthest corners of the universe. Discussions of predestination and free will too often leave out the redemptive-historical perspective, which is more emphasized in the Bible.

    I don’t take the idea of “before the foundation of the world” in a strictly temporal sense. Time is part of creation, and God transcends time. This is not explicitly stated in the Bible, but many Christian thinkers conclude so from the descriptions of his eternality and transcendence. For a similar example, I take “Christ was begotten of his Father before all worlds,” not in reference to a specific event in prehistory (as in Milton’s Paradise Lost), but as an expression of the fundamental and eternal relationship that exists between the Father and the Son (as in Lewis’s Mere Christianity, unless I’m mistaken).

    If this is the case, then God’s determination of history also transcends time. We are temporal beings and cannot understand this, so we conceive of God both as planning history “before” it happens and as responding in time to our actions. Neither of these ideas fully captures the reality; both are flattenings of God onto the temporal axis. This is precisely why they can both be true at the same time.

    In artistic terms, God can be both a planner and an improviser. Most art forms involve both planning and improvisation, and it varies from one to another. An architect, for instance, lives almost entirely in the spatial dimensions. There are temporal processes involved: Building occurs in time, and the architect also considers what will happen as people walk through the structure. But both these are to a large degree functions of space. By contrast, dancing (if it is not choreographed) is almost entirely improvised, with each move planned a fraction of a second before it happens. Novel-writing is somewhere in between. In some cases, we want to improvise and we view planning as a crutch or imperfection in our technique, but in others, planning is the default mode of composition. Both modes are different pictures of God’s artistic acts of creation.

    However, since God was the one who invented time and bound himself to time in the incarnation (and permeates all of history, not statically but dynamically), he certainly loves spontaneity, and one of the best analogies for the God the artist is the storyteller.

    Still, it is hard to decide what form of art is the best or most appealing. Not only does the answer vary from person to person, but there are many different kinds of excellence, so that the same person may give multiple answers or be unable to decide. The same is true when comparing two different works of art in the same medium. So the question of which possible universe was best for God to create is not only the wrong question, as you observe, but the concept is not even well-defined.

    As you say, God’s motivation for creating the world and history the way he does is artistic, not ethical. God did not create the world the way he did out of a sense of moral obligation to do the most possible good to his creatures! This is both upside-down and backwards, inverting the creator-creature hierarchy and reversing the natural order of causation. The creature’s “rights” and their very existence depend on God’s creative work, so making their “rights” and existence influence his creative work is circular.

    I think seeing God’s creation and providence in artistic terms will not eliminate the relational difficulties people have with hell, but may give a deeper appreciation of its rightness. Logically, we can justify hell based on human choice, but the very notion of eternal punishment can be hard to swallow and strike us as unfair even if we are convinced it is just. As a planner, God can appear sinister and malevolent when he determines that people will go to hell, but if we see him as improvising, he can seem careless about the creatures since he either “does not think” about the consequences of his and their actions or “decides on the spur of the moment” to allow them to perish.

    The idea that punishment (even just punishment) can be a form of art seems repulsive, but it is true. Poetic justice is satisfying. Can we deny that Paul’s description of the consequences of sin in Romans 1 has an artistic touch? Since humans turned their minds away from God, he punished them by allowing them to debase their own minds. They perverted divine and human relationships, and God allowed them to do so, and the spiritual perversion was expressed physically (which also occurs many of Dante’s punishments). By beholding and worshiping God we become like him, but by worshiping animals and demons we become bestial and even demonic. In Dante’s Hell and Lewis’s Great Divorce, sinners are punished both by continuing to act the way they did in life and by getting a taste of their own medicine. See also Proverbs 26:27, Psalm 7:15, Psalm 57:6. And one could make a case for Genesis 3.

    This idea of punishment seems profoundly right and in harmony with both my artistic sense and experience of human nature. Even now sin affects people this way. Corruption of the soul is a punishment in itself, and the flaws which are most pronounced in us are also the ones which most annoy us in others. Sin corrupts relationships and therefore produces a recoil. The principle applies not only to punishment, but also to purgation (as in Dante’s Purgatory). When we experience the consequences of our sins now, we are driven to repent and repair the good things we marred.

    David Jekel

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