Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume I

Exploring and Evaluating the Debate

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William J. Abraham
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2018.
     288 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198786504.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

What good is God if God doesn’t actually do anything? 

This was—and perhaps remains—the greatest dilemma faced by theists since the rise of modernity. The Christian faith is no exception. It all depends upon a God who acts in history in a way that is knowable and meaningful. The trouble is, nobody today seems to know what this really means—especially since the “hard sciences” are now taking all the credit for what “happens” in the universe. 

William Abraham, in his two-volume series Divine Agency and Divine Action, attempts to dissect this philosophically loaded, pastorally sensitive, and theologically sophisticated subject without sacrificing anyone’s sanity. “We need to avoid mental cramp,” he encourages readers, “we need to keep our nerve and not allow the wide range of issues that crop up undermine our confidence” (13). 

After surveying introductory issues, Abraham frames the debate in terms of the rise and fall of the twentieth-century “Biblical Theology Movement.” What happened was that “…the Bible had been stripped of its theological content and reduced to a kaleidoscope of voices. This left the faithful bewildered and left the theologian with constantly contested results” (207). But the “great promise of the Biblical Theology Movement was that by linking revelation with the mighty acts of God in history it restored a theological dimension to the study of scripture” (207). Did this movement succeed? According to Abraham, not really. Some good came out of it; there must be something to the “mighty acts of God,” after all. But in the end, the entire debate on divine action has terminated in little more than “conceptual muddles and dead-ends” (209). 

The book chapters survey these failures—from Kathryn Tanner’s contributions on immanence/transcendence, to quantum uncertainty, process theology, Neo-Thomism, and other relevant developments. All of these proposals fall under the scalpel of Abraham’s criticism, some more harshly than others. Tanner’s proposals are perhaps the most useful, but ultimately “perpetuate a material set of theological proposals that should be called into question” (188). The Neo-Thomists inconsistently “toggles back and forth between denying and affirming human agency” largely because of the problem of evil (184). 

Abraham saves the long knives for the process theologians and quantum theorists. After a scathing critique, Abraham concludes that process theology creates more problems than it solves (135-40). And despite increasing popularity, it is “a serious intellectual disease” (142-45). The quantum theorists fare no better. After all, “theologians are so worried about getting kicked in the ditch by scientists that they readily jump into it to avoid such an indignity” (citing Bryan Wilson on 146). Abraham examines Robert Russell’s proposals in particular. Without acknowledging much good, the verdict is that the integration of quantum mechanics does “absolutely nothing to help us understand divine action in the context of biblical events” (159). Indeed, “special divine action will not be found lodged in the mysteries, gaps, and chaos of modern physics. It would be better to declare theology a bankrupt enterprise than to bail it out with quantum theory” (162). So much for “integrating science and faith,” this turn to science “reflects a massive failure of nerve on the part of the theologian…it is a form of intellectual suicide” (163). 

By the time readers reach the end of the volume, they are left feeling a bit hopeless and looking for answers. That is, of course, the point of the first volume. This drive to identify (manufacture?) a crisis (volume 1) in order deliver the goods (volume 2) does, however, feel superficial at times. At a thin 288 pages, the critiques can be clever and learned, but still lack a host of rich theological resources in contemporary theology. For Abraham, there seems to be no distinction between panentheism and process thought and everything in between (on the contrary, there is quite a bit of difference between Whitehead and Russel and the thought of McFague and Moltmann). If not outright ignored, anything even resembling process thought is quickly dressed up for judgment and then happily defenestrated. Outside this area, there are other concerns. Even competent and pastorally-grounded theologians who have written thoughtfully about this subject (something important for Abraham, see 51 and 85), such as William Placher, are nowhere to be found. 

For Abraham, speaking with a tone “from above” in the world of high theology, the whole discussion tends to be dominated by a select handful of authors from an elite class of academic theologians and philosophers. The constant reversion to the Biblical Theology Movement as the primary site for the debate can be helpful to ground the discussion, but might also confuse readers who have been following the divine action debate from outside this circle. Even within the “biblical theology” (and theological interpretation), Abraham sees nothing hopeful there (it is a “delusion,” 31)—but draws this conclusion without any engagement of some of the most interesting and recent developments on that front (e.g., the work of John Goldingay, N. T. Wright, and J. Richard Middleton).

It would be a grave mistake, however, to conclude that the book is in any way a bore. On the contrary, readers enter an unusually colorful (if not bizarre) world of metaphor and analogy. It is a world of carelessly mowing down overgrown beards and lawns (34), bursting with volcanoes and squirrels (42), and a bit of drinking at South Bend (52). At one moment, theologians are firing cannons at philosophers (52) and, at another, robbing their virginity in “a shotgun wedding” (13). By the end of the volume, the key players in the debate over divine action are portrayed as a rowdy, foul-smelling crowd “in an Irish pub before the Irish government introduced the ban on smoking” (205). In all my reading of theology, I’ve never laughed so hard. (I recommend the book for that reason if no other—though I highly doubt it was written for that purpose!). 

In the end, there exist serious problems in discourse about God’s action that must be dealt with. But readers will have to wait until volume 2 to see what better options there are.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin A. Hübner is Associate Professor of Christian Studies at John Witherspoon College.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William J. Abraham is the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies, and an Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. He is the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology (2017) and The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (2011).

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