Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume II

Soundings in the Christian Tradition

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William J. Abraham
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198786511.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The stated goal of William Abraham’s series Divine Agency and Divine Action is to burst out of a “mental cramp” that so frequently paralyzes discourse about God’s action. After all, “If a theologian does not think that attributing the free actions of human agents to God is a problem then we need to have a recall and bring them back to school until they do” (5). How, then, can one move forward?

The second volume takes up this task by providing eleven quick soundings in classic Christian theology intended to dislodge this contemporary paralysis and hopefully put the church on a better track. These eleven chapters look at issues of divine agency and action in the Apostle Paul, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Symeon, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, John Calvin, and Luis de Molina. (The second chapter also addresses the divine inspiration of scripture as another case study not connected with any one figure.) 

Abraham looks at different topics within each of these case studies. For example, Aquinas addresses divine action and agency in the Eucharist; for Calvin, through predestination; and so on. Readers quickly become aware that the divine action/agency topic is anything but new, and many have struggled with it centuries before our time. In this way, Abraham projects a kaleidoscope of sometimes forgotten corners of the Christian tradition that are more advanced and thoughtful than contemporary thinkers may appreciate.

While this reliance on the past is a strength of the book, one does wonder if it is really an effective route, given the specific criticisms of the first volume. If readers are looking to appreciate the topic of divine agency/action in the Western, Christian intellectual tradition, then they have found it. But if they are looking for a true follow-up to the first volume that, for example, actually deals with “special divine action” or “miracles” in concrete biblical contexts, connects ancient tradition with proposals of those of the last century, or connects a conceptual framework of “special divine action” or “miracles” that actually gave rise to Christianity in the first place, then this book definitely falls short. 

As Abraham himself noted in the first volume, the topic matter at hand is complicated enough. One therefore wonders why some of the most sophisticated and controversial subjects in Christian theology are appealed to (incarnation, inspiration of scripture, sacraments, etc.) as a lens to sort things out. I just can’t imagine non-specialized readers coming away with a clearer sense of the topic instead of a foggier one. It would have been far easier to take an actual claim of divine action from the Jewish-Christian world—like that “God acted” in the Exodus event—and explore what this meant and what significance it came to have in the worshipping community. Instead, readers must trudge through a series of mostly off-topic or overly complicated subjects from the first century to the Reformation on the way to … well, we don’t know. After the case studies, the book simply ends with a short epilogue, erecting signposts for specialists on the subject that point this way and that. It’s not that the book isn’t thoughtful or well-written. But it seems its entire purpose and ethos could be identified by simply saying “forget everything on this subject in the last few centuries; read dead theologians.” 

There would be nothing wrong with this (often valid) counsel if the premises were true, namely, that what has been written on this subject in the last three centuries is generally useless. But it is at that point that one encounters strange ironies. Athanasius speaks of God “illuminating all things visible and invisible, containing and enclosing them in himself” (51), and Basil says of the Spirit, “His powers are manifold: they are wholly present everywhere and in everything” (67). Presumably, readers are forbidden from making anything of these explicit observations even if they may be extremely insightful. Why? Because they too closely resemble the “serious intellectual disease” of 20th century panentheism and/or process thought (1:142-45), and Abraham has determined in advance that all of that is a waste of time. 

We even read that “in the end Aquinas really takes us into the world not of impanation but of multiple fresh reincarnations of the Son of God in the Eucharist” (154)—which just so happens to be the precise point made by 20th century thinkers on another level: the universe itself can be seen as sacramental and as God’s body. Aquinas sees the incarnation at the micro level of the Table, McFague sees the incarnation at the macro level of the world. This is interesting. But unfortunately, to even draw this connection under Abraham’s theological administration would be stoking the stakes of one’s own pyre. As he dryly remarks in the epilogue: “Happily, our secular masters and mistresses no longer allow theologians to kill one another, although I have often wished we could shoot one theologian per year in order to eliminate the nonsense” (223).

More problematic is the dubious relationship between the scriptural tradition Abraham so highly values and his own theological proposals. One encounters basic Bible trivia errors such as the claim that Paul wrote most of the New Testament as a single author (23)—which is untrue even if one assumes that Paul wrote the Pastorals; Luke wrote around 39,000 words and Paul 32,400. In the chapter on Paul and divine agency, one witnesses the stunning omission of the most important book on the subject—Barclay and Gathercole’s Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment (T&T Clark, 2008), and it is not even listed in the bibliography. This basic ignorance raises serious questions about which theologian(s) should be going back to school. 

The second volume is therefore a disappointment, especially given the energy, buildup, and humorous entertainment of the first volume. For a whopping $170 dollars for the series—which isn’t even signature bound—there is no possible way to provide a generally positive recommendation of these two volumes. To his credit, Abraham is onto something: there are theological resources in the Christian tradition that are under-appreciated and needed at the present time. But submitting this proposal is delivering far less than what the series title, the general reader, and the thrust of the first volume anticipate. One is much better off consulting Vernon White’s The Fall of a Sparrow (Paternoster, 1985) or Thomas Tracy’s The God Who Acts (Penn State University Press, 2001).

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
June 1, 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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