Providence

A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Account

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Mark W. Elliott
  • Baker Academic
    , April
     2020.
     288 pages.
     $29.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781540960405.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mark W. Elliott’s Providence: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Account is a sweeping treatment of the doctrine of providence that cuts across disciplinary lines. Elliott continually proves his erudition in his mastery of primary and secondary literature, not only in English, but in biblical languages, German, and French. Such a work of scholarship stands apart because of its depth and learning. I do not expect other works to rival it in the future.

Providence is a challenging doctrine to treat, for as Elliott notes, it is able to “operate outside the range of knowledge and full comprehensibility, but also even to elude faith’s perception and be beyond or behind revelation” (1). This calls for some theological sleuthing since providence seldom shows up directly. The book’s first chapter is Elliott’s attempt to argue for the relevance of the doctrine, to situate it biblically and systematically in the economy of faith, and finally, to suggest that its scope extends beyond theodical uses.

The second chapter, “Alternatives to Providence in the Bible,” looks at adjacent doctrinal loci to find their “overlap” with providence. These overlaps include God’s creating, sustaining, resting, and his eschatological telos (end) for creation (27).

The third chapter grounds biblical sketches of providence by comparing them to Platonic and Stoic philosophy (57–63). It then looks at providence in relation to themes like the “Kingdom of God” and a “Holy Life” (69, 86). It goes on further to discuss the fatherhood of God, suggesting that “in Jesus’s teaching one feels a strong sense of being caught up in something bigger, as well as purer and sanctifying. This does not exclude but rather demands ethical obedience to the will of God—as that which explicates the kingdom’s coming in Matthew 6:10” (89). Overall, these larger themes lead up to Elliott’s more concrete and detailed biblical work in the following chapters.

The fourth and fifth chapters trace the doctrine of providence in the Old and New Testaments respectively, following the order of the Christian canon. Elliott outlines the diverse and complimentary visions of providence from the Pentateuch through to James, with sections that explore in detail providence for Saul and David for instance, or as it appears in Hebrews 11 (126, 189).

The sixth and last chapter is the richest and aims toward some of the payoff of the doctrine of providence in the lives of Christians, for “providence is not a doctrine that lacks the promise of therapeutic effects” (197). Elliott, presenting the views of “most theologians today,” argues that “providence is less something divine, accessed by faith seeking understanding, than it is that very faith seeking understanding” (198). This chapter raises questions about the subjective experience of providence and how recognizing God’s providence might influence prudent living. It asks how one might describe God’s providential work without resorting to an “occasionalist” God whom “nobody seems to appreciate” (209). While Elliott gestures gently toward answers to these good questions, they largely remain open.

Like many academic books, Providence is written for a scholarly audience, but because of its sweeping nature and polyglottal command of source material, the audience who will read it in conversation with the literature it employs is vanishingly small. This is fine as far as it goes, but it stands both as a judgement on the impoverishment of the current English theological scene as well as a challenge for burgeoning scholars.

One of the frustrating elements of Elliott’s book is that it is almost entirely descriptive. Elliott succeeds in presenting the historical and current views on providence in conversation with the canon of scripture and the tradition of the church. At times, it is difficult to see where Elliott his making his own argument or constructing his own case. He alludes often to the views of others, and when he does present his own arguments, his tone is rather tentative (or perhaps humble?), as in, “in my view it might be better to see God’s story with creation as the providential story of the nations in which God acts through Israel” (38, emphasis original). This leaves the reader in a kind of limbo, wherein she cannot easily summarize and encapsulate a handful of points the book makes, for it covers such a broad range of time and crosses so many disciplines, that it is rather shot full of disparate insights that are difficult to synthesize. On the other hand, while one might use the book as a reference work for more discrete studies of particular facets of the doctrine of providence (say, as a starting point for looking at providence in Hebrews 11), its style is more conversational than didactic, and thus would make an awkward reference aid.

It is not that Elliott does not warn the reader of this from the beginning. To study providence is to look for “traces of God’s action” and these traces might be very faint, very subtle, and seldom will they be uncontested (1). The doctrine of providence is a mixed bag, and it always has been, so rather than sketching any vague and sloppy syntheses, Elliott gives attention to it many forms and appearances throughout the church’s reflection.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cole William Hartin is rector of St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Saint John, NB, and an adjunct faculty member at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark W. Elliott (PhD, University of Cambridge) is professor of divinity and biblical criticism at the University of Glasgow and is a professorial fellow at Wycliffe College, Toronto. He previously taught at the University of St. Andrews, where he directed the Institute for Bible, Theology, and Hermeneutics. Elliott is the author of numerous articles and essays and has written several books, including Providence Perceived. He is also the coeditor, with Scott Hafemann, N. T. Wright, and John Frederick, of Galatians and Christian Theology.

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