The (barely hidden) teaching of Jesus on hidden providence

Tony is an executive at JB Enterprises. One day he opens his morning post to find he’s been given a week’s notice of termination of his contract. Hurrying to the office he collars Chris, JB’s PA, who is a friend. “What’s going on, Chris? Have I been given notice because I’ve upset JB in some way?”

Chris looks embarrassed. After hesitating a little he says, “Tony, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this yet, but that’s not the case at all. You’ve actually received notice because JB is planning to make you a partner in the firm.” And they all lived happily ever after.


Let’s briefly look at this gripping tale from the point of view of the Aristotelian causation I wrote about here (it doesn’t only work for Jimi Hendrix, you see). The efficient cause of his termination is a letter from the boss, and Tony assumes the material cause is perceived misconduct. Chris confirms the efficient cause, ignores the material cause, and instead gives the final cause – JB’s purpose to promote him.

The final  cause – unfulfilled at the time of narration – in fact precedes all other causes logically, sequentially and in importance. Note that, as worded, there is no possibility (a) that JB’s plan is a reaction to the termination letter or (b) that the two events are causally unrelated and their coincidence a matter of chance. JB planned to promote him, so he terminated his employment contract. Chris’s words make that certain.

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I’ve made up this story to open our minds when looking at a more theologically loaded narrative – the account of Jesus’s healing of the man born blind in John 9, which has exactly the same construction. The story begins:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

The disciples assume the material cause of his blindness to be sin – his or his parents, and the efficient cause to be God’s action, in punishment. In reply Jesus denies the material cause, keeps silent on the efficient, and prioritises a final cause, God’s desire to display his works in him. It’s tempting for moderns to interpret this as “Sin and God’s action didn’t cause this, it just happened – but just watch how God can bring good from it through my healing.” However, our analysis of the first story’s structure shows that to be impossible: the initiating cause is God’s desire to show his healing work, as a result of which, the man and his family suffered for decades from blindness – according to Jesus’s own words – through no fault of their own.

I must quickly say that this theodical issue is by no means the point of the account: it is the wonderful events surrounding his healing and salvation, and the associated spiritual teaching of the Lord, that occupy the ensuing chapter. It is rather the theological common ground Jesus shares with his disciples. But on BioLogos recently, one of the proponents of an evolution whose supposed errors and anomalies are independent of God’s control was insisting (a) that he couldn’t accept hidden providence as a sufficient answer, especially given our great knowledge of biology now (which I found a little amusing given the Human Genome Project’s disclosure of our profound ignorance of life) and (b) that in any case such a view of providence would be scandalous to skeptics, and therefore should be avoided for apologetic reasons.

But it seems to me that if we are claiming to think about this as Christians, then we must surely heed the direct teaching of the Lord Jesus on the matter or be shown to be disciples in name only. John’s gospel, remember, was written under the direction of the Holy Spirit “in order that you may believe”. Its purpose is entirely evangelistic and apologetic. It is not embarrassing, esoteric territory, but the very gospel we are called to proclaim to outsiders. If we don’t accept Jesus’s views of providence, whose will we accept? Bear in mind that, in the gospel account, the only justification Jesus had for claiming the final cause of the man’s blindness to be God’s as yet unfulfilled desire to work in him was that he knew the mind of his Father. As I pointed out in the Jimi Hendrix article, final causes cannot be observed, but only deduced (and wrongly deduced by the disciples in this case) – or else revealed by whatever mind conceived them. Jesus and the Father were one.

Now to me the most fascinating thing about looking at the blind man story from this angle is that it raises all the theodical issues that so trouble modern theologians (and theistic evolutionists), giving Jesus a golden opportunity to deal with them authoritatively and finally. Yet in the event, he leaves every one of them hanging.

Jesus does deny that sin was the material cause of this man’s blindness – but doesn’t specifically exclude the possibility in other similar cases, though there are good theological reasons to believe he would exclude the connection.

As to efficient causation, we’d like some clarification, but Jesus ignores it altogether. Would God actively (miraculously, say) blind the fetus? Or did he simply allow the mother to acquire rubella in the first trimester, or some other natural cause? Did Satan do it? If so, it was only after God’s final determination that it must be. Does it make a difference anyway, if God could have prevented it but chose not to so that (in Jesus’s words) the works of God might be displayed in him later? Remember, the verbal form of the story precludes the possibility that the blindness “just happened”, and that God decided to use it – say at the time the disciples chanced to notice him on the crowd. One altered sentence from Jesus would have sufficed: “God doesn’t punish infants or parents by congenital blindness – these things just happen in a material/fallen/free world – but hang around and see how the works of God are shown in him.”

Jesus says nothing, either, about all the other people born blind in the history of the world, who weren’t healed. Did God not have a will regarding them? If not, why not? And if so, what was his purpose?

By those suffering the modern angst about suffering and divine will, it is doubted that even the final salvation and bliss of a suffering person (or a suffering cell, if you read Robert J Russell) could justify as much as God’s passive infliction of suffering on his creation. Once again, Jesus doesn’t try to address that philosophically or theologically – he just heals the man, draws the lessons about self-inflicted spiritual blindness, and calls for repentance.

In other words, it’s plain to see that the mystery of the Father’s hidden and inscrutable providence oozes out of the pores of this story – and yet Jesus leaves it just as hidden and inscrutable as he moves on. Why is that? It’s not that he expects us to find out about it ourselves through our vaunted science – we might discover 1001 microbiological or genetic causes of congenital blindness. We might even eradicate it (I never saw a case of fetal Rubella syndrome in my career, which I take to be a likely medical cause in the gospel account). But we would be no nearer knowing why God caused it to be that this man was born blind, and if we want to say he didn’t cause it, whether directly or indirectly, then we are contradicting our Lord and Saviour.

I venture to say that it’s not that he is banking on us becoming Open Theists either. Jesus would have had to spell that recommendation out, as it was alien to Jewish theology – except, perhaps, for the Sadducees’ denial of divine foreordination.

The only possible answer is that it’s not for us to know God’s reasons, but it is important for us to know the fact of God’s overseeing providence. As Mark Talbot writes in relation to God’s sovereignty and human freedom, we cannot understand it:

Yet—and this is the absolutely crucial point—we can understand why we cannot understand it. It is because attempts on our part to understand it involve our trying to understand the unique relationship between the Creator and his creatures in terms of our understanding of some creature-to-creature relationship. But this attempt, it should be clear, involves us in a kind of “category mistake” that dooms our attempt from the start. (True Freedom: The Liberty that Scripture Portrays as Worth Having, in “Beyond the Bounds” p.100)

He adds later:

Yet, as with all other Christian doctrines, the test of the truth of this doctrine is not that we find it plausible or attractive but that we find it in Scripture.

This is, indeed, the universal position of Scripture (and, of course, of the classical theology that arose before people began to second-guess the Bible’s authority). And if that causes embarrassment because it appears to be a scandal on which skeptics and enemies of the faith can capitalise, then God appears to be aware of that and to brush it aside as irrelevant. That is because, in the first place, God’s universal providence is true, and revelation is there to tell the truth about God, however it crosses our sinful pride. And secondly it’s because the realisation that we depend on God for everything, and must go to him for all our needs, knowing that he controls all things, is the very beginning and end of saving faith.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to The (barely hidden) teaching of Jesus on hidden providence

  1. Cal says:

    Very good post! I found myself conceiving of things to type up in a comment, and lo, you interacted with them before I had a chance!

    You’re right that our modern Western view squirms under an angst to explain and do all sorts of gymnastics to provide a “credible”, while not so faithful, theodicy. I remember sitting on a bus ride listening to a conversation on theodicy where a girl (they knew each other) jumped in with a “well, there’s freewill…” with some other standard additional comments. I rolled my eyes I admit! However there was a certain absoluteness, dare I say smugness, to the rejoinder. What it made me realize was that those cut-paste answers place God in the dock as an object or mere being in a collection.

    First and formost, there is no God or Godness behind the back of Jesus. He is the perfect Image, Son of the Father, Anointed of the Spirit. So, as you so well point out, when Jesus comes to these moments He speaks in darkly mysterious way. He doesn’t pull out an arm chair and a pipe and begin lecturing on the workings of Heaven.

    As men, as creations, we can’t see sub specie aeternitas, and that’s the rub. Especially when, contra bland theism, the Truth is revealed crucified, buried, and resurrected. Strength in weakness, Wisdom in foolishness. The Patristics loved this and spoke in moving paradox.

    The windows we do see are revelations of respite and hope. But, as GK Chesterton put it, the lunatic is the one who tries to fit all of the heavens into his head, which only ends in the head’s splitting.

    Cal

    PS. I think discussing the active-permission of providence isn’t necessary fruitless, but has a place in uprooting views of malice. Thus to people who might recoil in horror at what Jesus said, it allows another way to think and maintain the mysteriousness. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and it’s in that that these other pieces must conform. But that’s apart of trust(faith).

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks, Cal and a Happy New Year to you.

    Interestingly Mark Talbot, quoted in the piece, began his own journey after being paralysed in an accident with the freewill theodicy, but found it totally inadequate.

  3. pngarrison says:

    There was a post and discussion on a survey of American opinions on evolution over at Jesus Creed today. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/01/02/most-americans-are-fine-with-evolution-rjs/

    Two of the survey questions were, which of these statements is closest to your view?

    Humans (or animals) and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection
    Or
    A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans (or animals) and other life in the form it exists today.

    It’s hard to hope the issue will be resolved in any sensible way when even the poll-takers offer false dichotomies.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      pngarrison

      I started a post a while ago comparing various US YouGov surveys on this in colleges and more widely , because their wording remains the same. But it proved impossible to make sense of the responses in any way that revealed actual beliefs. V J Torley has done quite a thorough a survey of this and other surveys on Uncommon Descent, concentrating on the incompatibility of the results and , therefore, the difficulty of drawing any real conslusions about trends.

      But I agree with you that one of the most pernicious things is the polls’ universal acceptance of the modernist idea of single causation: either God created orevolution happened. I imagine that most TEs (right across the spectrum) could equally pick either of the two alternatives named – or the “don’t know” box. That’s particularly true for classical Christians with a strong doctrine of providence – whose views I suspect are common in the pews, but not revealed by the polls.

  4. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Another opportunity that Jesus had to address these questions was given by questioners in Luke 13 made Jesus aware of some who had died in various catastrophes (or by the hand of Pilate).

    His response here was a bit different than an outright denial of sin as a material cause. Here he takes it for granted that all those who so suffered or died were indeed sinners, but he denies that any of the living questioners standing around him should imagine that they are any better because they weren’t the ones killed … with the enigmatic: “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:5 NRSV).

    So in one sense, it does seem to be a denial that sin can be used to distinguish one from another in terms of who suffers disaster. But in another sense, it very strongly ties our future with our choices and our sin.

    Luke goes on in following passages to relate more parables of interest on this. The next parable briefly — the fig tree — shows an impatient owner being reassured by the gardener that he should give the tree just one more chance, with special treatment, to produce the expected fruit. And then we have the account of Jesus healing the crippled (bent over) woman. After the synagogue leaders reprimand him for working on the sabbath, he calls them hypocrites and asks why they would refuse to free a daughter of Abraham who *had been bound by Satan* for eighteen long years just because it was a sabbath day. (My paraphrase)

    My point is, Jesus, seems easily to switch in these stories between God orchestrating an evil-looking situation to Satan also being the active agent, and also to our own sin being the cause in play. Now it could be that each of these circumstances were different or exceptional in their own way, but I agree with the spirit of what you wrote that Jesus uses all these situations to teach his disciples and by extension all of us. It looks to me like these things are all intermingled in a way that we will never fully sort out, but that compassion and mercy are the underlying and over-riding themes that the listeners are asked to take to heart.

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