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Hooked on Polyphonics: Response to David Fergusson's book on Providence




I recently participated in a book symposium for Sapientia, the online periodical of the Henry Center. The symposium was on David Fergusson’s recent book The Providence of God: A Polyphonic Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Professor Fergusson is the Principal of New College, where I used to teach at the University of Edinburgh. The book has many strengths and I anticipate assigning it as a required text for my course on providence. The writing is always clear, never dull, and often striking.


My piece in the symposium is titled: “Hooked on (Poly)phonics: Voicing Plaudits and Plaints.” Here’s an excerpt from my essay:


“God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:5). Much more could be said about speech as a form of divine action. It encourages a Trinitarian exposition, with the Father initiating, the Son executing, and the Spirit perfecting God’s self-communication. Moreover, focusing on divine speech distributes providence and features the persuasive activity of the Holy Spirit—what Reformed theologians describe as an “effectual” call. If God’s call can be effectual, what about other forms of speech acts? One advantage of thinking in terms of communicative action is that speech is not the sort of action that deprives another of her freedom: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7, cited in Heb. 3:7–11). Another advantage is that a focus on divine communicative activity does justice to the dialogical action that Fergusson feels more traditional models have overlooked. I have argued elsewhere that divine providence is best viewed dialogically, in terms of efficacious triune communication: the Father rules by speaking Christ through the Spirit into human minds and hearts. “Come now, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18). All this to say: Fergusson’s polyphonic approach would do well to add one more voice, that of the Conductor, to the choir.


You can read my whole piece over at Sapientia. And be sure to check out the other contributions from Rebekah Earnshaw,Terry J. Wright, Tom McCall, and Craig Bartholomew. Then, of course, see how Professor Fergusson responds to all of us symposiasts in his rejoinder.

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© 2019 by Kevin Vanhoozer