Intended for Good
The Providence of God
IVP, pb, £8.99
If recession or post-retirement retrenchment means that you can only afford the occasional book, plump for Melvin Tinker’s latest work. You’ll find it a provident investment.
The Puritans echoed the experience and belief of many centuries of Jewish and Christian history by saying that ‘Providence is the last refuge of the saints.’ It was a refuge for all times of life and all eventualities, baneful as well as benevolent.
Tinker quotes John Flavel. “It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straights, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages of their lives.”
His view was maintained by Christians of all persuasions until the last century when the horror of two World Wars, and such questions as ‘Where was God in the Holocaust?’ led to Providence being downplayed and left out of sermons.
Melvin Tinker seeks to restore a belief in the Providence of God. Those familiar with his writings will not be surprised that he rises to this difficult challenge, not by making glib assertions, nor going further than the Bible takes us.
From the Bible he examines the lives and views of Joseph, Job and Ruth. Nearer our own time he looks at Churchill, a firm believer in Providence, and Cowper, a man whose melancholy could make him a companion in adversity to Job. Tinker also provides a careful exposition of Psalms that have a bearing on the issue of Providence. He uses Psalm 139 to look at the experience of another believer in Providence, the orphanage founder George Mueller, as he came to terms both with the death of his wife and the unexpected recovery of his daughter from typhoid fever.
Tinker interweaves Biblical exposition with reference to writers ranging from Chrysostom to CS Lewis. The arguments are backed with an extensive bibliography — the titles listed often being accompanied by a brief explanation of the theme, a useful aid for the general reader. He also helps readers to gain understanding by providing well-framed discussion points.
Join the discussion.
Michael W Austin and R Douglas Geivett
Eerdmans, pb, £17.99
Philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition usually define virtue as an excellent state of character that is conducive to human flourishing. Virtue ethics are in favour among Christian theologians but Christians have a distinctive approach to the virtues that does not always follow the approach of Aristotle.
The differences between the Christian and classical understandings of the virtues is one of the themes that runs through this excellent collection of essays by Christian philosophers, which is subtitled ‘Christian virtues for everyday life’. Although written by American philosophers it does not employ technical philosophical language and can be read by readers with little philosophical background with profit and pleasure.
Humility is one of the virtues that did not really appeal to classical writers although it is mentioned by Plato. In his essay on humility Andrew Pinsent points out that what makes humility so central to Christianity is not just the need to overcome pride but the belief that human flourishing involves entering into a close relationship with God and seeking to be like God. For Aristotle, human flourishing involves a well-ordered personal life in which the highest activities of the mind can flourish. The danger of pride is that it can lead us to think we can become like God by our own powers.
‘Contentment’ is rarely seen as a virtue and was not seen as such in classical times. It rarely makes the list of Christian virtues but Steve Porter makes a good case for regarding an appreciation of the various dimensions of goodness in one’s life as a virtue. ‘Supernatural contentment’ comes into play where this fundamental sense of gratitude includes awareness of the infinite goodness of God and of the activity of God in one’s life.
Porter sees a difference between Christianity and the Aristotelian tradition in the Christian understanding of how we become virtuous. For Aristotle we become virtuous by modelling ourselves on virtuous people and practising virtuous acts. There are problems with this view. It is not always obvious when a virtuous act is done for the right reason. If it is not done for the right reason, it will not help build up a virtuous character. Virtuous acts can really only take place when the right attitude is there. Virtuous acts can strengthen a virtuous character but can they take place if a person is not already virtuous? Some virtues, like contentment, are more a question of attitude than of performing specific actions. It is, Pinsent argues, attitudes of mind, inner states and dispositions that need to be fostered so that they will give rise to virtuous acts.
Traditionally Christian theology has spoken of faith, hope and charity as ‘infused’ virtues but divine grace works in our lives to nurture all the virtues. Without a sense of God’s goodness at work in us, contentment can easily become Stoic self-sufficiency.
While Pinsent stresses attitudes, James S Spiegel argues that behaviour influences knowledge. We don’t want to accept beliefs that interfere with our way of life. Aldous Huxley saw the philosophy of meaningless as the passport to sexual liberation. Wisdom, the virtue of sound judgement, can be destroyed by sin.
Discussing faith, Paul Moser is at pains to stress that it is not guesswork or a leap without evidence: “Faith in God can be at least as cognitively sound as trusting one’s best friend”. At the same time he criticised the view advanced by Bertrand Russell and others that God must be revealed on our preferred cognitive terms as though our terms were above criticism.
Jason Baehr discusses ‘open mindedness’, which will probably seem a surprising virtue to some readers of this book. Humility, he suggests, should make us ready to give consideration to those with whom we disagree and intellectual honesty should not challenge genuine faith.
Unfortunately there are no short biographical notes on the authors but this appears to be an ecumenical collection with contributions mainly by evangelicals but with some Catholics and at least one Anglican, Charles Taliaferro, who writes a superb chapter on love.