If I were to attempt to summarize the history of theology in Western Christianity around a single theme that most readily describes the development and theological diversity, it would be the concept of divine agency. The anti-Pelagian theology of Augustine who established the need of God’s grace in human life, Luther’s understanding of salvation by faith as a matter of God’s agency rather than human agency, Calvinism’s soteriological program built upon the basic foundation of the divine agency of God’s unconditional election, Wesley’s emphasis on grace throughout the course of the human life, and Barth’s prioritization of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ all present key points in the history of Western theology that have taken the concept of divine agency as a critical, key component in understanding Christian faith.
Why is that about the concept of divine agency stands at the center of religious transformation? For one thing, insofar as theology has consistently been about the awareness and knowledge of God throughout history, understanding God’s significance to human life necessary entails the concept of divine agency. While we reguarly witness various attempts to make theology serve the epistemic tasks of other, various social and psychological agendas, the story of Western theology has had a dynamic, transformational pulse to it because, I believe, of the Augustinian emphasis on divine agency in grace. Why? Because the renewed theological study and imagination about divine agency can function as a protest, resistance, and reversal of various social and cultural realities that human agency is understood to have created.
Barth’s theological bombshell was written in an age where the dreams of the progress of human society, effectively placing hopes in a collective human agency. In Wesley’s day, the sense of divine agency had become increasingly cornered off into a rationalistic deism and colonized the Christian way of life. The Protestant Reformation set itself up against the most powerful social institution in Europe at the time. Augustine was resisting the theological incursion of a conception of free will that would make human agency the center of life and righteousness.
This is perhaps why Romans has been the catalyst of theological transformations throughout the centuries. The repeated emphasis upon divine agency strewn throughout the letter stokes the heart and imagination of believers to dream afresh and anew of God’s activity and purposes in the world, redeeming and transforming us from the various human agencies that have had a hand in creating our life, including even our own agency.
We are, yet again, societally ripe in the present day for another theological transformation. In the present world that has eviscerated most sense of awareness of divine agency in human existence and life, various religious traditions have become tempted to treat God more like a painting made by arists long ago that one is affected by based upon one’s own attention and rumination on the painting. Consequently, the theological conception of ‘God’ has become yet again a legitimation and justification of one’s various personal and social agendas that the idea of God inspires within us (rather than the inspiration of the Spirit which we critically discern), where we think we confidently know and comprehend the will of God at the first glance of the love of Jesus, while trying to avoid any sense of awareness of one’s own remarked propensity towards sin and evil. This ‘God’ has become the supporter of our own social and political agendas, while resisting other agendas, but not the God who says ‘no’ to us and them alike, who says ‘repent and believe’ to us and them alike, who says ‘follow me’ to us and them alike, who says ‘yes’ to those who are in Christ.
Of course, the critical question is this: if a theological renewal and awakening were to occur today, what sort of conception of divine agency will emerge? That is the important, critical question. Even as the concept of divine agency may be a dramatic catalyst for theological transformation, whether this theological transformation will move us closer towards God’s purposes in Jesus Christ or away will be determined by whether our understanding of God’s agency is attuned to and formed by the specific pattern of God’s action. In other words, how do we specifically understand God’s agency? Is He acting like a king, ordering and commanding others? Is He act liking a political demagogue, who tells us what we already believe and want to hear? Is He acting like a liberator, looking to take down the agents of injustice and oppression? Or, is He acting like a servant who gives Himself for others? And is He like a teacher, seeking to gradually inculcate an awareness of His purposes where we are ignorant? Can it be that God is like a healer, seeking to give strength to those who have been weakened, scarred, and maimed by injustice? It is these last three images that I would put foward are the most critical and Scriptural understanding of divine agency that can be put forward.