What is the Pauline vision of divine providence and the divine-human partnership? That is one of the questions that Bruce Epperly discusses in his new study guide for the Pauline letter to the Phillippians. This study guide appears in a series for Energion Publications, to which I contributed a volume on Ephesians. This is an important introduction to that book and to Paul's vision of Christ's work. I invite you to interact with this first posting by Bruce in a series on Philippians.
Philippians: Vision, Promise, and Practice – Part One
Bruce G. Epperly
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ….having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:6, 11)
Good theology involves the interplay of three factors: vision, promise, and practice. Good theology presents a vision of reality, descriptive in a flexible fashion of the relationship between God and the world, the human adventure, revelation, brokenness, and hope. It promises that we can experience in a life-transforming way the ultimate healing and saving realities of life. It provides creative practices that enable us to more fully experience the ultimate and saving realities of life. I believe that Paul’s letter to the Philippians represents biblical theology at its best – a vision of God’s graceful providence and practices that deepen our sense of God’s presence. In the next few weeks, I will be portraying Philippians as a twenty-first century spiritual primer, joining theological reflection and spiritual practice for the transformation of congregations and individuals. God is doing a good work in our lives and we can share in it.
Philippians begins with a vision of divine providence and human hope, a gentle and implicit eschatology. Paul affirms that the good work that God has begun in our lives, God will bring to fullness. This corresponds to Paul’s affirmation in Romans 8:28: “in all things God works for God.” Paul asserts that even negative events such as his current imprisonment or the contentions within the Christian community can further the gospel. God works through all things, even negative things that God has not chosen, to bring healing and wholeness to our world.
Paul assumes that God’s providence is gentle and all-encompassing. It does not eliminate human freedom, but supports, nurtures, and cooperates with human freedom. We can work out our freedom with awe and seriousness [fear and trembling], precisely because God’s grace is working within us. (Philippians 2:12-13) The Spirit that moves through all creation is also quietly working within our lives, interceding on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)
The spiritual practices that Paul counsels in Philippians 4 enable us to experience the sighs of the Spirit and share consciously in the good work God is doing in our lives. Although God is unrelenting in providing opportunities for spiritual growth, our ability to grow in grace partly depends on our own efforts. Despite the invocation of Paul by Augustine and Luther as the theologian of human passivity in relationship to God’s grace, the Pauline theology of Philippians is surprisingly Pelagian in its affirmation of divine-human synergy. God calls and we respond, and in response, God continues to call us toward our highest good in any given situation.
Though non-coercive in nature, Paul’s vision of divine providence is fundamental to the Philippian vision. Every moment can be the source of growth and healing, especially when we open ourselves to divine energy and possibility through prayer, thanksgiving, and the use of spiritual affirmations.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.