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Disability, Providence, and Ethics: Bridging Gaps, Transforming Lives

Hans S. Reinders
Published by Baylor University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Debra Paxton-Buursma, Education, Calvin College

Everyone loves stories of transformation, especially when recounting crisis-creating contingencies that line the fabric of life. Despite human capacity and faith-filled living, change and loss lodge in our lives threatening the stability of our core beliefs, logic, and practices. When crisis hits, we often find the doctrine of providence within our reach for meaning. But is the doctrine, as historically understood, sufficient for contemporary cultural contours of change or loss? Disability, Providence, and Ethics re-examines the doctrine of providence through people’s lived experiences with disability. Specifically, Reinders offers a critical analysis and extension of John Calvin’s doctrine of providence contextualized through personal accounts of individuals experiencing unexpected and radically changed lives because of disability. Disability experience stories provide a fresh, authentic exploration of inevitable “why” questions associated with causation and a human interpretation of disability as tragedy. Reinders then identifies pastoral promises and pitfalls positioned within a traditionally Reformed view of providence that conceptualizes God’s response to human trouble as divine control and creation care. Reinders concludes by offering a more contemporary view of providence emphasizing transformative empowerment through the Triune God. Thus, Reinders develops his argument: people live storied lives disrupted by painful contingencies, such as the human response to disability experiences; however, emphasis on the active presence of the Triune God emancipates Calvin’s providence from a view of God as creator and sustainer in unfathomable control of creation, to God with us, who through his Spirit, reconciles and transforms human lives so that individuals can negotiate narrative gaps with resilience and agency.

The reader will quickly recognize that pairing disability and theology invites complexity and controversy. Stanley Hauerwas notably points out in the forward that the issues arising from the nexus between disability and providence are “heady theological waters that are not easily navigated” (xii). Likewise, critical disability perspectives pose heady theoretical waters not easily navigated for those new to disability experience or critical disability studies. Deep water requires deep-sea diving; the text and the issues are simply not intended for surfing.

Certainly Reinders recognizes the potentially contentious nature of the paired topics. Within the first few pages he describes the varied, strong sentiments associated with disability experience, clearly acknowledging that he is “entering a minefield” with many opportunities for “offending people’s most intimate feelings” when one takes on the “tricky business” and “sensitive issue” of representing disability, a place well-traveled with misrepresentation (4). Likewise, Reinders suggests that critical perspectives on disability specifically name deeply embedded ableist beliefs and practices residing in religious responses that marginalize “special” people (12). Not only does he imply a critique of our practices with individuals experiencing disability, he contends that despite its bad reputation, religion should be immersed in the discourse through “theological investigation” and “critical reflection” because “theology’s responsibility [regarding marginalization of folks living with disability] is to clean up its own mess” (10, 11).

Reinders locates more than sufficient complexity and controversy at the intersection of disability explanations and theological perspectives on providence. Religious response has not always played well in disability experience narratives; well-intentioned people touting impractical or misrepresented Christian truths have frequently alienated those trying to make sense out of disability. Reinders draws on Eisland’s groundbreaking work to outline both the limits of classic Christian responses complicit with cultural “naming and shaming” behaviors (for example, praying for someone’s soul because their disability resulted from sin) and the limits of a critical understanding of disability that “dethrones” theology for a social ethic (8, 9). While social ethic addresses exclusion, it ignores a person’s spirituality, leaving one with marginalizing religious beliefs and inadequate moral substitutes. Reinders invites religious rethinking through a storied understanding of providence, explaining why he removes the commonly associated intellectual address of theodicy from a humanized pastoral response. He contextualizes his investigation by discussing seismic cultural shifts in providence precipitated by a powerful deistic wave of science-infused modernity that “preached providence without Christ” and furthermore, gave up on the necessity of human transformation leaving contemporary Christians struggling to understand the role of providence in their lives (22). The complexity increases as Reinders dredges up the negative reputation of a classical Protestant view of divine providence framed as “the last thing to empower people facing life’s contingencies” (16), “generally regarded as the most unpalatable theology of providence” (28) given cultural-historical questions, contingencies, and theories that provide fodder for “gross misinterpretations of the doctrine” (129) for which Calvin’s answers are both “clear and complicated” (144). Despite contention, Calvin’s view of providence becomes the central investigation site. Reinders clarifies misconceptions, credits Calvin for his pastoral response given his own cultural contingencies, educates regarding the “aggravating problem [that] resides in Calvin’s reliance on the conceptual distinction between primary and secondary causation,” and reenergizes a new emphasis on providence as an actively present Triune God transforming how persons living with disability see and live life (28). The water, deep with cultural-historical tones of critical disability studies, theological, and ethical perspectives, carries waves of complexity and controversy; yet, warrants wading in.

Reinders charts the deep water, launching a new book series that explores “issues at the intersection of religion, theology, and disability” (vii). Overall, Reinders supports readers’ navigation of deep waters by carefully attending to conceptual organization, writing style, and scholarship. The book painstakingly outlines overlapping conceptual and theological waterways in chapters 1 and 2. Chapters 3 and 4 introduce us to ordinary people for whom the world, actually the cosmos, has been turned upside down. Excerpts of individuals’ published stories transport intellectually distanced discussion to the contextual closeness that occurs when providence moves into life’s troubled waters. In chapters 5, 6, and 7, we dive into the traditionally Protestant view of providence by closely reading Job as the lived story that captures Calvin’s imagination, situates his many sermons, and responds to his pastoral concerns. Through extensive primary and secondary source documentation, Reinders highlights what can get missed in the causation and control discourse, specifically, Calvin’s pastoral lean toward God’s love as the fount of all good and discernment through Christ’s Spirit. In addition, we discover what contemporary scholars find most troubling, Calvin’s ambivalence between God’s incomprehensibility and human purpose within the Spirit’s gifts. Calvin’s systematic articulation of primary and secondary causation, provides the ballast with which Reinders ultimately rejects Calvin’s doctrine, for “it appears that in using the distinction between the two kinds of causality, Calvin is left with a doctrine of divine providence that fails to do what he wanted it to do” (166). Positioned with logical reasoning and the buoyancy of contemporary scholars such as N. T. Wright and Karl Barth, Reinders articulates a post-resurrection, Trinitarian view of providence that changes the relationship between God and people from one of human depravity to human possibility. Bridging the gap between God and humanity through Christ, Reinders launches his final chapter on a providence repurposed as God’s active presence to renew and transform. God’s love story, actively narrated through the stories of God’s people, features Amy Julia Becker, her daughter Penny, and a community of people. Reinders also incorporates the narratives from chapters 3 and 4, the Old Testament stories of Job and Joseph, the New Testament witness of Paul, and Calvin’s views to reorient the “why” question into contingencies or activity that receives God’s presence as the love of Christ manifested in people through the Holy Spirit. Reinders’ organization navigates complex cultural questions posed in the narratives, heady theological examination of the doctrine of providence, and the ways life story and theological discourse inform one another.

Despite complexity, Reinders successfully employs two important writing style features that teach and reach. With the exception of Reinders’ unexplained use of disability studies language, he teaches through careful – but not patronizing – linguistic conventions that introduce, define, explain, summarize, and review content. Furthermore, Reinders provides teaching examples that reach, most profoundly developed in his retelling of stories that retain each narrative’s heart and soul, achieved by quoting individual voices early and often. Whether familiar or new, we walk with people’s circumstances as Job and Joseph, or Nancy, Martha and Adam, Cathy and Alan, Jean-Dominique, and Amy Julia and Penny offer authentic, diverse honesty to the discourse. In this way, the voices echo contextualized commentary, humanizing the discussion and beckoning readers’ entrance through their own experiences. Although Reinders takes some interpretive liberty with the narrative accounts, he does explicitly identify them as his interpretations. Overall, Reinders’ line of scholarship in disability studies and the use of narrative in qualitative research position him to integrate story effectively without overly manipulating the stories to be positioned to serve his purposes. I do wonder, however, why Amy Julia’s narrative and her clear Christian voice of transformation is silent until the last chapter when a reimagined doctrine of providence is described as opposed to allowing her voice to echo commentary along with the others during the deep exploration of providence.

Finally, Reinders demonstrates a remarkable depth of scholarly care not only in narrative, but also in his address of disability and providence. One only has to look at the copious citations and footnotes to recognize and benefit from his scholarship. The close reading of Job, primary source research using Calvin’s Institutes, secondary source commentary on Calvin, and broad representation of scholarly discourse dedicated to disability- and faith-related issues build credibility and trust, necessary when examining a controversial doctrine applied in an emergent area such as critical disability studies. However, given Reinders’ penchant for the contextual, it is surprising that he allows Calvin’s doctrine of providence, (sequentially positioned after creation in the Institutes) to slip from the contextual moorings of Calvin’s Trinitarian perspective.

Reinders recognizes the risks when navigating an emergent area of disability studies scholarship. Yet, it is important to note that complex ethical intersections of social justice, disability, and discursive practices (for example, language choice or positionality) are not explained and described with the same detail as the theological intersections of providence, leaving disability studies and ethics hanging at times. Overall, Reinders’ careful approach to significant complexity invites careful reading, perhaps with pen in hand ready for footnote exploration. Reinders’ text authentically responds to the potency of risky deep waters with deep multi-vocal care, consistently supporting his premise that community, through Christ’s Holy Spirit, transforms new ways to see and live.

As a fellow disability studies scholar steeped in Reformed theology, I found Reinders’ thorough attention to complexities and controversies distracting at times; each page turn generates conceptual and practical questions worthy of extended consideration. This is actually a gift for a book launching a series intended to infuse a rich history of religious, theological conversations with new spaces for rethinking religious discourse on disability. The book begs to be read and discussed in the interdisciplinary company of colleagues, students, and friends with distributed knowledge so that personal experience stories can be shared, questions can be posed, and thinking can be stretched.1 Most importantly, through a caring discourse community, a grace-filled spirit of discernment can sideline judgment and empower us through Christ’s love to see and live anew.

Cite this article
Debra Paxton-Buursma, “Disability, Providence, and Ethics: Bridging Gaps, Transforming Lives”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:1 , 83-86


  1. In my reading and rereading of the text, I was drawn to engage in the ideas with others. I am grateful to Rev. Dale Cooper, Emeritus of Calvin College, for sharing his personal experiences of disability and his deep knowledge of Calvin’s institutes.

Debra Paxton-Buursma

Calvin University
Debra Paxton-Buursma is Associate Professor of Education at Calvin University.