About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Barth's 'Radical Correction' of Providence

Is Karl Barth’s account of providence truly the ‘radical correction’ (Church Dogmatics III/3, p. xii) of Reformed orthodoxy he believed? I never used to think so; but Darren Kennedy’s excellent Providence and Personalism has persuaded me to give Barth some sustained attention. Here are the ways in which, according to Kennedy (pp. 20–25, 308–309), Barth departs from his predecessors.

1. Reformed theologians were heavily influenced by Aristotle’s substantialist ontology, which meant that persons were reduced to ‘things’ operating within an ordered framework of cause and effect. Conversely, Barth assumes an actualistic ontology wherein humans are persons standing in relation to the Person of God.

2. In Reformed orthodoxy, election is a subsection of providence; but for Barth, the election of Jesus precedes everything else. Election is part of the doctrine of God, whereas providence is part of the doctrine of creation. Also, traditional Reformed takes on predestination divide humanity into elect or reprobate, whereas for Barth, Jesus is at once the elected human and the rejected human, which means that humanity is not divided or destined for a particular destiny apart from who they are in Jesus.

3. Traditionally, Reformed orthodoxy assumes an angelic fall, which raises questions about God’s primary causation or God’s sovereignty. Barth’s response is simply to reject this idea of an angelic fall, because he rejects the idea of a change in angelic ontology – that what God has created good can actually become bad or evil to the core of its very being. (Barth also argues that angels can only obey God; they have no capacity to deviate; and, if so, this means that, whatever they are, Satan and the demons cannot be fallen angels.)

4. Reformed orthodoxy distinguishes between providentia ordinaria (God acts mediately through secondary causes) and providentia extraordinaria (God acts immediately without secondary causes), whereas, through double agency, Barth holds to a single united providentia that also includes heaven within the sphere of God’s action in creation.

5. Reformed orthodoxy tends to present God in terms of philosophical abstraction (God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc.). But for Barth, God can only be understood in Christological and trinitarian terms, which means, when applied to the doctrine of providence, that God’s election in Christ serves to shape providence as a doctrine. (Nonetheless, Kennedy believes that the Spirit is somewhat absent in Barth’s doctrine of providence.)

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