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.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Book Review: Darren M. Kennedy, Providence and Personalism

Darren M. Kennedy, Providence and Personalism: Karl Barth in Conversation with Austin Farrer, John Macmurray and Vincent Brümmer (Bern: Peter Lang, 2011)

I read Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics III/3 for the first time around 1999 – though here, to be honest, ‘III/3’ should be interpreted as §§48–50 only. And when I was conducting my doctoral research on providence, a few years later, I considered III/3 worthy only of a glance to remind myself that my initial reading – that, despite its length, III/3 didn’t represent any major contribution to the doctrine of providence – was correct. Darren Kennedy’s Providence and Personalism has persuaded me that I am a fool and that, even if, in the end, I disagree with Barth, I need to take the contribution of III/3 to discussions of providence more seriously. And so, with this review, I repent in sackcloth and ashes.

In Providence and Personalism, a PhD thesis completed in 2008 under the supervision of David Fergusson, Kennedy argues that Barth’s doctrine of providence must be understood as personal. The human person stands in providential relation to the Person who is God in Christ. And given Barth’s personalist presuppositions here, Kennedy believes that much of the confusion generated by Barth’s doctrine of providence is clarified by utilising the tools of personalist philosophical theology. To this end, Kennedy engages Barth in conversation with Austin Farrer (on double agency), John Macmurray (on divine intentionality), and Vincent Brümmer (on causal and personal relations), to great effect. The majority of Providence and Personalism is occupied by detailing these ‘conversations’, and it is fascinating to observe the extent to which Barth’s thought is indeed illuminated by the light of philosophical theology. So, for example, whereas for Macmurray, world history is a process approaching the ‘intention of God’ incarnate in the particular history of Israel, Barth argues that the person of Jesus himself is the intention of God made real in history. In practice, this means that while for both scholars, all things happen in relation to God, for Barth all things happen specifically in relation to Jesus. It is here that Barth’s self-announced ‘radical correction’ (CD III/3, p. xii) is made clear: God’s will for creation consists in the election of Jesus Christ, and all things transpire as willing or unwilling witnesses to this election. Thus Kennedy insists that Barth’s priority of election over providence is a significant departure – indeed, a radical correction – from the Reformed tradition. (Personally, and against Kennedy, I read Calvin as prioritising election over providence, too.) The point is that reading Barth alongside Macmurray (or Macmurray alongside Barth?) on divine intentionality helps to clarify what is meant by ‘divine intentionality’ and assists Barth’s readers in the often complex task of understanding him.

The explication of these conversations acts as the foundation for the second half of the book, where Kennedy offers his own reading of CD III/3. He takes each of the four paragraphs of III/3 in turn, drawing attention to areas where the thought of Farrer, Macmurray and Brümmer clarifies Barth’s points. Perhaps even more worthy of celebration is Kennedy’s identification of connections between the different parts of III/3, especially of the way in which §51 (on angels and heaven) relates to §§48–50 as part of a proper and fully coherent doctrine of providence. While at times Kennedy appears unconvinced by Barth’s theology here, he is less scornful and more appreciative of this paragraph than other commentators, probably because he is clear about how this fourth paragraph connects to the preceding three. The concluding paragraph includes Kennedy’s own criticisms of Barth on providence: that Barth retains causal language for no reason; that his depiction of eternal life needs development; and that the role of the Holy Spirit in providence is similarly underdeveloped (Kennedy argues, for example, that in §51, angels effectively displace the Spirit).

Providence and Personalism is an important, even exciting, contribution to Barth scholarship. Kennedy shows clearly precisely what is Barth’s ‘radical correction’ in relation to the Reformed tradition, and his analysis of CD III/3 has the potential to open many other avenues of research, both for Barth scholarship, and for research into the doctrine of providence more generally.

If I have a criticism, it is this: Shouldn’t we be able to understand Barth clearly even without the use of philosophical theological tools? Consider this quotation, from p. 307:

CD III.3 is theology and not philosophy. Nevertheless, Barth’s theology cannot be understood without philosophical tools. Each of the four sections of III.3 gains significant clarification through the conversations with philosophical theology.

Is it truly the case that Barth’s theology cannot be understood without philosophical tools? Granted, no theologian can write or be interpreted apart from the wider intellectual context in which he or she lives, but to say that one needs a grasp of philosophical theology in order to understand what is first and foremost a piece of theology seems counterintuitive. Is it truly so that, say, the concept of concursus cannot be understood Christologically as a theological term in its own right? Still, although I described this earlier as a criticism of Kennedy’s work, arguably it is actually a criticism of Barth and his writing style!

Kennedy concludes Providence and Personalism by noting that Barth’s doctrine of providence ‘has largely been overlooked and offers a great deal of potential in deciphering aspects of his theology located in more well-researched volumes of CD. My hope,’ he continues, ‘is that this book has been a step in this direction.’ (p. 314). It certainly has: Providence and Personalism is an essential read.


  1. Fantastic review, thanks for this. Very helpful.

  2. Yes, a very helpful review. I think a productive study of Barth's doctrine of providence would be a comparison with the scholastic Reformed tradition, with which Barth himself engaged with both deep appreciation and departure. So, instead of 20th century personalist philosophy, the dialogue partners would be the old divines, from Calvin to Turretin, and the confessional standards. A look at CD II.1 § 31, "The Perfections of the Divine Freedom," reveal a Barth that sounds very Reformed in emphases. For example, pages 560-561:

    "The freedom of God's will means that it precedes and is superior to all its objects -- with the exception of God Himself, to the extent that God also and first of all wills Himself. God is not dependent on anything that is not Himself; on anything outside Himself. He is not limited by anything outside Himself, and is not subject to any necessity distinct from Himself. On the contrary, everything that exists is dependent on His will. It is conditioned by Him and happens necessarily in accordance with His will. And His will is pure will, determined exclusively by Himself, to act or not to act, or to act in a particular way."

    This is not to minimize the way in which Barth departs from causal metaphysics in III.3, but with God as our "primal Origin" (to use Romerbrief language) some causal relation is unavoidable.