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.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Critiques of Church Dogmatics III/3

In Chapter 2 of Providence and Personalism, Darren Kennedy identifies seven common critiques of Barth’s doctrine of providence (pp. 14–20); and, following his analysis of Church Dogmatics III/3, Kennedy addresses each of these critiques in turn (pp. 310–313), showing how Barth pre-empts these critiques and defends himself. I thought it would be useful to summarise each critique and response here.

Barth’s doctrine of providence:

excludes authentic human personhood
This critique assumes that Barth places God and creation in a competitive relationship, where divine sovereignty rules out genuine human freedom and personhood. But Kennedy notes that each human person is actually and continually shaped before God and fitted for participation in God’s eternal life.

lacks rationality
In 1969, Charles Duthie wrote a paper in which he suggested that Barth’s thought on providence relied too much on assertion and not enough on ‘reasoned and reasonable Christian apologetic’ (Charles Duthie, ‘Providence in the Theology of Karl Barth’, in Maurice Wiles (ed.), Providence [London: SPCK, 1969], p. 75; quoted in Darren M. Kennedy, Providence and Personalism: Karl Barth in Conversation with Austin Farrer, John Macmurray and Vincent Brümmer [Bern: Peter Lang, 2011], p. 15). However, using the tools of personalist philosophy, Kennedy shows that Barth’s thought is perfectly coherent and rational.

lacks pastoral strength
If Barth’s doctrine of providence cannot show God acting in the world, then the doctrine has no pastoral value. But the heart of Barth’s doctrine, says Kennedy, is to challenge Christians to stand firm against the forces of chaos, to oppose what God opposes, and to love what God loves. Thus pastoral strength may be derived from the fact that the Christian always stands before God – and nothing can separate the Christian from the love of God in Christ!

falls into monism which precludes divine/human relationality
Does Barth conceive providence as a monism where God’s activity trumps all, or a dualism where God and humanity are engaged in a relationship of constant symmetry? For Kennedy, Barth argues that God and humanity are in covenantal, asymmetrical, personal relation, where each person is shaped in relation to God in Christ.

merely repeats the outdated providence of the tradition
Is Barth’s proclaimed ‘radical correction’ (CD III/3, p. xii) in fact a correction at all? Kennedy shows that Barth’s doctrine of providence does depart from the Reformed tradition in many respects, while retaining many of its central concerns. See here for how Kennedy argues Barth departs from his Reformed fathers.

is incompatible with modern science
Has providence to say anything to modern science, or does Barth close the doctrine to input from the natural sciences? Kennedy observes that far from being incompatible, Barth’s doctrine of providence assigns a proper place for science, and the concept of divine providence does not invalidate scientific enterprise. Miracles, for example, are not instances of divine intervention but rather instances of human ignorance about the way in which God can act in a world that accommodates divine action.

prompts Christian arrogance
Is it true that, according to Barth, Christians have an advantage over non-Christians in so far as they can ‘read’ history and actually participate in God’s providence? No; Kennedy notes that, for Barth, Christians must remain as agnostic as non-Christians in trying to read God’s action into historical events, even as they stand before God and continually place their trust in the God who acts.

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