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.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Book Review: Doxological Theology [2]

Christopher C. Green, Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels. T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, Vol. 13 (T&T Clark: London, 2011)

3. §49.1, The Divine Preserving
Given that there is no divine capriciousness to fear, there is also no reason for the creature to fear or doubt its existence. Reading God’s preservation of the world in the light of Christology, we may see that, for Barth, there is an intimate link between that preservation and the atonement effected by Jesus – a link acknowledged by the Christian in prayer. Indeed, God’s preservation through Christ’s atonement creates a ‘hallowed situation’ (CD III/3, p. 82) for the creature, as God’s will is shown to be holy and faithful rather than mysterious and arbitrary. The holiness and goodness of God’s will is what Protestant orthodoxy could not affirm, argues Barth. And by basing providence primarily on God’s election in Christ, Barth believes he is able to do just the opposite and so safeguard sufficient reason for the creature to praise God – not for God’s omnipotence, but for God’s holy love.

Green refers to four important delineations in Barth here. First, conservatio means that creatures are preserved to witness to God’s glory, and to point to the growth of God’s kingdom to others. Secondly, conservatio means that the creature’s life is truly the creature’s life. But while God upholds the creature by means of the creature itself (Green could have expanded on this), and that the creature plays a role in the preservation of the world (through prayerful witness), the creature’s contribution to the world’s preservation is not absolute; it simply points to the qualitative distinction between God and the creature that is safeguarded in the person of Jesus. So whatever sustaining power the creature possesses, it is not the sustaining power of God. Thirdly, the creature’s witness to God consists in the active offering of praise and thanks to God for God’s election of the creature. The reality of God’s election means that the creature genuinely has existence and not non-existence. Moreover, the atonement itself is an initial defeat of das Nichtige. And finally, it is only as the creature praises and gives thanks to God that it recognises its need for preservation. Within this context, Barth notes that non-being is not merely the negation of creaturely existence, for if this was so, it would make God complicit in the existence of non-being as a real possibility alongside being – and this in turn would make God capricious. Instead, God actively rejects non-being and nothingness. Following this, the creature’s praise of God is effectively its exorcism of das Nichtige through its constant prayer to God.

Thus for Barth, the person who prays the Lord’s Prayer participates in providence by recognising the creature’s ‘hallowed situation’ on the basis of God’s atonement that preserves all things. Divine conservation is ongoing because Christ intercedes for the creature, and the creature’s own active prayers constitute a voluntary participation in Christ, a subjecting of oneself in service to the Holy Spirit.

I am increasingly struck by how natural is the connection between preservation and atonement. This is something Margaret Barker has promoted in her studies of Israel’s temple, and is something I’ve also tried to articulate here and in an essay here. It means, surely, that this is an area that needs further research so that a theology of providence can be articulated in a manner that stays true to the biblical narrative’s witness.

Green’s commentary on Barth here is compelling. There are a few instances where more exposition would have been useful, but Green is definitely showing why providence is something best apprehended through prayer and so a cognisant relationship with God. This emphasis on prayer comes out especially in Green’s reading of Barth on concursus.

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