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.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Book Review: Doxological Theology [3]

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)

4. § 49.2, The Divine Accompanying
The doctrine of concursus exercises the finest theological minds; it has also exercised mine. Ostensibly at stake is the freedom of the creature in the face of the all-determining sovereignty of God, and my own reading of Barth on concursus has been that he doesn’t have any good news for the creature in this respect; all he offers is a theological sleight of hand. Now I have become convinced that I need to pay attention to Barth once more on the matter of concursus; but on Green’s reading of Barth here, I’m not entirely sure that I’m likely to distance myself too far from my previous conclusion(s).

According to Green, Barth draws out the ethical implications of concursus, for concursus concerns the enactment of God’s holy will from within history. This means that Barth continues to use the concept of cause in his doctrine of concursus, but radically redefines it in the light of the triune God revealed by the risen Jesus. God continually summons – or accosts, as Green puts it, which, for me, is not a positive word – the creature to obedience; and as the creature recognises this in prayer, it also recognises its limitations. Thus the creature is not absolutely free, and any freedom it does have is a freedom constituted by its free obedience to the Father’s call and command issued in Christ. Any other concept of freedom is not, on these terms, true freedom, but rather an instance of the ‘impossible possibility’ of sin.

The obedience of the creature is a matter of prayer, the creature’s participation in the intercession of Christ. And through prayer, the creature recognises that all its prayers are realised in the person of the interceding Jesus, whose Father is the Father of all. So, in many respects, the divine intercession for creaturely existence is an accompaniment of all creatures at all times – and by participating in Christ’s intercession through prayer, it seems that it’s in this way that the creature contributes, however minimally, to the divine preservation of all things. It’s almost as though the creature is caught up in God’s plans for the world rather than its own; and God’s will is that the sustained creature prays. Green identifies three positive points in Barth’s doctrine of concursus here: that God goes with the creature in conservatio, that the creature is autonomous, and that God accompanies the creature as its Lord.

These three points elucidate more of what’s implied by concursus. God and the creature are not merely two interacting, mechanical causes, are not simply primary cause and secondary causes, but are covenantal partners in covenantal relationship. God is free to elect a covenant partner, and it is this election that makes creaturely existence possible. And because God accosts (Green’s word again) God’s covenant partner to pray, the creature is morally responsible to pray for others and mirror Christ’s own self-giving love. It is in obedient prayer that the creature finds true freedom, because in praying Christ’s own prayer – the Lord’s Prayer – the creature is caught up in Christ’s prayer and finds itself in ready recognition of Christ’s lordship. Ultimately, this means that God sustains the creature in worship, which renders conservatio and concursus concrete and not abstract.

So now concursus – or, more specifically, the two causae – is reoriented as the action of covenantal partners, Barth issues four safeguards for the doctrine. First, there is no automatic or mechanical concept of causality between God and the creature; God’s will is not mere causality. Secondly, neither partner is a ‘thing’. Thirdly, neither God nor the creature are part of a larger master-concept of causality. Finally, the concept of cause has to be understood by the Spirit’s guidance through prayer. It is clear to see that Barth’s concern throughout is that we cannot speak of divine providence in abstract terms, and Green does well to emphasise Barth’s concern here.

Green briefly analyses Barth’s further division of concursus into praecursus, concursus proper, and succursus. In praecursus, God foresees what the creature will do and ‘touches’ (Green’s word) the creature’s will. Green does not explain what it means to say that God ‘touches’ God’s will; the word itself is ambivalent and arguably could connote a strict determinism or a weak influence, and everything in-between; but the wider point appears to be that God’s praecursus makes possible the creature’s action. Concursus, of course, is the idea that God’s action and creaturely action constitute a single action, though how this happens is anyone’s guess! Barth is keen to say that God’s concurring action, which is incomparable to creaturely action, takes place according to Word and Spirit. He is equally keen to assert that this is something recognised through prayer and thanksgiving as a result. Succursus anticipates Barth’s discussion of gubernatio in §49.3, and so it is enough to know here that God ensures that creaturely actions have appropriate effects so that the creature can reap what it sows. There is a form of causality at work here, but this form of causality must not be understood as mechanical but as thoroughly pneumatological. And because it is thoroughly pneumatological, Barth reasons that this is why people will only be able to accept this treatment of providence through prayer.

The strength of Barth’s account of concursus is that he is more than willing to reinterpret the idea of primary and secondary causality in terms of the triune God’s election of a covenant partner in the Son and through the Spirit. For this reason alone, I must reconsider my approach to Barth, especially when looking at him in the future. But if Green’s reading of Barth is correct, I still have some reservations: Why does Barth retain the concept of cause? (Darren Kennedy is also unsure on this point.) Is Barth saying, perhaps arrogantly (though I do not believe that Barth was an arrogant man), that those who pray aright will concur with Barth on concursus? Is Green’s comment that succursus ‘directly posits the outcome of every event in history’ (Doxological Theology, p. 87) accurate, and, if so, does it make Barth’s doctrine of concursus far more deterministic than anticipated? And does this matter if the point of succursus is for God to ensure that whatever happens serves the establishment of God’s Kingdom, which is a ‘good’ determination rather than a capricious one? I would need to study Barth afresh, but it’s these kinds of comments that lead me to suspect that Barth hasn’t followed through sufficiently on his reinterpretation of the matter. Perhaps Green’s account of Barth on gubernatio will address some of my concerns.

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