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, 5 March 2013

Book Review: Doxological Theology [4]

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)

5. § 49.3, The Divine Ruling
‘Thy kingdom come’ – this petition is at the heart of Barth’s doctrine of divine governance (gubernatio). God rules over all things, both public and personal, and all things are held together in Jesus Christ. This means that God’s omnipotence and the establishment of God’s kingdom are not a matter of naked power, but a matter of God’s power to save and restore the world in and through its proper telos or end: God in Christ himself. And because God is moving all things towards this end, all the usual questions that surface in discussions of providence can only be redefined by this Christological reorientation of the doctrine.


Green spends much time dissecting the ‘already/not yet’ distinction as it arises in this section of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. He stresses that, for Barth, ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ are not opposing principles, because both find a natural home (so to speak) in the person of the risen Jesus. As far as I understand Green’s interpretation of Barth on this, it means that the emphasis is not so much on the kingdom of Christ but on the kingdom of Christ; it is Christ who rules as Victor over das Nichtige, and so this kingdom ought not to be understood as merely the territory of a monarch. Moreover, because of Christ’s victory, Barth observes that every event is determined finally to exist in reconciled relationship with God in and through Christ. Whatever issues people may have with the idea of divine determination or even determinism are circumscribed for Barth because God’s determination is not predominantly a determination for the glory of God, but rather a determination that glorifies God because of God’s glorification of the creature.

All this suggests that God’s providence is not simply the execution of a divine decree, even though providence stems from God’s self-election in Christ. There is a genuine relationship at the heart of providence, and each creature freely aims to act in particular ways. But Barth insists that the effect of a creature’s aim is simply posited by God so that all things can be routed towards God. Indeed, all events, both free and necessary, are determined by God to witness to God’s glory revealed in Jesus on the cross, which causes God’s kingdom to come on earth. Thus each creature is a witness to God; each creature participates in God’s rule. Even as Christ rules over all by virtue of his kingly office, so the creature participates in Christ’s rule – either unwillingly or willingly. For Barth, the Christian is the creature who willingly participates in Christ’s rule by engaging in Christ’s prophetic office through prayer and obedience.

It is here that the ‘already/not yet’ tension comes into play. Through Christ’s kingly office, das Nichtige has been cancelled. It has no significance for creation, because Christ has dealt with it once and for all on the cross. But on the basis of Christ’s prophetic office, das Nichtige is still a threat; this is why the creature prays for God’s kingdom to come. But how can das Nichtige be no more and yet still remain a threat to the creature? Green makes much of Barth’s conviction that one of the ways in which das Nichtige still threatens the creature is through its deceptive character that pushes even the Christian to believe that God is not, in fact, the ruler of all things. It is the Spirit who reveals the truth of the situation to the Christian, although the Christian must continue to live as if God hasn’t overcome das Nichtige! But whatever tension or ambivalence there is concerning das Nichtige from the differing perspectives of Christ’s kingly and prophetic offices, is overcome in the one person of Christ.

This is why Barth finds prayer and the creature’s living relationship with God crucial for a true understanding of divine providence. A proper doctrine of providence is not a worldview; nor is it a metaphysical system that attempts to hold in tension opposing principles. Instead, because the creature (the Christian) participates in the risen Christ, questions about the extent of God’s rule, the freedom of the creature, the apparently continuing existence of das Nichtige, evil, and so on – because the Christian participates in the risen Christ, these sorts of questions shouldn’t arise. And in place of these questions, through ever-deepening relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit, arises an attitude of praise and thanksgiving for God’s ceaseless rule.

I’m not sure what to make of Barth here. I’m uneasy with any suggestion that questions about God’s rule, creaturely freedom, the existence of sin and evil, etc., should not be raised. I can see and agree with Barth’s point – providence can only truly be apprehended through a living relationship with God, and the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus do have the final say – but I do not think that this should prevent us from asking these sorts of questions. To me, to say otherwise belies a kind of piety that intends silence. Green seems to have similar worries here; he isn’t convinced that Barth can avoid turning his take on providence into some kind of worldview: ‘How can we know that Barth is participating in Christ in his own way of praying through the doctrine of providence?’ (Doxological Theology, p. 118, emphasis original). It’s a fair point. Is Barth uncharacteristically overconfident in his theology of providence in §49.3?

This chapter in Doxological Theology was not especially easy to read, no doubt because Barth’s discussion in §49.3 is arguably quite tortuous at times. Green has done well to render Barth as clear as possible. And while the focus of the chapter is §49.3, Green also devotes a couple of sections to §72.1 (from CD IV/3) and refers to Barth’s lectures on the Lord’s Prayer, which Barth wrote alongside CD III/3.

Note: Amazon is now listing the paperback version of Doxological Theology as being available from 28 March 2013.

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