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, 11 March 2013

Book Review: Doxological Theology [5]

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)

6. § 49.4, The Christian Under the Universal Lordship of God the Father
Throughout §49, Barth has never ignored the fact that God’s providence presumes the activity of the creature. Indeed, the creature is summoned to prayer as arguably the highest form of action and participation in Christ’s own action in and for the world. In this sixth chapter, Green uncovers more of what’s implied by Barth’s account of the participatio Christi for the doctrine of providence.

Prayer, for Barth, is absolutely vital if the creature wishes to participate in Christ’s own intercession for the world. At one point, Green even implies that Christ’s intercession constitutes the doctrine of providence, entailing that the creature’s participation in Christ’s prayers is in fact a participation in providence. And if the creature is truly participating in Christ’s intercession for the world, then the creature is willingly participating in Christ’s kingly and priestly offices, as s/he is involved the process (if process it be) of God’s own decision-making (Christ’s kingly office) and representation of the world to God (Christ’s priestly office). This means that, according to Barth, creatures – or, within the context of §49.4, Christiansdo influence God’s decisions and governance of the world. After all, prayer consists of praying to God, asking God to do things, expecting things of God. And by praying the Lord’s Prayer after Jesus, the Christian participates in providence by participating in the life of Christ himself.

I believe my summary above captures the key points of the content of §49.4. In many respects, Barth has already anticipated everything he says in §49.4 in §49.1-3. But Green’s analysis is crucial for understanding the thrust of this section in Barth, for he outlines the various ways in which Barth structures his theology of prayer and participation in providence. Green makes it clear that Barth is following the Lord’s Prayer at this point, and that the Lord’s Prayer will shape the way the rest of CD III/3 is written. Green argues that §49.1-3 follows the pattern of the first half of the Lord’s Prayer and describes the creature’s de jure participation in God’s providence; this is how providence is. But in §49.4, Barth is engaging with the second half of the Lord’s Prayer, and so describing the creature’s – the Christian’sde facto and thus willing participation in God’s providence through faith, obedience and prayer, as s/he brings his or her aims into line with God’s own aims for the world.

Green also does well to demonstrate how the Christian’s faithful, active participation in Christ admits of the ‘already/not yet’ distinction involved in divine governance. Perceiving that the kingdom is already present because Christ is the world’s risen king, the Christian accepts that s/he is an instrument in the hands of the potter, being shaped through Christ’s priestly and kingly offices to live under the lordship of God in Christ. But the Christian also recognises that God’s kingdom is deferred, in so far as this indicates both God’s permission of evil and the future return of Jesus. In this context, the Christian is a faithful servant participating in Christ’s prophetic office, praying that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. This ‘already/not yet’ distinction – otherwise phrased as ‘therefore Christ is Lord’ and ‘nevertheless Christ is Lord’ – becomes the basis for the remainder of CD III/3, as Barth turns his attention to how the Lord’s Prayer influences the content of §50 (‘lead us not into temptation’; the creature’s turning against das Nichtige) and §51 (‘thine is the kingdom’; the creature’s worship of God, or doxology).

This chapter is so far the highlight of Doxological Theology for me. Green is careful to show the many connections between §49.1-3 and §49.4, and in so doing enthuses the reader to prayer. Where there may be continuing objections to Barth’s approach to providence – I’m not comfortable with the way Barth appears to give to the creature with one hand and takes away with the other when it comes to the creature’s de jure participation in providence (that is, I’m still not convinced Barth allows for the integrity of creaturely action if God bends the effects of the creature to God’s will) – there is no doubt that for the Christian, there is enormous scope to play a significant part in God’s governance of the world. And this has all kinds of implications for theology and local church practice, which I won’t elaborate now beyond saying that I believe I have detected possible support in Barth for my belief that providence is chiefly exercised through local church practice.

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