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)
7. § 50, God and Nothingness
Barth is rather confusing in his discussion of das Nichtige. On the one hand, Barth argues that das Nichtige has been totally defeated; there is no sense in which das Nichtige has any bearing on created reality. But on the other, Barth also appears to admit that das Nichtige continues to hold sway over created reality. How can these contradictory claims be overcome? In this seventh chapter of Doxological Theology, Green offers a framework for interpreting Barth, a framework that finds its origin within Barth’s distinction between the material and formal offices of Christ.
According to Barth, our knowledge of das Nichtige or the Nihil comes through our knowledge of its nullification on the cross of Christ. Consequently, any issues pertaining to das Nichtige can only be discussed from within the context of a creature’s de facto participation in Christ. Those who praise God in Christ are attuned through prayer to recognise the victory of God in Christ on the cross, whereas those who do not praise God – that is, those who examine the so-called problem of evil from a de jure participation in Christ – can only construct a theodicy that assumes a mechanical causality between sin and evil. On this latter account, the cause of sin or evil must either be Pelagian in orientation (because people bring evil on themselves) or Manichean (evil has a higher, metaphysical cause).
But given that das Nichtige has been cancelled by the cross, and given that Barth has claimed that the Nihil no longer exists in any sense, how should we assess the seriousness with which Barth continues to regard das Nichtige? Green argues that this is where Barth’s distinction between Christ’s material and formal offices comes into play. From the perspective of Christ’s material offices – that is, his kingly and priestly offices – God in Christ has completely cancelled das Nichtige. Christ reigns as Lord of all, and there is no threat to his lordship, no pretender to his throne. And for this reason, the Christian can be joyful. But das Nichtige still has a place when viewed from the perspective of Christ’s formal office – that is, when viewed from the perspective of Christ’s prophetic office. In this context, the Nihil hinders creatures from accepting the sovereignty of God in Christ, and continues to be an issue.
Of course, this is somewhat paradoxical: the Nihil hinders creatures from accepting that Christ has defeated the Nihil. But Green points out that Barth’s theology here is highly rhetorical and stems from faithfulness to the object of faith, rather than from a need to outline a coherent theology of the matter. Moreover, the ‘triumphal rhetoric’ (John McDowell) of Christ’s kingly and priestly offices, and the seriousness of das Nichtige under Christ’s prophetic office, are incomprehensibly held together as one perspective by the Spirit. On this basis, the coherence of Barth’s account of das Nichtige stems from the Christian’s actual, prayerful participation in Christ rather than from the depths of the confused human mind.
If this is so, Barth requires his readers to accept contradictory statements when it comes to the matter of God’s providence and the Nihil. Green puts it this way: ‘If theology is to partake in the clarity that comes from obedience, it must reflect this reality in its own language, even if that means making statements that are apparently contradictory.’ (Doxological Theology, p. 177). I dare say that not everyone will be satisfied by Barth’s position, even if they are convinced by Green’s analysis of Barth.