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, 11 April 2013

Book Review: Doxological Theology [7]

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)

8. § 51, The Kingdom of Heaven, the Ambassadors of God, and their Opponents
It’s no surprise that Barth has arranged CD III/3 so that the kingdom of heaven – or, more precisely, the praise of God in the resurrected Jesus – is the final word on the doctrine of providence. Green not only shows that §51 echoes the final statement of the Lord’s Prayer, with its tone of praise, but also how providence and doxology are natural bedfellows. This ties in with Barth’s ‘radical correction’ to the doctrine of providence: the positioning of providence after God’s election in Christ, which reveals God wholly to be gracious and not capricious. Thus God is genuinely praiseworthy, and there is no need to construct a theodicy in order to explain the relation between God’s holiness and God’s omnipotence.

For Barth, says Green, doxology assumes material participation in Christ, which means a participation in Christ’s priestly and kingly offices. Such participation acknowledges and enjoys the risen Christ as Lord over all things. There is no place to recognise das Nichtige; indeed, from this angle, das Nichtige does not even exist. Barth emphasises the place of the angels in this worship of God in Christ: the angels are constantly praising, and earthly (human?) praise is caught up in the song of heaven (Revelation 4–5) in such a way that angelic praise may be said to anticipate earthly praise: ‘on earth as in heaven’. And because angels are forever praising God, the will of God that creation should praise God is met, even when there are earthly creatures that persist in not praising God. In short, doxology is the ascription to God of all that is God’s in the first place (including good and bad – that is, the good and the ‘shadow side’ of creation), and a material participation in Christ, so that God’s holiness and omnipotence are held together through Christ’s priestly and kingly offices. In this, Barth has returned to his ‘radical correction’, meaning that the issue of theodicy raised by the possibility of divine capriciousness has now been settled by the genuine praiseworthiness of God in Christ.

Green’s chapter on Barth’s account of heaven, angels and demons (which are not an issue for Barth as there is no place for demons when Christ rules as priest and king) is a decent analysis, showing how all the themes emerging from §§48–50 find suitable resolution in §51. Thus Green shows clearly why Barth concludes his doctrine of providence with a discussion of the kingdom of heaven and Christ’s resurrection, and why, for Barth, angelology (he discusses the liturgical function of angels and refuses to speculate about angelic ontology) and demonology must take second place to the resurrected Christ.

9. Conclusion: A Doxological Theology
In his conclusion, Green makes two important criticisms of Barth’s theology in CD III/3. The first centres on Barth’s take on Christian participation in the material and formal offices of Christ. Given that through this participation, the Christian can affirm the risen Christ as Lord of all (the material offices) and recognise that this fact is obscured by a world still subject in some sense to das Nichtige (the prophetic office). Barth’s critique of Reformed orthodoxy on providence and evil exposes what he believes is an ambiguous relation between God’s holiness and God’s omnipotence; but Green argues that Barth has, in effect, relocated this ambiguity to the Christian’s participation in Christ, in so far as the Christian has a double perspective on discerning God’s providence. When it comes to participation in Christ’s prophetic office through prayer, Green wonders if the Christian can ever truly know God as holy in a meaningful way. Moreover, Green notices that because of his emphasis on the Christian’s prayerful participation in Christ through the Spirit, Barth presents God the Father as somewhat ‘eclipsed … in practice’ (Doxological Theology, p. 215) by the Son and the Spirit. This, for Green, is a direct consequence of Barth’s ‘radical correction’, because all that is known about the Father’s lordship in providence is subsumed by the Son’s lordship.

Green’s second criticism seems more straightforward: the topic of eternal life is dealt with in §49.1 (on preservation) rather than in §51 (on the kingdom of heaven), leading to the importance of heaven’s contemporaneity with earth in Barth’s theology of providence. Again, Green sees the roots of this in Barth’s ‘radical correction’. But Green also points out that Barth’s diminishment of heavenly hope (read: afterlife) runs contrary to the majority of the Christian tradition, and that the doctrine of providence is poorer if there is no heavenly hope.


So what shall I conclude about Doxological Theology? While it adds to a wealth of literature persuading me that I need to read Barth on providence again and more closely, my impression is that Green’s insights are especially useful for showing how Barth has structured CD III/3. Green has shown that CD III/3 is to be read as a whole, and that §§50-51 are not merely add-ons to §§48-49. Moreover, Green demonstrates that providence is not an abstract doctrine, that doxology is at its heart, and that Barth’s genius on the matter was perhaps to show how providence is not solely a doctrine about God but also about creaturely participation in Christ; about creaturely obedience and not mechanical causality. If Green is right in his interpretation of Barth, I am not convinced that Barth’s take on the Christian’s perception of das Nichtige is correct, though it is certainly an interesting approach; but this is, of course, an issue with Barth, not with Green. I do wish there was more critical analysis of Barth, but Green does state in his opening chapter that this was not really his intention. And believe me, it’s enough for Green to have supplied such a wonderfully detailed commentary on CD III/3!

In short, I believe that Doxological Theology is an important contribution to Barth studies and more generally to studies on providence. And if anyone is currently working on a Ph.D thesis, Doxological Theology – a revised doctoral thesis – is a prime example of what can be achieved in a three-year period.

Let me close with a quotation from p. 220, in which Green ably summarises Barth’s approach to the doctrine of providence:

Barth writes his doctrine of providence on his knees. Like “sinking Peter,” who turns away from anxiety toward Christ in a moment of dire need, he soberly assures us that this is the correct stance of the theologian before the Lord of history. Therefore, he prays his way through the doctrine of providence, and he does this according to the prayer that is given to him by the Lord.

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