2011 was a good year for studies on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence. Darren Kennedy’s Providence and Personalism shows how engaging with personalist philosophers helps to illuminate Barth’s thought in this area, while Chris Green’s Doxological Theology is an in-depth study of Church Dogmatics III/3 itself. My review of Kennedy’s thesis is here, but my full review of Green’s book will hopefully be published by the Journal of Theological Studies in due course. In the meantime, I thought I’d summarise each chapter of Green’s study and offer a few thoughts when appropriate.
In this post, I summarise the first two chapters.
Green observes that Barth’s discussion of providence in CD III/3 follows the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer and is, in large part, an extended theological prayer in its own right. According to Green, §§48–49 reflect the first half of the Lord’s Prayer. Barth’s famous ‘radical correction’ of providence is his Christological interpretation of divine sovereignty, so the God of providence is explicitly understood to be the God and Father of Jesus Christ (§48). And, says Green, for Barth, following the threefold form of providence, conservatio amounts to God’s creation of a hallowed context for the creature; concursus alludes to the doing of God’s will in both heaven and earth; and gubernatio refers to the coming of God’s kingdom (§49). The remaining paragraphs refer to God’s deliverance from evil (§50) and God’s kingdom (§51).
At this early stage, this framework is more asserted than argued; but already, Green is showing how the structure of CD III/3 means that we have to reckon with the whole of the volume to appreciate the relation between Creator and the creature, rather than just §§48–49, as is often the case. In particular, Green demonstrates an organic link between §50 and §51, as Barth argues that the ‘Nevertheless’ of das Nichtige (§50) must be held in conceptual tension with the ‘Therefore’ of God’s expulsion of nothingness on the cross (§51). Green’s brief analysis of the structure of CD III/3 here is brief but insightful.
In the closing comments to his introduction, Green states that his main intention is to interpret and exposit Barth’s doctrine of providence, thus putting his own (few?) critical comments in the footnotes and the volume’s conclusion. In many respects, I find this a helpful approach.
2. Karl Barth’s “Radical Correction” of the Protestant Orthodox Doctrine in III/3
One of the features of Doxological Theology is that Green refers to a currently unpublished lecture on providence which will be featured in the forthcoming Göttingen Dogmatics II. Green finds that this lecture is especially useful for considering the relationship between conservatio and the divine will, which is the general area where Barth’s ‘radical correction’ to Protestant Orthodoxy applies in the later CD III/3. Green is explicit: Barth’s ‘radical correction’ is his ordering of providence after God’s self-election in Christ. Thus election in Christ shapes providence, and not the other way around, as in the tradition. (Green devotes some space to discussing Barth’s disagreement with Thomas Aquinas on this matter.) The lecture on providence from GD II shows Barth already wrestling with some of the more unfortunate implications of Protestant Orthodoxy, in so far as Barth begins to see problems with the idea that divine concurrence must also entail the divine conservation of sin. While the Protestant Orthodox came up with various theological answers to disentangle God from the taint of sin, it seems, on Green’s reading, that Barth is increasingly aware of the spectre of divine capriciousness, in so far as God’s sustaining of evil does not necessarily entail God’s opposition to evil. And if God does not oppose evil, the creature has no reason to praise God, for an object of praise needs to be worthy of praise. For God to be praiseworthy, God needs to be omnipotent and holy.
Green’s next step is to consider Barth’s reconsideration of the divine will in CD II/1. The idea that God sustains sin without being tainted with sin is often supported by the distinction between God’s hidden will and God’s revealed will. Such a distinction allows for God to will sin in the order of being, but not to will sin in the order of morals. Barth is not impressed with this distinction, and his reordering of providence as stemming from divine election means that the hidden and revealed wills of God are now restructured as one divine will revealed in Jesus Christ. So rather than willing sin in the ontological order and not willing sin in the order of morality, Barth’s Christological reorientation of the divine will enables him to argue that God upholds the creature despite the ‘impossible possibility’ of its sin.
Why is sin an ‘impossible possibility’? Green emphasises that according to Barth, sin is outside creation; this is why das Nichtige (§50) is not treated in the discussion of providence proper (§49). God did not choose or will sin and evil; but because God wills the creature, sin and evil arise as the contingent consequences of humanity’s frailty. So while sin and evil did not need to occur, they were an ‘impossible possibility’ simply because humanity is not God, and its action is not God’s action. However, God does not let sin and evil have the last word, for in Jesus, we can see that God wills to expel these from God’s creation.
All this follows from Barth’s conviction that God’s will must be redefined by Jesus Christ; the second creedal article must flesh out the first. This methodology also safeguards against conceiving the triune God as a philosophical monad. Thus belief in providence is faith in the God revealed in and by Jesus Christ, which entails the creature’s praise and obedience to God as this belief is worked out in prayerful ‘practical recognition’ of God’s action in the world. Green concludes his second chapter by pointing out that Barth’s initial remarks on providence in §48 show God not only to be sovereign and all-powerful, but that the divine will, redefined in Christ, is also holy in its opposition to sin and evil. Consequently, the God revealed by Jesus Christ, for Barth, is most definitely omnipotent and holy, and there is no divine capriciousness to fear.