Layered, Christological Election as a Biblical Story

As I posted some time ago, Evangelical Calvinism has a highly Christological approach to election which, in the history of salvation, involves several “layers.” The election of Christ in eternity has as its correspondence a movement of historical election which takes place through several stages/layers of covenant (all of which, of course, mediate the one covenant of grace in Jesus).

I only recently learned how much this layered aspect is actually present in Karl Barth. I had imagined before that Barth’s Christological focus was so strict as to squeeze out the room for this idea of layers in the history of election, but Nathan Hitchcock summarizes in his PhD dissertation, Karl Barth and the resurrection of the flesh, how this layered aspect of election plays out in Barth’s reading of the Biblical story. All I really want to do in this post, then, is quote his rather epic presentation.

Election’s set of concentric circles plays out the drama of reconciliation28: the eternal decree in Jesus fructified from the One to the many through the creation of Adam, the population of the earth through Noah, then on to the manifold blessing given to Abraham. However, a thinning of the visibly elect community occurs through Moses and David, the kings and prophets, leading ultimately to a convergence back to the One in His single history of reconciliation. Of the millions who lived before Him, only a handful represented the elect Israel, and even these actors in the history of salvation narrowed until, the disciples scattering from the Garden of Gethsemane, only Jesus remained. Upon this one crucified Representative rested the whole task of reconciliation. The circles of election contracted back to the single point on Golgotha, the telos of the divine election, thus enacting God’s gracious election. As for the resurrection of Jesus, the same elective expansion occurs, this time from the divine, single point in the Auferweckung to the second, communal ring during the forty days of appearance to the inclusion of all sorts of individuals at the outpouring of the Spirit. The now-established Church expands into all the world with Christ in His prophetic mission. 

Nathan Hitchcock, Karl Barth and the resurrection of the flesh

Layered, Christological Election as a Biblical Story

Barth on Providence and Double-Agency

In my last post about D. M. Kennedy’s thesis on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence, I overviewed the way Barth addressed the question of evil in the world and the divine will. God gives sin and evil space for existence in His opposition to it; His “No” to human evil defines it and gives it concrete existence as His enemy. Thus sin is included in God’s will negatively, as that which He hates and denies in order to love and create His positive will. In the end, through the Cross of Christ, all sin and evil have their intentions thwarted as their ends are subjected to the positive will of God in creation and reconciliation.

This account, as fun as it is, is not quite complete. To get the way all of this is supposed to work a little better, it is necessary to also understand Barth’s doctrine of double-agency, the way in which both God and the world act in everything which happens. For Barth, and many other theologians, it is necessary to affirm that God acts in all occurrences. Nothing happens in all of creation in which God is not actively doing something. Providence would not be providence, especially from a Reformed perspective, if not everything was in some way an act of God. So Barth would affirm, along with the Old Testament and many Christian thinkers, God’s omnicausality, His causing of all things which come to pass.

So what does Barth’s view of double-agency look like in his doctrine of providence? First, it must be seen that all events in all history are God’s act at least inasmuch as He creates and sustains all things. This applies on one level to mere matter, simple particles and such, as God chooses at every moment to cause their existence with their distinct natures and properties. Every quark and gluon, photon and graviton, “acts” out of its own nature under the conditions in which God has placed it, and God acts to give and sustain the nature and abilities of these particles. Thus for Barth “natural” processes or “laws” cannot be understood as some autonomous principle(s) which mechanistically force all things to work in a certain way, but rather they are simply the outplaying of the way God ever constitutes the elements and forces of nature.

Each day of creation marks the appearance of created beings with particular natures which serve the Creator’s intention. For example, light has a God given ‘nature’ corresponding to its function and purpose. Barth explains, ‘Giving it its nature, He sets it [light] with this nature in that antithesis [between God and darkness]’. This ‘nature’, however, is in relation to the living God. Acting naturally, it corresponds with its Creator:

…in its distinction from Himself He finds in it a correspondence (entsprechend) to the goodness of His creative will and acts. In this connexion only that can be called “good” which corresponds to God’s will and act as Creator, and for this reason and in this way in a positive relation to Himself’.…in its distinction from Himself He finds in it a correspondence (entsprechend) to the goodness of His creative will and acts. In this connexion only that can be called “good” which corresponds to God’s will and act as Creator, and for this reason and in this way in a positive relation to Himself’.

Barth goes on to contrast his view of the goodness of light in correspondence with the will and act of God to those who consider the ‘qualities and advantages of light’. In doing so, Barth sets his actualistic ontology and its stress on relationships in contrast with the traditional Aristotelian substantialism. Double-agency means that impersonal creatures ‘are’ in their natural existence precisely as God actively sustains them to be. Like Farrer, Barth suggests ‘two doings’, but only one meaning given by God, since the non-intelligent nature of light does not involve an intention from the side of the creature.

Barth accentuates the ‘limits’ (Grenzen) and ‘nature’ (Natur) of each creature. Every creature has a particular God-given nature allowing for varied praise and witness to its Creator. Thus the creation of plants signals the potential not for agency but for obedience nonetheless. Barth highlights the difference in the nature of plants and non-living creatures this way,

Light has only to become and be what it is. The firmament has only to divide. The waters have only to gather. The results of the activity of the action of these creatures do not extend beyond themselves to the existence of other creatures. But the earth…has a transitive character…It produces things that are different from itself….

Barth portrays creaturely life as both ‘produced by God’ and totally natural. As in Farrer’s lower levels of providential double-agency, Barth preserves the full integrity and relative individuality of the creature while affirming divine agency in each moment of existence. The Creator both creates the nature of the impersonal creature and personally acts in double-agency using ‘creaturely powers straight…’1

So for Barth, God is the “cause” of all physical occurrence by giving every physical part of creation its peculiar nature and function. All so-called “natural laws” are the result of God’s constant act of creatively ordering the world. Yet at the same time, this divine act makes the “independent” naturalness of the physical world properly real. God does, and so nature does, but nature does precisely as nature and not merely as a divine instrument 

This conception of double-agency has two particularly notable results. First is that Barth thus rejects the concept of natural evil. Hurricanes, volcanoes, mosquitos, and carnivorous survival are not, for Barth, effects of sin or the curse but simply expressions of the way that objects and forces with different created natures may interact in abrasive ways. Just as without heat and friction between objects, there could be no motion, so without these various harsh aspects of creaturely existence, there could be no natural world. This reminds me of a section in The City of God where Augustine addresses natural evil by pointing out that just because certain created things are bad for humans does not mean they are inherently bad. Instead, they are good as they act out their God-given natures even when that is problematic for us.

A second result of Barth’s take on double-agency in creation is a rejection of any idea of miracles as breaking or bypassing the created order. If all natural occurrence is in fact already God’s omnipotent action, then Humean miracles would essentially be God bypassing or contradicting Himself. So Barth defines miracles by their meaning and relation to human perception. Miracles occur by natural processes, but they are so wielded by God’s providence as to participate in revelatory significance in key moments of God’s plan.

This rejection of Humean miracles does come with two important qualifications, though. On one hand, Barth defines creation’s natural order in a way that allows for many things we might not be inclined to consider “natural” as in fact perfectly natural. I’ll save the twist on this for my next post. The other qualification is the resurrection of Christ (and thus humanity in Christ), which is neither natural nor a simple violation of nature but in fact a new creation in the midst of the old, a sequel to the ex nihilo work of Genesis 1.

More closely related to the last post, though, and addressing the issue of human evil in providence, is Barth’s understanding of double-agency with respect to persons. Personal beings are more than the sum of their physical parts, after all, especially in that they have true, intentional agency. A particle simply exists and interacts without knowledge or motive, but human persons move autonomously and make choices. It is in this sphere, then, in which double-agency means the most.

As said before, Barth acknowledges the act of God in every occurrence, thus including human decisions, even evil ones. But Barth is no fool who simply treats humans like rocks and stones moved by God deterministically. To summarize Kennedy’s presentation of Barth’s view of double-agency in persons, I’ll offer three points which describe the act of God in human action.

First, God acts creatively to sustain the human’s being and willing as a creature. God has made man with certain volitional capacities which, while never intended to host sinfulness, have become inhabited by sin in such a way that God must allow sinful wills to play out their desires for a time or otherwise go back upon His creative will in unfaithfulness to Himself. While Barth probably would have objected to the term “free will” being applied here, what we are essentially faced with is a relocation of the doctrine of free will to Creator/creature distinction, suggesting that God mustn’t control in an overruling way human wills if He wishes to preserve the integrity of His creatures precisely as creatures. Thus God acts in human action by creating and sustaining human agency and volition which would otherwise not exist.

Second, God acts in all human action to determine it as positive or negative witness to election in Jesus Christ. This follows closely from what was discussed in the last post about Gods “Yes” or “No” to all human choice. As is well-known, for Barth election means God’s predetermination to be for all mankind in the mediation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man. Unlike Calvin, who considered the election and reprobation of men as part of the general doctrine of providence applied to salvation, Barth puts election before providence as its original ground. Providence follows from election so that God acts to determine all human acts as either a positive witness to election, humanity living in his truth as elected man, or negative witness to election, humanity living the lie as a rejected man who is nonetheless elected. Those who obey God do so as servants, friends, and willing participants in God’s electing purpose, whereas those who disobey God do so as deceived creatures thinking themselves independent of God when in fact they are elected for Him in Christ. The disobedient do not intent to glorify God or witness to His grace, but God overcomes their intention to instead use their disobedience as a sign of His electing grace. Thus Barth says of them, “The rejected as such has no independent existence in the presence of God. He is not determined by God merely to be rejected. He is determined to hear and say that a rejected man is elected.”2 Kennedy helpfully shows how Barth applied this thought to Judas:

The Lordship of God determined, determines and will determine all things as witnesses to election.

The example of Judas helps to demonstrate Barth’s understanding of providence under election. It also gives a particular example of the way Barth avoids both the charge of determinism and of making God the author of sin. At no point do Judas’ actions cease to be determined by God’s active electing will, but Judas is no puppet or chessman. He rebels against God and acts as if he were a godless person. Contrary to deterministic views, Judas’ betrayal was not ‘written’, required by God’s plan or specifically necessary for God’s salvific purposes. God determines the betrayal for the realization of God’s will, but Judas did not have to betray Jesus any more than the other disciples were inhibited from doing so by God. Barth states bluntly that the other disciples shared the same perverse ‘possibility’ of Judas,

To be sure, they have not actually done it or co-operated with [Judas]. But the point is that they obviously could have done it. The possibility of doing it was their possibility too… any of the others might equally well have been the one.

As ‘the great sinner of the New Testament’, Judas illustrates the perverse impossible possibility of the ‘rejected’. In his will and act of handing-over Jesus, Judas’ ‘disobedience was certainly not obedience. On the contrary, it was total disobedience.’ Nevertheless, Judas’ betrayal encounters the sovereign determination of God and therefore will witness to the grace of God…Barth has shown the omnipotence of God’s providential determination without any possibility of determinism in a mechanical or overpowering sense. God does not interfere in Judas’s actions, but determines them—‘against [Judas’] will and deserts (gegen seinen Willen und Verdienst)’—as a witness. Likewise, Judas’s sin remains Judas’s responsibility, though determined by God’s left hand. In such a view, God cannot be understood as either the ‘author of sin’ or as a monadic tyrant.3

This is a rather interesting conception in my opinion, and it works well as an account of how God can work all things to His glory without being the author, deviser, or even far remote cause of sin. God does not determine Judas to sin, but He determines Judas and his sin as involuntary, unwilling testimony to God’s grace toward sinners in Jesus. The depth of Judas’ depravity can only come to highlight the glorious love of Christ in choosing, coming, and dying for such a sinner. Rather than God glorifying Himself simply by damning the sinner (as is the case in most Calvinist conceptions of reprobation and providence), God is glorified by being the one who, even in and to the point of the sinner’s damnation, loves and mercies him, subjecting even all of his wickedness to this omnipotent benevolence.

Third, God acts in every human action by integrating it into a wider scope of providence that ultimately brings God glory and humanity grace, regardless of its intention. In Barth’s conception of double-agency, God’s sovereignty is exercised by the triumph of His intention over and against the contrary intention of the sinful creature. God does not properly cause, either directly or indirectly, the creature to do evil, but He overcomes and determines creaturely evil for His good by the power of Cross and Resurrection. Since God is in His eternity knows, wills, and acts before, during, and after all creaturely action, He may providentially incorporate all human action into a series of events into which the sinful man does not wish them to play any part, but which accomplishes the will of God. Before man acts, God sets His electing determination and His benevolent will into absolute place. When man acts, God acts alongside according to His own purpose and will determined in election. After man acts, God continues to have power to fulfill His intention even though the creature has lost power over his own intention to the unstoppable flow of time. Thus God is radically superior to human willing and doing, able by His free transcendence to act in relation to a single, limited human act from and in all of time and space. Man’s act and intention are finite, but God’s act and intention vis-a-vis man’s act are free of any limitation. And while I focus on how this relates to sin, it also has meaning for human obedience. God acts before, during, and after all human goodness so that He can confirm it and incorporate it into a greater purpose which fulfills its faithful intention beyond what the limited Christian is capable of accomplishing. Thus for Barth, all of our obedience can, by God’s providence, take on more duration and significance than we have an ability to give it.

Clearly, then, Barth affirms a strong doctrine of providential double-agency which portrays God as truly and utterly sovereign even while Barth ardently rejects and refuses the determinism or quasi-determinism of standard Reformed versions of providence. There is no hidden control of creaturely action in Barth, but there is a determination shaped by election which respects creaturely being and act even while confirming or contradicting the creaturely intention from a superior and eternal standpoint. While some questions and possible critiques remain, particularly in relation to miracles (though some of this will be covered in the next post), the overall strengths are again clear. Election in Christ is at the front, God does not in any way author sin, but God remains comprehensively sovereign, even to the being omnicausal.

Barth on Providence and Double-Agency

Barth on Providence and the Divine Will

I recently read a dissertation by Darren M. Kennedy entitled, “A personalist doctrine of providence: Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics III.3 in conversation with philosophical theology” (which can be downloaded here). It’s really interesting, and I’ll probably do a few posts about the discussions therein. But one of the first things in the work which caught my attention was Kennedy’s treatment of Karl Barth’s view of providence and the divine will.

In his thesis, Kennedy argues that Barth’s doctrine of providence in CD III/3 has been misread by too many as if it basically regurgitated the traditional Reformed, quasi-determinist position, and that in fact a correct reading taking into account Barth’s ad hoc employment of conceptual tools from personalist philosophy reveals it to be, in Barth’s own words, a “radical correction.”

Having finished his 238 pages on the subject, I would certainly agree that if his reading is at all correct (which seems likely enough, though I’d need to study more firsthand Barth to be sure) it does make for a radical correction over the traditional Reformed doctrine of providence. One of the places this struck me the most is the covering of the issue, “Is everything which happens (including human evil) God’s will?” The traditional Reformed answer to this question is “yes,” and Kennedy argues that Barth does agree. But the difference between how this is explained and constructed in classical Reformed thought and in Barth is, in fact, a major and brilliant one.

Classically, the answer tends to take the form of a distinction between God’s “sovereign will” and His “revealed will” (or “will of command”). The latter tells us what God individually demands from us as general rules of moral and lifestyle conduct, but the former includes everything which comes to pass (by God’s sovereign ordination). These two can sometimes be, and are in fact often, very different, with God decreeing by His sovereign will something which is forbidden under His revealed will. Difficulties tend to arise when the question is posed of God’s disposition towards sinful acts, e.g. “God disapproves of this and it incurs His wrathful displeasure, but nonetheless He was pleased to bring it to pass to fulfill His will.” Different thinkers address the details of this in different ways, but usually, God’s self-glorification is invoked as the basic motive behind all of God’s sovereign will. Thus God ordains human sin which He forbids, such as the Fall, in order to bring about a greater display of His glory. Note that even though two wills are mentioned, it is supposed to be understood that God only has in essence one will, multifaceted in its applications, including both moral prescriptions and sovereign decrees.

From this doctrine tend to come a few major criticisms:

First, the usual: how does this avoid making God the author of sin? The use of secondary causes doesn’t seem sufficient to protect against the weight of the Holy God Himself freely and unconditionally choosing by decree to ensure that, even if by means, sin occurs and enters His creation. Regardless of the creaturely role, all evil is ultimately the product of the mind and design of the One who is goodness itself. At this level permission language does indeed become flimsy, and thus Calvin’s reluctance to use it makes sense. The creation narrative must include, “And God said, ‘Let there be sin,’ and sin was, and God saw that it was good [in the grand scheme of things].”

This leads into a next issue, namely the introduction of ambiguity into the character of God. For the only real response to God’s decreeing of evil is, like Calvin’s, an appeal to divine inscrutability. But if we appeal to a mystery in God at this point, the very point of His intentions for and in all things, of His benevolence and apparent hostility, then we find that our big theological question mark is located over just who God is toward us. Of all the places to leave theological uncertainty, this is not the place. Ironically, this move undermines Calvin’s stated beginning for theology, in which the question “What is God?” is replaced with “What is God like?” This latter question seems forever clouded if we affirm in providence the good God’s direct, positive intent to render evil certain in created history.

Of course, this also ties in with Christological issues. If this established question mark is hung over God’s will toward us, then the true fullness of God’s self-revelation as Jesus Christ is obscured. In the Jesus of the Gospels God confronts us exclusively as against evil, as willing not for it ever but in combat with it in each moment. In Jesus, we see the opposition between God and evil as one unto death. A doctrine of providence in which evil is, however grossly and unwillingly, something God brought into the world (even if from a distance) freely and to bring about His glory is one in which God’s true relation to evil must, in fact, remain hidden even after and in the Cross, splitting off the revelation of God in Christ from His secret reality. For this to work requires an implicit Christological heresy in which Jesus of Nazareth is not actually Himself the God of providence but instead a mere instrument of that God behind which God conceals much of His will and purpose toward us. This would leave us at the very best with a hidden Nestorianism.

If these criticisms are valid (disregarding other possible issues), then a “radical correction” may be warranted indeed. So how does Barth articulate providence in a way that escapes these problems without denying that all things are covered under God’s will (and for bonus Reformed points, without making God a mere passive observer)?

To fully engage on Barth v. Reformed orthodoxy on providence would require many more posts (some of which I will be writing), but for now, I’ll zoom in on the concept of all events as God’s will. Barth replaces the sovereign/moral will distinction with one of an altogether different structure, namely positive/negative will. These are of course explained as one will with two sides, the positive side being primary but in a certain sense being constituted by the negative. God’s positive will is all that He actively decrees, loves, approves, and creates from free grace. Yet these things are also defined by God’s negative will, that which He actively rejects, hates, judges, and refuses to bless or respect as having a proper place in creation. In choosing His positive will, God rejects His negative will.

So, to cut to the chase, what happens in this setup when people do evil? How does it relate to God’s will? It relates negatively, as man’s will seeks to actualize what God has rejected. But man’s existence and will depend on the creative and sustaining grace of God. This man’s evil intent is confronted in every instance with divine opposition. Yet it is this very opposition by which God actively grants to the creature the reality of His evil choices. Precisely in saying “No!” to the creature, God acknowledges their wicked action and thus imparts it with existence. Nothing can be apart from God’s Word, but in choosing to say, “I abhor and oppose act X,” God says by implication, “Act X is” (similarly to how Cogito necessarily implies sum). Kennedy explains it in this way:

Crucially for Barth, this human capacity to utter No in the face of God’s Yes does not fall outside of the ‘will of God’. This is essential to Barth’s doctrine of providence. Barth claims that both divine and human willing in world-occurrence can take two—and only two—distinct meanings based in the established covenant of election. Barth uses the rubric of the right and left hand of God for this two-fold willing. Barth writes, ‘Clearly that God will make us obedient and set us at His right hand, but no less clearly that even in our disobedience, when we must stand on His left hand, nothing except His will may be done to us.’ Barth explains the twofold willing of God this way,

God’s willing something can therefore mean that He loves, affirms and confirms it, that He creates, upholds and promotes it out of the fulness of His life. His willing it can also mean that in virtue of that same love he hates, disavows, rejects and opposes it as that which withstands and lacks and denies what is loved, affirmed and confirmed by Him and created, upheld and promoted by Him.

Accordingly, Barth can write, ‘God wills everything’ (i.e., in this twofold fashion) without implying that God wants everything to happen that happens. Clearly, if God wills by rejecting and opposing something, this action cannot imply guilt. Likewise, far from determinism, Barth sees God’s willing as a positive or negative determination of creaturely occurrence; there is no neutrality. Solidly anchored in God’s electing will in Jesus Christ, God wills by affirming and confirming creaturely occurrence or disavowing and rejecting it. Either way, no creaturely-occurrence happens without God’s active determination.

That God’s will ‘determines’ sin through hating, disavowing and rejecting it sets Barth at a safe distance from making God ‘the author of sin’. The human, not God, remains responsible for sin, though both act in double-agency. When God wills in this way,

He still wills it in the sense that He takes it seriously in this way and takes up this position over against it. He wills it in so far as He gives it this space, position and function. He does not do so as its author (Urheber), recognising it as His creature, approving and confirming and vindicating it. On the contrary, He wills it as He denies it His authorship…In this way, then, in His turning away from it, He wills what He disavows. It cannot exist without Him.

Darren M. Kennedy, “A personalist doctrine of providence: Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics III.3 in conversation with philosophical theology” (doctoral dissertation, The University of Edinburgh, 2008), 37-38.

In this way, then, evil acts acquire reality precisely through divine opposition. Thus God cannot be the author of sin at all, for His providential establishment of human sin is what it is precisely because He rejects evil altogether. Evil is not justified in any way (e.g. as part of a plan to glorify God or maintain free will) but instead utterly condemned as unjustifiable from the start.

This solves the Christological problem of providence, as well. There is no split between God’s action in providence and His action in Christ because the Cross is the climax of God’s providential opposition to evil. Rather than obscuring God’s true relation to evil, Jesus authentically reveals that God’s only relation to evil is negative and inimical. The whole history of providence can be seen as God pushing evil towards its defeat on Calvary and then subjecting all evil to Christ’s victorious rule.

The end result of this doctrine is the triumph of the divine will in all things. Even that which God negatively wills, the reality which He gives a place through His opposition, finds itself gripped by the victory of Christ. Sin can only achieve the opposite of its intention, for at its strongest when it crucified God it was found to accomplish only its defeat in the Resurrection. And since Christ has ascended to reign over all things in all of time and space, this pattern is universalized so that all evil, no matter how strongly it appears and asserts itself in opposition to the positive will of God, finds a singular fate under God’s negative will: destruction in the dying flesh of Christ.

Of course, there are certainly potential problems or concerns with this account, and much remains to be addressed in future posts. But I think the Biblical and theological advantages of this approach should be immediately clear. God’s character toward us is clear, determinism is averted, and the account is necessarily Christological. There is surely more work to be done, but certainly Barth was moving in the right direction.

Barth on Providence and the Divine Will

Big Changes (I’m Starting a New Blog, For Example)

I started this blog over three years ago now. A lot has changed since then, even though a lot has also stayed the same. But for the entire time, I have had to deal with a tension in my blogging style and content. I’ve been torn all this time between my desire to essentially write to my family, friends, and general church community—on the popular/lay level—and my desire to explore more technical and detailed theological topics in a more academic style. For the most part I have tried to balance these concerns, which has led to some major successes here and there. But it has also, I think, kept many posts from reaching their full potential, as I try to temper the depth of my more theological posts while still trying to remain interesting for the academically inclined.

After spending much time with this tension, I’m finally taking a new step to solve it. I’m splitting my blogging efforts into two blogs. This one, my old friend, will be entirely rebuilt and reoriented to fit my more technical and academic writing, and I’m launching a new blog, Being in Christ, to host my other, more popular-level stuff.

How all of this works and plays out will be seen soon. I don’t know exactly what effect this split will have, but I hope/expect it to improve the quality of both kinds of posts, and possibly the quantity as well. I can only pray that God will also use this to benefit both me and you guys, my readers. It’s been a fun run in my traditional format, but if you’re not so interested in my deeper stuff, feel free to replace your bookmark or email subscription with http://calebinchrist.tk.

Only God knows what’s in my writing future. But I’m ready to find out. God bless until then!

Big Changes (I’m Starting a New Blog, For Example)