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.

  1. 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), 106-107.
  2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956-1975), 471.
  3. Kennedy, “Personalist providence,” 95-96.

So what do you think?