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.

I'm 22. I'm married with a toddler and a newborn. love Jesus Christ. I grew up a Southern Baptist and now situate myself within Evangelical Calvinism (which isn't TULIP!). I also draw substantially from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and Alastair Roberts. I go to the Baptist College of Florida. I'm also a bit nerdy.