Karl Barth on Providence and Heaven

For my last (rather delayed) post on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence according to Darren Kennedy, I want to briefly address the way that heaven and, interestingly, the angels function in the whole structure. According to Kennedy, heaven and the angels are actually quite important to Barth’s providence. Why this would be the case might not be obvious at all to us, but once he explains it, the coherence is evident.

So, what do angels and heaven have to do with providence? Recall that in my last post on this I mentioned that Barth rejects the idea of miracles which violate natural order, but he understands the natural order in a broad way that allows for many things to take place which we might not be inclined to consider natural. This is where heaven and the angels come in. For Barth (and, basically, N. T. Wright of all people), the term “heaven” does not refer to the uncreated presence of God, but to the second sphere of creation, the other side from earth which is hidden from our perception. The angels belong to this created heavenly sphere, and thus strictly speaking are a part of natural creation. They are not properly supernatural, but simply belong to a different created habitat, the habitat of heaven rather than earth.

In his first brief explanation, Kennedy explains:

If God does not disrupt the causal nexus, how can one account for the specific ‘miracles’ in Scripture? Barth’s answer does not envision a violation of the causal nexus, but an expansion of it to include heaven. This explanation will help to clarify Barth’s interpretation of heaven and angels in III.3. While fully a part of the creation, heaven remains imperceptible to humanity. Nevertheless, as part of the cosmos, heavenly creatures can act and reveal in the earthly realm. Thus God directs angels—whose nature is to obey perfectly—to behave in ways that seem to disrupt creation, but violate no ontic laws of creation.1

So for Barth, then, there is nothing about miracles which necessarily violates the natural causal order. He does not overrule, bypass, undo, or contradict the “laws” by which He governs creation (since, after all, in double-agency they are His own doing, and He cannot contradict Himself). Instead, heaven and the angels are part of the natural, created world, and God from His presence in heaven sends the angels to do His will in ways which affect earthly realities. A blind man, for example, may receive sight not by earthly physical processes but by angelic action, which is nonetheless “natural” in the sense that angels are a part of the created order.

Thus Kennedy argues that the realm of heaven and the angels serve as a so-called “causal joint” in Barth’s theology of providence, the point where God’s action enters into the created world. Many theologians have traditionally had a very difficult time identifying this point, explaining how and where God’s providential action is effective in the natural world. Barth by no means overcomes the mystery altogether, which would be speculative and presumptuous, but he does point to this answer grounded in biblical stories and teachings.

To understand this better, we should see how Barth sees the difficulty in the relationship of the Wholly Other God to the created world. In his understanding, God only is able to act in our world through a particular created “midpoint,” the realm of heaven which He has made to dwell in and to unite with earth. Kennedy cites this from him:

Without this special place of God, and the distance therewith posited between Himself and man in his own place, there could obviously be no genuine intercourse between them. There could be no dialogue, but only a monologue on the part of God (or perhaps of man). There could be no drama, but either God or man could only live in isolation with no relationships to others or significance for them. If this is not the case; if the theme of Christian witness is neither the life of an isolated God nor isolated man, but the history enacted between them of isolation, estrangement, reconciliation and fellowship; and if this history is really enacted in our world, then this means that God as well as man has a distinctive sphere in this real world of ours.2

This is rather similar to N. T. Wright’s view, at least at the descriptive level, of heaven as “the control room for earth..the CEO’s office, the place from which instuctions are given.”3 Kennedy does not specify whether Barth thought God acts on the world through heaven only by the angels or also by other means, but in any case the point is a mediating realm between God and man’s world.

There are oddities to this account, though. For Barth, only God and humans are truly personal beings. Angels, although superficially similar to persons, are actually not. They have no free will (of any kind), and they are used by God similarly to simple tools. On this account, he also denies that demons are fallen angels, instead incorporating them into his doctrine of Nothingness (on which I have written here). If angels have no personal agency, then they cannot have sinned unless God caused them to do so, which of course is absurd. Thus demons are placed into their own category.

This last issue is odd, and I think compromises this apsect of Barth’s providential project on Biblical grounds. Could it be reworked without it? Perhaps. In any case, it is thought-provoking, and I think as a whole Barth’s doctrine of providence seems superior to the traditional Reformed formulations.

To Speak of Nothing: Examining Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Evil

[This is an essay I submitted last semester for my apologetics class, in which I had to do a research paper on an apologetic topic. I chose the problem of evil and decided to look at Barth’s view. However, I did this paper before reading Darren M. Kennedy’s dissertation of Barth’s doctrine of providence, which is relevant for a few issues.]

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Exploring Nothing
    1. Das Nichtige in Light of Theological History
    2. Concluding Summary of the Doctrine
  3. Worth Nothing? Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine
  4. Nothing Good for Something: Insights from Barth’s View
  5. Conclusion

Introduction

Evil is evil. This tautological statement might sound obvious and pointless but in fact, possesses much gravity. In the work of Christian theology, or more specifically in the work of defending the Christian faith through apologetics, many have undertaken the task of explaining how and why a good God with sufficient power to destroy evil can permit evil to exist and do as many horrors as the human race witnesses each day. Unfortunately, for many of these answers, evil is not truly evil. Instead, evil is part of a greater good, whether that good is free will, the glory of God, or something else. Karl Barth, however, offered in his Church Dogmatics his own answer (or non-answer) about evil, one in which evil is authentically evil. He named evil das Nichtige, and this doctrine has much to offer Christian theodical thought today. This doctrine is topic of my essay. Specifically, I would like to argue that Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige arises from a long history of Biblical, catholic thinking on evil, and though there are certainly notable weaknesses, the doctrine must be commended for being truly prophetic against evil, bound and determined by the Word, and characteristically Christocentric. My goal will be to show that Barth may not have the last word on the problem of evil, but his contribution will be valuable when fully understood.

To assess Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, first I will summarize the definition and explanation of the doctrine given in Church Dogmatics. Once they are presented clearly, I will compare and contrast Barth’s doctrine with various other views throughout Christian history to provide illumination and context. I will then work from this gathered clarity to address the weaknesses of das Nichtige, particularly charges of fantasy, tension with Providence, mythologizing, and dualism. They will be set against the doctrine’s strengths, and these last considerations will provide me sufficient material to perform a final analysis of the relevance and practical benefits which the Church might mine from Barth on this enduringly important issue. With this route prepared, then, the man himself may be allowed to speak. What exactly is Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, and what does the term even mean?

Exploring Nothing

“There is in world-occurrence an element, indeed an entire sinister system of elements, which is not…preserved, accompanied, nor ruled by the almighty action of God like creaturely occurrence.”1This shocking statement is how Barth introduced his doctrine of das Nichtige. The term itself comes from the German title of this chapter of the Church Dogmatics. Das Nichtige means in English “the Nothingness,” “the Null,” “the Negative,” or something else along those lines. The intention is to signify an absolute void, something which is not some thing but nothing(ness). Barth referred to evil in this way because he saw evil as fundamentally lacking in positive reality, but instead “existing” in antithesis to that which God wills to exist. For Barth, evil does not possess legitimate ontic ground. Evil belongs properly neither to the realm of Creator nor the realm of creature. Mark Lindsay summarized Barth’s unique ontology of evil this way: “Properly speaking, we cannot talk of Nothingness as something which ‘is’. In strictly ontological terms, ‘only God and His creature really and properly are.’ This cannot be taken to imply that Nothingness does not exist.”2 This paradox is essential to the doctrine of das Nichtige. Evil can only be categorized (if at all) as an “alien factor” in the world which seeks to corrupt and undo the creation, to drag the world back into the pure nothing from which God created.

For Barth, God willed and created for a good purpose of election, but das Nichtige can only be seen as that which God did not will or elect at all. Das Nichtige stands in opposition to both nature and grace, and thus is entirely unnatural and anti-grace. This anti-gracious character of das Nichtige, its non-willed “existence” under God’s opposition, is precisely what characterizes evil as evil, precisely why God must vehemently abhor and ruthlessly assault the whole system. For Barth, none of this is technically apologetics, either, or a systematic theological account of evil, but merely a dogmatic acknowledgment that true theodicy is basically impossible. In fact, Barth preferred to move past this question of evil’s nature (or lack thereof) to its solution in Christ, who suffered both the fullness of Nothingness and God’s wrath against Nothingness, surviving and doing away with both in His triumphant resurrection, thus finally and entirely eliminating even the not-existence which das Nichtige has, leaving only an echo or deceptive memory. What Barth distinctively means by all of this will be made clearer as historical development is traced and as other doctrines of evil in this tradition are juxtaposed with his view.

Das Nichtige in Light of Theological History

To anyone familiar with Augustine’s doctrine of evil, one of the earliest known views, Barth’s view may sound similar. This is somewhat justified and somewhat mistaken. Augustine’s well-known take on evil was privatio boni, the absence of good. His famous analogy was that of darkness to light. For Augustine, evil is not something in itself but merely the result of good not being there. Thus only good can be considered the creation of God, while evil is not. This is clearly similar to das Nichtige, but there are differences which bear noting. For Barth, evil has something of a rebellious malevolence. Without having true being, evil nonetheless is hostile to God and His creatures. On the other hand, Barth emphatically denies any reality or natural propriety whatsoever to evil’s “non-nature,” whereas Augustine’s view could be seen to allow a certain degree of “naturalness” to evil akin to way darkness is the nature state of the world without light. Both of them agree, however, that evil has no efficient cause.3

Barth considered the Reformed tradition his own home, and so traditional views of Reformed theology are also good for comparing his doctrine of evil. The classic Reformed position is that God sovereignly controls and ordains all things without exception, including evil. So says the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.4

This view appears quite clearly incompatible with Barth’s. The doctrine of das Nichtige absolutely refuses any notion that evil properly belongs to the will of God, whereas most Reformed thinkers have affirmed that God intentionally decrees every last occurrence, evil or otherwise. Representatives like Calvin would occasionally use the language of permission, but even this was rare and qualified. Yet for Barth and das Nichtige, the language of permission was essential and robust. Nonetheless, these drastically different views share the idea that evil has come into being alongside God’s act of sovereign election, even if the mechanism and divine intention are different for each.

In the modern era, there is certainly worth in comparing Barth’s doctrine with C. S. Lewis, despite the lack of any obvious connection. C. S. Lewis, as is well-known, relied heavily on the notion of free will. For Lewis, human freedom demanded the actual possibility of evil alongside that of good, for “all that is given to a creature with free will must be two-edged, not by the nature of the giver or of the gift, but by the nature of the recipient.”5 This kind of philosophical reasoning is hardly a part of Barth’s style, but he also used a kind of free will argument relocated, focused on maintaining the integrity of the Creator/creature distinction.6 In this case, the mysterious power of das Nichtige manifests itself by taking advantage of the space separating human will from divine will. So both of them seem to bind up the possibility of evil to the creation of the good, though this for Lewis is a symmetrical relationship, whereas Barth views the two as strongly asymmetrical, with evil more of an impossible possibility taking advantage of the real space of possibility generated by creaturely independence.

For a final comparison, this one both ancient and modern, das Nichtige may be compared to an Eastern Orthodox doctrine of sin. In an interview with The Christian Century, David Bentley Hart sketched a doctrine of evil which seems to parallel Barth’s at several points which representing historic Orthodoxy. The Orthodox view has historical roots similar to Augustine’s and Hart affirmed that evil is “a privation of the good: a purely parasitic and shadowy reality, a contamination or disease or absence, but not a real thing in itself.”7 This clearly echoes the kind of obscure, reserved language for evil’s ontology which Barth used. Hart also vehemently denied that, in Orthodoxy, there is any necessity or divine purpose behind the origins of evil. God can use and work past evil, but He fundamentally did not will or deliberately plan for evil to play a role in His purpose of divine-human communion. This strongly favors Barth’s contradiction to classic Reformed thought on evil (though which Hart detests as blasphemous). Thus, perhaps surprisingly, Barth’s post-Reformed, post-liberal account of evil is actually profoundly close to the ancient view of Orthodox theology, which seems a positive sign.

Concluding Summary of the Doctrine

With Barth’s doctrine of evil clarified by comparison to other historic attempts, the results are a doctrine of mystery and absolute affirmation of the goodness of both God and God’s creatures. Evil for Barth is not so much an apologetic issue which can be solved, but a disruption of theological thought which can only be described in awkward, negative terminology. Das Nichtige is not-being, but more than not-being functions as something of an anti-being, seeking to corrupt and de-create what God has willed, and is anti-grace, devoid of God’s grace and seeking to erase all its benefits. God has not chosen to create, ordain, or design any evil substances or mere happenings apart from evil’s prior historical appearance as opposition to His creative design. This is a fiercer doctrine of evil than Augustine’s privatio, a more uncompromising doctrine of God’s goodness vis-à-vis evil than most Reformed views, a more equivocal doctrine of human evil than Lewis’, and a surprising friend to Orthodoxy’s approach. With this fuller picture in place, Barth’s weaknesses on evil can be brought out with precision.

Worth Nothing? Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine

The first criticism which many have raised against the doctrine of das Nichtige is that an account of evil as both fundamentally characterized by not-being and truly and utterly defeated in Christ seems patently false, a form of denial about the clear reality of the visible world. Given that Barth specifically wrote during the time of Nazism and was well aware of the deep, inestimable darkness of the Holocaust, some like Lindsay have suggested that Barth’s doctrine, which takes no explicit account of such events, is necessarily an anemic account of evil.8 Is Nothingness a strong enough concept to explain the atrocities of the Second World War? Can Jesus’ once-for-all complete annihilation of das Nichtige really be considered realistic in light of the Auschwitz? Of course, there are potential responses to this, but the objection is understandable. This also seems to tie in with Barth’s unequivocal rejection of natural theology and general revelation; the Holocaust is not Christ, and so was never suitable material for doing theological work.

A second objection which might be raised against the doctrine of das Nichtige involves providence: if God truly does not will, cause, determine, or ordain evil, then how can His providence be authentically and robustly active over the dark forces of the world? This objection is stronger from Calvinists who might assert that such a doctrine completely dismantles God’s absolute sovereignty. While this second form of the objection is not especially compelling given the many weaknesses in a theory of divine determinism, the basic question stands and begs answering. This is compounded by the way in Scripture that God often overruled and guided evil, sending disaster this way and that, and even hardening people’s hearts. While there probably are possible ways to answer, not least from more carefully studying Barth’s account itself, that work remains to be done.

More serious an objection is the questionable, mythological or speculative nature of das Nichtige as an attempted account of evil. At one point Barth implied that the divine conflict against das Nichtige goes back in a certain sense (more in a logical than chronological sense, to be sure) behind the time of creation itself, with God’s act of creation being directed against the void which would have there be nothing else but Nothingness.9 In addition, the ontology of evil, the non-existing existence of das Nichtige as that which God rejected and did not create, seems simply outlandish. Certainly, this whole picture is a bit strange and calls to mind many of the pagan myths of a deity triumphing over a lesser deity in order to create the world mankind now inhabits.  This is odd for Barth more than others, given his resistance to all human projection and speculation. Any attempt to make das Nichtige into a workable Christian account of evil would have to address why and how such a bizarre account could be justified. This, again, can likely be done, and later a possible way will be suggested.

A final objection, and quite possibly the most serious of them all, is the way that Barth’s view of das Nichtige seems to construct an uncomfortable and questionable partial dualism in the heart of Christian theology. If indeed the struggle with das Nichtige goes back to the beginning of the act of creation itself, and if evil’s paradoxical existence of not-being ultimately traces back to God’s election of creation and covenant as the rejected alternative of desolation and anti-grace, then one has to ask whether some principle indeed made evil inevitable and necessary after all. Has Barth bound even God’s creative power to some higher principle which requires evil, even if the dualism is asymmetrical (and thus partial) due to Christ’s final and decisive eradication of das Nichtige? Lindsay addressed the problem in this way:

Hick raises a similar point when he queries why God, in the positive act of creation had, in logical necessity, also to create the “third factor” of Nothingness. Why can we not conceive of a God who is able to create a good universe “that is not accompanied by the threatening shadow of rejected evil?” Why must God choose good and reject evil, as though these realities were existences “which already [stood] in some way before Him…?”10

This is perhaps the most difficult and problematic question for the whole doctrine, and unless a remedy can be proposed, the Church may one day simply need to plunder Barth’s view for its benefits and move on to something else. So just what are these benefits?

Nothing Good for Something: Insights from Barth’s View

Despite the various weaknesses of Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, there are several commendable features from which the Church catholic may greatly benefit. The first of these worth mentioning is the way das Nichtige can serve Bible reading. While at first glance this doctrine hardly seems much relevant to any specific statements in the Scriptures, there are a few places where its relevance appears. One of the more interesting applications is in the Old Testament passages which depict creation in terms of mythological conquest.11 Barth knew that the mythological-sounding language he used was not at all univocal, but such descriptions do correspond with something that Scripture says about God’s supremacy in creating and preserving the world. What if the Biblical reader thought of Rahab as das Nichtige? That may not be identical to the original intent but ironically may very well give the modern reader a similar impression to what the ancient reader heard.

Another strength of Barth’s doctrine is its prophetic character with respect to the absolute nature of evil as evil and not good. In too many other Christian accounts of evil, evil truly cannot but be part of the good, either the necessary possibility which makes free will and human love real or the darker half of God’s plan of self-glorification. The doctrine of das Nichtige neither requires not permits such a concept of evil’s existence as inherently justified by its role as means to any end. Instead, being neither proper to the good God nor His good creatures, evil is fully wicked, unjustified, and unacceptable, allowed to truly be evil without merely being the balance to the Force. Das Nichtige is not truly a theodicy, for as McDowell explained, Barth knew that any such project had to in some sense or way trivialize evil and offer cover for its sources and activities.12 Thus following Barth on this point gives the Church solid ground to call out evil in an entirely uncompromised and uncompromising way.

In response to the charge above that das Nichtige represents a theology of denial and insufficiency by claiming evil is truly a dead void post-Calvary, there is, in fact, the entirely reasonable defense that Barth may be simply following Luther in submitting to a theology of the Word and of faith. Never mind what the world may appear to be; what God has declared alone matters. The reality men think they perceive is not ultimate, but only the reality which God has spoken by His omnipotent Word. Barth would certainly agree with Luther when he said, “He who believes God, recognizes Him as true and faithful, and himself as a liar; for he mistrusts his own thinking as false, and trusts the Word of God as being true, though it absolutely contradicts his own reasoning,”13 and so ought the Church today. In the face of the whatever reality appears to contradict the Gospel of Christ, the Gospel must be allowed to take precedence and declare the truth. If therefore, Barth is right to say that Christ declares Himself the absolute and unqualified victor over das Nichtige, consigning the beast entirely to the empty past, the Church ought to learn to have faith in the Word and not doubt.

Finally, though, the most important strength of Barth’s doctrine is the way Christ stands central. The das Nichtige was exposed and climactically annihilated on the Cross in the flesh of Jesus. Jesus survived, along with His divine-human union, but das Nichtige has been banished forevermore, stripped of even its old quasi-reality. All that remains is but an echo of a shell of a memory, but the risen Christ stands triumphant. From the beginning to the end, in ways also unexplored here due to space constraints, Barth’s doctrine of evil is viewed through the lens of Christology, and even if the exact results are less than perfect, the focus and methodology must be commended. If Jesus really is the true center and subject of all the world and God’s activity in the world, then there is no excuse for even attempting to describe an account of evil which makes sense without reference to Him. Barth successfully avoided that error and knew nothing about evil except Christ crucified. If nothing else is worth following in Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, this theme is.

Conclusion

What, then, is the result of all this? Is the doctrine of das Nichtige of benefit? By all means, it is! Nothingness is definitely a productive angle for approaching the problem of evil, one which had precedent and support in the thought of the Church catholic well before Barth ever wrote a word. Augustine and the Orthodox are especially close to this view, but similarities may even be found in the Reformed tradition and C. S. Lewis. In all of these cases, Barth’s catholicity and uniqueness shine through his flawed but fundamentally helpful account of evil, an account which, like all of Barth’s theology, found a compass in the person of Jesus Christ. Any doctrine which exalts and serves Christ in this way deserves at least a seat at the discussion table. Indeed, this doctrine can serve Christ, and a few reasons on why and how are in order.

There are a few possible useful implications of Barth’s doctrine of evil. In Christian preaching, the preacher is freed to call out evil and unqualified evil without equivocating or fearing the question, “Why would a good God allow evil, and what if He uses evil?” No conflicts of conscience, questions about God’s purposes and character, are necessary since evil is assigned a role of pure and complete opposition to divine willing and creating. Those wrestling with the problem of evil, both within the Church and without Her, may be pointed not towards philosophers and constructed systems but to Christ and Him crucified. Regardless of how and why evil came to be in actual metaphysical detail, the minister may proclaim that God has used His omnipotent power to mortify the phenomenon. This can also be an impetus to evangelism, the Church thus energized to take on the world, the flesh, and the Devil with its witness, knowing the forces to have already been destroyed in Christ. Hope may be allowed full reign, even in the darkest of times, and the Gospel can be proclaimed in force to all people: Jesus is Lord, over and against the evil forces, even das Nichtige, which He has vanquished.

Bibliography

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. 3.3, The Doctrine of Creation. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by G. W. Bromiley, G. T. Thomson, and Harold Knight. London: T&T Clark, 2009.

Hart, David Bentley. “Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart.” The Christian Century, January 10, 2006. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-01/where-was-god.

Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001. PDF.

Lindsay, Mark R. “‘Nothingness’ Revisited: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust.” Colloquium 34, no. 1 (May 1, 2002): 3-19. Accessed November 18, 2016. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

Luther, Martin, and John Theodore Mueller. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954.

McDowell, John C. “Much Ado about Nothing: Karl Barth’s Being Unable to Do Nothing about Nothingness.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 4, no. 3 (November 2002): 319. Accessed November 18, 2016. Academic Search Premier [EBSCO].

Vorster, Nicolaas. “The Augustinian Type of Theodicy: Is It Outdated?” Journal of Reformed Theology 5, no. 1 (2011): 26-48. Accessed November 18, 2016. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

The Westminster Confession of Faith. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.

Wikisource Contributors. “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XII/Chapter 6.” In Wikisource. 2010. Accessed November 18, 2016. https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_I/Volume_II/City_of_God/Book_XII/Chapter_6&oldid=2228839.


1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, §50, 289.

2 Mark R. Lindsay, “‘Nothingness’ Revisited: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust,” Colloquium 34, no. 1 (May 1, 2002): pg. 7, accessed November 18, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

3 Wikisource Contributors, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XII/Chapter 6,” in Wikisource (2010), accessed November 18, 2016, https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_I/Volume_II/City_of_God/Book_XII/Chapter_6&oldid=2228839.

4 The Westminster Confession of Faith (Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics), ch. III, sec. 1, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.

5 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), PDF, pg. 60.

6 Nicolaas Vorster, “The Augustinian Type of Theodicy: Is It Outdated?,” Journal of Reformed Theology 5, no. 1 (2011): pg. 37, accessed November 18, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

7 David Bentley Hart, “Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart,” The Christian Century, January 10, 2006, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-01/where-was-god.

8 Lindsay, “‘Nothingness’ Revisited,” 16.

9 Barth, CD III/3, §50, 290.

10 Lindsay, “‘Nothingness’ Revisited,” 13.

11 E.g. Job 26:12.

12 John C. McDowell, “Much Ado about Nothing: Karl Barth’s Being Unable to Do Nothing about Nothingness,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 4, no. 3 (November 2002): pg. 324, accessed November 18, 2016, Academic Search Premier [EBSCO].

13 Martin Luther and John Theodore Mueller, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954), pg. 87.

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.

Reflections on Depravity (With Patrick Bowers)

I recently finished up the chess series of the Patrick Bowers books by Steven James (The Pawn through Checkmate; I’m not counting Opening Moves, which I’m still reading). For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a series of crime thrillers which tends to focus both on serial killers and on terrorist plots. That’s enough reason for it to occasionally be a bit outlandish, and too often you find yourself having to choke down some pretty horrific images (human depravity stands out, for sure), but there is gold as well. The relationship between the main character, an FBI agent named Patrick Bowers, and his stepdaughter Tessa Ellis is an interesting one, with plenty of stereotypes but also plenty to appreciate as they grow closer and mature following the death of their wife/mother (not a spoiler: she died before the first book). But even better, they and some other characters get into wonderfully interesting and somewhat deep conversations (both with each other and themselves) about theological and philosophical issues. These alone are worth the read if you can stomach the graphic content.

The theological question I found most engaging is the depravity of man (no, this isn’t a post about total depravity in TULIP). In a series like this, it’s hard to avoid if you think much at all, and Steven James doesn’t avoid it. Instead, he tackles head-on one of the most serious issues about evil: just who is capable of what? What makes serial killers, assassins, and terrorists different from the rest of it.

In the Patrick Bowers series, the only clear answer is, “Very little.”

The prime example of this is how the series frequently calls back a case in which, upon arresting and handcuffing a serial killer, the killer said something that set Bowers off, and he responded by breaking his jaw and preparing to cut him apart with a scalpel before stopping. He recounts over and over in the narration how it felt kind of good, how it frightened him, and how it plagued him with the thought that maybe he and the killers he tracks aren’t so different after all. Indeed, he couldn’t shake the idea that we’re really all this way.

Of course, as Christians we rightly ought to understand from our faith that this is a realistic issue. We are corrupt in our flesh, and easily corrupted even further. As Batman and the Joker have noticed, no one is really more than one bad day away from becoming something which would have horrified them the day before, from actualizing depravity. If you doubt this, consider the Holocaust. Most of the people who participated in the crimes that tortured and killed millions of people were not previously obvious monsters. Before World War II started, you would not have thought anything was wrong with them. In fact, it would be quite absurd and offensive to suggest that Germans were simply more evil than the other peoples at the time. They simply were given the right nudges and conditions to bring out the darkest depths of who they really are. One example of a conversation that highlights this:

“But serial killers always look like the rest of us. They never really look like what they are.”

“Or maybe they always do.”

That was a troubling thought.

She looked at me intently. “I’ve been thinking about it since we talked about how clever criminals can be in prison—how they could ever act so inhuman to each other. Do you know how to turn someone into a monster?”

“I’m not sure. No.”

“Let him be himself without restraint.”

Then she went to her room and left me to sort through what she’d just said.

We’d had discussions on this subject before, and she’d quoted to me the words of Dr. Werjonic: “The road to the unthinkable is not paved by slight departures from your heart, but by tentative forays into it.”

Being yourself without restraint.

Taking deeper forays into your own heart.

Two ways of saying the same thing.

The true nature of man left to himself without restraint is not nobility but savagery.

The King, The Patrick Bowers Series, loc. 241-242 in EPUB version

If there is any moral to take from the Patrick Bowers books, it’s this: No one is more than a few steps away from becoming a killer. And no killer is more than a few steps away from becoming a serial killer. That’s how deep and pervasive human depravity is. It’s in us all, coloring everything we are and do.

Alas, even though the books do in fact touch on Jesus, God, and prayer on many occasions, the fact of Christ as the solution to the depravity in our flesh never really comes out (albeit in one or two places it is implied; e.g. a character notes that we can’t rise above who we are, to which Tessa responds, “Can someone else lift us?”). Instead, by the last book you are left with the vague impression that all we can do is try harder to combat the darkness, and if we’re lucky we might just keep it at bay.

Obviously, such a conclusion would be insufficient hope for anyone who is truly confronted with their own radical evil, the evil James makes so big a theme in his series. Maybe he didn’t intend it to end on that note, but in any case Paul has a better conclusion, the one for which the experiences of Patrick Bowers cry out, in Romans 7:24-8:2.

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 

Amen! In a world of darkness, especially in our own hearts, may we look to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit for the only light.

When God Steps Back: The Law and The Problem of Evil

Evil is evil. Could there be a statement more pathetically obvious, yet more profoundly ominous? We live in a world rife with evil. Every day, there is murder and mayhem on the news. School shootings have become more routine than Presidential elections, and more children on this planet are malnourished than well-fed. Many nations reek with poverty and injustice, even including parts of our own.

Yet simultaneously, as Christians we affirm the existence and immanence (which basically means closeness to our world) of a good God. This God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. He is love, and He is the true life. He is the Lord All-Powerful, able to do all He decides to do, who overflows with mercy and compassion to those in need.

To most people, these two realities are at least at tension with each other, and for many they are outright contradictions. How can so much evil fill a world created, sustained, and cared for by a good and omnipotent God? The problem of evil boggles minds upon minds.

Throughout history, numerous solutions to the problem of evil have been proposed. The Gnostics attributed evil to the god of matter and good to the God of Spirit. Ancient polytheist religions imagined very many gods—some good, some evil, and none flawless—who determined the fortunes of the world. Many dualistic religions posit an evil force and a good force, equal to each other and locked in conflict. Within Christianity, we’ve had many of our own ideas. Augustine considered evil a lack of God like how darkness is a lack of light. Free will as the source of evil was the favorite answer of many throughout church history, from the early fathers to modern Arminians and Molinists. Calvinists say that evil is decreed, ordained, and made certain by God for His own purposes to His glory, though God Himself stays out of evil directly.

Certainly, no one can completely explain evil. If we could, evil could not be as evil as it really is. Without mystery and darkness, evil simply becomes an ugly tool, unlikeable but manageable and necessary to the world (an implication of classical Calvinism which I take issue with). We must always understand that we will never understand evil completely.

This all said, I’ve been reading a book named Atonement by Thomas Torrance, a proper genius. He suggests an interesting understanding of why and how sin runs as loose and rampant as it does in the world, though not an explanation of how it originated. Here is an apologetically long quote, which I will summarize and explain afterwards (all emphasis mine):

On the one hand sin is rebellion against God, but on the other hand sin gains part of its character as sin from the divine resistance to it. If God not oppose sin, there would be no really objective and ultimate difference between sin and righteousness. Thus the divine opposition to sin is a factor in the qualification of humanity as sinful before God…But, as Paul felt, the disturbing factor seemed to be that God actually withheld his full opposition to sin and allowed it so much freedom that it challenged his righteousness and deity. Yet that was in the very mercy of God, as the cross showed, for the cross reveals that God withheld his final resistance to sin until, in Christ, he was ready to do the deed which would also save us from his wrath…

A very significant fact we have to consider is that before the death of Christ the difference between man and God is given an order of relative validity, or established in the extent of its separation from God…It was established (a) by the condemnatory law which expresses the divine judgment on sin, although that law was not yet fully enacted and inserted into history, and (b) by God’s withholding of final judgment against sin, for that means that God withheld from man his immediate presence which, apart from actual atonement, could only mean the destruction of humanity.

This merciful act of God by which he holds himself at a distance from fallen men and women and yet places them under judgment establishes, as it were, the ethical order in which righteousness has absolute validity and yet in which mankind has relative immunity and freedom

Here then is the fact we have to consider: the law of God which repudiates human sin at the same time holds the world together in law and order and gives it relative stability—but sin takes advantage of that and under the cover of the law exerts itself more and more in independence of God. That is why the New Testament speaks of the law as the strength of sin, for its very opposition to sin gives sin its strength, and by withholding final judgment from the sinner, holds or maintains the sinner in continued being.

Whew, that was a long quote! So, I’ll restate and summarize his point. According to Torrance, after the fall God had a problem. If He gave Himself fully to humanity, we would be destroyed (this is because God in His holiness is a consuming fire, which would bring Hell to sinful men). The solution to this was the law: by setting up a moral standard in between God and humanity, God actually keeps us and our world in a basically stable order. We are not burned up by God’s wrath, but He steps back and withholds Himself from the world.

The problem is that this mercy—God’s holding back of Himself to keep from judging and killing us in our sins—is the very thing which sin uses to run rampant. Every step God takes back to keep us from the fire of His holiness is a step evil can use to wreak havoc while God is at a distance.

In this understanding, the law is both the mercy of God and the judgment of God, while also being opposition to sin and the very thing which lets sin run loose. With the law, God steps back from the human world so He doesn’t destroy us, though what the law says still puts a judgment on evil. But with the consuming fire of God’s holy love hanging back, sin and death have room to do what they please and wreck everything.

This is the situation of the world outside of Jesus, the problem of evil. But in Christ this problem is fixed. Jesus was and is God, and was and is human. So when He lived a perfect human life, died a substitutionary human death, and rose to a new human life, He created an eternal and safe place for God and people to live together. In Jesus, since He is perfect and sinless humanity, God can be perfectly present. The Father doesn’t withhold Himself from the Son, and the Son is not destroyed because He has no sin in Himself.

This is why Jesus is our refuge, and our salvation. When we become “in Christ,” when we are united with His death and resurrection, we get to have perfect communion with God through His human Son. Though in our sinful human flesh we would be condemned to Hell by being brought near to God, in Jesus Christ’s perfect human flesh we are raised to eternal life by being brought near to God.

In sum, then, God created the law to separate Himself from sinful man, because if He was with us completely we’d be condemned by His holy love. Yet this separation by the law is exactly the room sin and evil need to run rampant and wreak havoc on the world. This situation can only be repaired in Jesus, the only person in whom God and humanity are united without opposition. Most of the world hasn’t accepted Christ yet, though, so the world at large is still stuck in separation from God which leaves room for boundless evil. The only solution is to spread the Gospel, brining more people into the refuge of Jesus until He returns. Then the entire human world will be brought back into God’s complete presence, with the result that those who refuse Jesus will suffer the fate of God’s eternal consuming fire while everyone in Christ will be saved to eternal life.

Amen, hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!

God Took the Blame (Or, A Little Thought About the Problem of Evil)

If God exists, why does evil? Is He too weak to stop it? Does He refuse? Did it catch Him off guard? These questions have challenged philosophers and theologians for thousands of years, and goodness knows I can add little or nothing to their many answers. But I just felt like sharing this thought on my mind.

In Christian circles, there are usually two answers given, one by Calvinists and one by almost everyone else. To the Calvinist, evil exists by God’s decision. He ordained before time that Satan should fall, and Adam after him. He did not directly cause evil, but knowingly set up the world with causes, effects, and stuffs which led to evil. Why did He do this? To bring Him glory in conquering and judging it. God’s glory is the greatest good for both Himself and the elect.

The problems with the Calvinist answer are many. Can the intense evil and suffering in the world really bring glory to a good and kind God? Did the same God we see in Jesus imagine the Holocaust to make Himself look good? Moreover, this reasoning smacks of utilitarianism, an unbiblical ethic system where the ends justify the means, and you can get away with anything for “the greater good.” Is God a utilitarian? That’s not what we see of Him in Jesus’ life.

On the other hand, Arminians, Molinists, and self-styled “Biblicists” usually go with the free will defense. I’m sure you’ve heard it. God wants us to freely love Him, but with free will necessarily comes the possibility to do evil. He can either force us to love Him, which wouldn’t be real love, or He must allow for the possibility of evil. This is considered by many a strong and intuitive answer to the problem of evil.

Yet this approach is not without its problems. For one, how do we know free will exists? That debate is ages old, with many arguments of both sides. Moreover, if free will is real, then God has it, but we also know that God cannot sin, and indeed always truly loves. So in that case why could He not make people in the same way, free, truly loving, yet unable to sin, like He is? Besides these problems, is free will by itself a strong enough concept to bear all the weight of the world’s evil? I don’t think we can really reduce the answer to every “Why, God?!” to “That’s easy, free will.”

If these answers don’t work, then what will we say? Shall we cite Karl Barth and his doctrine of nothingness? Maybe go with Augustine in saying evil doesn’t truly exist? Somehow, I don’t think any of these work well enough. So where do we go? How do we exonerate God from evil?

Maybe we don’t.

When we look at Scripture, God never tries to explain or defend Himself on this subject. The Bible never tells us how evil came around, or why God let it. We’re completely in the dark.

In fact, in God’s fullest revelation—Jesus Himself—speaks no excuse, apology, or even rebuke. He instead did the unthinkable: He took the blame. God the Creator, as a created human being, took on full responsibility for the evil of all His creation, and He suffered the consequences. He did not fight to prove His innocence or protect His reputation, but let us punish Him as we saw fit. On Calvary humanity judged God for evil, and God submitted to their sentence.

None of this means, of course, that God actually has done anything wrong and deserves blame. What it does mean is that God is a big boy, one who doesn’t need our philosophies or even sophistry to be justified. He is perfectly capable and willing to take responsibility for the state of His world.

Of course, the other thing the Cross proves in this subject is that God definitely loves us. Whatever else may be at work, and whatever questions He leaves unanswered, we can trust that Jesus loves us. So if nothing else, we can know that God is for us.