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.

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.

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

I recently started the first volume of Evangelical Calvinism, the big book of essays meant to explain and present the basic mood and mode of this growing development in Reformed theology which goes by that name. It is something of an EC inaugural announcement, showing the basics of what an Evangelical Calvinist approach to the Reformed tradition can look like.

Needless to say, I’m excited. Last night I read the prologue, which was actually just a copy of a declaration by the Presbyterian Church (USA) about union with Christ. It makes for a lovely introduction to how Evangelical Calvinism views theology as a whole, which really is all about union with Christ. Because I love it so much, and because it does a great job indicating the basic mood and direction of EC theology, I’m going to quote it in full (the original can be found here):

Union In Christ: A Declaration

With the witness of Scripture and the Church through the ages we declare:

I.

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father,
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.

His coming transforms everything.

His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.

II.

The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus Christ by grace alone, uniting our life with his through the ministry of the Church.

In the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit calls us to repentance, builds up and renews our life in Christ, strengthens our faith, empowers our service, gladdens our hearts, and transforms our lives more fully into the image of Christ.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore the need for repentance, that discount the transforming power of the Gospel, or that fail to pray, hope and strive for a life that is pleasing to God.

In Baptism and conversion the Spirit engrafts us into Christ, establishing the Church’s unity and binding us to one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that seek unity in theological pluralism, relativism or syncretism.

In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit nurtures and nourishes our participation in Christ and our communion with one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that allow human divisions of race, gender, nationality, or economic class to mar the Eucharistic fellowship, as though in Christ there were still walls of separation dividing the human family.

III.

Engrafted into Jesus Christ we participate through faith in his relationship with the Father.

By our union with Christ we participate in his righteousness before God, even as he becomes the bearer of our sin.

We turn away from any claim to stand before God apart from Christ’s own righteous obedience, manifest in his life and sacrifice for our sake on the cross.

By our union with Christ we participate in his knowledge of the Father, given to us as the gift of faith through the unique and authoritative witness of the Old and New Testaments.

We turn away from forms of church life that discount the authority of Scripture or claim knowledge of God that is contrary to the full testimony of Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of faith across time.

By our union with Christ we participate in his love of the Father, manifest in his obedience “even unto death on the cross.”

We turn away from any supposed love of God that is manifest apart from a continual longing for and striving after that loving obedience which Christ offers to God on our behalf.

IV.

Though obscured by our sin, our union with Christ causes his life to shine forth in our lives. This transformation of our lives into the image of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit begun in this life as a sign and promise of its completion in the life to come.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in the holiness of the One who fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore Christ’s call to a life of holiness, or that seek to pit Law and Gospel against one another as if both were not expressions of the one Word of God.

By our union with Christ we participate in his obedience. In these times of moral and sexual confusion we affirm the consistent teaching of Scripture that calls us to chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to pray for and strive after a rightly ordered sexuality as the gracious gift of a loving God, offered to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also turn away from forms of church life that fail to forgive and restore those who repent of sexual and other sins.

V.

As the body of Christ the Church has her life in Christ.

By our union with Christ the Church binds together believers in every time and place.

We turn away from forms of church life that identify the true Church only with particular styles of worship, polity, or institutional structure. We also turn away from forms of church life that ignore the witness of those who have gone before us.

By our union with Christ the Church is called out into particular communities of worship and mission.

We turn away from forms of church life that see the work of the local congregation as sufficient unto itself, as if it were not a local representation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church called together by the power of the Spirit in every age and time until our Lord returns.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in God’s mission to the world:
to uphold the value of every human life,
to make disciples of all peoples,
to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation,
and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the
promised inheritance of every believer.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to bear witness in word and deed to Christ’s compassion and peace, and the Gospel of salvation.

By our union with Christ the Church participates in Christ’s resurrected life and awaits in hope the future that God has prepared for her. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Protestant Reformation: The Day After

Two days ago was Reformation Day (and Halloween, of course, but that’s less interesting), and I never did get around to writing anything or throwing in my token of celebration. So I’m taking up a different topic on this later day: the aftermath of the Reformation. I want to offer a few thoughts on the way the Reformation has turned out and what lies ahead. Specifically, I want to highlight some of what I see as the good, the bad, and the hopeful.

The Good

  • Yay for the abolishment of indulgence sales! Many Catholics took Luther’s critiques to heart. Indulgences still exist, but as more of a formal relic than they did, and they are no longer sold for money and don’t exploit the poor. And of course this whole nonsense has never been a part of the Protestant churches which sprung from the Reformation. By Biblical standards, this was clearly one of the worst and most reprehensible problems with the medieval Catholic church.
  • Yay for the rejection of advanced Mariology! I’m not going to say that the official Catholic dogma technically transgresses into idolatry, but in any case I think the fixation on Mary in Catholic theology goes far beyond what is Biblically warranted. The accumulations of doctrines like her immaculate conception and assumption are painful for me to even contemplate. Mary was certainly a good example and should be remembered as such, and she was certainly blessed with a very unique role in redemptive history, but I’m happy that Protestantism is not concerned with thoughts of how Mary could stay a virgin forever, be taken body and soul to heaven, and be preserved from sin through the entirety of her life.
  • Yay for the rejection of independent, created grace and human righteousness! While I disagree with many of my Protestant brethren on the precise way that Catholicism went wrong on these issues and the exact way of a Biblical response, the Catholic system, especially in its medieval days, did have serious problems. We depend on Christ alone at every step. Grace is not created into us in some way of generated habits of righteousness. We do not have any hold over God’s grace; it is not an object which can be put in us and which we can then manipulate for better or worse by our wills. The union we share with Christ, by which we are righteous, is personal and alien and Spirit-ually connected at every moment by nature.
  • Yay for the rejection of papal and magisterial authority! Whatever role Scripture ought rightly to play in relation to tradition, reason, and experience, the idea that any infallible doctrinal authority might be placed in the hands of a vicar of Christ of a single body of scholars is simply foreign to the Kingdom of God in Christ. In addition to the formal problem of whether such authority is legitimate, much of the doctrine they have propagated from that authority is problematic.
  • Yay for the collapse of church/state unity! While the original Reformers continued to unite church and state, it was nonetheless the overall movements begun with the Reformation which eventually toppled this destructive practice. We now (particularly in Baptist circles) strongly resist the idea the Church should make such use of the powers of this age, and even the Catholic Church has come to understand this.

The Bad

  • Boo for the divisions in Christ’s body! While I am glad for the Reformation, and I don’t think we can or should pursue institutional unity between Catholic and Protestant churches at this point in history, I hate the way so many people on each side (especially ours) condemn those on the other. We have serious disagreements that make full unity impossible, but it is to our shame if we refuse to at least be united in love, good works, and our witness to the world and so divide Christ’s Body. (Because, as I have written on multiple occasions before, I don’t believe Catholics are heretics.)
  • Boo for the reintroduction of created grace in Protestant theology! After the Reformers rejected so forcefully the idea that God actually creates an independently operating grace in the believer which he can use and manage on his own, modern theologies of regeneration tend to reproduce precisely this error.
  • Boo for replacement of magisterium with confessions! Confessions are important, even vital, to establishing certain doctrinal standards and maintaining boundaries of unity. But they are not infallible, and there is not one single confession from the Reformation or any other context which has no errors, no shortcomings, or no room for reformulation (maybe reformation!) as the Church marches on. Yet in many circles, primarily Reformed ones, the classic confessions (particularly the Westminster Confession) are treated as absolutely authoritative. Sure, the people who do this admit they are subservient to Scripture, but they act naively as though any confession repeats univocally the truth of God revealed through Scripture, and thus they create a de facto replacement for the Holy Tradition which so repels them from Catholicism.

The Hopeful

  • So much work has been done on the topic of justification in the past century (or centuries) that I truly believe a unified doctrine could be worked out, given sufficient effort, in the next century. That will depend on willingness and cooperation, but I believe the theological and exegetical work necessary to do this has already been accomplished. A unified doctrine of justification accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox is a goal visible on the horizon of the Church’s future, if we just reach out and take it.
  • Despite the many advances since the Reformation, it is not truly over. Much work still needs to be done, both in places where the Reformation never really took root (like Italy and many South American regions) and in places where people are as Reformed as can be. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei: “the church is Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” The Reformation will, in a certain sense, never be finished even if we one day reach some glorious reunification of a purified Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox Church. Until Christ comes, we will always need to reevaluate, criticize, destroy, rebuild, repackage, rediscover, and relearn how to respond, both theologically and practically, to the truth of the Word of God spoken by the Spirit. Fortunately, I see great evidence that this work is ongoing and will be quite fruitful.
  • In the near future, I have hope we may see more interdenominational cooperation between conservative Christians of all traditions as the West becomes increasingly hostile in culture and law to orthodox Christian values and ways of life. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox will all need to work together to do the work of the Kingdom and sustain our Christian witness in the coming dark ages, and I am convinced that many, if not all, will rise to the challenge and make the Church appear more united that it has in a long time.