Addendum: This will be my last installment in this mini-series. If you are interested in finding out further how Barth might frame this issue then pick up John Webster’s book ‘Barth’s Moral Theology’ and give it a read.
This is the next installment in my ongoing series on God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. As we all know this issue has embroiled us in, it seems, a never ending battle in-house amongst Christians. I want to suggest though that this ongoing battle could be elided, and should be, if we adopt a truly Trinitarian, and genuinely Christian methodology in attempting to engage such tenuous questions like these one’s (i.e. God’s Sovereignty & Human Freedom) give rise to. Such is the way that Karl Barth and John Webster provide for us; an approach that moves beyond the impasse that philosophical scholastic theology has given us, and onto a mode of theological discourse that truly gets us through the bog that so many of us have grown accustomed to. Indeed, it is this customization amongst the Western Christian to such categories and emphases, that I am afraid will keep some of you from seeing what Barth presents (through Webster) as the salvation from this unending abyss (e.g. the classic debate under consideration in these posts of mine) that it actually is. Nevertheless, we will move boldly forward and enter into the life giving waters that truly provides us an occasion to worship our God who is Sovereign, free, loving, gracious, and inclusive of us in his kind of life; indeed, it is his kind of life where human freedom/responsibility can finally flourish. Here is what Webster says that Barth says:
In concrete terms, this means that, for Barth, God’s freedom is his freedom as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. ‘God’s freedom is not merely a limited possibility or formal majesty and omnicompetence, that is to say empty, naked sovereignty.’ Rather, ‘God’s freedom is the freedom of the Father and the Son in the unity of the Spirit … God’s own freedom is trinitarian.’ Talk of God as free is, therefore, not talk about some quality of God’s life anterior to his trinitarian revealedness, nor is it a matter of making God’s name as Father, Son and Spirit into a cipher for abstract, absolute liberty. The ‘essence of God which is seen in His revealed name is His being and therefore His act as Father, Son and Holy Spirit’; and so God’s freedom is a predicate of his trinitarian being. Crucially, for Barth, it is as this triune God that God is free for us. Because God is Father, Son and Spirit, his sovereign freedom is neither abstract nor monadic, but ‘relational freedom’. And further, because God’s immanent trinitarian relatedness is not closed but self-giving in the majestic acts of the incarnation of the Son and the sending of the Spirit, it is a freedom which grounds and does not suppress the creature’s freedom. As the trinitarian God, God is ‘partner to himself’; and ‘this understanding of God as a partner in himself has serious consequences for the understanding of humanity as partner. That humanity is elected by this God in no way means humanity’s disqualification. Rather, humanity is elected by one who knows partnership intimately, and whose intention’ is to set humanity on its feet. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 106-07.]
At the end of the day, and in summary, human freedom is what we were re-created for in Jesus Christ, for God. It is in this nexus of relationship, being brought into the intra-triune life of God that humanity has space to be human, and free; but as you probably are starting to see, a human freedom of the kind being described here is one that is limited and constrained from within God’s life. Thus, to try and conceive of a human freedom (and thus responsibility) from some sort of autonomous construct of human freedom that somehow has an abstracted ontology and life of its own apart from the freedom present, and only present, in God’s life, and for God’s life, within the divine union and communion represents a non-starter (at least for Christianly revealed discourse). If this is so, no wonder we have had the debate we have had for so long; Christians have unwittingly (and wittingly) been participating in philosophical diatribes and abstractions of which is contrary and antagonistic to the kind of apparatus and categories that God has provided for us to consider such things through, through His Self-revelation in His dearly beloved Son.
God’s Sovereignty and Human Freedom/Responsibility cannot be framed in competition with one another; as the classical debate does. This discussion cannot flow from an innate dualism, the kind made and sustained by human force. Instead, if we are going to have fruit going forward we will and must start where God does, in His own life in Christ for us by the Holy Spirit’s presencing work. There is no other kind of freedom apart from the kind that God has in His own life. If we are going to be truly free then we must participate in God’s life, and as we do, we will have the kind of orientation God has always intended for us in Christ, to be for Him and not against Him.
This post begs some questions. We will get to those in the next installment (which might be my last installment in this short series). We will, with Webster’s and Barth’s help, discuss the Holy Spirit’s role in providing the kind of relational context necessary in order for human freedom/responsibility to flower in the way it only can, in Christ.
Here are the other posts I have done in this series: