Concurrence in Christ: What Counts? Do I really Have ‘Freedom’ to Choose, Or Not? Keith Johnson, Karl Barth, and Francis Beckwith

I don’t have the kind of time to do what I am about to highlight the justice it deserves (maybe this weekend, although it is Easter, so maybe not). I am almost done with the most excellent edited book by Bruce McCormack (of stdominicPrinceton Theological Seminary) and Clifford Anderson (of Princeton Theological Seminary), the book is entitled: Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. If you are an Evangelical, and a thinking one, then you simply must read this book! Don’t let Barth scare you away, once you engage with the content in the book you will be kicking yourself wondering why you were so afraid for all these years.

The topic I want to consider is the topic that I would like to pursue further in my PhD studies someday (if that ever comes about–still need to raise $3500); that is, the vicarious humanity of Christ. And more particularly, What role does ‘human action’ have if in fact Jesus does everything for us (pro nobis) in his vicarious humanity? That is, how do we avoid smudging out the genuineness of ‘our human action’, and at the same time emphasizing the objective (subjective) humanity of Christ and His action for us? To me, this is the ‘mother’ of all questions, when it comes to issues surrounding salvation, the church, and our relation to God in Christ. There are various attempts by theologians to deal with this question; there is the Radical Orthodoxy movement, most identified with John Milbank or even Reinhold Hutter; or there are various other ecclesiocentric expressions of how to answer this particular question.

Keith L. Johnson develops this theological loci in a very enlightening and even liberating way. In his chapter, which is entitled The Being and the Act of the Church: Barth and the Future of Evangelical Theology, he offers a constructive proposal on how Evangelicals should understand the way that their actions are meaningful while still grounded in the objective humanity of Christ. Johnson identifies a couple of examples of how some disparate approaches, from his own Barthian proposal, have been surfacing in the lives of the ‘Younger Evangelicals’ (as he identifies them), and then in particular as this bubbles up in the life of former Evangelical Theological Societies’ President, Francis Beckwithwho recently (within the last few years) converted back to Roman Catholicism; and then Johnson uses the writings and and proposal of Reinhold Hutter to continue to foil what he proposes through understanding how human action ‘counts for us’ from within a Barthian schema. Johnson, I think, demonstrates how Barth’s offering in this realm coalesces with the best of Evangelical’s theology, which is one of mission and witness to Christ. Instead of collapsing the virtuousness of our action in the faith into the church as its terminus (as Beckwith does,  as does Hutter in his own unique, Radical Orthodox, way); Johnson demonstrates how Barth provides a ground for human action from that provided by the Word (Jesus) and the Spirit (Holy). What Barth employs, and what Johnson applies, is the concept of concursus Dei; this concept of God, basically, creating space in the realm of His Son’s Spirit anointed life for us, allows for human action to occur in meaningful ways, in ec-static ways, as we live our lives from the freedom of God’s life for us enacted in the life of Christ by the Spirit. So it is Christ’s life by the Spirit, that is under, over and around us by which we have the capacity to act as genuinely human through the freedom granted to humanity by the humanity of Christ’s free acts for us (and all of this is then extrapolated out, by Barth and then Johnson, in providing funds for a robustly oriented Evangelical ecclesiology).

This whole discussion can become very abstract, very quickly; especially in the amount of space I have to work with here at the blog. Unfortunately I am only going to be able to whet your appetite (hopefully), and hope that you will pursue this further yourself. In a further attempt to do this, here is how Johnson concludes his chapter:

[T]o conclude: this illustration of how each solution to the evangelical frames our understanding of the church’s vocation provides an example of one way Barth can serve as a good conversation partner for the evangelical future. For all our problems, the strength of evangelicalism lies in the reality that the task of proclaiming the word of the gospel to the world is ingrained in our theological DNA. Mission is who we are — it is what “counts” for evangelicals. Ironically, as the younger evangelicals have discovered, our strong focus on mission has become the source our weaknesses. Our overly flexible ecclesiology, our nearly exclusive focus on the individual aspects of salvation, our reliance on technique over doctrine, and our goal of being relevant to the culture all have their roots in our desire to be effective in sharing the gospel with those who have not heard it. The unintended consequence of these tendencies has been ahistoricism, subjectivisim, and the lack of an incentive to make our actions in the church count. Barth supplies a way for us to overcome this problem. In his solution, human action in the church counts. It does not count for our own benefit, however; it counts for the benefit of those who have yet to hear. In this sense, Barth’s eccleioslogical commitments overlap with the best insights of the evangelical tradition, and he helps evangelicals see why these insights truly matter. [Keith L. Johnson, The Being and the Act of the Church: Barth and the Future of Evangelical Theology, 226 — Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism.]

Maybe something that might make this more concrete for you is the discussion that usually happens in the nexus of the Calvinist and Arminian; the discussion about human responsibility and/or God’s sovereign choice and act given irresistably to us (the elect anyway) as His grace of salvation. Even though there is some continuum of difference between these two approaches; the reality is, is that they are very similar in orientation. At least when it comes to this issue; i.e. the issue of what grounds the value of human action in the appropriation of salvation, and the living of that out (sanctification). For both of them (the Calvinist and Arminian), the ground of this capacity originates from their own humanity, and what lays dormant in their “elect” humanity is a created quality or capacity called grace. As God moves on their lives, he (in a sense) activates this latent capacity (which is clothed in the garment of nature) of grace, enables them, and they then cooperate with God in appropriation of salvation; and then this ground, corporately extrapolated into the Church, continues to be sphere in which what they do counts for salvation (i.e. being sanctified). So the ground for this classic approach terminates in the life of the individual, or corporately, in the life of the Church. And in the end, salvation and the Church becomes a very private in-turned affair that denies the real Evangelical vibrancy that a truly Christocentric view of human action in salvation is about; that is as it is given concurrence in the life of Christ by the Spirit’s “eventing” activity of witness bearing (cf. John 14—16), and mission doing (cf. the book of Acts)—both of these are integral to the life of God in Christ, and both of these realities (mission and witness) are very ec-statically shaped activities that reflect a view of God that is shaped by ec-static self-giving life fellowshipping eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The alternative, as we have just broached (in Beckwith, Hutter, Calvinism/Armianism, and Roman Catholicism), equally reflects the doctrine of God that funds it; that is, an in-turned unitary view of God that is rather hedonistic and glory hungry (without the cross).

I will have to leave this dangling, as it is, here.

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4 comments

  1. For me, it goes into the dualistic already/not-yet of Scripture. Salvation is assured and bought, but we are also being saved. If Salvation is won totally in Christ, then we don’t build on that reality but grow into it. We have total assurance, but don’t see it yet. It defeats the terror of Roman Catholicism and the arrogance of hyper-calvinism.

    That’s where our freedom lies, the destination is assured but the road there is a challenge. Growing pains as it were. The temple being built up. Sometimes with gems, othertimes we add sticks and we’re only aimed at Christ, so the sticks get burnt up.

    As for your description of Calvinism and Arminianism in terms of freedom: I know Michael Horton made a good point in a debate with Roger Olson. He said that hyper-calvinism and arminianism talk of freedom as slices of a pie, but the reality is our freedom is within God’s freedom. We’re not even talking about the same pie. It’s a pie within a pie. We’re totally independent, but freedom within God’s freedom. I don’t read a lot of Horton, but one of my primary influences is Jacques Ellul:

    “God does not mechanize man. He gives him free play. He includes issues of every possible kind. Man is at the time independent. We cannot say free. Scripture everywhere reminds us that man’s independence in relation to God is in the strict sense bondage as regards sin. This man is not free. He is under the burden of his body and his passions, the conditioning of society, culture, and function. He obeys its judgments and setting. He is controlled by its situation and psychology. Man is certainly not free in any degree. He is the slave of everything save God. God does not control or constrain him. God lets him remain independent in these conditions[…]

    We see man deciding on a great number of actions freely and alone. Many of them fail. They are nonsensical. They misfire. They are lost in the sand. But some succeed. And when this occurs, these deliberate acts which men do for their own reasons and according to their own calculations are the very ones which accomplish just what God had decided and was expecting (even though the men often do not know this or are not aware of it at first). These acts enter into God’s design and bring about exactly the new situation which God planned.”

    In terms of soteriology, Ellul constructs this as a concrete universalism. I think he makes a mistake here, though he is right in his thinking. The revelation of Jesus Christ is God’s freedom and our salvation. Yet not all are saved, and there will be judgment. That has to be left to Jesus Christ, God and Lord, as Judge. If you’ve not read Ellul, I would strongly recommend him.

    Anyway, that’s my contribution,
    Cal

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  2. I have a story that the thoughts in your post reminded me of. I think it has something to say about our freedom inside of God’s freedom.

    Daddies want their kids to learn how to drive. Kiddos want to learn how to drive. My brother, as a toddler, still in diapirs, wanted to drive. However, my Daddy didn’t just put Greg on a booster chair in the driver’s seat, after having him “read” a picture book on how to drive. No. Daddy sat in the driver’s seat. He allowed little Greg to sit in his lap, and they took off, driving down the road (this was way before seat belt/car seat laws!) Daddy had his hands on the steering wheel, but he freely allowed Greg to put his hands on the steering wheel, too. They drove together, in communion, as it were.

    The analogy eventually breaks down, as Greg is now 51 and drives very well by himself, thank you, not needing to sit in our Daddy’s almost 90 year old lap anymore.

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  3. Bobby thanks for this post, I was just discussing this very issue with my secretary.

    @Cal, your comment adds much clarity to my understanding. Thanks – “it’s the wrong pie!”

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  4. @Cal,

    Thanks. I think what Barth is doing though is saying it is all done objectively and subjetively in Christ, and that this doing provides the space for all of humanity to participate in His doing. So it is finished, now we walk in it. In other words, in Barth, there is still more of a “causal” dimension to this than what it seems Ellul is articulating.

    @Jerome,

    I think that analogy works out pretty well; I think where it breaks down is that it makes it look like we are on our own at points. And I think it is this very point that Barth wants to guard against. He wants to allow for contingency, but only do so qualified in the Spirit anointed humanity of Christ for us. Glad to hear your brother can drive on his own now :-).

    @Steve,

    🙂

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